Before reading this article, please remember that this is history, not political polemic. Let go of any political nationalism. In war, it is normal for all sides commit war crimes. The fact that one side committed far worse crimes than the other does not detract from, much less excuse the crimes committed by the other side.
The above photograph is instructive. It is of Tokyo, which a few days before was the most densely-populated city on the planet. See the wide-open spaces between the multistory concrete buildings? Before the devastation of the firebombing raid of March 9/10, 1945, those open spaces were filled with homes and businesses, most of which would have been multistory, too. But being constructed almost entirely of wood and bamboo, they comprised one of the greatest deathtraps in human history.
By early 1945, victory was no longer possible for Japan. Its factories, being starved of raw materials and oil by the near-total blockade by the US Navy, were at a virtual standstill. What little oil was left was relegated mostly to the air defense forces, for any ship that left port — whether military or civilian — was almost certain to be sunk in short order. But the Japanese High Command, still convinced that Japan could successfully resist any invasion by the hated Yankees, refused to surrender. America was by now weary of war, and it was estimated that any invasion would cost up to a million casualties to our forces (and far more to the Japanese). No one of consequence on either side wanted America to invade Japan.
Sun Tzu once said, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” In 1943, President Roosevelt violated this maxim with his demand for unconditional surrender by the Axis powers. Instead of allowing any possibility of ending hostilities by diplomacy, he literally left the German and Japanese high commands with the choice of victory or death; either defeat the Allies or hang after capture, defeat, and trial. The impossibility of a negotiated peace is likely the single greatest factor in Japan’s refusal to surrender to the overwhelmingly superior American armed forces.
Note: Kevin Farran points out in his response: “…at the time of the fire bombings in March, there were already feelers out searching for a peace negotiation. Attempts at using Russia/ USSR as a go between were actively pursued. Hirota Koki, who was unfortunately the only civilian hung in the Sugamo trials, even though he was against the war but was prime minister during the war declaration and then quickly relieved of his post, was attempting to secure peace terms.”
Before March 1945, the US Army Air Force (USAAF) and the Navy’s carrier-borne forces had been using tactical and precision bombing strikes against Japanese ports and key industrial facilities. However, the high-altitude bombing capability of the time was highly inaccurate, and it’s not hard to see why. Try flying at 10,000 feet or higher, at 200 MPH or greater. At that height and speed, a football field is tiny, and the chance of successfully dropping a hunk of metal on any particular set of buildings is remote indeed. Enter Major General Curtis LeMay, a man who could be rightly called the most murderous American in our nation’s history.
The Only Tool In The Toolbox
There’s an old saying that when the only tool in one’s toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. General LeMay could see for himself that tactical and high-altitude bombing raids were never going to cause enough damage to force the Japanese High Command to surrender, but the only tool he had was a hammer with two wings, four engines, and a bomb bay: the B-29 bomber. He and the rest of those in charge of the USAAF had long known that the construction of most Japanese buildings was of wood and/or bamboo, so he ordered a shift in bombing strategy. He ordered that all bombers be stripped of all weapons and ammunition except for the tail gunner (something I verified in 1982 during a conversation with a pilot who was there), had the bombers loaded almost exclusively with napalm bomblets, and — knowing that Japan’s nighttime fighter capability was limited at best — launched over 300 B-29’s for the first low-altitude firebombing raid. They began arriving over Tokyo just after midnight, March 10th, 1945.
Each B-29 carried cluster-bombs, and each cluster contained 47 6-lb. napalm bomblets, so each bomber dropped hundreds of napalm bomblets on the mostly-wood-and-bamboo buildings which immediately began to burn like tinder. The fire and emergency departments of Tokyo were quickly overwhelmed, and the center of the city soon became a vast and inescapable inferno. According to Martin Caidin in his book A Torch To The Enemy, while the the thermal updrafts of the bombing of Dresden, Germany created a firestorm — a great tornado of fire — that tore through the city, what happened in Tokyo was much worse: a sweep conflagration, a tsunami, a great wave of fire that swept over buildings and through the streets “slower than one could run, but faster than one could walk.”
The thermals from the fire produced gale-force winds at the surface and turbulence that tossed the bombers overhead several hundred feet higher. For the bomber crews, the worst was the smell. Even thousands of feet above, they could not avoid the nauseating sick-sweet smell of burning flesh. But it was the men, women, and children below who, overcome by the heat, were unable to outrun the fire and faced a death little different from that described in Chapter 20 of the Revelation of John. I will not include any photos of the victims — the reader can Google them if desired.
