Harry Truman and VE Day

The 8th of May has been a very popular day for momentous events.  For one thing, it’s early enough in the traditional Northern Hemisphere’s spring “campaign season” to be able to mark battles like Palo Alto in 1846, and Spotsylvania in 1864, among many others.  But also on this day in 1541 Hernan DeSoto reached the Mississippi River near modern Memphis, Tennessee, and a new celebration for Armistice Day–11 November–was proposed in a London newspaper on this day in 1919.  But today, we’re going to remark on a coincidence too big to miss.

On 8 May 1888, Harry S. Truman was born at Lamar, Missouri (the “S” was chosen to honor both his grandfathers).  Living most of his youth on various farms in central Missouri, he didn’t attend a conventional school until he was eight. Truman worked various non-agricultural jobs around Independence and Kansas City, including haberdasher.  He finished high school in Independence but never finished college.  Even though he was legally blind he joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905.  In WWI he rose to the rank of captain in Battery D, 129th Artillery in the hard-luck 35th Infantry Division.  Even after the war, Truman officially stayed in the Army Reserves until he was retired a Colonel in 1953.

After WWI Truman became active in Missouri politics until 1934, when he won election to the US Senate with the backing of the notorious Pendergast political machine.  Despite the stink of corruption that wafted around him, Truman kept winning elections, freinds, and a reputation for integrity and plain-speaking. While investigating waste and fraud in the War Department during WWII he is thought to have saved billions of taxpayer dollars–and enough notoriety to get him on the cover of Time Magazine. Truman was popular…and electable.

When Truman was approached by party officials at the 1944 Chicago Democratic Convention to stand as FDR’s Vice President, it was realized at the time that Roosevelt’s health was deteriorating, and that a replacement for the sitting VP–the unpopular Henry A. Wallace–had to be found. FDR was elected to a fourth term with Truman as his running mate in November, but less than three months after he was sworn in as VP, Roosevelt died and Truman took the oath as president.

April 1945 was an awkward time for a two-term senator from a rural state to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful force of military projection the world had yet seen. Nearly four million Americans were in uniform in over a hundred countries, and only fifteen sovereign states worldwide had not gone to war by that fateful spring.

Though the end of the war in Europe was in sight, the war against Japan did not appear to be abating.The Soviets were hammering Berlin from the suburbs while they shook hands and swapped uniforms with the Americans on the Elbe; Vienna was on fire; concentration camps containing stark testimony of the enormity of the Nazi’s crimes were being found daily; Tokyo or some major city in Japan was being razed every fifth night; on a high spot in the ocean called Okinawa nearly 70,000 American soldiers and Marines had begun a campaign that was planned to last a month but was to go on for nearly three.

By the end of April the carnage in Europe reached it’s horrible crescendo.  Hitler killed himself on 30 April; German forces in Italy surrendered effective 2 May; the Berlin surrendered on 3 May.  On the evening of 8 May, 1945–Harry Truman’s 61st birthday–the German authorities signed an Instrument of Surrender at Karlshorst, a Berlin suburb. “The mission of this command was concluded…” Dwight Eisenhower telegraphed his Commander in Chief that evening.  One wonders if Ike knew (or if Truman remembered) that Eisenhower’s older brother Arthur worked and lived with Truman in Kansas City before they both became famous.

When we think of all the coincidences in daily life, this one–VE Day on Truman’s birthday– hangs on for a while.

Budapest, Dresden, Hal Moore, and National Clean Out Your Computer Day

 

Mid-February, and even though tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, we’re talking about WWII because this is the 13th of February.  Oh, there was Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633, and William and Mary of Nassau being proclaimed joint sovereigns of England in 1689, and the beginning of ASCAP in 1914, and the birth of Chuck Yeager in 1923, and Andrey Chernienko was named Premier of the Soviet Union in 1984.  But today we talk about massacres in war, and brave men, and clean computers.

The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets.

