Posts Tagged ‘Firebombing’


Tokyo vs. Hiroshima

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

How many people would have died if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Tokyo in early 1945, instead of firebombs? Before you accuse me of excessive obsession with morbidity (as one anonymous e-mailer recently did), let me explain to you how I came to ask myself this question, and what the consequences of the answer are.

Before the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the burning of Tokyo. Operation Meetinghouse, the early March 1945 raid on Tokyo that involved over 330 B-29s dropping incendiary bombs from low-altitude at night, killed roughly 100,000 people, and may have injured and made homeless an order of magnitude more. As with all statistics on the damage caused by strategic bombing during World War II, there are debatable points and methodologies, but most people accept that the bombing of Tokyo probably had at least as many deaths as the Hiroshima bombing raid, and probably more. It is sometimes listed as the most single deadly air raid of all time as a consequence.

The ruins of 1945: Tokyo, left, and Hiroshima, right.

The ruins of 1945: Tokyo, left, and Hiroshima, right.

So it is understandable that many people, including myself, point to Tokyo whenever people want to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can’t see the atomic bombings in isolation. The practice of targeting civilian areas with massively destructive aerial bombing had already been done before. And to some, the atomic bombs were just a refinement of the art of area bombing — a more efficient means to accomplish the same ends.1

However, there are a few points that I fear get missed in that kind of equivalence. I certainly agree that the philosophy of bombing used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn’t a new one. Indeed, the experience of firebombing gave a lot of guidance to the question of nuclear targeting. The goals were similar, though the people planning the atomic bombs emphasized the raw terror that they hoped such a spectacle would inspire.

But I depart from the standard comparison in two places. The first is the idea that since the atomic bombings were not original in targeting civilians, then they do not present a moral or ethical question. As I’ve written about before, I think the question of morality gets more problematic. If the atomic bombings were one-off events, rare interventions to end the war, then it might (for some) be compelling to say that they were worth the price of crossing over some kind of line regarding the deliberate burning of civilians to death en masse. But if they were instead the continuation of a well-established policy of burning civilians to death en masse, then the moral question gets much broader. The question changes from, Was it morally justified to commit a civilian massacre two times?, to Was it morally justified to make civilian massacre a standard means of fighting the war? 

I want to state explicitly that I don’t think, and I don’t want my phrasing to imply, that the answer to the above is necessarily an unequivocal “no.” There are certainly many moral frameworks that can allow for massacres (e.g. ends-justify-the-means). But I prefer to not dress this sort of thing up in euphemisms, whether we think it justified or not.  Massacre means to deliberately and indiscriminately kill people. That is what you get when you bomb densely-populated cities with weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and members of the military. Incendiary raids and atomic bombs certainly fall in this category, whether one thinks that the circumstances required them or not.

Japanese cities destroyed by strategic bombing in World War II. More information about this map here.

Japanese cities destroyed by strategic bombing in World War II. More information about this map here.

The second place I depart is a technical one. There are several important differences between the effects of firebombing and atomic bombing. They are not, even in the case of the bombing of Japan, strictly equivalent from the point of view of their effects or their outcomes.

The Tokyo firebombing raid was a relatively slow (compared to an atomic bomb), massively-distributed attack. The Tokyo raid involved hundreds of B-29 bombers 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 conflagration that would be impossible to control. They could be fought against with interceptors and anti-aircraft guns; air-raid alarms could be sounded; civilians could flee to shelter, or outside of the city itself.  This is not to imply that any of these strategies were necessarily effective, and it does not necessarily make firebombing raids any more “humane.” But it does change the outcome quite a bit, when compared to an atomic bomb attack.

The atomic bombing raids of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fast, near-instantaneous attacks. They involved a single B-29 weather plane in advance, and then two or three B-29s approaching the city, one with the bomb itself. This means that effective air-raid warning was minimal, because it was not possible to distinguish an atomic bomb attack from a reconnaissance or weather flight, all of which were common by that late stage in the war. (And obviously any hope of detecting an atomic bomb attack was impossible prior to Hiroshima.)

Drawing by Goro Kiyoyoshi of his memories of the Hiroshima attack. "I got on a streetcar of the Kabe line about 8:10 AM. The door was open and I was standing there. As I heard the starting bell ring, I saw a silver flash and heard an explosion over the platform on which l had just walked. Next moment everything went dark. Instinctively I jumped down to the track and braced myself against it. Putting a handkerchief to my mouth, I covered my eyes and ears with my hands."

