On March 9, 1945, air crews from more than 300 B-29 Superfotress bombers were briefed their mission while they staged at airfields located on the Mariana Islands of Tinian and Saipan. Standing before them was U.S. Major General Curtis LeMay, an aviation prodigy who developed the air routes over the South Atlantic to Africa and over the North Atlantic to England prior to World War II. LeMay studied mission reports for Operation Meetinghouse and scrutinized reconnaissance images as he did so many times before leading bombing squadrons on daring missions over bases in Germany and North Africa.
His chest full of medals — a Distinguished Service Cross, a Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, a Silver Star, and a host of other awards for heroism — demanded respect and established trust between fellow pilots. As LeMay took a puff from his cigar that rested on his lower lip, he told the crews who stood at attention, “You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese had ever seen.”
The confidence from his voice wasn’t macho nonsense he practiced in the mirror before delivering with grace — it was a staunch belief established a decade prior and reinforced from a group of like-minded aviators who believed long-range heavy bomber aircraft could win wars. They called themselves the “Bomber Mafia” and among the alumni were polarizing figures from Robert Olds (the father of Triple Ace Air Force legend Robin Olds) to Jimmy Doolittle.
With determination, grit, and uncertainty in their hearts, the bomber squadrons took to the air just after midnight knowing the Japanese lacked the air defenses to repel their attack. Flying over the city of Tokyo, their bombers were stripped of their armaments, except for a tail turret, to ensure a full payload of 7 tons of incendiary munitions would reach their target over the “paper city.” For the next 48 hours, more than 2,000 tons of firebombs incinerated wood-framed buildings and killed between 80,000 and 130,000 civilians caught in the firestorm.
“We hated what we were doing,” said Jim Marich, an aviator on the mission over Tokyo. “But we thought we had to do it. We thought that raid might cause the Japanese to surrender.”
Ed Lawson, a gunner on one of the B-29s, described how the layout of the city of Tokyo looked like a “checkerboard” and his job was to throw out chafe from the open bomb-bay doors to confuse radar.
“Can you imagine standing in front of an open bomb-bay door and smelling a city burn up?” Lawson said in an article published in New York Times Magazine in March 2020. “It was terrifying. At low altitude like that, I didn’t wear an oxygen mask. All I can say is that the smell was nauseating. I’ve never smelled anything like it since, and I don’t want to.”
The flames could be seen from 100 miles away, and the carnage was unlike anything most of the world had ever seen before. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey determined that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any other time in the history of man.”
The firebombing campaigns decimated 66 cities until the Japanese surrendered after two atomic bombs erased the life from the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In later years, after all the death and slaughter, a young cadet asked LeMay whether his actions had an effect on his moral psyche.
“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” LeMay told him. “Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”
After World War II and with the devastatingly effective results from his leadership style, LeMay declared that a strong Air Force deterred foes and strengthened a nation. “American unpreparedness [...] extended to the point where on September 1, 1939, the day Hitler smashed into Poland, United States strategic air power consisted of nineteen poorly-equipped heavy bombers,” reminded LeMay. He assumed the role as the first Deputy of Air Staff for Research and Development, particularly concerning the enhancement of nuclear weapons.
He helped organize the historic Berlin Airlift and later focused on establishing a nuclear strike force while assigned to the Strategic Air Command. Despite LeMay having no imaginative safety mechanism to quell his trigger finger on any of his weapon systems, during the Korean War nuclear weapons weren’t an option.
“These bombs were too horrible and too dangerous to entrust to the military,” he said after his retirement. “They were under lock and key of the Atomic Energy Commission.”
The firebombing, which was a controversial success during World War II, increased over North Korean cities targeting urban areas and agriculture — and, again, it destroyed lives in the civilian populace. Supported by past victories and armed with knowledge and influence at the highest levels of the U.S. Air Force, LeMay was amongst other military advisors who consulted with President John F. Kennedy while under DEFCON 2 — the highest level of alertness before nuclear war — during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a secretly recorded meeting on Oct. 19, 1962, LeMay told Kennedy, “I just don’t see any other solution except for direct military intervention.”
Direct military intervention, LeMay reasoned, would end the war, whereas he viewed Kennedy’s blockade against Cuba as a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s implementation of smuggled nukes into the country as a sign of weakness. The 54-year-old who had garnered the nickname “Old Iron Pants” urged the president that a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union would bring them to their knees, despite nuclear fallout — an afterthought in his mind.
With World War III on the doorstep nobody wanted, LeMay prepared a force with the capability of unleashing 750 bombs over the Soviet Union. His efforts never materialized, and before he was pushed out the door to retirement, he urged a continuation of his strategic aerial campaigns in Vietnam. While napalm was considered the hero of World War II, it became the devil in Vietnam. In reference to the North Vietnamese, the warhawk general wrote in his book, Mission with LeMay, “My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Ages.”
LeMay’s aerial superiority mantra provided precedent toward the strategy of how the United States fights its future wars. Although all approaches are not the same, there are lessons to be learned from the actions of few that impact so many.