(f) The Contrast: US Air Force’s Specific Target Bombing from mid-1944
The above is intended as a serious criticism of Britain’s principal contribution to ‘winning the war’, the RAF’s WWII programs of night area-bombing Germany. By contrast, the precision bombing approach of the US, through its 8th and 15th Air Forces, aimed at specific industrial plants was from mid-1944 on, to have an increasingly significant effect on limiting Germany’s ability to continue the war. Initially that involved daylight raids deep into German territory, such resulting in heavy US bomber losses from enemy fighter aircraft. However the US approach became fully effective when P-51 long-range protective fighter escorts were used. Indeed, it became increasingly effective against a range of specific war-sensitive targets (e.g., production plants for fighter aircraft, synthetic oil, rubber, ball-bearings, etc) the initially crucial one being German fighter plane production. Progressive success in that area meant control of German air space and hence the ability to pound any target vital to Germany’s war effort. And, in relation to the cross-Channel invasion of June, 1944, the ability to effectively disrupt German rail and water transport systems, that being vital for the advancement of the invading troops.(USSBS-Gm) Although from mid 1944, the RAF also engaged in precision bombing, it did not discard area bombing, as evidenced by its outrageous attack on Dresden towards the end of the European war.
However, in the closing phases of WWII, - the war against Japan - tragically the US, deviating from its precision bombing approach in Germany, was to do a great deal of horrifying incendiary area-bombing of Japanese cities, anti-civilian bombing which culminated in the also unnecessary atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
G. Defeating Japan
(a) Victory Over Japan clinched by Economic Strangulation (not by Bombs)
“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (USSBS-1, 26; USSBS-2, 13)
As you can see from this quote from the official United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) of July 1, 1946, the point headlined above is not speculative. It is based on the official USSBS reports of 1945-1947 and their subsequent 10-volume report published in 1976.(see Sources, USSBS-1 to -6) Notwithstanding the ‘Germany first’ approach agreed to by the United States, the US early planned and took specific actions aimed at total strangulation of Japan’s domestic and war-time economy, - what turned out to be highly successful actions which played an altogether crucial role in bringing about that country’s ultimate defeat. Indeed, by late 1944, the net effects of these actions were such that Japan, no longer able to wage war effectively, was desperate to end it.
You see, as detailed in Volume 3 of the US Bombing Survey (USSBS-3) titled, “The War Against Japanese Transportation 1941-1945”, going back to early 1942, conscious of Japan’s small-island status, its marginal food sufficiency, its industries’ total dependence on overseas minerals (including oil) and the vastly extended lines of communication to its newly-acquired S.E.Asian and Pacific ‘Empire’, the US recognised opportunities for literally strangling Japan’s economy by blockading its home islands, progressively isolating them from its vast new territories and resources. Considering that virtually all of Japan’s material trade, including its military needs, depended on its mercantile fleet, plans were laid to have US submarines sink simply all Japanese ships encountered. Remember, through its success at the naval battle at Midway in July 1942, the US had achieved naval ascendancy over Japan. Moreover, since the great range of US submarines allowed their free movement throughout the Pacific, these craft proved highly effective weapons for the task. As opportunities presented, the US Army and Navy Air Forces also played important roles in progressively reducing Japan’s merchant and tanker fleets, - both by direct attack and the laying of mines. In addition American success in breaking Japanese communication codes assisted greatly in identifying, locating, and sinking the ships.(USSBS-3)
The various ‘US Strategic Bombing Survey’ studies cited (USSBS-1 to -6) provide illuminating details. Emphasising the point made earlier, the Survey titled “The War Against Japanese Transportation 1941-1945” begins, “No major power in the world was more dependent upon ocean shipping than Japan. Her entire economy in peace, and even more so in war, depended on shipping to provide the basic materials for industry and to fill out the supply of staples required to feed and clothe the population.” (see USSBS-3, 1) Indeed, even though Japan had long sought to increase its shipping strength, building from 4.5 million tons in 1937 to 6 million by late 1941, that tonnage was even then barely sufficient. This was especially so since following its far-reaching Asian-Pacific expansion, its army and navy insisted on having their own separate shipping ‘pools’, these together amounting to just over 4 million tons, this leaving only 1.9 million tons for Japan’s war production and home economy. (USSBS-3, 2)