Drawing by Goro Kiyoyoshi of his memories of the Hiroshima attack. “I got on a streetcar of the Kabe line about 8:10 AM. The door was open and I was standing there. As I heard the starting bell ring, I saw a silver flash and heard an explosion over the platform on which l had just walked. Next moment everything went dark. Instinctively I jumped down to the track and braced myself against it. Putting a handkerchief to my mouth, I covered my eyes and ears with my hands.” From Unforgettable Fire: Drawings by Atomic Bomb Survivors (1977).

The primary acute effects of the atomic bombs were blast and thermal radiation. The former travels at the speed of sound, the latter significantly faster. (The rays are transmitted at more or less the speed of light, but the intensity and duration of the thermal pulse is a more complex phenomena and unfolds over the course of several seconds.) The blast knocks down buildings. The thermal radiation heats and burns. Both contribute to the starting of fires — the thermal radiation directly (for certain materials), the blast wave indirectly by knocking over flammable materials, stoves, candles, etc. After Hiroshima there was a significant firestorm, as with incendiary bombing, but there was not after Nagasaki. There was no effective preparation for such an attack — perhaps if they had the foresight of some later Civil Defense techniques, some lives could have been saved (different shelter types did affect the fatality rates significantly, even close in to the zero point), but obviously this was not quite in the cards during the war itself, when the atomic bomb was such a novelty. There was no time for shelters, no time to flee the city, no time even for real comprehension of what was happening — a bright light followed by a crushing blast, followed by fire. For those who survived the blast and fire, there were radiation effects, if they were with a few kilometers of the epicenter. This could range from acute radiation sickness and death with several weeks, to an increased cancer risk over the course of their lives.

Are the atomic bomb effects significantly different from firebombing to warrant putting them into different ethical or moral categories? One could argue the point either way. I tend to think that they are both pretty terrible forms of suffering, but they are not identical. In many ways the atomic bombing effects were significantly worse for the people living in the target cities — all of the suffering of firebombing accelerated, with a few new terrors added into the mix, and with less warning.

Table from a 1963 Office of Civil Defense report, "Survey of the Thermal Threat of Nuclear Weapons," by Jack C. Rogers and T. Miller. These numbers are not necessarily authoritative, but they give some indication of the relative mortality rates differences I am talking about.

Table from a 1963 Office of Civil Defense report, “Survey of the Thermal Threat of Nuclear Weapons,” by Jack C. Rogers and T. Miller. These numbers are not necessarily authoritative, but lay out the situation well: atomic bombs have much higher mortality and casualty rates per square mile than firebombing, but destroy proportionally smaller amounts of area.

But the equivalence argument also misses some important differences in how deadly the atomic bombs were. The firebombing of Tokyo did, indeed, kill the most people of any air raid in history — from 80,000 to over 100,000 dead in a single raid. But the city of Tokyo had some 5 million people living in it. In the areas targeted, there were 1.5 million people living. So that means that it killed no more than 2% of the total population of the city, and no more than 7% of the people who lived in the targeted areas. The bombing of Hiroshima killed between 90,000 and 160,000 people in a city of 345,000 or so. So that is a fatality rate of 26-46%, depending on whose fatality estimates you go with. The bombing of Nagasaki killed between 39,000 to 80,000 people in a city of 260,000 people or so. So that is a fatality rate of 15-30%.

So to put it another way, the Hiroshima bombing was around 5 times more deadly than the Tokyo raid per capita, and the Nagasaki bombing was maybe 4 times more deadly. The total number dead is similar in all three cases, but the total number of people possible to kill in Tokyo was much higher than the number of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This isn’t the whole story, though. There is a subtle technical difference mixed in here. Firebombing on par with the Tokyo raid spread a moderate chance of death over a large area. The atomic bombs dropped in World War II spread a very high chance of death over a relatively small area. So depending on the target in question, the difference in fatalities might or might not matter. The Hiroshima bomb was perfectly capable of killing something like half of the city — but it was a pretty small city, compared to Tokyo. Tokyo has areas of incredibly high density, but also large areas of relatively moderate to low density.

