Posts Tagged ‘Japan’


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.


The Hiroshima leaflet

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Last week I went over, in painful detail, the question of whether leaflets had been dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki warning them about bombing, atomic or otherwise. Some of the information was in Japanese, which is not one of my languages (and not even one of my Google Translate languages). A few readers responded with some helpful translations that I thought I'd share in a brief update.

A copy of the final "atomic bomb" leaflet, I think? I don't read Japanese, but this was attached to the above memo. If you do read Japanese, I'd love a translation...

First, there is this one, which clearly shows the classic picture of the "bent" Hiroshima mushroom cloud. The text below says:

This photo shows the destructive power of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. This photo was taken from B-29 in the air after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. The atomic bomb's horrendous destructive power can be understood by viewing this photo. As you see, this atomic bomb blast extended to a radius of 8 km, and the height of the bomb cloud reached about 14,000 m into the sky. The Japanese government said that Hiroshima was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb.

Masako Toki, who I had the honor of meeting last week when I gave at talk in Monterey, notes also that:

Please note that these numbers may not be accurate, especially, the radius. In this document, it is using a Japanese old measure which we are not using now "ri". In this document it said 2-ri, and if we convert it to meter, it should be approximately 8000 meter. (1-ri is about 4000 meter. But usually, when you describe the Hiroshima bomb effect, usually, is is said that the atomic bomb destroyed almost every building in 2 km radius. But I guess this point is not so crucial here.

Masako also gave me a good idea for a particularly chilling feature to add to NUKEMAP in the near future — a listing of how many hospitals, schools, and other grim facilities your "detonation" has destroyed, as a way of emphasizing the humanitarian impact of the bomb. Watch for it in the forthcoming update in the next few months...

LeMay leaflet, 1945

Masako also noted that on the leaflet above, none of the atomic targets (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, Niigata) are featured. That doesn't mean they didn't receive leaflets, but it's an interesting bit. I wonder if there is any hard evidence that these cities received LeMay leaflets? Given that LeMay had agreed to take them off of their target list, one wonders if that inadvertently meant they got less warning than any other major cities. But I really don't know. The only source I'd really trust on this would be some sort of document from the time which listed the various propaganda drop runs, and I have not sought such a thing out, if it exists.


A Day Too Late

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Ever since I set up an e-mail alert for the phrase, "Manhattan Project,"1 I've been getting an interesting cross-section of discussions on the Internet about the history of the atomic bomb.


One of the interesting ones to pop up again and again is the question of whether the United States warned Hiroshima and Nagasaki about their impending destruction. It's a discussion in this case that has actually been confused by the abundance of context-less primary sources on the Internet. In particular, the Truman Library posted (some time back) copies of leaflets that it has labeled as being dropped on August 6, 1945 -- the day of the Hiroshima bombing. These leaflets have proliferated across the web onto other reputable sites, like PBS's Truman resources. The understandable result is that a lot of amateur historians out there have concluded that indeed, we did warn the Japanese.

But the truth, as with many things, is more complicated. I want to talk about three potential "warnings," here, as both a means to help clarify this issue (to any other future Googlers about this topic), and also to use it as a case study for why history is more than just finding documents.

The first potential "warning" is the Potsdam Declaration. It was issued on July 26, 1945, by Truman, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek. It ends with this particular bit:

"We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."

Was the "prompt and utter destruction" meant to imply atomic bombing? It's not clear. An earlier draft of the statement, written by Secretary of War Stimson and his staff well before the results of the Trinity test were known, doesn't include the "prompt and utter destruction" phrase. It does, however, emphasize that the point of the Potsdam Declaration is to try and shake Japan into surrendering, and that part of how it should do so is to outline "The varied and overwhelming character of the force we are about to bring to bear on the islands," and "The inevitability and completeness of the destruction which the full application of this force will entail." Varied and overwhelming sound like Stimson was thinking about more than just atomic bombs — he's thinking about further firebombing, he's thinking about invasion.

In any case, a veiled warning is not much of a warning. I'm not saying that the Potsdam Declaration should have warned specifically about atomic bombs — whether that would have done anything positive is unclear to me — but I think under any reasonable interpretation, it isn't possible except in retrospect to even imply that it was some kind of warning about atomic bombs.

LeMay leaflet, 1945

The second potential "warning": the so-called LeMay leaflets. These were leaflets that were dropped on dozens of Japanese cities in July 1945. There were many versions of the leaflets dropped. Some listed specific cities, some did not. The most famous one, shown above, depicts a squadron of B-29s laying waste to a city with firebombs. The text apparently (I don't read Japanese) said the following:

Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or a friend. In the next few days, four or more of the cities named on the reverse side of this leaflet will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories, which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique that they are using to prolong this useless war. Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America's well-known humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.

