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Pacific FrontMarch 1945

Firebombing Japan

Why did the Americans use precision bombing in Europe and yet firebomb Japan?
In Europe the Americans consistently said they would bomb with ‘precision’, yet in the Pacific theatre they destroyed whole civilian communities. Why?

Video Transcript

Commentary: The policy of the American Army Air Force, based here in Britain during World War Two, couldn’t have been clearer. The Americans, unlike the British, claimed they would only bomb military or industrial targets in Germany. 

Dr Conrad Crane: When the Americans are bombing a marshalling yard in the middle of a city and they understand it’s gonna be collateral damage of civilians, they still tell themselves, well, we’re not targeting civilians on purpose. So we are different. We still haven’t crossed the line where we’re indiscriminately targeting human beings. We understand it’s happening, we’ve got to do this to end the war, but we are not out to de-house workers, as the British will state, we’re not out to terrorise German civilians. There’s always an element of morality here but I think efficiency is probably more important. I mean, Americans, even to the end, believed that terror bombing is inefficient, it’s not going to work.

Commentary: Which, at first sight, makes what happened here in the Pacific seem very strange. These are the massive American B-29s used in the war against Japan. And to start with they too only attacked military targets. But by the end of 1944 it was clear there was a problem - the jet stream over Japan made precision bombing almost impossible. And a new commander, Curtis LeMay, was appointed to restart the whole bombing campaign.

Laurence Rees: How crucial to the move towards the firebombing of Japan was the character and leadership of Curtis LeMay?

Dr Conrad Crane: Ha, well, Curtis LeMay is... it would not have happened, I don’t think, without Curtis LeMay. Curtis LeMay is the key figure. LeMay was seen as the airforce’s premier problem solver. He was brilliant, he had been immensely successful every place, he’s probably the most innovative and capable combat air leader of World War Two. 

Wartime archive narration: General LeMay and his staff receiving a report on tomorrow’s weather in Japan.

Commentary: LeMay would transform the fortunes of the American Army Air Force in the Pacific by giving up precision bombing. Instead the Americans would use incendiary bombs to set fire to whole Japanese cities. In the process LeMay and his men would kill around half a million Japanese, the vast majority of them civilians. These were the very tactics that before the war the Americans had said were criminal.

Professor Akira Iriye: In 1938 President Roosevelt had condemned Japanese bombing of civilian cities. I think when war comes I guess you say to yourself that, well, you just do whatever is necessary to defeat the enemy.

Commentary: And it's possible that other, rather darker thoughts might have influenced LeMay’s actions. Thoughts which pervaded the whole war against Japan.

Dr Conrad Crane: 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 attack us at Pearl Harbour and the hatred is seized from that. The Japanese, in the initial battles on Guadalcanal, they commit a number of atrocities against the Marines that are quickly spread throughout all American soldiers and Marines. They know the Japanese are not going to play by the rules. 

Commentary: And it seems that few of the aircrew of these giant planes were troubled by their work.

Words of Paul Montgomery (American flight crew, Pacific): I was insensitive to the bombing of the cities. 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. I felt everything except mercy for the people. I was not obsessed with any feeling of sympathy - I just wasn’t. I was young and I was case-hardened. I had a cast-iron attitude towards war. I had lost my sensitivity evidently.

Words of Yoshiko Hashimoto (Japanese civilian): I saw living people burnt alive. People one by one were quickly burning to death, struggling and suffering. I heard a very sharp scream on my back - it was my baby! And I turned around and he was crying with his mouth open so that little powdery pieces of fire got into his mouth.

Words of Paul Montgomery (American flight crew, Pacific): It’s not like I was going out and sticking a bayonet in someone’s belly, okay? You still kill them but you kill them from a distance, and it doesn’t have the demoralising effect upon you that it did if I went up and stuck a bayonet in someone’s stomach in the course of combat. It’s just different. It’s kind of like conducting war through a video game, if you will.

Words of Yoshiko Hashimoto (Japanese civilian): The town and community you were born and lived in simply reduced to ashes. I still have this nightmare - the burnt corpses of people looking like withered trees. Both my mother and father would have caught fire and died. It’s very painful even to think of that.

Dr Conrad Crane: I think that the real moral threshold is crossed on the night of March 9th 1945 with the big fire raid on Tokyo. 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 almost anything goes.

Wartime archive narration: Then on to shipping targets. Freighters, fishermen, trawlers. Harbour and coastal craft. Destroyer or lugger, it’s the same enemy.

Commentary: For a variety of reasons, including the distancing effect of attacking from the sky, this form of destruction was not thought conceptually the same as ground attack.

Professor Richard Overy: People do treat attacks from the air differently from the way they treat the behaviour of people on the ground. And I think if they hadn’t they would not have been able to sanction, the British and Americans would not be have been able to sanction, the fire bombing of Japan or the area bombing of Germany. But imagine for a moment Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff sanctioning, when British troops arrived at the first German city, saying, well, now you can shoot 40,000 of the inhabitants. Shell them till they’re dead. I mean, it would not have been dreamt of, this would have been the most atrocious war crime, this is like the Rape of Nanking and so on. But drop 4,000 tons of bombs from the air and incinerate 40,000 people doesn’t provoke or seem to provoke the same kind of soul searching. 

Wartime archive narration: Close-up cameras show the scars of those spectacular fire strikes last March. Fifty-one square miles of LeMay treatment.

Commentary: And what’s sometimes forgotten in this history is that these B-29s were firebombing Japan long before the nuclear bombs were dropped. Indeed, more people lost their lives in LeMay’s raid on Tokyo in March 1945 - 100,000 - than were killed by either of the nuclear bombs that were dropped five months later.