So why does this matter? From an ethical standpoint, I’m not sure it does. The targeting of civilians for mass destruction seems to be the core ethical issue, whether you do this by means of fire, neutrons, or toxic gas. But I do think we end up underestimating the effects of the atomic bombs if we see them as exactly equivalent to firebombs. There is an error in seeing the atomic bombs as just an expeditious form of firebombing — it both overstates the deadliness of firebombing while understating the deadliness of atomic bombs.

This map gives a rough indication of the methodology used to construct the casualty estimates for a Little Boy bomb targeted on World War II Tokyo. Percentages are expected average fatality rates. The actual method used (see below) used many more gradations of difference. One can see, though, the way in which the most intense of the effects of the atomic bomb are highly localized relative to the total size of Tokyo.

This map gives a rough indication of the methodology used to construct the casualty estimates for a Little Boy bomb targeted on World War II Tokyo. Percentages are expected average fatality rates. The actual method used (see below) used many more gradations of difference. One can see, though, the way in which the most intense of the effects of the atomic bomb are highly localized relative to the total size of Tokyo. The underlying population density map of Tokyo comes from the very useful

All of this is what led me to the question I opened with: What if, in some hypothetical alternative universe, instead of launching a firebombing raid in early March 1945, the US was able to drop the Little Boy atomic bomb onto Tokyo? What would the casualties have been for that raid?

Obviously an exact answer is not possible. But we do have population density maps of Tokyo, and we do have records on the relationship between distance from “ground zero” and percentage of population killed. There are lots of uncertainties, here, regarding the types of buildings, the differences in geography, and other things that are hard to estimate. But let’s do a rough estimation.

If we transpose the effects of Hiroshima — a 15 kiloton bomb detonated around 1,968 feet above the ground — to the population densities of Tokyo, what is the result? I don’t want to clog up the blog post with a detailed explanation of the methodology I’ve used, so I’m putting it at the end with the footnotes. The basic gist of it was this: I took a population density map of Tokyo from 1940, divided the different density areas into different layers in Photoshop, then selected radii based on bomb effects and did pixel counting. I used all of this to come up with rough minimum-maximum estimates of how many people lived in areas at different regions from the bomb blast, and then multiplied those population counts against known average fatality/casualty rate data taken from Hiroshima.

I looked at two ground zeros, to further emphasize the intense locality of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb attack (compared to a firebombing raid). If targeted on the moderately-dense Honjo area (which is more or less the center of the firebombing attack), one could roughly expect there to be between 213,000 and 344,000 fatalities, and between 442,000 and 686,000 injuries. This is the ground zero shown in the above image. If you move it north-west by only 1 km, though, to the more densely populated Asakusa area, the numbers change to 267,000 to 381,000 dead and 459,000 to 753,000 injured.

So if the Hiroshima bomb had been dropped on Tokyo, it probably would have destroyed less area than the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings — something like 5 square miles, compared to the 15 square miles destroyed by firebombing. However it would have killed between two and four times as many people who died in the firebombings, and injured possibly fewer or the same amount of people.

These numbers seem roughly plausible to me, even given all of the uncertainties involved, and they align with the rough guess one would make from the relative area destruction and casualty rates cited earlier. It is of note that the shifting of an atomic bomb’s aiming point can increase total casualties by several tens of thousands of people in a city the density of Tokyo; firebombing is probably not quite as dependent on any given aiming point, given how much lower the accuracy was.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo firebombing was much more fatal than most of the other firebombing raids. As the first low-altitude, massed night B-29 incendiary raid, against Japan’s highest-density city, it was especially fatal. Later raids killed, on average, orders of magnitudes less, both for the reasons given at the beginning (e.g. fleeing when you hear hundreds of B-29s in the distance), and because of much lower population densities. Had Hiroshima been firebombed, the fatalities would have certainly been much lower than the atomic bombings, because the Tokyo case is in fact an anomalously high one.

Atomic bombings may be ethically no better or worse than firebombing raids like Tokyo, but to regard them as simply an expedient form of firebombing misses a key point about their relative deadliness: If you have to pick, and you get to pick, one should choose to be firebombed, not atomic bombed — unless you know exactly where the bombs are going to go off.

Click for the full casualty calculation methodology.