When the sun rose the next morning, nearly 16 square miles of the heart of Tokyo had been incinerated. By comparison, the area of total devastation of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 4 square miles and 1.5 square miles respectively. Most widely-accepted estimates of death tolls are about 100,000 for Tokyo (though some estimates range as high as 200,000), 140,000 for Hiroshima, and 79,000 for Nagasaki.
But Tokyo was just the first Japanese city to be firebombed. The next day, Nagoya was razed, leaving just under 4,000 dead but nearly a half million homeless. Five days after that, 14 square miles of Kobe was devastated, and just under 9,000 people died. The firebombing campaign continued all the way until early August when the first atomic bombs were dropped. The graphic below shows what cities were firebombed, what percentage of each city was destroyed, and what city in America would have correlated in size in 1945.
The total death toll for Japanese civilians (firebombing and atomic bombs combined) is currently accepted to be about 387,000. However, that does not include the death tolls of 15 municipalities whose records were wiped out during the firebombings. To be sure, this total does not compare with the conduct of the Imperial Japanese Army in China — death toll estimates for the Rape of Nanking alone range as high as 300,000 (not counting the rapes of tens of thousands of civilian Chinese women) — but as was stated at the beginning of this article, an enemy’s commission of a war crime does not excuse our own commission of a war crime half as terrible.
One War Ends, Another Begins
But America didn’t stop firebombing when WWII ended. Five years later, North Korea invaded South Korea. Most Americans who read military history know of how North Korea, having pushed the American and South Korean forces into the ever-shrinking Busan Perimeter, had almost won the war before General McArthur led a surprise invasion at Incheon which caused the North Korean lines to collapse and fall back until China entered the war on their side. What most Americans don’t remember is the bombing campaign of which General LeMay bragged, saying that 20 percent (about 3 million) of the North Korean population was killed, though more recent estimates are at about 316,000. LeMay does not appear to have been in theater directing the strikes, but the tactics used were certainly his.
Note: Mark Kennedy rightly points out that the guilty parties in Korea were Generals O’Donnell, Partridge, Stratemeyer and, ultimately, MacArthur, and that LeMay did not serve in any capacity in Korea during the war. I appreciate the correction.
LeMay appears on the scene again in Vietnam, and there his bombing campaigns such as Linebacker, Linebacker II, and Rolling Thunder resulted in somewhere between 60,000 and over 300,000 deaths in North Vietnam and Cambodia. The hammer was new — it was now a B-52 bomber able to fly much higher, faster, and farther — but it was still a hammer.
The entire time, General LeMay believed his doctrine was saving American lives by destroying the enemy’s will and ability to fight by destroying his home cities before the enemy could do the same to America. His attitude is best described in this recollection from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes:
In 1954 LeMay remarked to pilot Hal Austin, whose plane had been damaged by a MiG-17 while on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started”. Hal Austin assumed that LeMay was joking, but years later, after LeMay retired, Austin saw him again and “brought up the subject of the mission we had flown. And he remembered it like it was yesterday. We chatted about it a little bit. His comment again was, ‘Well, we’d have been a hell of a lot better off if we’d got World War III started in those days.’”
The “One Percent Doctrine”
After reading the above paragraph, those who remember the years of the George W. Bush administration may recall Vice President Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine”, which went something along these lines:
If there was even a one-percent chance that a terrorist or other American enemy could pull off another 9/11 — or worse — the United States had to commit 100 percent of its time, capabilities, and efforts to thwarting that one-percent threat, no matter the cost.
LeMay and Cheney seem to have been of the same mindset: if there’s a chance your enemy might kill you, kill him first, no matter what. The problem with this worldview is that it requires unnecessary and uncalled-for wholesale slaughter that the whole world sees and remembers. Sure, we can use excuses like “we didn’t have any other choice”, but that excuse doesn’t wash when our only tool seems to be an ever larger and more expensive hammer.
Addendum: I strongly recommend reading this response by marychipman who recalls how she had known one of the pilots who participated in the firebombings over Japan, and how his experience there had destroyed his life. The story of course cannot compare to what those below endured, but is a reminder of a quote by the Duke of Wellington after his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo: “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”