The real weapon used in the atomic bomb attacks was not nuclear energy, which was in its infancy, but the plane that dropped the bombs, the Boeing B-29. It was the first weapon developed by mankind that could have destroyed the earth. It had twice the range of the other biggest bombers, twice the bombload, and much more speed. It was literally the only bomber in the world which could have carried atomic bombs over the distance and at the speed demanded.
Many persons have assumed that using atomic bombs (first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later) was inhumane, and of course that is true. But the U. S. was involved in a world war with an enemy who had acted in an inhuman manner in most everything they had done in the war: from their treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, and the complete disregard of the value of human life on a very large scale. They had attacked us at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and we felt we had to retaliate in kind to win.
Starting at the top of the list of the 50 largest cities in Japan, in the spring of 1945, the U.S. began by bombing (with conventional bombs, which we called “firebombing”) one of the world’s largest cities, Tokyo, on March 9. It resulted in the worst day in human history with the greatest number of people ever killed in a 24-hour period at 84,000. One hundred square miles of the heart of city were burned to the ground. (Hiroshima, even considering those dying of radiation sickness twenty years later does not overawe the Tokyo total).
By the spring of 1945, despite the total destruction of dozens of their cities by the Boeing plane, the Japanese were not still not willing to admit defeat. By that summer the atomic bombs were available and our government thought that the one million casualties we projected our forces would suffer in an invasion of home islands was too great of the sacrifice to ask of the American people, if an alternative were available. One was, the employment of B-29s using atomic bombs to force the enemy into submission, which it did.
The idea of what total war means has escalated from the time of Sherman’s march through Georgia in the Civil War, to the mass killings by way of the machine gun in World War I, to Tokyo. We cannot fathom what it would be like next time.
On an early mission against Singapore, one of the B-29s was damaged. It came down at a primitive airport at a place called Dum Dum in eastern India, which a friend of mine has actually recently seen. The runway, which my father never saw, was narrow enough that in trying to land, the great plane’s left wing was nearly knocked off when it hit the control tower.
Since the immensely valuable plane was in range of Japanese bases, forces both British and ours were galvanized to get it fixed and out of harm’s way. Part of the job fell to my father. Though he was in charge of one warehouse, he was ordered to take a truck with some of his men and pick up a wing assembly from a British warehouse. The place was guarded by a Kurkha soldier from Nepal. The British Empire, world-wide at the time, used many natives as troops in their armies. These men were renowned for their toughness, but spoke no English and perhaps had never seen an American uniform before. Assigned to guard the warehouse, as soon as my father approached, he aimed his rifle at my father’s chest. While he had a Thompson submachine gun in his Jeep and men in the truck, my Dad thought it was best to talk his way into the warehouse rather than shoot it out with an ally.
He soon gave up trying to talk to the Kurkha in English. As the disabled B-29 was in danger some miles away, there was no time to find a British solider who would tell the Kurkha he was on our side. Finally, in desperation, my father pointed to his wallet and the Kurkha nodded that he could get it out. The only thing he could find that looked at all official was his Chicago Motor Club card, (like a AAA card of today), which had a star on it. The soldier immediately put down his rifle, saluted, and laboriously shook my father’s hand.
My father believed that the Kurkha thought he was a general and would have let him have anything! They loaded up the 2 ½ ton truck with the wing assembly, headed off to meet other trucks with other parts, whereupon my father headed back to his base. But the bomber got off the next morning.
I first heard this story decades ago, and it is not hard to imagine the wonderment my father must have seen on the faces of his four little children!
As the war went on, the U.S. knew that bombing Japan would have to be done in order to win. Two possibilities were advanced, both using the most powerful bomber in the world, the brand- new Boeing 29:
In this process, my father was sent to India to run one of the dozens of warehouses containing the more than 100,000 parts for the Boeing plane. He spoke to us kids of landing on the west coast of India at Bombay, now Mumbai, and taking a very slow train all the way across the vast Indian peninsula to Calcutta. One of the very dark nights of the several-day trip, the train stopped at a station and he decided to get off to stretch his legs. The entire platform was covered with bodies of people trying to sleep on the concrete as it exuded warmth! He spent 18 months living in a tent near Calcutta and almost died of some parasite.
Next month, the damaged B-29 at Dum Dum.
