Historian examines how U.S. firebombing Japanese cities was prelude to atomic attacks

World War II was drawing to a close in 1945 with pivotal battles and events transpiring over a compacted time period. Some incidents were so overpowering they overwhelm our memories of what else took place. One such incident was our firebombing of Tokyo.

In August the United States detonated the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and the firebombing campaign against other Japanese cities that had preceded it became almost a footnote in the history books. In his book “Black Snow - Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb,” the historian James M. Scott illuminates this somewhat unknown yet crucial undertaking.

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Gen. Curtis LeMay, a Columbus native, was brought in to orchestrate the bombing raids originating 1,500 miles away on the Mariana Islands. His predecessor in that role, Gen. Haywood Hansell Jr., had been employing the tactic of conducting daylight high altitude precision bombing.

That approach was ineffective. The skies were usually so cloudy accurate precision bombing was challenging. The jet stream flow was another impediment. Hansell directed pinpoint attacks on war industries in Japan while attempting to avoid targeting civilians. When LeMay replaced Hansell, his former boss, he initially adhered to Hansell’s approach.

The U.S. military conducted extensive surveys of Japanese cities and identified a distinctive vulnerability; the majority of the structures were made of wood and thus highly flammable. Scott describes how mock cities were constructed and then destroyed to evaluate the impact of incendiary bombing.

With that information in hand LeMay ultimately chose to shift tactics. In an interview the author explained to me how LeMay made that decision: “He has a perfect new weapon (napalm), he’s got a bomber that’s capable of reaching there (the B-29), and he has breakdowns of every Japanese city on where he should target. He just takes that information and runs with it. He did understand...that there were going to be significant human consequences.”

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LeMay’s bomber fleets began conducting nighttime raids on civilian targets. Shortly after midnight on March 10, 1945 nearly 300 B-29′s swept over the Japanese capital and rained down incendiary bombs. As a sixteen square mile area was being vaporized by the resulting inferno over 100,000 people perished.

LeMay was just beginning. Over the next few months his B-29′s proceeded to immolate targets across Japan. Almost every city with a population over 30,000 residents was firebombed. One notable exception was the city of Hiroshima. Our generals were making other plans for that doomed location.

Scott shows how LeMay’s change in strategy -- obliterating civilian targets -- helped build a consensus in the mindsets of military planners. as well as shift public opinion to an acquiescence by most Americans that annihilating “enemy” civilians was somehow acceptable. Our demolitions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would soon follow.

Later in life LeMay went on to become a somewhat controversial political figure. Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president in 1968 and chose LeMay as his running mate.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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