By late 1945, the German Army was entirely on the defensive.  In an effort to slow the Soviet drives into Germany, and above all to prevent them from linking with the Anglo-Americans, the Germans planned to hold several urban areas in Eastern Europe and to knock the Soviet mobile offensives off-balance.  One of these cities was Budapest, the capital city of Hungary that had been a German ally until October 1944. The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets. The Soviets, on the other hand, were to capture Budapest quickly before Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.  To do this, Rodion Malinovski commanded something over half a million men. The fighting over Budapest started in October, 1944.  The last road out was cut on 26 December. The remnants of the German Luftwaffe could barely support itself, but tried valiantly to supply Budapest until the last airfield fell 27 December.  The Germans tried three separate offensives in January 1945 to break out or relieve the siege, and all failed.  On 11 February a last breakout attempt resulted in tens of thousands of German and Hungarian casualties and the capture of Wildenbruch.  On 13 February, the last of the German garrison in Budapest surrendered about 60,000 or so German and Hungarian troops (with an unknown number of civilians added as padding).  Predictably, while the German/Hungarian casualties amounted to 130,000 in the fifty-day siege, the Soviet/Romanian casualties were somewhat more.

Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes…

While the siege of Budapest is not well known in the West, the bombing campaign of Dresden is.  Starting on 13 February 1945, the RAF and the USAAF struck the “Florence of the Elbe” three times in three days.  In all over 1,300 heavy bombers dropped some 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, destroying 2 and a half square miles of the city (in contrast, the March 9-10 1945 firebombing of Tokyo destroyed a little over 15 square miles in a single raid).  Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes, and Holocaust-denier David Irving has put them as high as 500,000 in his 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden.  American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombing and wrote about his experience in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, declared that 130,000 casualties were either buried or incinerated. However, a 2010 study commissioned by the Dresden city council found that no more than 25,000 people were killed in the three raids.

Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.  

Not every general gets to be better known for what he did as a colonel.  Custer was one of that exclusive club; Hal Moore was another.  Moore died last Friday, 10 April 2017 at the age of 94. Moore’s career before and after Ia Drang was notable only for its relative routine: he had no one of influence to help his career, and as a Kentuckian no particular hindrances, either.  He graduated West Point a year early in 1945 because the Army needed replacement officers.  Branched to the Infantry, he served in the 11th Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions, and the 7th Infantry in Korea.  In 1965, Moore was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In November of that year, 2/7th Cav was in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, short-stopping two North Vietnamese Army regiments in a long fight over Pleiku, operating out of a place called Drop Zone X-Ray.  While Moore and his men were credited with “winning” the fight at the time and Moore won a DSC, the fight convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win. After Ia Drang and a series of career progressions, Moore retired from the Army a Lieutenant General in 1977.  He wrote three books, the best known being We Were Soldiers Once, and Young with Joseph Galloway published in 1992.  The 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers was based on the book.  Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.

Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  

Then, there’s Clean Your Computer Day, which is the second Monday in February.  The day was originally sponsored in 2000 by the Institute for Business Technology, a for-profit trade school in Santa Clara, California. IBT probably once had some computer training, but at this writing they concentrate on other skilled trades, including HVAC technician, massage therapy, and various medical office jobs.  Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  I have two computers that I have to keep clean, and all that scrubbing and dusting does get tedious…and that bitbucket…always full.  Does anyone know of a way to keep the RAM from getting so dirty and full of fleas…wait…there it is again…come back here, you ignorant herbivore…there’s no ewes over there…!

Eugene Ely, Coventry, Possum Hansell and the Consequences of Elections

Today, we celebrate, or at least acknowledge, obscurity, horror, firsts, and aviation…in our own way, of course.  As a natural consequence of today’s missive, your intrepid researcher/correspondent will endeavor as is his wont to bring you, his regular readers, entertainment, history, facts, (limited) opinions, and at least some sober analysis of events that took place on 14 November.  Among many other things, Robert Fulton was born on this day in 1765, James B. McPherson of Civil War fame was born in 1827, King Gillette patented his safety razor in 1904, and the Somme offensive ended in 1916.  But today, we talk about flying…and not.

Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  

Aviation was an amateur endeavor in the heady days before WWI turned it into a deadly enterprise.  It was dangerous before airplanes started carrying weapons, but usually only to the intrepid adventurers flying the fragile kites.  Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  Naval gunnery was not yet capable of firing over the horizon, but it wasn’t that far off. In 1910, Eugene Ely, a former auto salesman who taught himself to fly well enough to get a job with Glenn Curtis met Washington Chambers, who had been appointed by the US Navy to investigate the possibilities of heavier-than-air flying machines for scouting.  Since radios of the time weighted as much as the airplanes did, the machines would have to launch and land on or near a ship to have any use to battle fleets at sea. On 14 November, 1910, Ely took off from an 83-foot wooden platform built on the deck of light cruiser USS Birmingham anchored in Chesapeake Bay while in a Curtis pusher, the first time a heavier-than-air machine had launched (if barely) from a ship. Ely died in a crash less than a year later.

