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The Air War in the Pacific

The KMT's Chinese Air Force (CAF) sought modern aircraft from a variety of countries. In 1937 the CAF acquired nine Martin 139WC bombers similar to the US B-10B. Two of these remained serviceable and were chosen for a mission to Japan. On 19 May 1938 they were loaded not with bombs but leaflets. The purpose of the mission was to drop leaflets "calling up the" consciousness of the Japanese people. Tthe two KMT Martin B-10 bombers conducted the first air "attack" on Japan, dropping leaflets on Nagasaki. Leaflets were also scattered at Kurume, Saga and other cities. At no time did they encounter interception of anti-aircraft fire.

The US considered a preemptive strike with B-17 bombers on Japan's vulnerable cities in 1941 prior to Pearl Harbor. Various individuals made plans to bomb Japan from China during that time is a given, but such plans could not be carried out for a number of reasons. The basic concept being discussed was a proposal made by China to increase the American aviation presence in China from a hundred P-40's to 350 fighters and 150 bombers. This force was to be used to bomb Japanese forces in China and perhaps even in Japan. There was apparently some discussion, even some acceptance of the proposal in the United States.

US troops were forced to surrender in the Philippines in early 1942, but the Americans rallied in the following months. General James “Jimmy” Doolittle led U.S. Army bombers on a raid over Tokyo in April; it had little actual military significance, but gave Americans an immense psychological boost.

In 1942 Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle and a small contingent of B-25 bombers operating off carriers in the central Pacific conducted an almost similarly “pure” example of strategic attack. Avoiding Japanese air defenses, the raids caused only insignificant damage to the enemy’s capabilities. Though intended primarily to bolster morale in the United States and demonstrate that Allied forces could indeed strike Japan, this action had more far-reaching strategic consequences. First, it revealed to Japan’s political leadership the country’s vulnerability, leading to a strategic realignment of its air forces from China to the home islands, causing, in essence, virtual attrition of the enemy’s capability in China. Second, the attack convinced the Japanese general staff to pursue the course of action that led to the Battle of Midway and decisive defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The United States developed and deployed the B-29 to strike targets in Japan. The B-29 was the only bombardment type aircraft with which the US could reach Japan from bases available for use because the smaller B-24s and B-17s did not have sufficient range. The first combat strikes over Tokyo were the Doolittle Raiders in April 1942, but the city remained untouched by American air forces until late 1944.

Until late 1944, securing a port and establishing airfields in southeastern China, from which bomber (B-29) raids could be launched on Japan, were considered essential parts of the strategic plan to defeat Japan. B-29s first flew in Operation MATTERHORN, which called for India-based Superfortresses to bomb Japan from forward bases in China. Opening a land supply route to China across Burma so that large numbers of Chinese Nationalist troops could be equipped was an essential prelude to the accomplishment of the strategic plan. Meanwhile, Chiang's Nationalist Government had failed to build up a strong military force and was engrossed with the revolt of China's Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung, who had gained control in North China.

The XXth Bomber Command, equipped with B-29s, supported the MATTERHORN plan to base B-29s in the China-Burma-India Theater and bomb targets in Japan. The B-29s were to be stationed in India for security reasons. Four forward bases in the Chengdu, China, area were assigned to B-29 operations — Hsinching (Xinjin), Kwanghan (Guanghan), Kuinglai (Qionglai), and Pengshan. On 05 June 1944, Twentieth Air Force's XX Bomber Command launched 98 Superfortresses from India on the first B-29 raid of the war, to attack rail yards in Thailand.

On the evenings of June 14 and 15, 1944, bombs fell on Japanese territory for the first time since the Doolittle Raid. On the night of 14/15 June 1944, a total of 47 B-29s launched from Chengdu, China, to bomb the Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata, Japan. The target was carefully chosen - Yawata produced more than 50 percent of Japanese steel. This was the first attack on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle Raid in April 1942. The first B-29 combat losses also occurred during this raid. The city of Yawata was blacked out and haze or smoke or both helped obscure the target. Fifteen aircraft dropped bombs visually while 32 bombed by radar. Only one bomb hit anywhere near the intended target, leaving the steel works largely unscathed. Despite inflicting little damage, the American press coverage was phenomenal, and the Yawata raid was hailed as a great victory in the American press.

