March 9, 1945 marked the beginning of the new American incendiary bombing of civilian targets in Japan. Low-flying U.S. warplanes carrying 65% more bombs over the next 2 says created the largest firestorm in recorded history, killing 80-130,000 civilians and destroying 16 square miles. Curtis Le May told the bombing crews they would be “delivering the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.” By July 1945 such low-level incendiary raids proved so devastating that LeMay declared no worthwhile targets existed in Japan.
These raids killed more people and caused greater damage than the subsequent atomic bombings. The stench from the burning bodies sucked into the firestorm and the blood, turned into mist and wafting on the wind, was so intense Americans in the B-29s turned on their oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.
The raids, however, failed to achieve their goal. As with the British and American air attacks on Germany earlier, the Japanese overcame their initial shock and their morale bounced back. Only the threat of existential atomic obliteration changed matters.
Useful to keep in mind listening to air power advocates today. Air power lost some prestige after last decade’s Air Force failed fantasies of compelling war terminating outcomes with Rapid Decisive Operations. Just a few years before the Balkans demonstrated the same truths. Air power failed to achieve a meaningful result. NATO turned to a threatened ground assault to bring that operation to close. The 1991 Gulf War? Same.
America seemingly chooses to forget. Airpower tempts with an illusory clean solution, fixed without need to get dirty on the ground. La plus ca change.