Historian’s Corner: The Firebombing of Japan

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Part Three. The Nihilist Logic of Death

Once the sick dogs of war are unleashed, legalized murder has a Satanic logic of its own. In the US case, the agenda from December 8 onward was how to end the war as quickly as possible that it did not start and had tried to avoid through appeasement and isolationism.

In terms of Japan and its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (a more brutal but eerie forerunner of the Chinese Belt-and-Road initiative), its war machine was an engine of murder—and fueled from the Japanese mainland. And it was the mainland, that is Tokyo, that the US military from the outset of the war had wished to target, on the theory that decapitating the head of the octopus would render inert its murderous tentacles. 

So the daring engineers created a radically different bomber to leap frog over the empire’s assets and, from a long and safe distance, destroy the source of Japanese bombs, shells, planes, ships, and guns—the agents of death—that had been unleashed against Asia and the Pacific for years before December 7th. Yet after investing $2 billion and witnessing the B-17 unfortunate experience between 1942-4, the B-29 was proving to be a colossal failure. There was no such thing as “precision bombing,” especially when buffeted amid a 50-100 mph jet stream, and occasional crosswinds, over cloudy Tokyo, with time over target of about 5-10 minutes, at 25,000 feet above—flying for eight hours, with another eight hours to get back home—all over the empty Pacific (before the capture of Iwo Jima).  Uppers and downers were needed to keep the crews going for the 16-hour trip.

So the B-29 suffered from mechanical problems, crew exhaustion, the dangers of taking off in an overloaded plane, the difficulty of navigating by night over hundreds of miles of empty ocean, the anticipated missions of a slow, and often difficult climb to over 25,000 feet, and Japanese fighters and flak. It is misleading, as Ernie Pyle once noted, to call a B-29 sortie a “milk run.” (The rate of loss differed from bomber group to bomber group). True, about 1-2 percent of the planes were lost on an average mission, called the “Sortie Loss Rate” or more bluntly the chance of dying on any given mission. 

But the minimum requirement of at least 35 missions meant that a crew could expect, at best, a one in three chance of never making it home. As a child, I remember going through my father’s mission book of the 504th Bombardment Group, looking at some 40-50 plane decals and artwork and asking about the planes in his squadron (e.g. “Did Thumper make it?” “How about ——?” And so on and on.) He usually said, “Nope…that one didn’t get through” and then added short qualifiers like “flak,” “lost,” “crashed on take-off,” “shot down,” “blew up,” “burned up on Iwo…,” etc.

So put all of this in context: 

The Americans in Spring 1945, their bloodiest months of the war, had no real hope other than strategic bombing, whether conventional or perhaps eventually nuclear, to defeat Japan—unless they were to replay, at a 100-fold increase, Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the mainland. I omit the now popular idea of discussions of a negotiated armistice, given that the regime’s unconditional surrender was required to discredit and humiliate Japanese militarism, and to offer a different postwar trajectory, with face-saving retention of a culpable emperor under a constitutional system.

The American planners’ dream of a “Superfortress”—what the Flying Fortress was supposed to have been—stocked with computerized and centrally controlled override guns, fast, pressurized, invincible at nearly 30,000 feet, with a ten-ton, high-explosive bomb load, capable of flying 3,200 miles, and masterminded by an improved “top secret” Norden bombsight—proved a bomber fantasy.

Then Curtis LeMay, a coarse, blunt but authentic military genius, recalibrated the B-29, in violation of all its supposed strengths and assets, into a fast, low-level attack, night—huge 4-engine—bomber. And the resulting nightmarish inferno that was unleashed haunts us today, even though in the six months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki the bombers had all but destroyed Japanese war production and shortened the war. We naturally might doubt that two atomic bombs would have in isolation shocked Japan so quickly into surrender had its cities and industries remained untouched until August 1945. 

Japan sowed the winds of war with its atrocities, and reaped history’s most lethal single day whirlwind. But the ferocity of the latter, 76 years later, makes us, of a more affluent, safer and leisured world, wish that somehow we could have been New Testament rather than Old Testament warriors.

But then again, the ghosts of those of Nanking or at Bataan, or who surrendered at Singapore, or of those rounded up in China after the Doolittle raid, or of the South Korean comfort women, or of the quarter-million subject to Japanese military crude lab experiments, or of the survivors of the Manilla, Borneo, and Malay massacres—might, well, beg to differ?

