The Wargamer

29 May 2017

Historical Article: Tokyo Firestorm

The US Strategic Bombing Campaign of Japan - Part 2

Published on 22 JAN 2015 7:23am by John Dudek
  1. world war ii, air combat, background / research material, asia, english

US Navy battleship and cruiser shells fell thick and heavy upon the Marianas island of Saipan's landing beaches on the early morning of 15 June 1944.  Well offshore, more than 300 LVT amphtrac landing craft carrying over 4,000 Marines cruised in circular formations, chasing each other's rooster tails of spray emerging from the rear of their tracked amphibious landing vehicles.  They were awaiting the "Go Order" to proceed ashore.  At 0830 hours Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner gave that order and the LVT's fanned out towards the Saipan shore.  Somewhere off BLUE BEACH 2 a grizzled, flinty old pre-war Marine gunnery sergeant gave his neophyte troops his final orders.  He shouted and pointed to a nearby track then running alongside.  "Listen up you people! We're crossing the final line of departure. That's Lt. Smith's amphtrack over there.  When we get ashore, un-ass this vehicle as soon as we stop, get ashore and tie in with his herd!  One other thing.  Don't get killed!  That would make me most unhappy because you know how much I hate doing paperwork.  Now lock and load and keep your damned heads down!"  As the Marines loaded their M-1 Garand rifles, the old "gunny" put a five round clip into his much older Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle.  He winked and grinned at the other Marines in the landing craft. All too soon and with a terrifying crashing suddenness, Japanese artillery and mortar shells began falling thickly and heavily around the Marine amphtracks as if someone had unzipped the very heavens above.  Japanese anti-boat guns located in the still hidden pillboxes and caves ashore began taking an ever increasing toll of American landing craft. Meanwhile, Japanese artillery gun batteries located well behind the landing beaches began firing upon the incoming amphibious landing force.  The sergeant's LVT lurched to a halt at the water's edge and the Marines aboard launched themselves over the vehicle's gunwales onto the sandy beach, but there was no Lt. Smith or any of his men to be seen.  His LVT lay still burning on the coral reef offshore like a number of so many other burning, broken toys out there, all of them victims of an anti-boat gun's direct hit.  A mortar shell concussion knocked down the gunnery sergeant, but aside from a few minor metal splinter cuts he was unhurt.  As he brushed the black coral sand from his face, eyes and forehead, he looked up at the smoking, mountainous and craggy heights that lay far above and well behind the landing beaches.  He shook his head and said incredulously. "How in hell are those doggy pricks going to build a B-29 bomber airfield way up there?"

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The good gunnery sergeant needn't have worried because US strategic planners had already painstakingly mapped every acre of ground on the three main islands of Saipan, Guam and Tinian.  Their intention was to base nearly a thousand B-29 heavy bombers upon airfields on these three islands to bomb and completely destroy Japan's ability to make war.  Before Saipan was even fully conquered, US Army Engineer units and Navy Construction Battalions (Sea Bees) descended upon the island to begin lengthening and greatly improving the former Japanese Aslito airfield.  In addition, they created the entire infrastructure needed to house and provide for a huge garrison of support troops and aircraft mechanics needed to both service and protect the bombers on the island.  The island airfields of Guam and Tinian were also to be taken in hand and improved as soon as they fell into US hands.  The few remaining Japanese soldiers located in Saipan's hills must have shook their heads in wonder at all of the modern American earth moving equipment engaged in leveling hills to build air fields. Meanwhile thousands of other men scurried about like a massive army of ants building near endless rows of Quonset huts, warehouses, airfield hardstands and paved roads, literally building a modern city where none before had existed.