America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique, which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace, which America will bring, will free the people from the oppression of the Japanese military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan.

You can restore peace by demanding new and better leaders who will end the War.

We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked, but at least four will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.

Which cities were warned? I've seen sources that basically say, following an article in the CIA's Studies in Intelligence, that they were "delivered to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other Japanese cities on 1 August 1945." Curiously, this phrase has been removed in their main web version of the document. I'd love to see the actual list of cities that they were delivered to, if someone has it, or can translate it. Specifically, I'm curious if all four of the final atomic bomb targets (Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Nigata) were on the list or not, since the US Army Air Forces had agreed to "preserve" those targets from firebombing. (I'd also be interested in knowing if Kyoto was named or not.)

These leaflets certainly warned of bombing and destruction. They were not warnings about atomic bombs, though, but firebombs. Does the distinction matter? I'll come to that at the end. They are, if anything, the closest thing to any kind of "real warning" that was given to Japanese civilians.

Lastly, we have those mysterious warnings from the Truman website, the ones which were very specific about atomic bombs. There are reasons on the face of it to be suspicious that it is what the Truman Library claims it is.

Truman library leaflet screenshot

The first one is dated by the library to August 6th, 1945. The fact that it references the past destruction of Hiroshima makes it, of course, pretty clear that it wasn't dropped on Hiroshima ahead of time, and throws the dating into question — even if it was drawn up on August 6th, it's too late to be used on Hiroshima. A second one, also labeled as August 6, 1945, references the Soviet invasion of Manchuria... which took place on August 9th. So, just a priori, we can't really give the library's own dating labels any credence — they're clearly wrong about the dates, and the dates matter in this case, since we are talking about whether the warnings happened before the bombs were actually used. And that's not even getting into the whole "the atomic bomb was a secret" bit.

What's going on here? There's only so much we can learn from these two isolated documents alone. For more... we head into the archives!

1946 - History Psychological Warfare Manhattan Project

Click image to view full document.

In late May 1946, Lt. Colonel J.F. Moynahan wrote a memo to General Groves with the subject heading "History Psychological Warfare, Manhattan Project."2 It appears Groves wanted it for his internal "Manhattan District History" he was compiling (more on that another time).  I've included the entire memo above, so you can read it at your leisure, but here's the main timeline that Moynahan lays out.

On August 7th, 1945 — the day after Hiroshima — General Henry "Hap" Arnold ordered that propaganda leaflets be prepared regarding the atomic bomb. General Thomas Farrell, Groves' representative in the Pacific, was charged with carrying it out. This is interesting, no? It was the Army that made the call, not the Manhattan Project people.

The Army Air Forces were instructed to lend their assistance. Farrell received the cable as he was boarding a C-54 plane (along with, among others, Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets) to visit Admiral Nimitz to report on the Hiroshima mission. Farrell set the ball in motion by getting in touch with the propaganda people already in the Pacific, and work began on planning the leaflet missions on Saipan. It was determined that they should use "half-sized" leaflets, and that they should try to distribute 6 million of them. They also made an inventory of the "leaflet bombs" that they were dropped out of the planes in (you don't just drop them out of the hatch). They decided, in terms of targeting, to try and get a 60% saturation of all 47 enemy cities that had a population of over 100,000.

Then they had to figure out the text of it. Drafts were drawn up. Work was hurried. They worked straight through the night of August 7th. The Manhattan Project personnel on Tinian were intensely interested, as you'd expect, to the degree that they were "at times a positive obstruction" to finishing the drafts.

A copy of the final "atomic bomb" leaflet, I think? I don't read Japanese, but this was attached to the above memo. If you do read Japanese, I'd love a translation...

A copy of the final "atomic bomb" leaflet, I think? I don't read Japanese, but this was attached to the above memo. If you do read Japanese, I'd love a translation. Please ignore my thumb in the corner — it's hard to photograph documents that are bound like these ones were.

Finally, on the morning of August 8th, the plan was presented to Farrell at Tinian. Farrell edited the message a bit and approved it. The message was then flown to Guam, where the Army Air Forces and the Navy signed off on it. Radio Saipan was told to broadcast the message every 15 minutes, though Moynahan had no information as to when that actually began. The translation of the text was done, fascinatingly enough, by three Japanese officers held as prisoners on Guam. After talking with the officers, the Americans also decided to make the format look like that of a Japanese newspaper.