  1. On this, see esp. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August, and, perhaps,  my review of it. []

Firebombs, U.S.A.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities, it didn’t take long for the US public, to start drawing what it would look like if atomic bombs went off over their own cities. PM, a New York City newspaper, may have inaugurated the genre with its August 7, 1945, issue, when it took what scant facts were known about Hiroshima and superimposed the data onto the Manhattan skyline:

PM - NYC atomic bomb - August 1945

This impulse — to see what the bomb did to others, and then to apply it to one’s own cities — worked on at least two levels. In once sense it was about making sense of the damage in intuitive terms, because maps of Hiroshima don’t make a lot of intuitive sense unless you know Hiroshima, the city. Which very few Americans would.

But it’s also a recognition that atomic bombs could possibly be dropped on the USA in the future. The atomic bomb was immediately seen as a weapon of the next war as well as the present one. It was a weapon that would, eventually, make the United States very vulnerable.

Considering how many non-atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan during the war, it’s a little interesting that nobody has spent very much time worrying about what would happen if someone firebombed the United States. Why not? Because the U.S. has never imagined that any other nation would have the kind of air superiority to pull off sustained operations like that. No, if someone was going to bomb us, it would be a one-time, brief affair.

When the US did invoke American comparisons for firebombing, it was to give a sense of scale. So the Arnold report in 1945 included this evocative diagram of Japanese cities bombed, with American cities added to give a sense of relative size:

Arnold map - Japan firebombing

So I was kind of interested to find that in the final, late-1945 issue of IMPACT, a US Army Air Forces magazine, contained a really quite remarkable map. They took the same data of the above map — the Japanese cities and their equivalent US cities — and projected them not on Japan, but on the continental United States.

It’s the only attempt I’ve seen to make a visualization that showed the damage of the ruinous American air campaign against Japan in such a vivid way:1

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The correspondences between US and Japanese cities were chosen based on the US Census of 1940 and presumably a Japanese census from around the same period. The above map isn’t, the text emphasizes, a realistic attack scenario. Rather, it is meant to show this:

If the 69 U.S. cities on the map at right had been mattered by Jap bombers free to strike any time and anywhere in this country, you can vividly imagine the frightful impact it would have had upon our morale and war potential. Yet this is precisely what the B-29s did to Japan.

What’s remarkable is that this isn’t some kind of anti-bombing screed; it’s pro-bombing propaganda. Both of these images are bragging. The text goes on to emphasize that if someone were really targeting the US, they’d hit industrial centers like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh — to say nothing of Washington, DC, which is conspicuously absent and unmentioned.

IMPACT was classified “confidential” during the war, meaning it had a circulation of about 10,000 airmen. It’s a pretty wonderful read in general — it’s a vociferously pro-Air Forces rag, and is all about the importance of strategic bombing. As one might expect, it de-emphasizes the atomic bombings, in part to push back against the very public perception that we have today, where the last two major bombings are emphasized and the other 67 are forgotten. On the above maps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unremarkable, easily in the crowd.

I thought it would be interesting to copy out all of the data (city names, damage percentages, and look up the US Census data) and put it into an interactive visualization using a Javascript toolkit called D3. If you have a reasonably modern browser (one that supports SVG images), then check it out here:

Firebombs, USA, interactive

One thing you notice quickly when putting it this way is how large some of the metropolises were versus the relatively modest of most of the other cities. The idea of someone bombing out 55% of Sacramento, or 64% of Stockton, or 96% of Chattanooga, is kind of mind-melting. Much less to consider that a New York City minus 40% of its land area would look like.2

You can also see how cramped Japan is compared to the USA (they are at the same scale in the above image, though the projections are a bit tweaked for the layout). Even that could be more emphasized, as the text does: because Japan is so mountainous, its inhabited area is only roughly the size of Montana. So it’s even smaller than it looks.

Still, for me it’s just remarkable that this mode of visualization would be used in an official publication. These guys wanted people to understand what they had done. They wanted people to know how bad it had been for Japan. They wanted credit. And I get why — I’m not naive here. They saw it as necessary for the fighting of the war. But it also shouldn’t have been surprising, or unexpected, to those at the time that people in the future might be taken aback by the scale of the burning. Even Robert McNamara, who helped plan the firebombing operations, later came to see them as disproportionate to the US aims in the war:

This sequence, from Errol Morris’s Fog of War, has been one of my favorites for a long time. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized its source was one of these maps used for postwar boasting. It’s an incredible re-appropriation, when looked at in that light. A document meant to impress an audience, now being used to horrify a different one.