In September 1944 Japanese forces in China overran the airfields in South China and threatened areas slated for the construction of B-29 airfields. Progress of the offensive in the Pacific had by this time permitted a revision of Allied strategy, and it had become evident that islands in the Pacific which the Allies were capturing could be used to greater advantage than China as a springboard for an effective attack on Japan. In any event, President Roosevelt had displayed a growing disinterest in the China problem following his meeting with Chiang Kai-shek at Cairo in November 1943. Grandiose lend-lease plans for the eventual equipping and training of 30 Chinese divisions gradually evaporated.

By late 1944, the Allied position in China had been steadily deteriorating. In mid-September 1944 General Joseph W. Stilwell, commanding U.S. Army forces in China, Burma, and India, and Allied Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, reported to the Joint Chiefs that Japanese offensives in eastern and southeastern China were overrunning the last air bases from which the China-based U.S. Fourteenth Air Force could effectively support invasions of either Luzon or Formosa. Chiang's armies were unable to either hold or recapture the air bases. This news had an obvious impact upon the thinking of both the ground and the air planners in Washington. The Army Air Forces had intended to expand its airfields in eastern China as staging bases for B-29's flying against targets in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and Formosa, and to base on these fields much of the tactical bombardment preceding the actual invasion of Japan.

Toward the end of the year, it was obvious that B-29s flying out of bases in China and India were far too expen­sive in men and materials and would have to cease. In December 1944 it was decided to phase out Operation Matterhorn. The final strategic bombing raid by American B-29 Super­fortresses based in China occurred on 15 January 1945. The Command launched several attacks with very limited success and a high number of aircraft losses. With the capture of the Mariannas, the B-29s were diverted to those island bases. In February 1945 the 58th Bombardment Wing redeployed to new bases in the Central Pacific, thus opening up the last deadly phase of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan.

In the Pacific Theater the 5th, 7th, and 13th Air Forces supported the island-hopping campaigns across the Southern and Western Pacific, and the 10th and 14th Air Forces did the same in India and China. This area also benefited from the activities of the Air Transport Command [a precursor to the Military Airlift Command in the post-war years] as it flew supplies over the Himalayas from Burma to China.

During 1944, the Central Pacific campaign proceeded apace, with the Marshall Islands falling to the Marines after fighting on Kwajalein and Eniwetok in February 1944. Air assaults on other Japanese bases in the Central Pacific followed immediately thereafter, including attacks on Truk, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. South Pacific operations in New Guinea were completed in April 1944.

The Navy then returned to the Central Pacific to seize the Marianas Islands after victory on Saipan, followed by the seizure of Guam in June 1944. These islands were quickly turned into large airbases for the Army's B-29 Superfortresses, which began a devastating bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands.

The 20th Strategic Air Force (SAF) was organized in April 1944 to conduct the strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands from bases in the Central Pacific. The 20th SAF was a unique organization. First, it was the only Army Air Force command to fly the giant B-29 Superfortress, the largest Very Heavy Bomber built to that point, with immense payload, high operational speed and altitude, and incredibly long range. Second, it reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and not to the local Theater Commander. This was the specific intent of General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the Air Force, who intended to demonstrate that a modern industrial nation such as Japan could be defeated through the use of strategic air power. He therefore molded the 20th Strategic Air Force to his vision of an independent postwar Air Force.

Problems in the Pacific were difficult from the beginning. The AAF entered the war seriously deficient in strategic intelligence, but that problem was greater in terms of Japan because of the closed nature of its society. In many cases, air planners had to rely on old maps, an occasional tourist report, or prewar insurance data. There were also mechanical teething troubles with the new B-29s required to span the great distances inherent in Pacific theater operations.

The first B-29 strike from the Marianas against Tokyo came on the morning of November 24, 1944, when 111 B-29s took off from Saipan with 88 aircraft placed bombs on Tokyo. The bombers encountered a headwind in the target area of 120 knots and an undercast which required radar bombing. The mission resulted in the typical results for the XXI - poor bombing accuracy, a large number of aborts and bombers having to ditch in the Pacific for lack of fuel. The greatest operational hurdle facing the crewmembers of the XXI was the weather. The prevailing winds of the jet stream, imperfectly understood at the time, made it nearly impossible for bombers to be effective.

Initial operations out of the Marianas were not a success, and the commander there, Brig Gen Haywood Hansell was relieved. He was replaced by Maj Gen Curtis E. LeMay. LeMay was sent to Guam in January 1945 to take charge of the XXI Bomber Command. LeMay then put his precision bombing strategy to work against Japan. The XXI Bomber Command launched numerous missions against Japanese aircraft factories and achieved the same results. The weather in the target area made visual bombing impossible, and the aircrews were forced to revert to radar synchorous bombing, a less accurate system. For six weeks LeMay's crews attempted to destroy selected targets with precision strategic bombing but the results were less than satisfying. Meteorological phenomena, like the 200-mph, high-altitude jet stream, played havoc with navigation and bombing accuracy.

