Staving Off Aerial Immolation

Japan’s ability to repel an American bombing campaign began with very few prospects in 1942 and sharply declined thereafter. Yet an enduring question is why Tokyo squandered more than two years after the Doolittle Raid, and why so little interservice coordination was attempted once B-29s appeared in homeland skies. The answer lies in the Japanese psyche more than in its military institutions.

In defending its airspace, Japan’s army and naval forces were tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Nonetheless, they failed massively in even approaching their nation’s potential to ameliorate the effects of the Allied onslaught.

Japan’s only prospect for staving off aerial immolation was to inflict unacceptable losses upon B-29s. Because of the Superfortress’s exceptional cost—some $600,000 each—a downed B-29 represented the financial equivalent of nearly three B-17s or B-24s, plus an invaluable crew. Development of ramming units demonstrates that some Japanese understood the value of a one-for-one or even two-for-one tradeoff, but the tactic largely failed for technical and organizational reasons. Therefore, defense of the home islands reverted to conventional means: flak guns and ordinary interceptors.

The resulting failure was systemic, crossing all boundaries of government and military-naval leadership. Probably the major cause was Japan’s national psychology: a collectivist culture possessing a rigid hierarchy with unusually strict protocols that inhibited breakout thinking and instilled extreme reluctance to express contrary opinions. Japan poses an intriguing puzzle for sociologists and political scientists: how an extremely well-ordered society permitted itself to make a series of disastrous decisions, each threatening its national existence. Ironically, the situation was partly explained by the atmosphere of gekokujo (“pressuring from below”) in which strident subordinates often influenced their superiors.

If interservice rivalry constituted a “second front” in Washington, D.C., it was a full contact sport in Tokyo. The postwar United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, “There was no efficient pooling of the resources of the Army and Navy. Responsibility between the two services was divided in a completely impractical fashion with the Navy covering all ocean areas and naval targets . . . and the Army everything else.”

In June 1944, the month of the first B-29 attack, Imperial General Headquarters combined army and navy assets in an air defense command but the navy objected to army control. A compromise was achieved with naval air groups at Atsugi, Omura, and Iwakuni assigned to the respective army district. Phone links from JAAF command centers were provided to each of the three naval units, but operational integration was seldom attempted. In fact, throughout Japan, the two air arms operated jointly in only three areas: Tsuiki on Kyushu plus Kobe and Nagoya.

A major part of the problem was astonishingly sparse allocation of fighters to air defense. As late as March 1945, Japan allotted less than one-fifth of its fighters to home defense, and the actual figure only reached 500 in July. By then very few were flying, as Tokyo hoarded its strength for the expected invasion.

In the crucial realm of radar, Japan got a jump on the world—and almost immediately lost its lead. The efficient Yagi-Uda antenna had been invented in 1926, the product of two researchers at Tohoku Imperial University. Professor Hidetsugu Yagi published the first English reference two years later, citing his nation’s work in shortwave research. But such was military secrecy and interservice rivalry that even late in the war few Japanese knew the origin of the device that appeared on downed Allied aircraft.

The Allies rated Japanese radar as “very poor,” and fighter direction remained rudimentary. While land-based radar could detect inbound formations perhaps 200 miles out, the data included neither altitude nor composition. Consequently, picket boats were kept 300 miles at sea to radio visual sightings—of marginal use in cloudy weather. However, what radar systems did exist were easily jammed by American radio countermeasures—aircraft dropping aluminum foil that clogged enemy screens.

Furthermore, the Japanese army and navy established separate warning systems, and seldom exchanged information. Even when unit-level pooling was attempted, navy officers generally refused orders from army officers.

Civilian observers were spread throughout Japan to report enemy aircraft, but predictably there was no unity. The army and navy established their own observer corps, and neither worked with the other.