Initially Japanese shipping losses were comparatively minor, only 600,000 tons being sunk in 1942, but rapid increases in the production of US submarines and their attacks rapidly changed all that. In 1943, over 1.5 million tons were sunk and in 1944 the losses soared to over 3 million (2.5 million due to submarines). In just 3 months in late 1944 the Japanese merchant fleet lost over 1.3 million tons - more than one third its remaining fleet. For Japan at that stage, navigation within the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea remained secure, but nowhere else. In mid January 1945 US carrier fleets sweeping the South China Sea, sank a further 10% of Japan’s remaining merchant ships, forcing it to discontinue further convoys between the home islands and Singapore. Soon its merchantmen were confined to the Tsushima Straits and Yellow Sea and by late March 1945, after B-29s had mined not only its Korean seaports but its own home island waters, including the Shimonoseki Straits, Japan’s shipping was totally paralysed.(USSBS-3, 2-6)
As the Survey commented, “It is possible that the social and political effects of the transportation attack would have been as effective in forcing a Japanese surrender as were the methods actually employed.”- going on to conclude that there was “..a faulty assessment of the Japanese position, a failure to realise the full effects that had been secured by the massacre of shipping, and failure to recognise the vulnerability of the rail system or the effectiveness of its neutralisation in paralysing the Japanese economy and military potential.” (USSBS-3,12)
Towards the war’s end, this progressive and ultimately complete paralysis of Japan’s vital shipping links and economy was accompanied by naval and land battles which enabled the island-hopping advance of American forces towards Japan’s home islands. Beginning March 1944, and extending right across the Pacific this advance, via the Caroline Islands (June-July, 1944), the Marianas (July-August), the Philippines (Oct.’44-Feb.’45) and Iwo Jima (Feb-March ’45), ultimately included Okinawa (March, ’45) this providing a US military base close to Kyushu. In reality at that stage the US, with its overwhelmingly superior naval and air power, had virtually total control over all of Japan’s external exchanges, and with essential imports reduced to critical levels, it faced “…a declining output of such war necessities as aircraft, oil, transport, steel, and coal.” (USSBS-3, 3) In short, Japan’s position was altogether untenable: it had lost the war.
Indeed, even as early as July 1944, stemming from the crippling effects of its shipping losses and mounting military defeats, Japan’s fast-deteriorating situation had led to the fall of General Tojo’s government, that which had ruled uninterruptedly since October 1941. Thus, by mid 1944 there were many in high places, including Rear Admiral Takagi, who, recognising Japan’s inevitable defeat, sought a settlement before his country‘s ruin was complete. This aspect of events is detailed in the US Survey’s report “Japan’s Struggle to End the War”. (USSBS-2, 2-3) Accordingly, Emperor Hirohito advised the incoming Prime Minister, Koiso, to make a ‘fundamental reconsideration’ towards ways to end the war. And while there remained some serious resistance to that, principally from within the army, - this resulting in broad agreement ‘to continue the war’, - that was only to improve Japan’s prospects for ‘acceptable’ i.e., minimal loss peace terms. (USSBS-2, 3-5)
However, by December 1944 Japan’s fast-deteriorating situation had made the need for peace even more urgent and in February 1945 the Emperor initiated a series of meetings with his senior statesmen. It was agreed that since it faced certain defeat, Japan should immediately seek peace on the basis of a return to its pre-1931 boundaries. We do not know what, if any, direct approaches Japan made to the Allies, but within a week of US forces landing on Okinawa the Koiso government was replaced by that of Admiral Suzuki who stressed the urgent need to end the war “….as quickly as possible”. In May Japan’s ‘Supreme War Direction Council’ discussed ways and means to do just that, hoping to enlist Russian diplomacy in the process.(USSBS-2, 5-6) As the Survey put it “Negotiation for Russia to intercede began the forepart of May 1945 in both Tokyo and Moscow. Konoye, the intended emissary to the Soviets, stated to the Survey that while ostensibly he was to negotiate, he received direct and secret instructions from the Emperor to secure peace at any price, notwithstanding its severity. Sakomizu, the chief cabinet secretary, alleged that while awaiting the Russian answer on mediation, Suzuki and Togo decided that were it negative direct overtures would be made to the United States.” (USSBS-2,13)