  1. Regarding the image, I scanned it out of a reprint of the IMPACT issue. Because of the crease in the center of the pages I had to do some Photoshop wizardry to make it even — so there is a lot of cleaning up around the center of the image. The data hasn’t been changed, but some of the state outlines were retouched and things like that. Similar Photoshop wizardly was also applied to the Arnold Report image to make it look clean. I suspect that the IMPACT image may have come first and the Arnold report image was derived from it, just because the IMPACT caption goes into details about methodology whereas the Arnold report does not. []
  2. But don’t confuse “destroyed” with casualties — I don’t have those numbers on hand, though if I can find them, I’ll add them to the visualization. The nice thing about D3 is that once you’ve got the basics set up, adding or tweaking the data is easy, since it is just read out of spreadsheet file. The maddening thing about D3 is that getting the basics set up is much harder than you might expect, because the documentation is really not aimed at beginners. If you are interested in a copy of the data, here is the file. []

Who Made That Firebomb?

Friday, August 30th, 2013

My least favorite section in the New York Times Magazine is the insipid “Who Made That?” column. In theory, it’s a great idea for a regular feature. We’re surrounded by gadgets and inventions with rich histories that we never think about. But in practice, the column always dwells on trivial inventions (“Who Made That Loofah Mitt? Sippy Cup? Kickstand?”) and ones with boring stories at that (or, at least, they are stories boringly told). Most of the time, the story is, “some guy thought this was a good idea, then sold it out of his basement for awhile, and then it became successful, and now it is ubiquitous.” Snore.1

An E6R2 "amiable cluster" of M69 firebombs, produced by Standard Oil Co.

An E6R2 “amiable cluster” of M69 firebombs, produced by Standard Oil Development Co.

There are a number of things wrong with this approach. One is that it reinforces a notion of the “lone inventor” that wasn’t even very accurate by the late-19th century. Most American inventions (as measured by patents, for example) are generated in collaborative groups by corporations.2 The idea that invention, even American invention, is a product of quirky kooks is a romantic myth. Another issue is that it generally sees all of these as “solitary” instances of invention — rather than the more common cases of incremental development, cross-pollination, and so on. And yet another issue is that most inventions (again, measured by patents or whatever else you want to use as a proxy) are abject failures. That is, almost no patents end up turning a profit, almost no inventions end up being very successful. The Times column generally makes it sound like all one needs is a good idea, and it’ll take off on its own. But the reality is much more weird and idiosyncratic than that. The columns end up being fluffy and trivial without being interesting, which to me is a cardinal sin. I mean, if you need to do something fluffy and trivial to get by, I understand that. But don’t be boring about it.

The one good thing about “Who Made That?” is that usually it doesn’t focus in on the few “canonical” inventions that everybody likes to talk about. There is some real value in getting away from the standard stories, as usual. We’ve heard so much about the invention of the atomic bomb. But when was the last time you heard about the invention of the firebomb? Obviously this is because one of these is a technological marvel, improbably created in an impressively short amount of time. I’m not knocking the bomb as the more interesting invention case. But the firebombs are impressive in their own way — and in a very deep sense, the story of their invention is the more shocking one, if only for its banality.

The atomic bomb represents, in a sense, a case of a special almost-one-off invention meant to be something novel and terrible. The firebomb, by contrast, is a weapon developed for a doing terrible things as a regular mode of operation. That is, the moral arguments in favor of the atomic bombs are usually structured in the form of “we had to do this twice in order to achieve a greater good.” It’s harder to do that with firebombs because we used them so many times. It’s one thing to say, “ah, once or twice we had to target large numbers of civilians to make a point.” It’s another to make the targeting of civilians your everyday job, when you start measuring success less by knocking out specific military targets and instead by total area destroyed. So who made that firebomb? A now all-too-familiar mixture of American industry, universities, and government. The list of contractors involved in American incendiary weapons during World War II includes Brown University, University of Chicago, Du Pont, Eastman Kodak, Harvard University, Monsanto, Standard Oil Development, and Stanford University, among others, all working under the auspices of Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, the Chemical Warfare Service, and other parts of the military.