Japanese navy doctrine contained an internal contradiction for air defense. A 1944 manual asserted, “In order to overcome the disadvantages imposed on fighter plane units when the enemy raids a friendly base—that is, getting fighter planes airborne on equal terms with the enemy airplanes—full use must be made of radar and other lookout methods. . . . These must be employed in the most effective manner.” But as noted, use of radar remained rudimentary.

Some pilots dismissed the state of their nation’s electronics. “Why do we need radar? Men’s eyes see perfectly well.”

Excluding mobile radar sets, at least sixty-four early-warning sites were built in the homeland and offshore islands: thirty-seven navy and twenty-seven army. But the rare assets often were squandered by duplicating effort: at four sites on Kyushu and seven on Honshu, army and navy radars were located almost side by side. The southern approaches to Kyushu and Shikoku were covered by some twenty installations but only two permanent radars are known on all of Shikoku.

Though the huge majority of Japanese radars provided early warning, some sets directed AA guns and searchlights. But apparently there was little integration of the two: some B-29 crews returned with harrowing tales of ten to fifteen minutes in a searchlight’s probing beam with minimal or no flak damage.

Apart from inadequate radar, some of Japan’s technical focus was badly misdirected. From 1940 onward, the military devoted over five years to a “death ray” intended to cause paralysis or death by very short-wave radio waves focused in a high-power beam. The nonportable unit was envisioned for antiaircraft use, but the only model tested had a range much less than firearms.

Tactically, the lack of army-navy cooperation hampered the already limited potential of Japan’s interceptors. With unit commanders conducting their own localized battles, there was little opportunity to concentrate large numbers of fighters against a bomber formation as the Luftwaffe repeatedly achieved.

B-29s from Saipan

The pilots who flew the first B-29s from Saipan took with them a valuable fund of knowledge about what their bombers could do and could not do in the skies of Japan, and that knowledge had been amassed-sometimes very painfully-by the men who had flown the big bombers out of Chengtu and Kharagpur. First of all, the bombers could be operated both by day and by night without serious loss; rarely did the loss rate exceed 5 percent, and for all B-29 operations during the war, was under 2 percent. At thirty thousand feet the Superfortress had little to fear from flak. Enemy fighters could operate at that altitude but could rarely manage more than a single pass through a formation, because of the big bomber’s speed. Sometimes, when the weather conditions were right, the B-29 could place its bombs with remarkable accuracy. But the weather proved to be the great limiting factor in the precision bombing for which the plane had been built, since, as in the case of the European theater, targets were all too often obscured by cloud cover. And whereas in Europe it was fairly easy to determine from England what the weather would be like over Mannheim, since the weather generally moved from west to east, this same phenomenon made it extremely difficult to know what kind of weather might move from Siberia or central Asia over the Japanese home islands.


The problem of Japanese weather tended to grow even worse in the fall and winter, as the men of Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell, Jr.’s Twenty-first Bomber Command soon discovered. Hansell believed strongly in the precision-bombing doctrine, which he had helped formulate, so he set his men and planes to work on the Japanese aeroengine industry, most plants of which were well known. The very first raid from Saipan was directed at the Musashi engine works in northwest Tokyo, which produced 27 percent of all Japanese aircraft engines. The Musashi plant, “target no. 357,” was destined to become famous, or infamous, to the men who flew B-29s. During the raid of November 24, there were strong winds at thirty thousand feet, and the target below was almost completely obscured. Three days later, the Superfortresses returned to Tokyo to find the Musashi works completely blanketed by cloud. On December 3 the plant was visible, but bombing was scattered because of high winds.