The struggle for Guadalcanal, raging from August to November, 1942 resulted in the utter destruction of the veteran navies of both Japan and the United States. Vicious land, naval, and air battles took place at the remote island.
By November, each side was forced to put in their last reserves. For the Japanese this involved sending a mighty fleet of transports, destroyers, cruisers, and a battleship, Kirishima. The United States could only manage four destroyers and the two new battleships, South Dakota and Washington. In the resultant night battle all four of the American destroyers were sunk, but at the crucial moment in the battle as the Japanese were pummeling South Dakota, the unseen Washington, in seven minutes, opened fire and sank Kirishima. Though the enemy still had an overwhelming fleet with only one American warship still able to resist them, they immediately began their withdrawal, not only of their forces that night, but those engaged on the island as well.
The campaign was won and the United States, able to replace their loses in men and materials while the Japanese could not, began its inexorable march across the Pacific and the destruction of the Empire of Japan.
The flying scenes from three movies have impressed me the most.
For World War One it is 1931’s Flight Commander, remade in 1939 as Dawn Patrol, but using the same flying scenes, but with Errol Flynn and David Niven. The movie is about British flyers in France and they wound up using a nice replica of the Sopwith “Camel” airplane. The flying scenes are terrific, especially watching the fragile little plane fly down a railroad track sort of sideways in a crosswind. In truth, in that era, planes were more like motorized kites than airplanes. You could take a sharp pencil and poke right through the canvas wing surfaces.
For World War 2, God is My Co-Pilot, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo both from books of the same names stand out. The aerial scenes in the first movie using the P-40 (not very successful for us) are spectacular.
In 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, the B-25 sequences are amazing. There is a story told to me by a family friend and former B-25 pilot that some of the scenes were done by Doolittle raiders themselves, pulled out of combat (the film was made late in the war). The plane flies dangerously close to the water, and our friend said that no stunt pilot was confident enough to make the scene.
It makes a great story, but I have come to think for a number of reasons that it is not true.
The Struggle for Guadalcanal, from August 1942 to the Japanese evacuation in January of 1943, was the Stalingrad of the Pacific war (for the Japanese). The air war was just as bitter as the land and naval battles.
The Japanese committed their very best pilots who had plenty of experience fighting in China, the Philippines and in New Guinea. Their aces had racked up amazing totals mostly against our inferior planes such as the Brewster Buffalo and Curtis P-40: Nishizawa with 104, Saburo Sakai 64, and Ota 34. They flew the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane with its great range and maneuverability.
Matched against this we had former farm boys like Marine Joe Foss from South Dakota with no combat experience. But he had a better plane than our earlier pilots, the first Grumman monoplane, the F4U “Wildcat.” It was not as quite as maneuverable as the Zero, slightly faster, but had tremendous fire power with six machine guns, and protected our pilots with the infamous 187-pound Jorgenson armor-plated seat, which almost nothing airborne in the world could pierce.
Foss put this toughness to the test. I believe he was shot down three times (although Wikipedia reports twice), a record for any of our top aces in the war. As the Japanese attacked our airfield on Guadalcanal, he was shot down and crashed on the field, then was forced to bail out and came down on the field, and later was shot down and crashed in the ocean.
In the end, Nishizawa escaped, but Sakai was crippled and Oro killed, while Foss’s victory total of 26 matched Edie Rickenbacker’s from World War I.
See Sakai’s very memorable autobiography “Zero.”
Since striking our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941, the Japanese had taken over the largest empire in history, though it mostly consisted of islands. The United States felt powerless to do anything about the loss of much of the Chinese coastline, the British loss of Burma, or the dominance of the Indian Ocean and advance toward India. We did nothing when our own territory of the Philippine Islands was invaded and conquered. The best we could do was contest the enemy move into the central Pacific and pull off a miraculous defeat of a Japanese fleet heading for Midway island in May of 1942.
But the building of an airfield on the unknown and malaria-ridden island of Guadalcanal located within striking distance of Australia, which threatened to cut it off from the rest of the world, caused the U.S. to strike for the first time. On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division was landed there and took over the airstrip. The result was an epic battle for the island which offered no material wealth to either side. But its strategic value made it a must win for each, and set up a titanic grudge match to the end, the prize being the Pacific Ocean.