AN-M69 incendiary bomb

The incendiary raids against Japan dropped numerous types of bombs in different combinations. But the one to focus on, because of its ubiquity and importance in the Pacific theatre, is the AN-M69 Incendiary Bomb. This was a cluster-based napalm weapon created by the Standard Oil Development Company, specifically designed to destroy Japanese civilian houses. The most common cluster assembly (the M19) held 38 individual AN-M69s and would release them 5,000 feet above the target. The wind would catch their parachute streams, moving them apart from one another and orienting them nose-down. (Doing this would also arm the bombs by pulling out their safety plungers.) After impact, the bombs would wait 3 to 5 seconds, seemingly inactive. This is to make sure each one is lying on its side, so that, finally, a stream of burning napalm would be explosively blasted out of the tail: “If unobstructed, the burning fuel charge will travel up to 300 ft horizontally, and when it strikes a surface, the flaming fuel charge smears out producing a mass of flames 6 to 10 ft high.”

Each B-29 could carry 40 clusters in their bomb bays. So that’s 1,520 AN-M69s per plane, and the raids could range from dozens to hundreds of planes. You can do the math, there. Over 40,000 tons of AN-M69s were dropped on Japanese cities during the war. It took about 125 tons per square mile to completely burn out an area of a Japanese city. The AN-M69 had, a once-classified postwar report announced triumphantly, “the highest fire-starting efficiency per cluster, or per ton, or per bomber of any incendiary bomb” developed during the war.3

Clusters of M-69 incendiary bombs rain down over Nagoya, Japan, summer of 1945.

Clusters of M-69 incendiary bombs rain down over Nagoya, Japan, summer of 1945.

The AN-M69 wasn’t the only incendiary bomb. I want to give a quick shout-out also to the E19 Incendiary Bomb, an 11 pound incendiary developed by my alma mater, Harvard University, as a combination of magnesium, oil, thermite, and white phosphorous. It didn’t burn as well as the AN-M69, but had greater penetrating power. But, as the aforementioned report notes, “this factor diminished in importance as the war went on,” presumably because we had stopped trying to directly target troublesome factories and military bases, and had instead moved on to targeting flimsy civilian structures. As a result, “the E19 bomb was never seriously considered for production.” But don’t worry Harvard, you still get some credit in the development of napalm (jellied gasoline) itself, as part of coordinated work with Eastman Kodak and Standard Oil Development. Some 80 million pounds of napalm were produced and used during the war.

Standard Oil Development’s creation of the AN-M69 started in early October 1941 — almost exactly two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The initial instigation was to find a way to make incendiary weapons that did not involve large amounts of magnesium, which was in short supply. The work was funded by the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Much of the technical details (horizontal fuse, hexagonal assembly, etc.) are probably mildly interesting to engineers but for the rest of us are probably just of interest in that they are a banal, everyday description of how to develop an efficient weapon for burning lots of things (and people) up.

The "Central German" test structure for the M69 tests. Colorized to highlight fire.

The “Central German” test structure for the M69 tests. Colorized to highlight fire.

The ballistic properties, cluster dispersal patterns, failure rates, and the ability to set various types of target ablaze were, of course, meticulously tested. Reading the developmental history of the firebomb, one finds the names of no individual inventors, only the organizations involved. It is not a history of brilliance or ingenuity, though no doubt there were lots of little brilliant insights along the way. It is, rather, an engineering job. What makes it disturbing is that the engineering is very explicitly directed towards the destruction of civilian life. The main structures they were tested on were mock “German houses” and mock “Japanese houses.” Not factories — houses. 37% of all “German houses” the AN-M69 were tested on were “beyond fire-guard control” within 6 minutes. For the more simple Japanese houses, it was 68%. The results of this testing, the report informs, “were used to make preliminary estimates of the quantities of incendiary bombs required to destroy Japanese cities.”

The effects testing, done very carefully by both universities (Harvard again, along with the University of Chicago), corporations (Standard Oil Development, Texas Company), and the military (Ordnance Department) are also pretty grim. These involved mock bedrooms, with beds and boudoirs and even vanity mirrors, to simulate how effect these weapons would be against “Central German structures,” “experimental Japanese rooms,” and other models of homes. Just in case there was any lingering doubt as to what these weapons were meant to accomplish, and to put to rest the lingering misconception that the destruction of civilian life was an inadvertent consequence imprecise weaponry.

