Historian’s Corner: The Firebombing of Japan

B-29 Superfortress

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Part Two: Very Bad Versus Worse Choices?

1) The Japanese Empire, while doomed in Spring 1945, was more than capable of killing thousands of innocents every day the war dragged on. Depending on the nature of particular sources, and how data are compiled and interpreted, Japanese forces may have killed over 20 million Chinese, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and British Imperial and US troops. Note, the vast majority of these fatalities were civilians. For all the horrific losses of Japan in the war (e.g., 2.5-3 million civilians and soldiers), Japan probably killed more people per its own losses than any other nation in the war (including Nazi Germany [ca. 7 million German civilians and soldiers lost versus killing ca. 30 million Russians, Western Allies, Jews, Eastern Europeans, etc.]). The tragedy of World War II was in essence the story of uniformed German and Japanese soldiers killing unarmed civilians—some 70-80 percent of all the World War II dead. The Axis slaughter was unrivaled in world history, but one precipitated by the surprise attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, and the bombing of US and British bases in the Pacific (December 7-8, 1941). There was zero chance that either the United Kingdom or the United States, in either 1939 or 1941, would have launched preemptive attacks on Germany or Japan, despite the general sense that the latter might well attack them.

2) The 2-billion-dollar B-29 program was in shambles before March 1945. The experimental behemoth plane offered no evidence that it might ever shorten the war. It devoured gas and its huge fuel needs required supply by sea rather than by air. In that regard India and China bases (Operation Matterhorn) did not work for a variety of reasons, from security to general logistics. 

3) The B-29 engines heated up as they climbed fully loaded to 25,000-30,000 feet—a problem never solved completely. The plane was so sophisticated for its time that thousands of parts were needed to keep the bomber fine-tuned, and the hours in the air required unsustainable commensurate hours of maintenance. The fierce jet stream over Japan made B-29 precision bombing impossible, as well as did new models of effective Japanese fighters. The theoretical idea that long-range bombers (e.g. 1,350 miles each way from the Mariana bases to Japan, over water and often in darkness) could take out the Japanese industrial base from high altitudes, dropping high-explosive bombs and thereby avoid an invasion of the mainland was, in truth, crackpot.

4) We forget that the deadliest year of the war was 1945, as the German and Japanese militaries proved most ruthless and lethal while on their final and doomed defense. In the case of the US, it suffered its most fatalities in April 1945 during both the European and Pacific Wars. The deadly experience on Iwo Jima and later Okinawa (the latter nightmare commenced just a few weeks after the March 9th raid) traumatized American military planners. They feared that both disasters (and they were certainly that in terms of US casualties) were mere prequels to an invasion of the Japanese mainland, where maybe 20 million Japanese soldiers, irregulars, and civilians were ready to outdo Okinawa to the nth degree (over 50,000 US dead, wounded, and missing). Estimates of 1 million American casualties lost in the envisioned invasions of the mainland are often ridiculed, but they may have been conservative. 

5). Fifty percent of Japanese industry had begun to decentralize and disperse some of its production into semi-residential sections of greater Tokyo. The idea was to limit exposure to anticipated bombing, making it problematic that these cottage industries were entirely non-military targets.

6) Leaflets were soon dropped warning civilians that fire raids were unstoppable and advised vacating the cities for their own safety. Still, it was hard to assume that any civilians could safely flee to the mountains and rural areas, even if allowed by their government, or could survive outdoors for months on end.

7) Under LeMay’s radical new strategy institutionalized on and after March 9, the B-29s flying low (4,000-7,000 feet) at night, each with ten tons of napalm, found that the wind was suddenly an ally not the old enemy.  Catching the jet stream vastly increased the overloaded bomber’s speed. It allowed them to rush in often below the most lethal trajectories of flak guns. And it meant that bombing accuracy no longer mattered, given the winds would fan the incendiary bomb load, not render useless sophisticated B-29 conventional bomb sighting. 

8) Both the fire raids and the latter two atomic bombs (and we forget that the former was a force multiplier of the latter) forced the Japanese surrender, precluded an invasion of the mainland, and stopped the daily killing of civilians by the Japanese military. (One could make the argument that the two atomic bombs were unnecessary given the fire raids, but, in fact, they limited the destruction of another 2-3 months of incendiary attacks that would have killed tens of thousands more to avoid an invasion.)

9) An added note: The war in Europe, remember, ended on May 9, 1945. Thousands of idle British heavy Lancaster bombers and American B-24s and B-17s were now available for transfer to envisioned new bases under construction on Okinawa that was a mere third of the distance to Japan than were the B-29s on the Marianas. The idea of, say, 10,000 B-29s, B-17s, B-24s, and Lancasters flying from both the Marianas and Okinawa is a frightening thought.

In other words, even had the two atomic bombs failed, the fire raids, along with mining of harbors and the blockades, might well have brought Japan to its knees without an invasion—but again at a far greater cost had the war not ended on September 2, 1945.

10) In March 1945, had the question been asked of Southeast Asians, Chinese, or those in the Pacific—in other words, those innocents who were killed at an average rate of about 10,000 per day by the Japanese war machine—whether they wished the US to bomb the nerve center of the so-called Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, they would have said certainly yes, given the lack of daily alternatives in ending a veritable civilian killing machine. 

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10 thoughts on “Historian's Corner: The Firebombing of Japan”

  1. Dennis Churgovich

    In my many travels I have spoken with Koreans that hoped the US used more atomic weapons on Japan. To this day there is much anger in South Korea toward the Japanese.