The reader might know that the first atomic bomb was exploded in the United
States on July 12, 1945, seventy-four years ago this month. Subsequently, an
atomic bomb was then dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and upon Nagasaki on
August 9 th and World War Two ended as a result.
The bombs, and five were built, were developed near Alamogordo in southern
New Mexico, in an area almost devoid of populous. The government thought that
the site’s remoteness would ensure the complete secrecy of the Manhattan
Project. And for fifty years it was considered one of the best kept secrets of the
Actually, the Soviet Union, Russia of today, knew everything that went on a day-
to-day basis. Many of the scientists involved, while hating the Fascist
governments of our enemies (Germany, Italy, and Japan) thought communism
was better than our capitalism and leaked the information.
As a result of this idealism, the Soviets were not far behind us in the development
of their own bomb, and the arms race had begun.
Another unfortunate result was the sinking under still controversial circumstances
of the U. S. heavy cruiser Indianapolis, the carrier of our bombs to the Pacific.
Because of space requirements that story will have to follow in another blog.
June 6th is the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of German held France in World War II. There were five beaches: two American, Omaha and Utah; two British, Gold and Sword; and one Canadian, Juno. One, Omaha was nearly a disaster with hundreds of American casualties, principally because the overall D-Day commander, Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s principal subordinate, American General Omar Bradley flubbed the preparations for the landing. Heedless of American experience in the Pacific in the invasion of Tarawa, he failed to use the support battleships he had to pound Omaha and the other beaches into oblivion.
For the United States, much was saved while the battle for Omaha raged by the work of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the assistant division commander of the 4th Division over on Utah beach. He was the only general officer to land on the first wave. Despite suffering from serious ailments such as arthritis, which he hid from his superiors, he struggled ashore aided by a cane, and established a solid beachhead despite the fact that his division had been landed at the wrong place! “The war starts right here,” he told his staff.
He went ahead for about a month, logging as much time at the front as any of our generals. Though a short guy, his rapport with the men supported by his raspy voice and salty language endeared him to those around him. A famous story about him is that while riding in a jeep in complete darkness with Omar Bradley he bet that his troops (bedded down for the night in on both side of the road, could recognize his voice. He stopped and yelled off into the darkness. In a moment many voices came back, “Yes, General Roosevelt.” In the assault on the city of Cherbourg, just as the orders had been cut for him to get his own division, he died of a massive heart attack and died on the battlefield.
His career as soldier (World War I and II, founder of the American Legion) and statesman (Governor General of the Philippines and Puerto Rico), has been equaled by few Americans. His service to the nation lasted until the last moment of his life.
Sources: there are two biographies of Roosevelt, neither scholarly. The Dictionary of American Biography and Wikipedia have capable texts. Roosevelt’s wife’s autobiography, “Day Before Yesterday.” is excellent
May 23rd 2019, is the eightieth anniversary of the sinking of the U. S. submarine Squalus off the Isles of Shoals in 1939, some nine miles off the New Hampshire coast in 243’ of water. Squalus was one of the pre-war classes of subs which were succeeded by the Gato and Tench classes, the so-called “Fleet Boats,” which were the backbone of our forces in the war. Although some famous subs came from the pre-war classes, such as Seawolf and Tautog, they were not nearly as powerful as the Gatos (diving depths 300’ to 400,’ and usually a 3” deck gun to the later 5”), and of the 31 built, 15 were lost in the war. Anyone might argue that their high loss rate is because those subs were in service for so long.
Of course, Japanese action had nothing to do with the sinking of Squalus which went down on its sea trials due to equipment problems. As sister ship Sculpin stood by, Squalus was eventually raised with 33 of the 59 crewmen being rescued by the “Momsen Lung” and a diving chamber. She was, refitted, renamed Sailfish, and served throughout the war in the Pacific with twelve war patrols.
The renamed submarine was also involved in one of the great tragedies in U. S. submarine history when on December 3 and 4, 1943, she torpedoed and sank the small carrier Chuyo near the Japanese coast. On board were 21 survivors of the recently sunk Sculpin. Only one of the Americans lived through the ordeal.
For more information, see Wikipedia, Pig Boats by Theodore Roscoe, and Paul Silverstone’s U.S. Warships of World WarII.