While ending the war was desperately needed, the would-be negotiators hoped to ensure that the Japanese homeland – together with the Emperor’s reign - might remain intact. On June 20 the Emperor, having called his 6 Council members together, reinforced that position, emphasising the extreme urgency. He wanted a special ambassador to go to Moscow, and Prime Minister Suzuki planned to send Prince Konoye. By July 10 the Emperor, concerned at the delay, was urging his Foreign Minister to get Moscow’s response, but Moscow had required more detail and in its reply of July 13, stated that as Stalin and Molotov were away at the Allies’ Potsdam Conference, no answer was possible until their return. Meanwhile, on July 12 the Emperor had called on Prince Konoye and again “…secretly instructed him to accept any terms he could get and to wire these terms direct to the Emperor.” (USSBS-3, 7)
Notwithstanding Japan’s realisation of inevitable defeat and its readiness to come to terms, even terms ‘without conditions’ (Konoye) the US had, since November, 1944, been carrying out long-range bombing raids from its Marianas’ Saipan base against industrial targets on Japan’s home islands. Since, from the highly successful naval blockade, Japan’s industries were already in crisis, those raids were judged redundant. As the USSBS Survey Summary put it “Japan’s economy was in larger measure being destroyed twice over, once by cutting off of imports, and secondly by air attack.” (USSBS-1,19) In fact, as the study further points out, given that the aim was to totally undermine Japan’s domestic support system, both to guarantee and expedite the war’s closure, the logical additional bombing targets should have been Japan’s highly vulnerable rail system.
Linked by ferry to Hokaido and having only two tunnels connecting to Kyushu, there were just two main rail lines traversing the length of Japan’s main island, Honshu. All these links were extremely vulnerable to interruption by blocking tunnel entrances, bombing bridges, cuttings, etc. Once accomplished, those interruptions (along with the existing sea blockade) would have brought literally all of Japan’s economic activity to a standstill. (USSBS-3, 10) As the Summary Report put it, “This strangulation would have more effectively and efficiently destroyed the economic structure of the country than individually destroying Japan’s cities and factories. It would have reduced Japan to a series of isolated communities, incapable of any sustained industrial production, incapable of moving food from the agricultural areas to the cities, and incapable of rapid large-scale movements of troops and munitions.” (USSBS-1,19)
But, instead, beginning in March 1945, there began high-intensity urban bombing attacks. “The total tonnage of bombs dropped by Allied planes in the Pacific war was 656,400. Of this, 160,800 tons, or 24 percent were dropped on the home islands of Japan.”, most by B-29s.(USSBS-1, 16) And the strategy was revised. Instead of targeting specific industries from 30,000 feet, incendiary bombs, clusters of napalm canisters, would be dropped by B-29s from 7,000 feet in patterns designed to burn Japan’s principal urban centres systematically. Some 66 Japanese cities were thus attacked, the largest being Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945. “One thousand six hundred and sixty seven tons o f bombs were dropped on Tokyo in the first attack. The chosen areas were saturated. Fifteen square miles of Tokyo’s most densely populated area were burnt to the ground.” … “In the aggregate some 40 percent of the built-up area of the 66 cities attacked was destroyed. Approximately 30 percent of the entire urban population lost their homes.” (USSBS-1,16-7)
(b) As the Japanese were Ready to Quit, why Fire- and Atom-Bomb Them?!
The standard answer to this question is that the months of incendiary fire bombing and, ultimately, atomic bombs were needed to ‘force’ Japan’s surrender and thus to avoid the very high human casualties that inevitably would be involved in a military invasion of the Japanese home islands. As I well remember, that is what US politicians announced to the American people and the world at large and to the present day repeated since. But knowing now what the USSBS report tells us concerning the desperate state of the Japanese economy and military situation, including its account of how Japan was ready to surrender on virtually any terms (certainly on the terms ultimately accepted!) we have to look for other reasons that might have seemed important to the US political and military hierarchy of 1945.