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

  1. Nikoli A. McCracken

    I read a story about a brave disc jockey/newsman in Singapore who stayed on the mic until the Japanese broke into his studio. He was captured and sent to a concentration camp, and by some miracle, survived until the war was over.
    When he was found, he was not much but a human skeleton, barely alive. He was sent back to England for lengthy treatment, and was finally healthy enough to go back on the radio.
    His first statement was “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted . . . . . .”

  2. James Harrington

    For the survivors of Japanese atrocities, Americans weren’t Old Testament warriors but New Testament warriors bringing the apocalyptic judgement of the Seven Angels. Too many today forget that while we didn’t turn the other cheek, we did love our enemies by rebuilding their country with honor. Some Americans even went back as civilians to aid or proselytize (former President of Biola University went back as a missionary after suffering bombing and internment as a child of missionary parents. After talking just about living on one moldy potato a day, no one wasted food at the cafe. He was also the best grandfather us 6000 students could have asked for on September 11th). The firebombing was as much a part of American “Christianity” as Sherman’s march to the sea and the rebuilding of Japan was as “Christian” as Licoln’s “with malice toward none”. There is a consciously Christian apocalyptic strain in American culture -just look at The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

  3. Raymond Avesian

    Hi Professor
    Just a comment or two about the article on firebombing
    Your last paragraph says it all…..we shouldn’t judge the past by the
    present ……ok ….u derstand the situation as it occurred during the 1940s
    but don’t place today’s values on those decisions…..it happened,there were reasons
    why the President felt it necessary to use any and all means necessary to
    deliver the knockout punch
    My second opinion is your piece on the Obama Doctrine……my opinion is
    he Obama was raised as a Muslim and and will see to it through Biden that
    the United States does no harm to any Muslim Country…….I agree that Biden is beholding to Obama’s and was not going to be elected unless he has that women as Vic President ant his administration is all Obama appointees
    The United States is in a down hill slide with the Republicans standing on the side lines PRETENDING to be alarmed
    My wife and I thank you for your opinions when a guest on Fox News
    Ray Avesian

  4. Craig Brookins

    Victor – Great read. I do think those murdered and tortured by the Japanese might wish to enlighten today’s self-righteous intellectuals about enduring the pain of repeated atrocities before dying. Usually they were made to witness the torture and death of their sons and daughters before they themselves were terminated. Just saying.

  5. rich engelsman

    Great article!! I just read your 01 April 10 article about the invasion of Okinawa and would like your opinion on something. As a student I read somewhere the the US war effort was not equal between the two theaters of operation. I remember reading that it was something like a 90-10 effort favoring the European Theatre. If that is true, what a remarkable achievement the Pacific. Your insight would be appreciated. Thanks

  6. Two comments: (1) A nation that builds a military of such awesome power that no one dares launch attacks against it has spent well. (2) Should such a well prepared nation be attacked, the response should be so utterly devastating and humiliating, that neither the attacker or any witness will ever contemplate such foolishness again. S/ John C. Tate, CDR USN (Ret)

  7. After studying some aspects of allie’s ccounter offensive in Africa and Asia, I think both were not necessary. Unnecessarily they lost lives. They should have attacked Germany with all their might and killed or captured Hitler. When the head of the Head rolls rest surrenders.

  8. Sergio Attonito

    Dear Professor,
    It seems to that you omit the strategy advocated by the Navy, a blockade. Japan was, like today, a non autofficient nation, lacking pretty much everything, starting from the food. A blockade would have caused great suffering on the civilian population, but the onus would have rested entirely on Japan’s government, sparing your country this kind of soulsearching debates…
    For me I regard those discussion meaningless: a few years later in the Korean War, the air bombing is credited by some with the killing 15% of the population, Lemay itself thought the percentage was 20%…
    By the way, the Korean bombing campaign seems a lot like a milk run.
    But the Korean are still enemies and so there is no reason to debate the argument, whereas Japan is now an ally and the bombing is seen as wrinkle to iron to further smooth the relationship between the two countries

  9. Thank you Dr. Hanson for your thoughtful article containing details of our campaign against Japan – conveniently forgotten by today’s virtuous elite. My father was a civilian who joined with the Marines to fight the Japanese invasion of Wake Island. He was a prisoner of war in Niigata when the fire bombings and atom bombs were dropped. He used to tell me that the bomb saved his and his fellow P.O.W.’s lives, as his guards were under order to execute all of them when the expected invasion of Japan began. So I have a very personal reason for knowing that the U.S. made the right call under very difficult circumstances against a brutal regime.

  10. Steve Gilliland

    What do you recommend as the 5 best books dealing with the marines in the pacific During WW2?

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