Test of an AN-M69 against an "enemy building model" (Japanese style).

Test of an AN-M69 against an “enemy building model” (Japanese style).

Some 4,400 tons of AN-M69s were dropped on Tokyo during two May 1945 bombing raids, destroying 22.1 square miles. The famous March 1945 raid destroyed 12.5 square miles with only 279 B-29 bombers.4 The area of the Hiroshima bombing where domestic houses were severely damaged was only 8.5 square miles, by comparison.

I don’t want to sound naive about these things. Obviously, World War II was a state of “total war” by all sides, and very little was considered off-limits. But I still feel that too many Americans today don’t take into account exactly what was done in the name of total victory — we still view World War II as the “good war” of the “Greatest Generation.” Purposeful mass burning of civilians doesn’t usually come into it. At the end of the day, I don’t think I really believe in “good wars” — there are wars of necessity, and there are wars of “greater good/necessary evil.” I don’t think you get any better than that, unfortunately.

Hypertrophic scars and keloids on a napalm-bombed child. I don't know who this is of — I suspect it is from the Vietnam War. It is from SIPRI's Incidenary Weapons (1975), chapter 3, "Thermal effects of incendiary weapons on the human body," without a source listed. It puts a "human face" on these weapons, though, like no other photograph I've seen.

Hypertrophic scars and keloids on a napalm-bombed child. I don’t know who this is of, or even when it was taken — I suspect it is from the Vietnam War. It is from SIPRI’s Incendiary Weapons (1975), chapter 3, “Thermal effects of incendiary weapons on the human body,” without a source listed. It puts a “human face” on these weapons, though, like no other photograph I’ve seen. There is something about the beauty of the unscarred eye that makes the damage so palpable.

During the war, the inventive forces of the United States went to work to find creative engineering solutions to the problem of burning millions of civilians alive. I really don’t want to use the phrase “banality of evil,” since it has been so over-applied, and I don’t really believe in “evil” as a useful historical concept, but there is certainly a terrible banality at work here when one reads about the work that went into crafting these unassuming little bombs. They are so less flashy, as inventions, than the atomic bomb, of course. But that doesn’t make them any less worth our attention. Arguably, it is their “normal-ness” and their easy assimilation into regular military doctrine that makes them more important for us. The more interesting moral questions don’t involve what one would do in exceptional situations, but one does in the every-day.

  1. For an example of how to do something of this right, take a look at the discussion of the Victorian teapot in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. MacGregor manages to take something supposedly mundane — a simple teapot — and use it as a fascinating window into the history of imperialism and globalization. []
  2. See, e.g., David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (1977). []
  3. Almost all of my information here comes from “Fire Warfare: Incendiaries and Flame Throwers,” Summary Technical Report of Division 11, National Defense Research Committee, Volume 3 (Washington, DC, 1946). It was originally classified as “confidential.” There is a scanned copy online, along with many other reports on the subject, at the extremely useful website, Japan Air Raids ( The images of the bombs and tests come from other reports on that page. []
  4. The May 1945 raids had significant number of other types of incendiary bombs as well, though the AN-M69s were the overwhelming majority. The March 1945 raids were almost exclusively AN-M69s. []

Major Bong’s Last Flight

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

On the morning of August 6th, 1945 — 68 years ago today — the “Little Boy” atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, by the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay.

Hiroshima in late 1945

In the last year, I’ve written about the bombing of Hiroshima quite a bit on here already in many different modes:

68 years later and we’re still grappling with the meaning of that legacy. We’re still debating it, still arguing about it, still researching it. It seems like one of those issues that will be hotly contested as long as people feel they have some stake in the outcome. As the generation that lived through World War II passes into history, I wonder how our views on this will evolve. Will they become more detached from the people and the events, and will that result in more hagiography (“Greatest Generation,” etc.) or its opposite? It will be interesting to see, in the decades to come.