I stress ‘hierarchy’ because most Americans, had they known the truth, - what the USSBS has told us, - would have been prepared to hold back and wait for that easily-attainable outcome, - via the very peace terms that eventuated. (Here it should be pointed out that the Japanese people were in the same situation during the war, always at the propaganda mercy of their own government.) Similarly, looking back on our recent experiences over Iraq, we can now well appreciate why, especially in matters of war, so many politicians and other ‘leaders’ go to so much trouble, to cover up, to camouflage the truth. In the US vs. Japan case, as in so many others, the motivation is likely to have been mixed, various interests stressing different ‘good reasons’ for bombing. I’ll mention a few likely ones.
During wars, feelings about ‘the enemy’ nation and its people run high – particularly so when the racial card is thrown in. The urge to punish not just an enemy’s leaders, but its people, can be very strong. During both WWI and WWII, as deliberate policy, the British government encouraged ‘anti-German’ feeling at home, the German people being characterised as ‘the barbaric Huns’, etc., – notwithstanding their common Anglo-Saxon and Christian heritage! It was all so convenient. And, as had long applied to colonised Africans or Asians, etc., - when it came to the Japanese it was even easier for people of European origin to be hood-winked into believing that these ‘others’ were not just ‘different’, but inferior. Indeed, during WWII, many saw the Japanese soldier (mostly conscripted civilians) as barely human, ‘sub-human’, as I recall. So, although Japan’s foreign and military policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been developed by its elite with absolutely no input from the ordinary men and women of Japan, many Americans (also British and Australians) could think that all Japanese deserved little if any sympathy.
Consequently, even though only a minority of American citizens would have sought some terrible retribution on all Japanese as punishment for Japan’s military expansion and heinous war crimes, most war-time strategists, having additional motivations, might thereby have found the awful cost to Japan’s ordinary people entirely bearable.
For US leaders and people alike, there was an understandably strong desire to finish the war ‘as soon as possible’. And, remember, only the leaders knew of Japan’s truly desperate need and desire to surrender. But, sensing their own people’s valid concern for ending the war as soon as possible with minimal US casualties, they could take advantage of the widespread view of the Japanese as ‘subhuman’ to employ whatever means they found most ‘useful’ in terminating the war. They could open discussions on the surrender terms offered (and finally agreed to) and stand back pending settlement. Or they could follow other agendas, some designed to clarify the effectiveness of various aerial weapons on cities and their populations, others to clearly demonstrate to enemies and the world at large, America’s overwhelming power. Sadly for all concerned, America’s leaders of 1945 chose the second approach.
As far as testing the effectiveness of high explosive bombs on industrial targets was concerned, little could have been be gained since the German experience was so recently investigated and reported on.(USSBS-Gm) However, as the USSBS Survey Reports on Japan show, there was a very serious interest in the effects of incendiary bombs on densely-populated urban areas in an Asian context. The Japanese cities, especially their central areas, were known for their crowded timber buildings and high population densities. Yet, even if the Japanese had had high-pressure water supplies and highly efficient fire-fighting systems, (they had neither) there could be no surprise that the several forms of jellied petrol (‘Napalm’) cluster bombs dropped over central Tokyo (and 65 other cities) would cause high-temperature fire storms having altogether devastating effects on homes and people alike. For overall results, as the Summary Report indicates, “In the aggregate, 104,000 tons of bombs were directed at 66 urban areas;…. Some 40 percent of the built-up area of the 66 cites attacked was destroyed. Approximately 30 percent of the entire urban population of Japan lost their homes and many of their possessions.” (USSBS-1,17)
