Japan’s Second World War 2.

Curtis LeMay (1906-1990) played a large role in defining the Japanese experience during the Second World War.  Born into poor circumstances in Columbus, Ohio, LeMay worked his way through Ohio State University.  After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, LeMay became a lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps.  He soon established a reputation as an expert navigator, long-distance pilot, and an enthusiast for rigorous training.  He (and many other younger officers) began a rapid ascent in rank once George Marshall became Army Chief of Staff.  In the air war in Europe in 1942-1944, he pioneered effective new tactics and enforced tough discipline on bombing missions.  From August 1944 to January 1945, LeMay commanded the American bombers flying from China.  Then he took command of the bombers flying from the Mariana Islands.

Against Japan, LeMay had to innovate.  A powerful jet stream wind blows across much of Japan.  High altitude bombers, flying at 20,000 feet, often had their bombs blown off target after release.  Japanese air defenses were rugged, so pilots often aborted their missions.  Even before the Americans began to hit Japan, the Japanese government had learned from their embassy in Germany what was coming.  They responded by dispersing industrial production from a few big factories to many small workshops scattered about cities.  The work-shops were hard to spot or to hit.  LeMay abandoned high-altitude, day-light precision bombing for low-altitude, nighttime “area” or “carpet” bombing with incendiaries.  Crews that achieved a high mission-completion rate early in their tours got sent home early.

Between March and August 1945, LeMay’s planes hit 67 Japanese cities with “fire raids.”  Huge areas—averaging 40 percent– of cities were destroyed and the dispersed work-shops with them.  Japanese industrial production fell off sharply.  His bombers also dropped many mines into the sea around Japan to sink merchant ships bringing in food and warship guarding them against American submarines.  The mines turned out to be far more effective than did the submarines.[1]  Japan could neither import the food and raw materials it needed, nor could it send men or supplies to Japanese forces over-seas.

The effects were terrible to see.  In contrast to stone and concrete Western cities, Japanese cities were built of wood.  They provided kindling for the American fire-bombs, rather than a tenuous protection.  The raids killed perhaps 500,000 civilians.  The 10 May 1945 raid on Tokyo alone killed perhaps 100,000 people.  During the Tokyo raid, fire swept over people jammed together on a bridge, producing a “forest of [upright] corpses.”[2]  The last wave of American planes, flying at 5,000 to 9,000 feet, could smell burned human flesh.

The American aircrews and commanders could not see the devastation they wrought up close.  The Japanese leaders could not avoid confronting it.  Yet the Japanese leadership refused to surrender.  In August 1945, planes from the 509th Composite Group flew from Tinian Island to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Finally, Japan surrendered.

Japan lost its overseas empire (Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, the Pacific Islands).  The Americans occupied Japan.  They imposed many reforms that might be considered as a sort-of Second Meiji Restoration.  The Americans also helped create a world order that would allow Japan’s economy to flourish.

[1] The mines sank or damaged 670 Japanese ships.  Cargoes moving through the port of Kobe fell by 85 percent.  Trying making an exciting movie about mines, however.

[2] Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (1999).

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