Bombers Over Japan

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 31st, 2013

When I was in high school, I had my first real exposure to strategic bombing through a volume of the Time/Life World War II series titled simply, Bombers Over JapanThe book was written by a Life journalist, Keith Wheeler, and was one of a 39-volume set of books that covered the war. This particular volume was published in 1982, and is exactly the sort of thing that 15-year-old me would find enthralling: 200+ oversized pages of huge photographs and riveting stories about the development and use of B-29s in the Pacific theatre.

Bombers Over Japan cover

The book is exclusively about the non-atomic strategic bombings of Japan. Specifically, it charts the creation of the B-29 as a weapon, its forward bases, and the evolution of firebombing strategy to its terrible extreme by 1945. It has nothing at all about the atomic bombings in it; presumably those are in another volume. Somehow I think it both right and wrong to segregate the atomic bomb and the firebomb: right because the firebombing really should be understood on its own terms, wrong because one can in many ways see the atomic bombing as linked both in philosophy and practice to the firebombing raids.

I recently bought a good quality version of this volume on Abebooks for a song. It is even better than I remember it being — which is another way to say, my appreciation of its virtues has only improved over the years. It pulls no punches. It is matter-of-fact about what was done, what the people who did it were thinking, and what the human consequences were. What more can one ask of a book about firebombings?

B-29s rendezvous at Mount Fugi for a raid against Tokyo

B-29s rendezvous at Mount Fugi for a raid against Tokyo.

Ah, but it gives so much more than just that. It also contains wonderful gems of information about the Japanese side of the story — how they perceived the B-29s, how their air defense forces worked (and why they didn’t), and efforts made by their government to mitigate the effects of the ruinous bombing campaign.

So, for example, the image below is a full-scale model of a B-29 on display in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park, with a large, curious crowd. The B-29 it is based on had been brought down in December 1944 by the Japanese “Swallow” aircraft next to it. They didn’t recover too much of the B-29 (you can see its landing gear underneath it), but still managed to come up with a pretty good representation of the interior arrangement.

Bombers Over Japan - B-29 exhibit in Tokyo park

(Sorry for the bad scan — I couldn’t find an equivalent of it online of any resolution, and I had to paste this together from several smaller scans since the original page was so large, and on a fold.)

Also below, one story I hadn’t remembered, is an advertisement for the sounds of a B-29 raid. The recordings were apparently made under rather adverse conditions. The idea is that you’d buy the record (it played on the radio, as well), and then use it to acquaint yourselves with the sound of an approaching raid, so you’d know when to flee. A grim wartime commodity, indeed.

Bombers Over Japan - B-29 sound advertisement

A translation from my friend Anthony:

B-29 Explosions Captured!

Prepare for the blind attack from enemy planes!
At long last, these deadly recordings capture sounds from right under the bomber.

Under the direction of the Defense Force Supreme Command Endorsed by the Ministry of War
Explosions in formation

Under the direction of the Military Fortifications Division Headquarters
Endorsed by the Defense Force Supreme Command and Military Headquarters
Hostile explosions

10 sun [approx. 11.9 in.] 2 record set
(Record no. 100931-32)

Nicchiku Records [A shortened form of ‘Nihon Chikuonki Kabushiki-gaisha’ = Nipponophone Company Ltd. This is the current Columbia Music Entertainment, Inc.]

I’d love to find a copy of the recording, but I haven’t been able to rustle one up. If you have a lead, let me know.

As you’d also expect, there are plenty of shots of B-29s and other planes over Japan itself. Some of them are really stunning and vivid. A few of my favorites are below; I’ve cropped them all a bit to fit on the blog page, but click them and you’ll get the full resolution. (Many of these scans of the same images come from the site, which has a huge and wonderful collection of B-29 imagery that you can access for free.)

View from above: a B-29 bombing Osaka, June 1945

View from above: a B-29 bombing Osaka, June 1945

The captions are also pretty stunning for some of them; they really add a lot. Below is a famous image of the firebombing of Toyama, but here’s the caption to go with it:

“Toyama, fire-bombed once by 173 Superfortresses on the night of August 1, [1945,] was assessed as 99.5 percent destroyed. Fires in the city burned so brightly, even while the raid was in progress, that they set off cameras aboard the B-29s — flying more than 12,000 feet above — that ordinarily were triggered by flash units.”

B-29 raid - Toyama, 1945

Just stunning — also, remember this happened only five days before the bombing of Hiroshima.

As I look over all of this again, I find myself wondering: why did this attract young me so? What was it that drew me in, and still draws me in? Part of it is the moral component: the firebombings, for me, are a way around the standard moral calculus argument regarding the atomic bombs.The scale of devastation, when you consider the magnitude of the the firebombing campaign — 67 cities destroyed before Hiroshima and Nagasaki — so exceeds that of the atomic bombs that it, to me, almost renders moot the question of the atomic bombs’ morality.