The most intensely fire-bombed city was Tokyo. To quote from the Survey Report, “The primary purpose of this study was to determine why the incendiary bomb attack of 9-10 March 1945 by the Twentieth AF on the densely-populated Incendiary Zone 1 of Tokyo was so highly successful.” In 1944, Tokyo was known to have the world’s third largest metropolitan area, with a population of 7 million. Incendiary Zone 1 “…was the most highly built-up portion of the city …..Its population density ranged from 90,000 to more than 135,000 persons a square mile and averaged 103,000. ……More than 95 percent of the buildings in Zone 1 were wooden and of typical Japanese construction.. ….. In this attack 9.48 square miles of the target were burned for each 1,000 tons of bombs dropped (or 1 square mile per 105 tons).” The cost of this ‘experiment’ to ordinary Japanese? “The number of persons made homeless by all attacks on Tokyo totalled 2,861,857 (1,008,000 by the attack of 9-10 March). All attacks killed 95,972 persons (85,793 in the attack of 9-10 March).” (USSBS-5, 67)
In general terms, such results should have been thoroughly predictable, making the ‘experiment’ totally unnecessary. However, for the newly-developed atomic weapons, some would have argued that such was not the case. The Uranium type had been tested in the New Mexico desert, so its power of destruction against structures and live animals was well established. All that had not been established was its effect on a city and its inhabitants. The planned devastation of Hiroshima and its people by a single bomb provided the results. But as the Plutonium weapon chosen for Nagasaki had never been exploded, its use on August 9, could be claimed as a further ‘successful’ experiment. Again the Survey paid great attention to the detailed results. Although the Plutonium bomb proved the more powerful in terms of physical damage and human casualties, its results were broadly similar.
As so ‘perceptively’ noted in the report, “The most striking result of the atomic bombs was the great number of casualties.”, at the same time going on to point out that “The exact number of dead and injured will never be known because of the confusion after the explosions ….. estimates of casualties have generally ranged between 100,000 and 180,000 for Hiroshima, and between 50,000 and 100,000 for Nagasaki. The Survey believes the dead at Hiroshima to have been between 70,000 and 80,000, with an equal number injured; at Nagasaki over 35,000 dead and somewhat more than that injured seems the most plausible estimate.” (USSBS-6,15) The nature of the injuries was similar to those caused by the incendiary and high-explosive raids, with the important addition of radiation-caused damage - on which the survey provides considerable detail.(USSBS-6, 15, 18-20).
However, as quoted above, notwithstanding all this ‘valuable’ military data gained from these individual studies, the Survey is frank in its overall conclusion that, “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (USSBS-1, 26; USSBS-2, 13)
As John Kenneth Galbraith, a American economist on the Survey panel commented, “I had no part in this conclusion. By the time it appeared in the summer of 1946, I had moved on to other duties, which included, in a remote sense, the government of Japan. Paul Nitze had replaced Henry Alexander as the effective head of operations for our work in the Far East. An attractive, self-possessed man, he devoted the rest of his life to studying the theory and practice of aerial destruction, emerging in the end as a devout partisan of the art. The effect on my mind and mood was different. I had none of the sense of discovery and excitement that had pervaded our earlier work in Germany. All I felt was the vast suffering visited on innocent people by their disastrous leaders and by unnecessary actions on our side.” (JKG1, 233)
As this sensitive humane American described the scene, “The cities of Japan in those dark autumn days were a manifestation of unspeakable gloom. Here a burnt-out bank, there the walls of a community bathhouse, otherwise only ashes and gaunt, free-standing chimneys. ….. ….the B-29s, operating at maximum range, could best hit the cities so it was the attacks on the urban centers, mainly with incendiaries, that became the approved design for victory. Sixty-six Japanese cities were so attacked and levelled in a range from 25 to 90 percent. …. Industrial targets…..were taken up only as operations across the Pacific brought them within range or, as actually happened, the supply of incendiary bombs ran out.” (JKG1, 231)
And to emphasise the point already made, he went on, “But no more than in Germany was it the bombing that won the war. Japan’s defeat began with the luminous insanity of its own military leadership – of men who, already extensively engaged on the Chinese mainland, took their country into conflict with the vastly greater industrial power of the United States, and by an attack on Hawaii that was superbly designed to resolve all American doubts as to the need or justice of the war. There can be few better warnings from history of the limitless perversity and danger of what is called the military mind.” (JKG1, 231)