In all, there were eleven major raids on the Musashi works between November 1944 and May 1945; they cost the attackers fifty-nine Superfortresses. Air crews drilled relentlessly to hit the works. (Some still in the United States made practice bombing runs on the Continental Can Company’s plant in Houston, which was about the same size.) Only the last two raids were effective; all the others were balked by adverse weather. At thirty thousand feet, wind was often more of a problem than cloud, for it could reach in excess of 150 knots. On one downwind bombing run, a B-29 went rocketing over the Musashi plant at a ground speed of more than five hundred mph. The story was not much more encouraging at the other eight high-priority targets. In three months of effort, not a single one had been destroyed. No more than 10 percent of the bombs dropped seemed to be landing anywhere near the objective. Even the Japanese noticed the erratic pattern of the bombing. So many bombs exploded in Tokyo Bay that a joke started to make the rounds of the Japanese capital: The Americans were going to starve the Japanese into submission by killing all the fish.


In the meantime, an alternative approach to strategic bombing was emerging in Washington. General Arnold’s Committee of Operations Analysts had pursued its investigations into incendiary raids to the point of building models of Japanese structures and testing their flammability. The committee proposed several Japanese cities for incendiary attacks, and General Arnold sent out instructions in November to conduct a test raid. General HanselPs heart was not in this sort of bombing. He made a small and inconsequential fire raid on Tokyo on the night of November 29-30, but when he received word to mount a full-scale incendiary effort on Nagoya, using a hundred B- 29s, he protested. Nevertheless, Hansell was a good soldier, so he sent his bombers to Nagoya on the night of January 3-4. The damage caused was slight; bad weather kept reconnaissance planes from getting the photographic evidence for some twenty-seven days. By that time, General Hansell was no longer leading Twenty-first Bomber Command; on January 20 his command had passed to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

The official history of the Army Air Forces indicates strongly that Hansell’s preference for precision bombing cost him his job, and this may indeed be the case. The man who succeeded him did not have the same commitment to doctrine. He had the reputation of a “driving operator” who had already taken over Twentieth Bomber Command and breathed energy into its operations. But, for a month and a half, LeMay made no radical departures in operations from the Marianas. At first, he rode two horses at once: he continued the high-altitude daylight precision raids against the aircraft plants that were now becoming so familiar to his crews; at the same time, he pushed experimentation with incendiary attacks, with which he already had some experience-his XX Bomber Command had succeeded in burning much of Hankow in December 1944. On February 3 he sent the B- 29s to Kobe, where they dropped 159 tons of incendiaries and burned out a thousand buildings, a fairly encouraging result. On February 25 a maximum-effort fire raid on Tokyo produced an impressive level of destruction: a square mile of the city was burned out and over twenty-seven thousand buildings were destroyed. It was early in March that LeMay made the basic changes in B- 29 operations, and on those changes he no doubt staked his career. The fact was that up to that point his bombing force had not “delivered the goods”; that is to say, it had not justified its existence by striking telling blows at the enemy. After three months of operations, the big bombers had delivered about 7.000 tons of bombs, a very modest figure: half of the sorties had ended with the bomber unable to attack the primary target. The clear solution was to drop more bombs and drop them where they would count.

LeMay felt that massive incendiary raids carried out by night against the cities of Japan offered several advantages. First of all, very often the precision targets were located within an urban matrix, so that if the city were burned, the factory or arsenal would go up in flames as well. That the cities were particularly vulnerable to fire was already well established; in many of them 95 percent of the structures were flammable. The attack on a city was an area attack, so it could be conducted in adverse weather and. if necessary, by radar. An attack of this sort had several advantages if delivered by night. It would help neutralize Japanese defenses, which at night were nowhere near as formidable as those LeMay had known in Germany, for the Japanese night fighter was still in its infancy and lacked airborne radar. Japanese flak was sometimes intense but not a grave danger at night. The night attack paid another dividend in that it could be executed at fairly low altitude, as low as five thousand feet. At this height there was less strain on the engines than at thirty thousand feet, and fuel consumption was appreciably lower, so that the bombload could be increased accordingly. And LeMay took a further gamble by ordering his bombers to fly stripped of guns and ammunition; normally the B- 29 carried 1.5 tons of armament. This weight too would now be carried in bombs.