What they still lacked were the leaflet bombs — they had run low. A midnight flight from Sapian to Guam supplied those. And then Russia entered the war. So it was decided that they should incorporate that into the message. So that slowed things up again. Finally, they got it ready to go... but they weren't in any way coordinated with the actual bombing plans. So Nagasaki did get warning leaflets... the day after it was atomic bombed.

Well, that's a grim clarification. The short version: leaflets specifically warning about atomic bombs were created... but they weren't dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki before they were atomic bombed. The first Truman Library document was the first draft, that was never dropped. The second one was the second draft, and was dropped, but only after the bombs were used.

So what do we take away from all of this? The first is the historian's point: isolated, context-free documents do not interpret themselves. Part the hard job of an historian is to provide the context for a given historical artifact. In this case, we're talking about leaflet drafts, and the context is when they created, why they were created, and specifically when they were used. It doesn't help, of course, that the library themselves have put incorrect dates on them, but even with a correct date, the context is still not completely straightforward. Context is everything — without it, nothing makes sense, and you can come away with exactly the opposite conclusion from the truth of things.

The second question is about the warnings themselves. I don't think the Potsdam statement counts as a real warning — it's an ultimatum, and it's a vague one. I don't think the atomic bombing leaflets count as real warnings, either — they were dropped after the fact.

A map created by the US Army Air Forces in the immediate postwar showing their strategic bombing handiwork. Includes percentages of cities destroyed, as well as similar-sized American analogs. Cleaned up by me from this copy.

A map created by the US Army Air Forces in the immediate postwar showing their strategic bombing handiwork. Includes percentages of cities destroyed, as well as similar-sized American analogs. Cleaned up by me from the original.

But the LeMay leaflets are the more complicated case. They are ostensibly warnings of immediate destruction — and the cities they "warned" were indeed destroyed, famously so. Whether they warned of destruction by firebombing or atomic bombing strikes me as somewhat of a distinction without a difference. Either way, it's destruction of entire cities.

But do the leaflets in any way reduce culpability, for either the firebombs or the atomic bombs? This is the more difficult moral question. The leaflets were written as if they were dropped because the American Air Force actually cared about civilian lives:

Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America's well-known humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.

This strikes me as pure falsehood. The entire goal of the strategic bombing was to destroy civilian cities, with the idea of breaking the Japanese ability to make any kind of war, and with breaking the Japanese spirit. The firebombing raids had been optimized for the maximum destruction of entire cities, not just the parts involved with actual warmaking or even periphery industries. The "shock" effect of the atomic bombs was in part predicated on them taking high numbers of lives — they were meant to be so horrible as to be unendurable. The idea that firebombing was somehow, in any fashion, meant to be compatible with "humanitarian policies" is complete nonsense.

Leaflet 151-J-1: "Earthquake from the sky."

The leaflets were not part of any humanitarian mission. They were part of a campaign of "Psychological Warfare," as was very explicit within their organization in the military. The goal was to convince the Japanese people to rebel, or to abandon their posts, or to hide, or to pressure their leaders into surrender. Now, whether that is ultimately, in a means-to-an-end way, "humanitarian" or not, one can debate. But you have to get pretty far along that twisty road to think that burning civilians alive is "humanitarian."

Here's a thought experiment: If a terrorist sent a warning before nuking an American city, would that get them off the hook for the bombing? (Much less if they named three possible cities, and then only bombed one of them.) If Hitler had issued an ultimatum to Great Britain that surrender was the only option, would he be let off the hook for the Blitz? Does it matter that the "warnings" in question were issued to a very non-free Japanese populace?

Ultimately what I'm asking is, do warnings really matter? I don't think there's an easy, pat answer here. There are a lot of interlocked ethical questions about ends-versus-means, the obligation of an attacking power, the obligation of a citizen in a country during war, and so on. Personally, though, I do think it's somewhat of a red herring: the real issue still, for me, is under what circumstances one accepts the morality of total war. Because if you haven't hashed that out, then quibbling about which warning was specific enough, whether that somehow reduced moral culpability, is all just an issue of counting angels on the head of a pin.

  1. I used to do this with Google Alerts, but their service has been fickle as of late, so I've also signed up with Talkwalker. []
  2. Citation: Lt. Col. J.F. Moynahan to General Leslie R. Groves, "History Psychological Warfare, Manhattan Project," (23 May 1946), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, RG 77, Box 49, "314.7 - History (MED)." []