World War II, Air War Against Japan

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WORLD WAR II, AIR WAR AGAINST JAPAN. The first attack on Japan by American airmen in World War II was on 18 April 1942. In an extraordinary feat, they flew sixteen twin-engine B-25s off the carrier Hornet about 688 miles west of Japan and hit Tokyo and other nearby targets before heading for landing in China. This isolated raid, led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, came less than five months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. By late 1943, anxious to begin a sustained air campaign against Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt arranged with British and Chinese authorities to build bases in India and western China for the B-29, a four-engine strategic bomber the prototype of which had gone into development in 1939. By the spring of 1944, 130 were available for deployment to India and China.

On 14 June 1944, B-29 crews struck Japan from China for the first time. Sixty-three planes bombed a steel plant on Ky[UNK]sh[UNK] but caused only minor damage. Seven planes and fifty-five crewmen were lost on the raid. As mainland Japan lay beyond the B-29's 1,500-mile maximum combat radius, the U.S. airmen flew only five other missions against Japan from China. Mostly, they bombed closer enemy targets in Manchuria, China, Formosa, and Southeast Asia. By 29 March 1945, when the last raid was flown from the China-India theater, they had undertaken 3,058 individual sorties and dropped 11,691 tons of bombs on military and industrial targets.

The long-awaited sustained air war against Japan did not begin until U.S. forces had seized the Mariana Islands, beginning their assault on 15 June 1944. From Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the B-29s could reach Japan's major industrial cities. Construction of runways on Saipan began even before the fighting there ended on 9 July 1944. The first bomber reached Saipan on 12October. On 24 November, Major General Haywood S. Hansell launched the first air raid against Tokyo since Doolittle's raid. Nearly 90 B-29s struck at the enemy capital from an altitude of more than 25,000 feet, beyond the effective range of most Japanese aircraft and antiaircraft artillery. Their target—an aircraft plant—was almost completely obscured by clouds and was hit by only 24 planes. Sixty-four others bombed the general urban area. Although bomb damage was minimal, the Japanese soon began dispersing their industries, causing more disruption to their war production than did the initial B-29 attacks. Hansell staged six more raids in 1944.

These high-altitude bombing raids proved ineffective. In January 1945 Roosevelt's top airman, General Henry H. Arnold, replaced Hansell with Major General Curtis E. LeMay, who had commanded B-17s over Europe and the B-29s in the China-India theater. Other important changes followed. Washington directed that the B-29s carry more incendiaries on future raids, to take advantage of the known flammability of Japanese buildings. On 4 February a heavy incendiary strike against Ko[UNK]be destroyed 2.5 million square feet of the city's urban area. It was a precursor of the great fire raids.

The Japanese, meanwhile, had launched preemptive air strikes against the Saipan bases from Iwo Jima, a fortress island some 725 miles north of the Marianas. Between 26 November and 31 December 1944, some 80 Japanese planes had attacked and destroyed 11 B-29s on Saipan and damaged 43. American strategists determined to seize Iwo Jima; D day was set for 19 February 1945. Three days before, to support the invasion, a U.S. Navy fast-carrier force sailed into Tokyo harbor and launched more than 1,200 aircraft against Honsh[UNK] targets, destroying some 500 Japanese planes. Navy carrier pilots returned to Japan on eighteen more occasions, bombing and strafing enemy facilities.

The B-29s, however, wreaked the greatest damage on Japan, LeMay having ordered his airmen to attack with incendiaries at altitudes of less than 8,000 feet, and individually rather than in formation. These new tactics were employed for the first time on the night of 9–10 March, when 285 bombers dropped two thousand tons of incendiaries on Tokyo. High winds fanned the flames into a huge firestorm that gutted 16 square miles in the city's center, killing 83,783, injuring 40,918, and leaving 1 million homeless. Similar fire raids were subsequently flown against Nagoya, Osaka, Ko[UNK]be, and fifty smaller Japanese cities. By midsummer, 180 square miles of Japan's urban area had been destroyed. To add to Japan's troubles, B-29s

dropped 12,953 mines in enemy waters, effectively blocking many Japanese ports and the Shimonoseki Strait.

The final blows came in August 1945. On 6 August a B-29 dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 78,000 people and injuring 51,000. When Japanese officials did not immediately respond to Washington's call for surrender, a second atomic bomb was dropped 9 August on Nagasaki, killing 35,000 people and injuring 60,000. On 15 August, beset on all sides, Japan capitulated.


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CarlBerger/a. r.

See alsoAir Power, Strategic ; Aircraft Armament ; Aircraft, Bomber ; Aircraft, Fighter ; Bombing ; Flying Tigers ; Iwo Jima ; World War II, Air War against Germany .

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