The key to the successful raid was saturation and just the right concentration, as Air Marshal Harris had proved over Hamburg, so when LeMay sent his bombers against Tokyo on the night of March 9-10 he sent an extremely large force-a total of 334 bombers carrying 2,000 tons of bombs, the vast majority of them incendiaries. The first pathfinder planes passed over the city shortly after midnight to mark the target area: a rectangle about three miles by four, containing a hundred thousand inhabitants per square mile, or roughly 1.25 million people. There was no tightly organized bomber stream that night, and the last bombers did not pass over Tokyo until about three hours after the attack had begun. By then, Tokyo was a sea of flames. Tail gunners in the returning B-29s could see the glow of the city 150 miles away; it was a man-made dawn on the horizon, and the first of many that would light the skies over Japan.

The raid on Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945, was the most destructive air raid ever carried out, not excluding the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The loss of life that night has officially been fixed at 83,793, but other estimates have placed it at over 100,000. The vast fires burned out some sixteen square miles of the immense city and destroyed a quarter of a million structures. Several factors contributed to making the attack particularly destructive. Both the air defense and the Tokyo fire brigades were caught off guard by the new tactics, over a hundred firemen lost their lives in the conflagration, and nearly that number of fire trucks were consumed by the flames. Worst of all, that night the Akakaze, or “Red Wind,” was blowing across Tokyo, and it took the flames with it. There was no true fire storm over Tokyo that night. “Because of the wind, the potential fire storm was transformed into an even deadlier force-the sweep conflagration. A tidal wave of fire moved across the city, the flames preceded by superheated vapors that felled anyone who breathed them.

Forty-eight hours after their attack on Tokyo, the B-29s struck Nagoya and then moved on to Osaka and Kobe. Within a ten-day period beginning March 9 the bombers dropped 9,373 tons of bombs and burned out 31 square miles of city. LeMay pushed the firebombing with such energy that by the end of March his depots began to run low on incendiary bombs, and the shortage was not overcome until June. City burning was becoming something of a science, as LeMay’s men tried various weapons and techniques. The M50 thermite incendiary used in Europe had “excessive” penetration. It would often pass entirely through a Japanese structure and ignite in the earth beneath it. occasionally perforating water mains. The best weapon was the M69, a small incendiary bomb, many of which were dropped in a single casing: “Each of these clusters, arranged to explode at 2500 feet altitude, was constructed to release thirty-eight incendiary bombs, made to fall in a random pattern, this arrangement furnishing the basis for the big bombing success to come. The orderly design or distribution from one bomber with an intervalometer setting, or spaced fall, of one bomb every fifty feet, could burn about sixteen acres, as each Superfort had a full bomb load of 16,000 pounds.” The basic procedure, concludes this passage, “was like throwing many matches on a floor covered with sawdust.”

As these descriptions indicate, the destruction was most effective if carried out systematically. With “impressionistic” bombing-that is, with each bombardier trying to place his bombs where they would extend the damage-the ultimate yield was less than if there was a general pattern. In some cases radar bombing was more effective than visual aiming. Two hundred and fifty tons of bombs per square mile, adequately distributed, virtually guaranteed total destruction of the area. Everything combustible would be consumed, and the fierce temperatures generated would ensure that by radiant heat alone the conflagration would cross streets and canals. In some cases the heat would soften the asphalt in the streets, so that fire equipment mired down and was lost to the flames. Water sprayed on the fire would simply vaporize; glass panes would soften and drip from metal window frames. Here and there, incredibly, concrete melted. No living thing could survive in such an atmosphere.

Hapless Defence

There was very little that the Japanese government could do, short of capitulation, to prevent the incineration of its great cities one after another. The menace from the Marianas was growing every day. By June, General LeMay was mounting raids with five hundred Superfortresses, and by September he would have a thousand at his disposal. In March, American P-51 fighters began to move to bases on Iwo Jima, and by April they were appearing over Japan. From February on, the attacks from LeMay’s B-29s were supplemented by those from carrier-based planes, which periodically appeared to harass the home islands.

