The Systematic Bombing of Japan

The first American B-29 bomber raids against Japanese industry began soon after Saipan was captured. They were tentative at first, about one a month and used different mixes of ordnance. By mid January, XX Air Force planners, led by a young “iron major” Major Robert McNamara (JFK and LBJ’s future Secretary of Defense), devised a campaign for the most effective way to destroy Japanese morale and the war making capability of the home islands in preparation for an invasion of Japan in late summer.

McNamara was instrumental in establishing an entire school for the study of statistics at Harvard from which up and coming young Army Air Corps planners graduated. McNamara’s reliance of statistics permeated every part of the plan in preparation for the invasion. The timing, targets, routes, formations, ordnance etc. were mathematically planned down to the last detail for an effective and efficient “reduction of Japan”. Major General Curtis LeMay, the XX Air Force commander, briefed the plan to his superiors and famously summed it up, “If you kill enough of them, they will stop fighting.”

It was brutally effective. The plan’s focus on incendiaries devastated Japan’s primarily wooden cities. The morale of the Japanese population was crushed but only because there was little response from the now defunct Japanese air force, and the shock at the scale of the raids. For years the Japanese ministry of propaganda had fooled the Japanese people into thinking they were winning the war. But no amount of official lying could cover up the loss of Saipan, a Japanese home territory, and the B29s that appeared in the skies with increasing frequency.

On 27 January 1945, 68 B29s bombed Tokyo and reduced 15% of it to ash and rubble with the loss of only six planes, despite the lack of escorting fighters. McNamara’s plan was deemed successful and implemented in full. Every city in Japan, no matter the size, was targeted. A new raid launched every seven days until the end of the war. 500,000 Japanese civilians would die in the campaign and over five million displaced into the countryside.

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