But there’s something else to it. The photograph that really gripped me the most when I was young was this rather unimpressive one below:

Bombers Over Japan - incendiary bombs B29

“Incendiary bombs hang in the bomb bay of a B-29. Racked in clusters of six, the cylinders were set to detonate 100 feet above the target, each releasing dozens of canisters of napalm that burst into flame on contact.”

I was so taken with this that I actually made a photocopy of it, blown up to the size of a full sheet of letter paper, and hung it in my bedroom. (What, you didn’t do this, too? The most common term that people described me with in elementary and high school was “weird,” which is probably on the mark.)

What is it about the canisters full of bomblets that entranced me? It wasn’t a rah-rah, hooray-we-did-this sort of thing. It also wasn’t a sympathy with the Japanese victims, if I can admit it. It was more a fascination with the ingenuity that went into crafting such an infernal contraption. I admire the weapons, not as things to be lauded, but as visions into the darkness that human cleverness is capable of. So much thought went into producing these outcomes, these technological marvels, whose only purpose was destruction, with none of the “weapon that would end all wars” hope that surrounded the atomic bomb.

Incendiary bombs drop over Osaka, July 1945

Incendiary bombs drop over Osaka, July 1945

And, in a way, these are even more impressive than the bomb, when viewed in this light. The bomb was about creating one huge piece of destruction. But the firebombs are more piecemeal — you take hundreds of planes, put hundreds of bombs on them, and each of those split into dozens of tinier bombs (bomblets), each around the size necessary to set a Japanese-style wooden home ablaze. It’s a form of mass destruction that is surprisingly intimate. Each bomblet is calculated to play a tiny role in the overall firestorm.

(At some point soon I will write something up on here that focuses on the technology of the incendiary bombs themselves, and how they were developed, for it is an interesting story.)

Somehow I find this sort of thing even more horrible than the atomic bomb. With nuclear weapons, it’s easy to lose sight of the small-scale effects of the explosions. You can see how the scientists went from “technically sweet” to “now we’re all sons-of-bitches.” But with the firebombs, that intimate level of destruction, those individual human effects, were the point from the beginning: you are essentially making a tally of how many houses you are going to destroy when you tally up all the bomblets on the plane.

B-29 bombing damage mosaic from Bombers Over Japan.

B-29 bombing damage mosaic from Bombers Over Japan.

When I was young, I found this a shocking thing. There is, and was, a rich narrative about the motivation behind the atomic bomb’s development (Nazis!), its use (end the war!), and so on. But the firebombing narrative was to me at that age a new thing, and something far more grim. It’s a narrative about efficiency, about total destruction, and about a level of massacre (for what else can such a thing be called?) perpetuated by the United States that well exceeds anything we heard about the country in my public school curriculum. It is one of those stories that busts you out of the well-worn genres of World War II, and for that reason, it has a strong pedagogical value, as well as being a source of intense fascination.

6 Responses to “Bombers Over Japan”

  1. Bill Higgins says:

    Have I mentioned how much I love Google?

    Mark Kaiser has more information about this display in his article about the Swallow— the Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien, known to the Allies as “Tony.”

    Here’s another version of the Hibiya Park photo, apparently scanned from a different source.

    On 3 December 1944, Corporal Matsumi Nakano downed Lt. Charles Fetter’s B-29, tail number 42-24735, in a ramming attack, and survived a belly landing in his Hien. It was on display in Tokyo a few weeks later.

    Here’s a closeup of Corporal Nakano’s Hien, showing the back side of the mock B-29. Another.

    Fold3 also has the USAAF’s report on the loss of the B-29 crew.

    Nakano rammed another B-29 on 27 January 1945, and survived a second belly landing!

    • Ah, good job on finding that other scan of it! I swear I searched and searched, but missed it.

      But yeah, the Nakano story is pretty amazing. Bombers Over Japan has a nice section on the ramming technique — seems like a horrible thing for all involved.

  2. J B says:

    While it may sound niave to the true historians, I miss the quality productions such as the myriad of Time Life series of books on so many different topics. They were well written and enjoyable to read, and the photography and diagrams were often superb. A far cry from the ‘dry’ textbooks of the day.

    Our local library had so many series I spent many a saturday reading through them.

  3. […] not because they were necessarily the most important, but because they had so far been spared from firebombing. They were being actively preserved as atomic bomb targets. Had the bomb not been used or made, […]

  4. […] arriving and attacking over the course of several hours. Such massive groups of B-29s could be heard and tracked from a considerable distance. They spread their bombs over a large area of the city, with the goal of creating a mass […]

  5. james w morgan jr says:

    re photo of b-29 over osaka june 1 1945. The photo was taken by a friend of my father’s in b-29 above. My father james w morgan sr tech sgt is the cfc gunner (ring sight) in picture just after shooting down his first of five zero’s over japan. I have one of the original photos. His plane was sweet jenny lee, circle X squadron. tinian