Historical memory is skittish in its attentions. Our understanding of what was important about the present and past changes rapidly. Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite science fiction authors, has a wonderful conceit in his novel Anathem, whereby one group of scholars writes a history of their times once a year and then, every decade, forward it on to another group of scholars. They pare them down to the things that still seem important, and then, every century, forward ten of those on to another group of scholars. Those scholars (who are essentially isolated from all other news of the world) then pare out everything out that no longer seems important, and every thousand years, forward on their histories to another isolated group. I find this a wonderful illustration of the paring that time has on our understanding of the past, and how much that once seems so important is soon viewed as irrelevant.

One need only look through the newspapers that broke the news of Hiroshima (that is, those from August 7th, 1945, because of time zones and deadlines for morning editions) to see how much this is the case. Not all are as blatant as this sad tie-in from The Boston Daily Globe (August 7, 1945, page 4):

1945-08-07 - Boston Globe - Washing Machine

In defense of whomever chose that headline, they had to fill page space, and it’s clear they recognized how insipid this “new machine” was when nestled amongst war news. But there are other story decisions that are in some ways much more striking in retrospect.

Take, for example, the headlines above the fold of the Los Angeles Times (August 7):

1945-08-07 - Los Angeles Times front page

Most of the headlines are devoted to the atomic bomb. Most of those about the bomb itself are either verbatim copies of, or derived from, the press releases and stories distributed by the Manhattan Project’s Public Relations Organization (yes, they had such a thing!). The one bomb story on there that is not from there is, tellingly, completely incorrect: a report that earthquakes in Southern California from the past three years were “the explosions of atomic bombs.” Um, not exactly. (There were large tests of chemical explosives at the Navy’s China Lake facility in Southern California, as part of Project Camel, but no atomic bomb tests out there, obviously.) The other big stories of the day are two deaths. One was of the Senator Hiram Johnson, an isolationist who bitterly opposed American foreign entanglements — there’s something appropriate with him passing away just as the United States was entering into a new era of such.

The other was the death of Major Richard Bong, a death so important at the time that its headline is only a tiny bit smaller than the news of Hiroshima itself. As the article explains, Richard I. Bong was a 24-year-old fighter pilot, the highest-scoring U.S. fighter ace of World War II, having shot down at least 40 confirmed Japanese planes. He died on familiar soil, as a test pilot in North Hollywood. His plane, an experimental P-80 Shooting Star, the United States’ first jet fighter, exploded a few minutes after takeoff. Bong attempted to abandon the plane, but it exploded and killed him.

Major Bong’s death got front billing in all of the major national newspapers. It was understandably most prominent in Los Angeles, where it was local news. But even the venerable New York Times, who had some of the thickest bomb coverage on account of their Manhattan Project-embedded reporter, William L. Laurence, slipped him on there, at the top, in the same size headline that they described the Trinity test:

1945-08-07 - New York Times headlines

Today, practically nobody has heard of Major Bong. I occasionally bring him up as an example of how many of the top news stories of today are going to be unheard of in a few years. The reaction I usually get is disbelief: 1. Surely “Major Bong” is a made-up name, and 2. Really, he shared the headlines with Hiroshima?

One gets this sensation frequently whenever one looks through the newspapers of the past. When my wife teaches her high school students about World War II, she prints out front pages of newspapers for various “famous events” of the day and has her students look at them in their entirety. It’s a useful exercise, not only because it makes the past feel real and relatable (hey, they wrote puff stories about new, dumb inventions, too!), but because it also emphasizes how disconnected the front pages of a newspaper might be with how we later think about a time or event, or with the later evaluation of a President, or with an understanding of a war. It is an exercise that also illustrates how a careful understanding of the past encourages a careful understand of the present — what story of today will be the Major Bong of tomorrow? And who is to say that Major Bong’s story shouldn’t be better known, and less overshadowed by other events of the time? There is nothing like steeping yourself in the news of a past period, to see how both strange and familiar it is, and to see how the grand and the mundane were always intermingled (as they are clearly today).

Personally, while I think Hiroshima is worth talking about — obviously — I think we put perhaps too much emphasis on it, and doing so remove it from its context. Other headlines on the same day talk about other bombing raids, including firebombing raids — the broader context of strategic bombing, and the targeting of civilians, of which the atomic bombs were only a part. I think, on the anniversary of Hiroshima, we should of course think about Hiroshima. But let’s not forget all of the other things that happened at that time — even on the same day — that get overshadowed when we hold up one event above all others.


Bombers Over Japan

Friday, 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.