The Japanese mainland was immune to air attack in the two and a half years after the Doolittle Raid of April 1942. But the U.S. 20th Air Force began operating from India and China in mid-1944, striking Kyushu factories in November. Logistics, however, forced the B-29 command to relocate in the Marianas, where Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay began expanding the most capable bombing force on earth.
European-style high-altitude bombing was ineffective over Japan, where the jet stream played havoc with accuracy. Thus, in early 1945, LeMay shifted tactics and threw away The Book. On the night of March 9–10, he sent more than 300 Boeings against Tokyo at low level, dropping incendiaries rather than high explosives. The results were astonishing: Overnight, one-sixth of the capital was razed, with at least 85,000 people killed.
Fire raids continued, searing Nagoya, Yokohama, and other production centers. Japan was burning to the ground almost nightly, but the doom-laden war cabinet refused to consider surrender.
By then, carriers had returned to Empire waters, beginning a series of strikes in February and continuing through summer. The once-mighty Imperial Navy lay largely fuelless in harbor, where it was pounded into the mud of Kure and other ports.
Then came August.
On the 6th, one B-29 dropped one bomb on the port city of Hiroshima and destroyed it in milliseconds. The Enola Gay turned for Tinian, leaving a looming radioactive mushroom cloud. The atomic age had arrived.
Still, Japan refused the Allied demand for surrender. Thus, on the 9th, Bockscar destroyed Nagasaki. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project had predicted that two A-bombs would be necessary, and he proved prescient. On the 15th, the emperor broke tradition and personally intervened, overriding his hard-line cabinet.
Airpower had won its ultimate victory in the last battle of the world’s greatest war.
The view off the fantail of the Princeton must have depressed Japanese commanders: Four carriers stretch to the horizon with many more in the area of the home islands. The end was in sight. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)