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Firebombing of Japan

LAURENCE REES: In the context of the Pacific how crucial to the move towards the firebombing of Japan was the character and leadership of Curtis Le May?

CONRAD CRANE: It would not have happened without Curtis Le May. Curtis Le May is the key figure. The European theatre and the Pacific theatre are very different for a number of reasons. In the European theatre the American services tend to stay in line with each other because of their competition with the British over alliance goals. In the Pacific theatre there wasn’t any other real coalition challenge so the American services tended to go their own way. And you ended up with each service having their own hero and their own campaign, you know, McArthur for the army and Nimitz for the navy and it ended up as Curtis Le May for the army airforces. Le May was seen as the airforce’s premier problem solver, he was brilliant, he had been immensely successful in every place, and he’s probably the most innovative and capable combat air leader of World War Two. I mean, he developed the defensive boxes the American airforce used in Europe. He develops the lead bombardier tactic where you train your people on specific targets so if you have to go there you have one really sharp bombardier who knows how to get to the target and can lead everybody to drop their bombs. He tried all kinds of experiments with different kind of bombs in Europe, his men were very devoted to him, he was tough on his men but he hated to lose them. He developed the after action review techniques we even use today and he was a pioneer of the systems analysis we use today in military operations. He tries a lot of new things. And his reputation is if you’ve got a problem, Le May’s the one who’s going to fix it. Now, he’ll do anything, he’s not anchored to any kind of tactical system and he’s not anchored really to any kind of ethical system except that if you go to war you’ve got to win it.

He espouses what I call the air power ethic, which is that often you have to fight a very violent air war to save lives in the long run, that way the war will end much quicker. He later said that both in Korea and Vietnam we should just have obliterated North Korean and Vietnamese cities and the wars would have ended much sooner. So he is kind of a total warrior, but he is immensely capable and he’s a great navigator and a great pilot. All the missions his men can do, he can do just as well or better and they know that. When he gets to Japan he’s given control of all the B29s because that is the most expensive military development programme of World War Two, even more expensive than the atomic bomb. And by early 1945 it’s floundering, and has been very ineffective. Haywood Hansell who was one of the men who developed the precision bombing doctrine is sent over to initially command the bombers out of the Marianas and Le May is sent to China and India which is a much more difficult logistical problem, to try and run those bombing raids. Hansell has the best targets in Japan and he can reach the best airfields but he can’t get things to work, he just can’t get effective bombing raids against Japan.

Le May is brought in and he’s told he has got to get the system to work because everybody’s trying to get the B29s to work. Even Lord Mountbatten in south-east Asia says he can get the B29s to work. This is the army airforce’s last chance to prove it can win a war with air power and the penultimate goal for the American army airforce in World War Two is an independence after World War Two, just like the RAF has. So this is really their last chance to show what they can do. So Le May is sent in to get some results. Le May tries everything, he fires half of the staff and brings his own staff in and he changes the maintenance to try to fix some of the problems of the B29. The B29 was actually deployed a year early because they needed to get it into the war before it was fully developed and it had a couple of bad habits. One of them was that the engines tended to catch fire, which is not good for the crew, morale or anything, and Le May fixes it. He says I’ve got to change the way we fly, I’ll change the way we do maintenance, he even makes a deal with the Communist Chinese to get weather reports. I mean, Le May tries everything. But he can’t change the weather, and in general it’s the jet stream winds over Japan that foil precision bombing. They’re at precision bombing altitudes and they create havoc on any kind of bombing tables on aircraft.

So Le May is faced with this dilemma, how do I destroy my assigned targets if I can’t do high altitude precision bombing? Well, I’ve got to come to lower altitudes under the winds. Now, we can’t do that in the daytime we’ll get the heck shot out of us, so it means I’ve got to go at night. Well, if I go at night I can’t really see my targets real well so that means I’m going to have to go to a different targeting technique, I’ll probably have to go to fire raids and I’ll have to create fires to do this. The Japanese know they’re vulnerable to fire so they’ve got these big areas round the factories cleared out with the fire breaks. So he gets his systems analyst to work out how big a fire is required to be to leap the fire-breaks to get to the factories. Well, of course, what’s all the kindling for those fires? It’s all the residential neighbourhoods around the factories. So, you read some of these after action reports and look at some of the photos, and there’s one photo I showed the students where you’ve got this picture of Shizuoka, and it says ‘we got the important propeller plant in Shizuoka and we burned down two thirds of the city to get it’. Well, I mean, that’s kind of what was being done to get these important targets. But Le May goes to the low altitude night attacks, he takes the machine guns out of his aircraft because he can carry more bombs. He thinks the Japanese night defences aren’t that good, but he’s not sure if [General] Arnold is going to approve his tactics. So when he sends his report to Arnold about what he’s doing he makes sure it arrives on a day when Arnold’s not there, and he later says in his memoirs that he didn’t want Arnold to be blamed if something went wrong. Personally I think that Le May was also concerned that if he told Hap Arnold that he was taking his valuable B29s, taking the machine guns out of them and flying them in at low altitude at night, Arnold might have tried to change what he was trying to do. As it was, the first inkling Arnold really has of everything is when all the reports start flowing in of the success of the first raid on Tokyo and some of the other raids, and the massive destruction being wreaked, and it seems the system is working and Arnold gives him full support for what he’s doing at that point.