On 25 February 1945 Brigadier General Thomas S. Power led a total of 172 "Superforts" over Tokyo, and using radar, they dropped incendiaries on Tokyo. The next day reconnaissance photos showed the target and a couple adjacent blocks had all been destroyed. In March 1945 LeMay initiated the low-level firebombing of Japan, although these missions were antithetical to the fundamental principle of daylight, precision bombing.

In a stunning reversal of two decades of air power doctrine, LeMay jettisoned most of what he and other combat leaders had learned over Germany. LeMay changed his tactics from high level [30,000 feet / 10,000 meters] day-time strategic bombing to low level [6,000 feet / 2,000 meters] incendiary bombing at night. He stripped his B-29s of guns, ammunition, and armor plating to make room for up to 20,000 pounds of bombs, and launched them at night and at low altitude in area bombing attacks, using incendiaries against Japanese cities. The APQ-13 radar-equiped aircraft were to light up an "X" in Tokyo for the follow on B-29s to define as the aim point to drop their bombs. The low level bombers would also be under the weather problems previously encountered.

The results of the first raid on 10 March 1945 were devastating. Almost 16 square miles of Tokyo were gutted, 18 percent of the industrial area, 63 percent of the commercial area, and the heart of the residential area. Furthermore, close to 113,000 people were killed. The bombing continued for 10 days and 4 other major Japanese cities were attacked. The civilian casualties were appalling.

The Japanese were unprepared for fire bombing, and the results were devastating to the Japanese economy and its military capability. The light, closely spaced construction was of wood, bamboo, and plaster, and highly vulnerable to incendiary bombing. Furthermore, available firefighting equipment and personnel were easily overwhelmed. Also, the B-29, used in bombing of Japanese cities, had superiority in speed, firepower, and ceiling relative to the B-17 and B-24 used in Europe.

In all, sixty-five Japanese cities were bombed, and forty percent of the housing in these cities was destroyed. However, especially noteworthy were sixteen massive incendiary raids between 9-10 March 1945 and 15 June 1945, with Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, and Yokohama being the targets. In these raids, typically about 300 B-29's would reach the target; the raids lasted three hours at first, but eventually were executed injust over two hours. What is significant is that not one fire-storm occurred as a consequence of any of these raids.

With a combined American air bombardment and naval blockade, Japan had been defeated by the summer of 1945, if not earlier. But even in defeat the Japanese Army intended to fight in defense of the homeland. Both sides still expected the allies to launch a final invasion into Japan itself. But the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 06 August 1945, and another on Nagasaki on 09 August 1945. More than one-hundred-thousand persons were killed. While individual fire-bomb raids had actually inflicted heavier casualties than either atomic bomb attack would, the psychological effect of a single weapon of such explosive force had the desired effect, spurring the precipitate surrender of the Japanese government. The Soviet Union entered the war against Japan, and Tokyo surrendered within days, with V-J Day declared on 15 August 1945. With the atomic attacks on Japan, the Second World War became the first nuclear conflict.

An estimated 8.5 million people evacuated Japanese cities. This was one-quarter of the entire urban population of Japan, although in big cities like Osaka and Kobe, over half fled. One-third of the 8.5 million evacuees were factory workers, and this was evidenced by an absentee rate in the factories of 49 percent by the end of war. Morale and hope plummeted. Overall, at least 400,000 Japanese civilians were killed in air attacks — about the same number as Germans, although the losses occurred in much less time with only one-tenth the tonnage. About 2.5 million homes were destroyed, as well as over 600,000 that were pulled down by the government to build firebreaks.

The air campaign was not, however, an unmitigated success. The biggest strategic errors made by airmen, according to the USSBS, were that the B-29s should have struck railroads and inland waterways much sooner. These attacks would have thoroughly disrupted internal transportation and significantly curtailed the influx of reinforcements to Kyushu — site of the proposed invasion in November 1945 — that so concerned Army planners. As in Europe, such a transportation plan would have made beachhead defense much more difficult. Even so, results of the bombing campaign, especially atomic strikes, were disastrous for Japan. Surrender occurred without a bloody invasion being necessary.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:03:44 ZULU