Meanwhile the B-29 raids of the 20th Air Force from mainland China upon Japanese targets throughout the China-Burma-India Theatre continued to be mounted in close concert with the strategic and tactical needs of Allied Theatre Commander, British Lord Louis Mountbatten.  While these heavy bomber raids could never hope to knock Japan out of the war, they were instrumental in both aiding their British and Chinese allies on the ground while providing their own bomber crews much needed combat experience in the air.  However, these raids under the code name Operation Matterhorn were never a fully successful experiment because the bombers could only reach the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, and then only when carrying a much smaller bomb load in favor of additional fuel tanks for the long flight.  On 20 August 1944, a major game changer in the guise of General Curtis Lemay arrived in the CBI Theatre.  His influence was soon felt throughout the XX Bomber Command.  Lemay was the youngest two star general in the Army Air Force. He was a brave, hard charging combat leader who always led from the front, or in his case, the lead plane during many bombing missions.  He achieved a great deal of success while acting as the Eighth Air Force wing commander with his innovative and revolutionary bombing and defensive formation tactics.  Lemay soon realized that the tactics he used in Europe were less satisfactory in the Pacific and his fertile mind immediately went to work in finding ways of increasing the effectiveness of the new heavy bombers in his new command.  In addition, Lemay was beset by a number of problems, the chief one being the extremely long line of communications back to their primary supply bases in India.  In order to mount a single raid his B-29's had to make a series of ferrying missions over the Himalaya Mountains just to bring in enough bombs and fuel to mount a single bombing raid.

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As a result, aside from close range local bombing missions, his bombers could mount but one long range bombing sortie a month against Japanese bases on Kyushu.  When General Douglas MacArthur invaded Leyte in the Philippines in October 1944, LeMay was forced to temporarily discontinue the bombing of the Japanese steel factories to instead bomb the airfields and aircraft factories of Kyushu, Formosa (Taiwan) and Manchuria.  This was done to support the US Army invasion of the Philippines.  Lemay's first use of incendiary bombs occurred during the late 1944 Japanese army offensive in China.  The Japanese Army "Ichi-Go" offensive was directed against the B-29 bases at Kunming and Chendu.  The city of Hankow, China, was the Japanese Army's primary supply base supporting their offensive and LeMay hit it with 84 B-29's carrying five hundred tons of incendiary bombs.  The city burned for a total of three days and destroyed virtually all of the Japanese Army's supplies stored there, greatly affecting their continued offensive.  LeMay filed this away this valuable information for future reference.

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American Commanding Air Force General Henry "Hap" Arnold was greatly dissatisfied with the B-29's wartime performance thus far.  He remained the plane's primary and oftentimes solitary champion after investing a great deal of time and capital into its development and deployment overseas.  His reputation and career literally rested upon the plane's success or failure.  The first B-29 bombing raids flown over Japan from the newly conquered base on Saipan produced indifferent results due to the high velocity jet stream winds, bad weather, and the high altitudes the planes flew at.  While the bombing results were slowly getting better with each raid as their crews gained combat experience, the improving results didn't come fast enough to suit Arnold.  He ordered General Lemay to relieve General Haywood Hansell as commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Mariana Islands.

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 Lemay leapt at the opportunity with the same enthusiastic zeal he demonstrated from his early Eighth Air Force days in Europe, and was soon riding lead plane during bombing raids over Japan as an observer.  During one such raid his plane was hit by enemy fire and Lemay went to the aid of a wounded gunner in another part of the aircraft, leaving his parachute behind.  After riding along with a number of other planes during subsequent missions over Japan, Lemay came to the conclusion that the tactics and techniques that had suited him so well over the skies of Europe were not suitable against Japan. He quickly saw the problems of precision bombing at high altitudes into the teeth of high velocity jet stream winds that scattered the bombs to all compass points while producing ineffectual results.  He saw too that any day time raids flown under an altitude of 20,000 feet would result in much higher loss rates from both Japanese flak gunfire and fighter attacks.  Therefore, Lemay decided to switch to the revolutionary idea of flying low altitude night time missions while carrying incendiary bombs.  Knowing full well the existence of the Japanese "wood and paper" cities, this would undoubtedly have a highly beneficial bombing result rate.  A large number of American political and military leaders were against making war upon the Japanese civilian populace until it was learned that Japan had largely begun decentralizing many of its war industries in favor of using "cottage industry" production of war material based out of a large number of civilian homes.  In short, whole city neighborhoods were engaged in building war material ranging from rifle stocks to hand grenades to support the Japanese war effort.  In the end, it was decided these actions made the civilians fair game for incendiary bombing raids.

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