By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged.

Early in WWII Hitler placed prohibitions on attacking populated areas.  Gradually those prohibitions fell away until they were a dim, if quaint, memory. In the industrialization of the West Midlands of Great Britain ancient cities like the ancient cathedral city of Coventry, with its dense population and proximity to coal, became prime targets for German bombers.  Along with the 14th century cathedral was the Coventry Ordnance Works which made gun mountings for the Royal Navy, and other plants that together supplied a quarter of the RAF’s aircraft. On the night of 14 November 1940, some five hundred German bombers from Luftflotte 3 and the pathfinders of  Kampfgruppe 100 bombed Coventry in an operation called Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata). By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged. Over a thousand people were killed and injured during the attack, and only one German bomber was shot down. It was the first use of pathfinder aircraft equipped with beam-riding navigation equipment and bombing patterns intended to mark targets, and one of the first to use a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs to intentionally start large fires.

Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.

Studying Coventry and the other large air strikes in Europe and Asia before America’s entry in WWII was Heywood S. “Possum” Hansell, an American Army Air Corps officer, a man with a long pedigree of service. Hansell was a member of the “Bomber Mafia,” a small group of vocal advocates of daylight precision air bombardment that included Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle. Hansell was the chief of the Foreign Intelligence Section in the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, and responsible for writing two papers known as AWP-1 and AWP-42, outlining the Army Air Force’s plans for strategic air warfare against both Germany and Japan. As a reward for his work, Hansell was given the command of the 1st Bomb Wing, the B-17 component of the Eighth Air Force in England. Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.  Hansell was also the architect of the Combined Bomber Offensive with the RAF.  Soon, hansell found himself shifted out of Europe and the Flying Fortresses to Asia and the Superfortresses, the B-29s. But Possum was a better staff man than he was a commander, and the multitude of serious command-level problems on Saipan, with the B-29, and with the completely new command arrangements (Twentieth Air Force was commanded from Washington).  As a result, Hansell was replaced by fellow Mafia member Curtis LeMay.  After the war Hansell held a number of minor, if important posts in training and administration, retiring from the Air Force for the last time in 1955.  Possum Hansell, the architect of the bombing campaigns in Europe and Asia, died in Hilton Head, South Carolina on 14 November, 1988.

History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.

And so.  As Barack Obama told the assembled Republicans on 10 October 2010, “elections have consequences.” Last week, your intrepid researcher briefly discussed the then-upcoming election, where the United States was choosing between the first woman presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, from a major party and the first non-politician, non-military candidate, Donald Trump, from another.  History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.  Except…it didn’t roll that way.  Much to nearly everyone’s surprise,  the political neophyte Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and rather resoundingly.  One of the (many) consequences of  this election is the almost-certain end of the Clinton family’s quarter-century of influence on national politics. Another will be that Trump, having very few political debt to pay, will be free to choose people who will do their jobs, not kowtow to others just to curry favor.  Once again, we shall see.

Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

Ruminations On War

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another in the series of essay collections from John D Beatty.  “Ruminations On War” contains five essays on topics as wide ranging as air power, militias, disease, the origins of warfare, and early military theorists.

Speculation on issues like the beginning of war is usually beyond the pale of “military philosophy” and well into anthropology, but sometimes the thoughtful scholar has to want to know how humanity got from hunter-gatherer to suicide bomber.  Though these essays were written in an academic environment, I had given some thought as to how warfare in general came about for some time.  We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect.  The “Which Came First” essay is an initial foray into the possibilities of early hominid warfare, a rumination based on what we know, what we guess at, and the laws of physics and, very generally, on Jack London’s Law of Meat that he spent a whole chapter on in White Fang.

We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect. 

