Review: James Scott dives deep into the WWII Tokyo firebombing | book reviews

BLACK SNOW: Curtis LeMay, the Tokyo firebombing and the road to the atomic bomb. By James M. Scott. Norton. 448 pages. $35.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 may have ended the war with Japan, but it was the firebombing of Tokyo five months earlier that probably won it.

No decision was taken lightly, of course. It was President Truman, four months into his presidency, who made the call to release “the force from which the sun draws its power”.

But the decision to bomb Tokyo – the most destructive air strike in history – was made by a low-ranking general named Curtis LeMay, stationed in Guam.

LeMay gets something of the Hamilton treatment in James M. Scott’s excellent “Black Snow.” As with Alexander Hamilton, it’s not exactly fair to say that LeMay has been overlooked – a cursory survey of this writer indicates that he is still recognized among the baby boomer generation. But it’s not Patton, Eisenhower or MacArthur.

After World War II, Lemay coordinated the Berlin Airlift, and during the Vietnam War he became famous for the quote “Bomb them back into the Stone Age.” He may have been the inspiration for an unflattering portrait in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” His last major act on the public stage was a 1968 vice-presidential run on the George Wallace ticket.

But the end of 1944 was a very different time. America was winning the war, had established bases on islands within striking distance of Japan, thanks to the long-awaited expensive B-29 Superfortress aircraft. And yet, the Japanese resilience was extraordinary. Kamikaze pilots dive-bombed ships, and MacArthur’s work in the Philippines signaled that an amphibious invasion of Japan could make D-Day look like a day at the beach.

Scott, a former Post and Courier reporter and Neiman Fellow, is a self-proclaimed research junkie who’s spent countless hours digging through the archives, so the level of detail here comes as no surprise. What’s really great about this book is the arc of it, the well-traced context behind the method and the madness of the decision to bomb civilians.

We meet Hap Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Force, who had learned to fly from Orville and Wilbur Wright themselves. Arnold wanted to win the war by air power and establish the Air Force as an independent branch. It was Arnold who wanted the B-29 Superfortress to exist, an aircraft so massive that its 141-foot wingspan was 20 feet longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight.

We meet Haywood Hansell, LeMay’s predecessor on Guam, also his foil. A classic LeMay brutal pragmatist theorist, Hansell firmly argued that daytime precision bombing of military and industrial sites was both the most humane and effective method.

The problem was that it wasn’t working. Japan was often covered in clouds, and shipboard radar was still often ineffective.

As Hansell resisted the firebombs at home, the military made other plans. Scientists had developed a new form of gelled gasoline: napalm. And while Japanese Americans were interned in camps in California, the military built another secret “Japanese village” in the Utah desert. But this city was empty; it was designed entirely to practice firebombing. A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright familiar with Tokyo construction methods designed the wooden houses, with furniture and tatami mats.

All of this set the stage for LeMay to take over in Guam in early 1945. LeMay came from a working-class upbringing and worked his way to the top, earning a reputation as a no-nonsense leader who got results . At his previous station in China, he negotiated with Mao and even bought opium to make security deals with tribesmen. (The army accountant hesitated to put opium on the expense report, so it was listed as “fertilizer.”)

LeMay subjected the crews to rigorous training, working them around the clock. After trying to continue high-altitude precision bombing, he finally felt he had no options left and gave the order to burn Tokyo. Just after midnight on March 10, 1945, 279 B-29s flew over the city and dropped enough bombs to burn 16 square miles, killing 100,000 people and leaving a million homeless.

Part of the rationale for the firebombing was that Japan’s military-industrial complex was made up not only of large factories, but also of thousands of home-based cottage industries. Imagine crews in garages all over Mount Pleasant making engine parts for the Boeing factory.


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But of course, there were millions of civilians who were not enemy combatants, and the debate still rages over whether or not the firebombing was a war crime. Scott, through personal interviews and archival research, tells the stories: a 6-year-old girl who looks forward to her birthday party the next morning, a boy who thought the worst part of his night was getting up to break the ice on the Char family fire.

Scott shows the terror-filled scrambles through crowded streets to escape the flames, Tokyo residents jumping into frozen rivers, a child who only survives because she’s hidden under a pile of people. The heat was so great that the updrafts pushed the American bombers thousands of feet into the air. Garbage and leaflets blown high in the sky from the attack blew on some of the planes.

The descriptions of the burn are so intense and relentless that after a while you start to smell the smoke in your lungs, the book itself looks like a charred piece of paper.

“Black Snow” is Scott’s fourth book on the Pacific theater. In “Target Tokyo”, the Doolittle Raiders avenge Pearl Harbor, pushing their aviation skills to extraordinary limits. In “The War Below”, the US submarine fleet decimates enemy supply chains. The atrocities of the Battle of Manila make “Rampage” a cautionary tale for a ground invasion of Japan.

While there are certainly more aspects of WWII that would benefit from Scott’s gifts, this feels like a much-needed highlight.

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