Friday, February 12, 2010


It’s curious how the Pacific half of the Second World War turned on various winds, both literal and figurative.

“East wind, rain” was the coded message for the attack on Pearl Harbor to proceed, but not even the divine wind of the kamikazes could reverse the literal firestorm that descended upon Japan in 1945. Additionally, nature’s cyclonic winds figured in the Western Pacific, most notably with “Halsey’s Hurricane” which ravaged the Third Fleet in December 1944.

But a biblical reference struck me as particularly significant. Hosea 8:7 says, “They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly that statement applied to Imperial Japan, which received immensely more violence than it perpetrated. Therefore, I took Whirlwind as the title of my current book, the first one-volume study of all allied air operations over the Japanese home islands. It’s due next month from Simon & Schuster.

Aside from the fact that it hadn’t been done before, I wanted to address the multi-faceted operations of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the Navy and Marine Corps, plus the British Royal Navy. The complexity of the subject was daunting, but I had been interviewing veterans since the 1970s and had a stack of references from previous projects. Nearly half of the men who contributed their recollections are now deceased, which was all the more reason to gather additional material while still possible. About 2,000 American WW II veterans die every day, and I was acutely aware that Whirlwind would be among the last volumes written with significant contributions from those who lived the story.

Today it’s hard for some people to grasp the magnitude of the capacity for destruction in the era before nuclear weapons. Yet on the night of March 9-10 1945—five months before Hiroshima--325 B-29s burned down one-sixth of Tokyo and killed at least 85,000 people. Major General Curtis LeMay’s bombers flew—literally—in the face of airpower orthodoxy by dropping incendiaries instead of explosives over an enemy capital, at low level, at night. Here’s a description of the results, excerpted from Whirlwind:

“As the sky over the city became superheated, huge amounts of air were sucked upward through multi-story buildings in the ‘stack effect,’ draining the cool air from ground level to feed the insatiable stack. As more and more ground-level air was drawn into the conflagration from farther afield, the storm naturally spread of its own predatory accord.

“A fully-developed firestorm is a horrifically mesmerizing sight. It seems a living, malicious creature that feeds upon itself, generating ever higher winds that whirl cyclonically, breeding updrafts that suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere even while the flames consume the fuel—buildings—that feed the monster’s ravenous appetite. Most firestorm victims do not burn to death. Rather, as carbon monoxide quickly reaches lethal levels, people suffocate from lack of oxygen and excessive smoke inhalation.

“In Tokyo that night some citizens felt that hell had slipped its nether bounds and raised itself through the earth’s crust to feed on the surface. People fled panic-stricken from searing heat amid the demonic roar of flames, the crash of collapsing buildings, and the milling congestion of terrified human beings. Some survivors found themselves suddenly naked, the clothes burned off their bodies, leaving the skin largely intact.

“In those frightful hours humans watched things happen that probably had never been seen on earth. The superheated ambient air boiled the water out of ponds and canals while rains of liquid glass flew, propelled by cyclonic winds. Temperatures reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the frames of emergency vehicles and causing some people to erupt in spontaneous combustion.”

Excepting the two atom bombs, the fiery destruction of Japan’s urban-industrial areas is the best known aspect of the multi-service air campaign. (For a look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see my August 2009 entry, “The Nuke Season.”) But there was far more. After the daring innovation of the Doolittle raid in April 1942, metropolitan Japan was immune to air attack until November 1944—a precious two and a half years squandered by Tokyo’s warlords. Meanwhile, U.S. Army and Navy fliers began the long-range “Empire Express” missions from the Aleutians to the Kurile Islands in 1943.

Three months after China-based B-29s began flying, U.S. Navy carrier aviators launched against Tokyo and environs in February 1945. They returned frequently, not only attacking factories and airfields, but shipping. Ironically, their repeated strikes against immobile Imperial Navy warships produced far less benefit than two days’ attacks on lowly coal ferries, without which Japanese industry was further starved. Then in the last four weeks of hostilities, British carriers joined Task Force 38, completing the allies’ dominance of Japanese airspace.

Meanwhile, some B-29s diverted from strategic bombing to drop mines in coastal waterways—a tremendously successful campaign that enhanced the submarine war by choking off more vital imports.

In March 1945 the B-29s gained fighter escort as 7th Air Force P-51s began long-range missions from newly-captured Iwo Jima. Flying single-engine aircraft on 1,500-mile round trips, almost entirely over water, marked a new dimension in military aviation. Some fighter pilots were then on their second or third combat tours. Said one ace, “I fought the Germans for patriotism and the Japanese for fun. Next time I’m fighting for money.”

Nor was that all. With the conquest of Okinawa that summer, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps squadrons routinely attacked targets on Kyushu and Honshu. From nearly every direction, Japan was beset by an unstoppable destructive machine, from the sea and the sky—America’s patented way of war.

Yet Tokyo’s doom-focused war cabinet refused to yield. In fact, some hardliners insisted the killing would continue into 1948. So finally, the specter of a radioactive cloud cast its ghastly shadow over a national ash heap, and Japan’s living god finally exercised his imperial option, ending the dying. Thus, the ravenous beast called the Second World War-- which had scoured three continents and claimed more than 50 million lives--succumbed to the ultimate violence, and at length the monster was slain.

Imperial Japan, which had sown the wind, truly reaped the whirlwind.