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Pacific FrontMarch 1945

Member of B29 Bomber Crew

Paul Montgomery
As a member of the crew of a B29 super fortress, he took part in the firebombing of Japan.

Paul Montgomery’s words are read by Colin Stinton.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Paul Montgomery grew up in the 1930s in a teetotal, God-fearing family in the midwest of America. And, like most Americans, he was outraged when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

Words of Paul Montgomery: I began to develop a hatred for the Japanese for what they had done in such an underhand manner. The Japanese had surely damaged our property and I wanted to confront the Japanese more than the Germans.

Laurence Rees: Paul Montgomery joined the United States Army Air Force and was trained as a radio officer on one of the giant B-29 Superfortress bombers that operated in the Pacific. And it wasn’t long before he and the rest of his crew were told that they would now be required to firebomb Japanese cities.

Words of Paul Montgomery: It was felt that we had to reduce not only their ability to wage war, but their desire to wage war. And so that brought about the firebombing missions of the major targets. We started with Osaka and Tokyo and Nagoya, and all the major cities, and they were firebombed to nothing left except steps and chimneys. Complete one hundred percent obliteration. I didn’t have any regrets, to put it bluntly. I was twenty one years old that summer of the firebombing. And I really was wanting to get the war over and I wanted to go home. And if they told me to go bomb cities, I went and bombed cities. It’s not like going down and sticking a bayonet in somebody’s belly, OK? You kill them from a distance and it doesn’t have that demoralizing effect upon you that it did if I went up and stuck a bayonet in somebody’s stomach in the course of combat. It’s just different. It’s kind of like conducting a war through a video game.

Laurence Rees: Unlike a number of other veterans I met from the Pacific war, Paul Montgomery denied that he possessed, at the time, any racist feelings towards the Japanese.

Words of Paul Montgomery: One of my son’s married a Japanese – she’s from Hawaii – and she’s the best thing that ever happened to him. I just, at the time, had an animosity towards the German or Japanese war effort. And I was determined, as we all were, that we were gonna end the war. And if it took bombing civilian cities, so be it.

Laurence Rees: The distancing effect of killing from the sky meant that on only one occasion - whilst bombing the city of Kure - did Paul Montgomery actually feel any real contact with what was happening on the ground.

Words of Paul Montgomery: Kure was burning with such intensity, and we were at such low level, we had obnoxious odours from the incineration coming up to the airplane. We could see sheets of metal from our houses and what have you coming up almost to our altitude. I was gagging. That odour struck me as an odour of indescribable stench. It was somewhere between burning urine and human waste. It was a nauseating experience. I felt everything except mercy for the people, for some reason. I was not obsessed with any feeling of sympathy. I just wasn’t. I was young and I was case hardened.

Laurence Rees: As he looked back on his wartime experiences, Paul Montgomery revealed that he took one single lesson from it all.

Words of Paul Montgomery: Let me say one thing that kind of stuck with me. Ernest Hemingway, which I adore, you know who I'm talking about - he said one time war is kind of like this. They don't tell you what the rules are, they throw you into the game and the first time they catch you off base they kill you. See, it's kind of a fatalistic attitude towards it all, I guess. I was put in at a very young age and I just went and did what they told me to do and I came home and I tried to live with it. That's kind of it as far as lessons to be learned.