Japan’s early-warning network had begun to disintegrate, like that of Germany. The increasingly mighty American navy had destroyed Japanese picket ships or driven them toward the shelter of the home islands. The type-B radar, with its range limited to 150 miles or so, was an inadequate substitute. The Japanese fighter force probably made its heaviest impact on the raids in January 1945, when B-29 losses rose to 5.7 percent; thereafter, the Japanese fighters had less success, although the pilots were plucky and aggressive to the end. The Tenth Air Division held the Kanto Sector, covering the highest-priority targets, Tokyo and Yokohama. On the night of the great March raid in Tokyo, they put eight fighters in the air; there were at that time only three hundred fighters for the defense of all Japan plus two hundred machines available in the training schools. Some pilots tried to make up the deficiencies by extraordinary measures, such as ramming the B-29s. This tactic was first used against the B-29 in August 1944 and from time to time afterward; late in 1944 the Japanese high command ordered the formation of “special duty” units whose pilots were to ram the American bombers. In statistical terms, the policy seemed justified. The Japanese pilot took with him eleven American crewmen and a bomber twelve times the size of his fighter plane. But many Japanese commanders violently opposed the policy of ramming. Japan was already running short of experienced pilots, and this practice would take the lives of those who were left.

Some Japanese fighter pilots pinned their hopes on the Shusui jet-powered fighter, which could climb to thirty thousand feet in a scant four minutes, but the fabled weapon came too late. In July, air force authorities were working on a daring plan called the Ken operation. Transport planes would fly special demolition teams to the Marianas, where they would storm the airfields and destroy the Superfortresses on the ground. The scheme collapsed when the transport planes were destroyed in an air raid. For lack of radical solutions, the air defense authorities continued with traditional methods. They decided not to challenge every air attack, but to husband their strength for the big bomber incursions. Japanese intelligence tried to “read” American radio traffic and predict when and where attacks might take place. The flak forces, woefully insufficient, were moved about according to the- readings; at one point, nearly a third of Japan’s flak units were being shifted about between potential targets.

The Japanese authorities did what they could in the way of passive defense. Beginning in June 1944, they began evacuating young children from urban areas and ultimately other groups as well. Although Japan was losing much of its industrial capacity with the burning of its cities, the authorities did not order dispersal and relocation of critical industries until the spring of 1945. They probably delayed because they knew that war production, already slumping in late 1944, would dip further as the firms shifted their operations to new localities. Within each Japanese city, the local authorities tried to prepare for fire attacks, filling water reservoirs and cutting firebreaks, often by demolishing whole blocks; municipal authorities made agreements to lend fire-fighting apparatus back and forth between threatened cities.

Overall, Japanese fighters were spectacularly ineffective against B-29s. From more than 31,300 Superfortress sorties over the homeland, only seventy-four were known lost wholly to interceptors and perhaps twenty more in concert with flak guns. Japanese pilots logged their best performances in January and April 1945, each with thirteen bombers downed. But during fifteen months of combat, losses to interceptors amounted to merely 0.24 percent of effective B-29 sorties.

The Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, “The Japanese fighter defense system was no more than fair on paper and distinctly poor in practice. One fundamental matter stands out as the principal reason for its shortcomings—the Japanese planners failed to see the danger of allied air attacks and to give the defense system the requisite priorities.”

Lieutenant General Saburo Endo of Army Air Force Headquarters stated, “Those responsible for control at the beginning of the war did not recognize the true value of aviation . . . therefore one defeat led to another. Although they realized there was a need for merging the army and the navy, nothing was done about it. There were no leaders to unify the political and the war strategies, and the plans executed by the government were very inadequate. National resources were not concentrated to the best advantage.”

In short, in Japan’s military, parochialism trumped efficiency at every turn.



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