That the early Bronze-Age civilizations of North America were devastated not just by Old World technology but also by Old World diseases is not new, but the effects of contagious disease in combination with their already slow population growth was a fatal combination for their continued existence.  “Deadly Emigres” is an exposition into the dynamics of a one-two punch that the Indians got when the waves of invaders reached their shores.

“Obligations of Freedom” is an experiment in the legal and historical grounds for militia service.  Though it didn’t start out that way, it is a sturdy rejoinder against the argument that the US National Guard is what Amendment II of the Constitution meant by “militia,” when the record is clear that it is anything but.

Academic history is very certain that the four classical philosophers discussed in “Four Philosophers Revisited” were the ur-scribes of modern strategic thought.  The truth is that three of them at least were less concerned with philosophy than they likely were in seeing their name in print—and repeated what others wrote in the doing.  But one, the first—Sun Tzu—we can’t even be certain how he was compensated, or if he wasn’t a pen name for some scholar who put a lot of other writers together.  Writing during the Iron Age in China, whoever wrote the original text attributed to Sun Tzu really had little to say that others didn’t say afterwards who never heard of him, making him perhaps the first to re-state what was obvious to military professionals since the beginnings of organized warfare.

Traditionally, “a marriage made in Hell” was the unity of the machine gun and barbed wire on the Western Front in France and Flanders.  “A Divorce from the Marriage Made in Hell” is an exposition on the earliest philosophies that poses a question: are separate air forces the answer?  That, of course, depends on what the question is.

“Ruminations On War” is available on Amazon Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.  See other books from JDB Communications, LLC on John D. Beatty’s Author Page.

2 November: Two Presidents Born and One Killed

Two US presidents were born on 2 November: James K Polk in 1795 and Warren G Harding in 1865.  Another was murdered: Ngo Dinh Diem, in Cholon (then South) Vietnam,  Though not directly related, it made for a catcher headline.

Polk was the 11th president of the US, serving from 1845 to 1849, and had the misfortune of inheriting a messy dispute on the southern border between Texas and Mexico.  Correctly assessing the sentiment of the country, he forced conditions on Mexico that compelled war, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Never a particularly well man, Polk died of cholera 14 June 1849, scarcely three months after leaving office.

Harding was the 29th president, serving from 1921 until 1923, a term cut short by his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was the first post-WWI president, and as such had his hand in the rapid demobilization of the country’s military–except at sea.  Even though he oversaw the Washington Naval Treaty proceedings, the Treaty’s effects in many ways were just the opposite of what was intended, triggering a massive scrapping and re-purposing of navies, it did not affect aircraft carriers, and the effects on fleet auxiliaries was minimal.  The result was a huge increase in support ships and the construction of some of the largest aircraft carriers built until the nuclear era.  This enabled the expansion of the fleet to its thousand-ship zenith in 1944.

Diem was one of the least likely and most corrupt, leaders on mainland Asia after 1945. Trained by the French he worked much of his adult life in either public administration or in hiding as an outlaw.   After the French collapse Diem was placed in power by the Americans in 1954, where he struggled for the rest of his life against the North, against the Vietnamese who despised him for whatever reason, and against the most egregious corruption.  At the same time, Diem realized that corruption and nepotism were endemic to Asia, that the North’s sponsors were more generous than the Americans, and that no matter what he did nothing could save a country that didn’t see danger.  His murder in 1963 was heralded in the Western press and only ended twenty-one days later with the death of President Kennedy,

Taken in sum these three men all had one thing in common: though their administrations were not particularity noteworthy what happened on their watches greatly affected the future of the United States.  The Mexican War under Polk blooded some of the best leaders of the upcoming Civil War, and exacerbated the tensions already present.  Harding’s naval expansion and premature death, leaving an even more hawkish Calvin Coolidge in charge, made possible the rapid recovery from Pearl Harbor.  Diem, barely able to control his country let alone lead it, left behind a legacy of tribe-like governance-by-bribe-and-threat in Saigon that would eventually erode into collapse, even as the Americans and other SEATO allies were trying to protect it.

When the Roof of Hell Opened Up and Tokyo Fell In

When they first heard of it, the men who had flown over St Nazaire and Brest, Schweinfurt and Munich, Ploesti and Wiener-Neustadt, Shanghai and Bangkok and lost a thousand friends in the high altitude combat boxes knew that it was a mistake.  The briefers misread it, they thought.  But no.  The B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command would bomb Tokyo at night, individually, in a continual stream of aircraft at altitudes from 6,000 to 12,000 feet.  There was no mistake.  Curtis Lemay, commanding the B-29s in the Marianas islands in early 1945, was in deadly earnest.