  2. It doesn’t matter whether the firebombing of Japan was morally justified. It only matters that the bombing was carried out by White Americans. Therefore, the act must have been immoral under the current standards of anti-White, anti-Western identity politics. Quite seriously, that is how moral judgements are currently being drawn.

  3. I was stationed in Wiesbaden Germany in the earl y 60s. Happened to have taken a wrong turn while driving thru Mainz am Rein. Got lost and ended at a barricade. While the city and the normal tourist byways had been restored, the area barricaded had not. A s far as the eye could see, total devastation.
    This article vividly brought back the horror of this memory. The civilian devastation of the war is beyond imagination and what I bumped into on that beautiful summer day was just a remaining fragment of the destruction which visited this city.
    The military might get what little passing glory war extracts, but civilians pay an unimaginable price. Your article is timely given Russia/Chinese/middle east cauldron and we would do well to ponder the true cost.

  4. Professor Hanson,
    Thank you for the clear statistics about numbers of daily deaths and total deaths both in Europe and Japan. Your conclusion, that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably saved many lives sounds logical to me. As someone involvd in WWII and Holocaust history, I must ask: if FDR (we-the U.S.) had bombed German rail lines to concentration camps once we knew about the camps, is it possible many–maybe even millions of lives, might have been saved? And why didn’t we do that?

  5. Steve Eisenberg

    The reason the Allied brass thought firebombing (and even nuclear bombing) would make a difference to the Axis powers is that the Allies assumed the Axis cared about its citizens. They thought we shared a common humanity.

  6. S.S. Reynolds

    Delighted to see this article. Certain “articles of faith” have long persisted about what is intended by Strategic Bombing, which do not square with the operational realities. This pertains to present reliance on precision target-aiming at the tactical level and as it applies to published notions about the targeting of thermonuclear ordnance to accurately remove the opponent’s means of fighting. Whether General LeMay was influenced by the area bombing of Germany and its firebombing where feasible, or he was independently arriving at concurrence with Arthur Harris’ approach, the end result was similar in many respects. Aerial bombing of large well-defended and prepared targets was not possible to do with a high degree of accuracy from great heights. Norden bomb-sights did not provide the exceptional accuracy that was claimed for them in the circumstances of actual bombing raids. Starting with abysmal results, by war’s end RAF night-bombing could produce quite good accuracy with highly trained crews and special techniques, but with “dumb bombs” minor errors in navigation, or even cross-winds occurring between the planes and the target on the ground could mean a “miss”. So it was always going to be area bombing. Some targets were so large that there was no real difference, eg. oil refineries. As noted, a great deal of war industry in Germany had been dispersed to sites sprinkled around the landscape, including into mineshafts. So “de-housing” the workers was always part of the plan. Arguably the very costly RAF campaign against Berlin might have been better done “in reverse” : bomb every place in Germany except Berlin so that hordes of extra people have to be accommodated and fed there. Most places would be undefended unlike the German capital had been. In Japan many of the buildings were quite a bit more flammable than in Europe and the defences against attack were not quite so robust, so the strategy of destroying Japan from the air had real prospect. Had the Japanese government not been agreeable to surrender, the influx of planes destined for the European theatre or which had actually served there would have provided the terrible impact to which you allude. Special mention might be made here of the AVRO Lincoln bomber which was a greatly improved upon Lancaster which was too late for Germany but available to use against Japan if the war continued. The deaths of people in the overseas countries occupied by Japan would have accelerated as the capability of Japan to ?manage” occupation was tested by shortages, collapsing infrastructure and from malevolence. The attrition of POWs would have much greater for all of these reasons too. So the A-bombs were the quickest and best solution to putting a stop to it all.
    As to the worth of firebombing enemy homeland infrastructure and populations, some of it is hard to quantify and some of it is. In remarks concerning the firestorm which was created in the firebombing of Hamburg in 1943, Albert Speer opined that if it had occurred in six other German cities in similar fashion, Germany would have collapsed. Maybe. People will withstand a lot. They won’t withstand hopelessness.
    As to the application of a tactical approach to thermonuclear war against the U.S.S.R. by destroying its capacity to fight and destroying its leadership, that may have had some utility. Against China, which has made noises about its ability to withstand this kind of attack from the U.S. on account of its vast population, this approach invites defeat of the U.S. The Chinese view their population as large enough that they can absorb losses imposed by this kind of tactic. They would be hurt but would be able to regroup and re-organize and prevail. So the Strategy for dealing with China must not be choosing important targets, it must be to make the entire population the target and that if such a war were to take place, the U.S. strategy would be to continue to attack until there was literally no one alive in China. People in London, and Berlin, and for awhile in Japan, can withstand anything so long as they can hope. The Chinese general staff believes that their reservoir of population is deep enough that they can hope to have several hundred million survive a war with the U.S. To prevent such a war they need to be left with the message that there would be no respite and no quarter until they were all dead and that would not be a side-effect, but a goal.

  7. I visited the Smithsonian the week the Enola Gay was first displayed. I was appalled to confront idiot protesters who knew virtually nothing about WW2 (or probably any other war).
    I told them that the Atomic bomb prevented 1 million U.S. casualties AND 2 to 3 million Japanese casualties and only a COMPLETE DIMWIT would have not used it in August, 1945. I offered to give them something to cry about–but I was much younger then. We all thank God that Atomic weapons have not been used since.

  8. Thank you for this excellent website and its superb content. Is it within your possibilities to construct a SINGLE website that offers ALL of Professor Hanson’s talks, interviews, & writings? That would be very helpful & I could refer many welcoming correspondents to such a site. Gary W. Bohigian (Alexandria, VA; Fresno native)

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