LAURENCE REES:  But then this was 'area' or 'terror' bombing. The same as the British were doing in Europe?

CONRAD CRANE: Le May doesn’t call it precision bombing, he understands this is area bombing and he calls it area bombing. He calls it what it is. But when the reports go back to Washington he doesn’t say I killed this many Japanese civilians, he says here’s the targets I destroyed. When Le May is asked by Arnold when the war is going to be over, Le May says the war should be over on 1 October. And when Arnold asks him why, he says that it’s because I’ll be out of targets on 1 October. I mean, it’s a very target oriented system. It’s only later, after he’s been doing this for a few months, when he starts dropping psychological warfare leaflets on the people to say we’re coming to destroy your cities, run away.

It’s a very effective psychological warfare campaign, call it a terror campaign if you will. 8 million Japanese will eventually leave the cities and move to the countryside. But Le May actually sees that as a humane gesture, he says that he is warning people before he bombs them so that they can get away from the fire raids. American airmen don’t like it: they think it’s unfair to warn the Japanese they’re coming. The warnings really aren’t very explicit anyway, I mean, they’re kind of like we’re going bomb these cities and we may bomb other cities as well; run away. But they are a very effective method to force the Japanese to move out of the cities. Again, Le May sees this as humane, but others interpret that as basically using the generation of terror as another weapon.

LAURENCE REES:  But is there any discussion within the American military about the morality of the fire bombing?

CONRAD CRANE: There is a brief flurry of discussion about what’s going on in Japan at the end of May and early June 1945, and it comes from Henry Stimson. I think it comes when he is reading the New York Times at the end of May 1945. One of the stories is that Curtis Le May holds a press conference and says I’ve destroyed all these square miles of Japan and, by the way, I think I’ve killed a million Japanese. And Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, reads this and says: we’re doing more atrocities than Hitler if this is what we’re actually doing. And he goes and asks for a briefing on it, and Arnold comes in and briefs him on what they’re doing, and at the conclusion of that briefing Stimson says, I understand, I don’t like what we’re doing but I understand why we have to do it as it’s the only way that you have to use the air weapon effectively and we’re getting ready for this invasion of Japan.

You’ve got to understand that the Japanese are not looked at like the Germans, and it’s not just the colour of their skin, there’s a lot of other differences as well. The Japanese are the ones who attacked us at Pearl Harbour and the hatred’s seized from that. In the initial battles on Guadalcanal the Japanese commit a number of atrocities against the Marines that are quickly spread throughout all the American soldiers and Marines. They know that Japanese are not going to play by the rules. By early 1945 all the pictures of the Bataan Death March have come out. The Kamikazes have hit around Okinawa and the Japanese have announced their whole citizenry are all Kamikaze fighters and that they’re all going to fight to the death. The 5th Airforce issues a directive to its airmen stating that there are no civilians in Japan. I mean there’s a very different perspective.

Japan is not seen as a police state like Germany; all Japanese are seen as part of the war effort and enthusiastic supporters of what’s going on. So there’s a very different image of the Japanese which helps to fuel this as well. Stimson is an interesting character in all this because he’s very troubled by it. He continues to sign the orders allowing it and supports what Le May is doing, but Robert Oppenheimer remembers talking to Stimson about it and said the thing that troubled Stimson is not that we’re having to do this, but that there were not more Americans protesting it.

Because there is no response in America. By 1945 Americans are either inured to it or resigned to it. There’s a brief flurry in 1944 about bombing in Europe and most Americans at that point say, well, we’re doing the best we can, if we end up killing a few civilians we kind of understand that. By 1945 there doesn’t even seem to be that much concern. There’s no reaction at all against the fire raids, there’s no kind of outcry, and except for Stimson’s concerns there’s no other high level leader that seems to have any qualms about it. At that point everybody’s gearing up for what they know is going to be a very nasty invasion of Japan and it just seems that at that point, anything goes.