But there was a reason for it: many.  The air campaign against Japan had been disappointing.  The B-29 Superfortresses, the most advanced bombers in the world, the largest and the most powerful aircraft in the world, suffered from teething pains that included engine fires and electrical problems.  Some missions lost as many as 5% of their aircraft to these causes alone.  Added to this, weather over Japan was unexpectedly bad much of the time, even more unpredictable than northern Europe.  The discovery of the jet stream during the bombing missions of 1944 was a boon to the weathermen, but it wreaked havoc on bombing accuracy and on airplanes.

So the planners and the Boeing engineers added it all up and determined that the problem with the engines was uneven engine cooling; with the electrical system was instrument freezing; that with the weather was high-altitude flying.  The answer was to fly lower, which meant abandoning the box.  To accommodate that radical change, the missions would be flown at night, in part because the intelligence boys were saying that Japanese night fighter strength was negligible.

Then the issue became the nature of the target.  Japanese industry wasn’t concentrated in plants or even in small shops; while final assembly was centralized, the components were made in shops based in homes.  One in four Japanese homes had a machine tool or finishing station within the structure.  Many more had made piece-parts in outbuildings or in communal sheds.  Most Japanese cities were primarily made of paper and wood, especially the residential areas.  The insurance industry, performing studies of German and Japanese cities for the Army Air Force, reminded their audiences that massive fires were common in Japan.  In 1922 a fire had destroyed more than five square miles of Tokyo.

So the orders went out to the bases on Guam, Saipan and Tinian: the bombers would carry incendiary bombs only, would leave most of their defensive guns on the ground, and would attack individually from low altitude.  The bombers would launch at dusk on 9 March 1945: target, Tokyo.

Just after midnight the first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo, marking Incendiary Zone Number One, enclosing an area four by three miles with thermite and magnesium flares.  Then came the other bombers with their napalm and white phosphorus.  After fifteen minutes the water mains started to burst and after thirty minutes the electrical power went out. Two-thirds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department was destroyed in the first hour.

And still the bombers came.  George Seaton, flying a Superfort called Snatch Blatch, wrote “I could read a newspaper from the fires of Tokyo when we were still twenty minutes away.”  Jim Cornwell, who had flown over Hamburg in 1943 during an operation RAF Bomber Command called Gomorrah, recalled, “it looked like the roof of hell opened up, and Tokyo fell in.”

On the ground it seemed like the end of the world.  Fire destroyed neighborhoods in minutes, consumed blocks in seconds, houses in an eyeblink.  This was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the third largest city on earth, and its residential heart was being consumed by fires that could not be stopped.  There were no firestorms like Hamburg; not enough concentrated heat.  Instead this was what firefighters called a sweep conflagration that grew and moved and fed on its own accord, fanned by southerly winds.  High above, as much as 20,000 feet above the maelstrom of fire, aircrews in the controller aircraft could smell burning pine…and hair, and flesh.

The last of the B-29s dropped its load sometime after 2:00 AM on 10 March, leaving a little over fifteen square miles of Tokyo burning or burned out, the flames having stopped only two miles from the Imperial Palace.  At least 80,000 were dead; possibly as many as 150,000–no one knows to this day for certain.  Downtown Tokyo was a charnel house; power and water systems destroyed; transportation networks completely knocked out.  Tokyo had become an abattoir of frightened refugees scrabbling amid the rubble and ashes to find enough food and water to survive.  By May, two more fire raids would only add another six square miles to the devastation.

With his new strategy Lemay laid waste to every Japanese industrial city that wasn’t on a special list from Washington: one that had on it Kure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When he drove through Tokyo after the surrender, he saw thousands of tool posts standing stark amid the blowing ashes.  Japan may have already lost the war by March 1945, but at that time they didn’t know it.  After the fire raids, and Lemay ran out of targets to burn, the Showa emperor Hirohito certainly did.  After the Imperial War Council meeting of 10 August, he withdrew his support from the war.  He, like Tokyo, was done.