The Only War We've Got

Blankets of Fire

Blankets of Fire
Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers Over Japan During World War II
(Kenneth Werrell)

A B-50 Superfortress pilot stationed in Japan after WWII, Werrell went on to become a history professor at Radford University in Virginia, uniquely qualifying him to write the definitive history of the B-29 raids on Japan. Most aviation histories, as he points out, are written by journalists--a category that includes me. Make no mistake, this is a professorial book: Werrell tells you what he's about to say, then says it, then tells you what he's just said, in the best tradition of doctoral-thesis prose. Nevertheless, this is an enthralling book. I could barely put it down.

First he sets the story: the development of American strategic bombing theory, and how it played out in the war against Germany, where the U.S. 8th AF concentrated on daylight precision bombing while RAF Bomber concentrated on destroying cities at night. Then he turns to the building of the beautiful but troublesome Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and its all-but-futile debut in the China-India theater. We're at page 122 before we reach the Marianas--the island bases 1,600 miles from "The Empire" that would at last carry the war to the Japanese home islands. And we're at page 150 before Werrell first takes up the subject of the fire-bombing raids that reduced first Tokyo, then 65 other Japanese cities, to ashes. Guided by the ferocious genius of Curtis LeMay, the 20th Air Force turned the U.S. finally and overwhelmingly to the terror-bombing strategy that had been pioneered by the Japanese army and navy air forces over Chongqing in 1938.

Werrell concludes as he began, with a sober assessment of the bombing campaign, the morality of fire-bombing and the atomic bombs, and the likelihood that the war would have ended shortly anyhow, as a result of the marine blockade of Japan. (Forgotten by the advocates of a naval strategy is the fact that the B-29s seeded mines around the Empire that probably sank as many ships as the U.S. submarine fleet in four years of unrestricted warfare.) In the end, he's quite unapologetic about any of it. In the words of the German priest, Father John Siems, who witnessed and survived the holocaust at Hiroshima:

"It seems logical to me that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians."

In Manchuria and at the Marco Polo Bridge, in Nanjing and over Chongqinq, the men of the Imperial Japanese army and navy sowed the seeds of total war in Asia. In the Boeing B-29, their wives and children reaped the whirlwind. This is an unusually intelligent assessment of how that terrible judgment came to pass.

(First published in Air&Space/Smithsonian)

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