As I have written before, historians say that General Curtis Lemay was one of the most important warriors that our country ever had. During WWII we were not putting any effective bombs on the Japanese, and that had to be done if we were ever going to defeat them. However, he showed us how to do it.
Also, I have written you before how he was my hunting partner and bunk-mate on those pheasant hunts in the San Juaquin Valley in California. He told me things that I don’t think he had ever shared with most anyone else.
I have also written you about how so many people were desperately praying for our success against the Japanese, and how I believe God woke General Lemay up in the middle of the night and showed him what to do. However, I never showed you the details of that. Herewith are the details of things he shared about what he did in the Asia/Pacific Theatre:
General Lemay in Asia
Even though he was still in England, an inkling of what was to come was when Lemay was promoted over the heads of several colleagues at the age of 37 to become the youngest Major General in the US Army. However, he was soon sent back to the States.
Hap Arnold, the Commanding General of our Army Air Corps, was not much worried about the war in Europe at that point. He knew that we were going to have to try to defeat the Japanese. Other than the nuisance raid of Jimmy Doolittle, we had never put a bomb on them. He was convinced that unless we used strategic bombing like we were doing against the Germans, we could never defeat their fanatical troops on their home islands.
He was pinning all his hopes on the huge new airplane whose production he had been shepherding—–the B-29. He had already told Lemay that he expected Lemay to be the one to accomplish that task. However, this plane was so advanced and complicated that they were having all kinds of problems with it.
First, there had been a competition between Boeing and Douglas Aircraft for the contract. Boeing had been selected, but at Boeing’s plant in Nebraska there were all manner of delays and engineering changes.
The real answer was that it should take many years to perfect a plane like this, but Hap Arnold wanted it now to bomb Japan. And he was going to have it now, come “hell or high water”. Some of its chief designers had already been killed when it crashed with them on only its 2nd inaugural flight.
This plane weighed 135,000 pounds fully loaded and could carry 20,000 pounds of bombs. Its wingspan was half as long as a football field and it was a third as long as a football field.
It could fly at 32,000 feet for 4,100 miles without refueling.
It had supercharged air-cooled radial engines with 18 cylinders that produced over 3,700 hp each.
It carried a crew of 10 and was completely pressurized so that the crew did not need those cumbersome oxygen masks and fleece-lined flying suits.
It had two 50-cal. machine guns in each of four remotely controlled turrets, plus two 50-cal. machine guns and one 20mm cannon in its tail turret.
The Army ordered 1,600 of them after only its first flight, and eventually 3,970 were produced.
There were 900 engineering changes even after it had finished its test flights.
Its main problem was that its engines tended to swallow valves and then catch fire. Its magnesium crankcase burned with a fury that fliers had never seen before.
In summation: It was years before it should have been put into service, but Hap Arnold was determined to have it bomb Japan now. In retrospect, he was absolutely right, but also in retrospect, more airmen lost their lives from its mechanical problems than from enemy fire.
Lemay had never spent any time with Hap Arnold, and knew little about him. Lemay assumed that they would have long discussions about the B-29 and how to operate from India where he was being sent first and how to finally fly out to China from where he was supposed to bomb the Japanese. They had no such discussions. The reason was that Arnold had no clue what the answer was to any of these things. He just ordered Lemay to go to India and make it all work.
Lemay had no experience with Arnold, so when he said no, that he would not do it, everyone in Washington was amazed at his effrontery. Lemay was not going to go without flying this B-29 first and understanding how its engines were put together.
Arnold and his staff finally relented and flew him to Nebraska to fly the plane and get to know its engines. He took his wife, Helen, and his daughter with him, since the whole transport plane was just for him. Through some fortuitous circumstances they found some great quarters right on the lake and enjoyed some wonderful and happy times.
He flew the plane and watched closely as they put its engines together. He spent a month mostly learning all of its problems.
Hap Arnold and the others in Washington were getting more and more anxious to put some bombs on the Japanese’ ability to wage war. It was time for Lemay to go to what they called the China/Burma/India Theater and make things happen. General Wolfe was there over Air Force operations, but was very ineffective as respects any results or consequence.
They assigned a B-29 for Lemay to fly there, but kept delaying and delaying getting it ready. Finally, he sent his wife and daughter back home to Ohio and boarded a Douglas C-54. He got to the American base at Kharagpur , India on August 29, 1944.
That is where all of his supplies were located, including his fuel and bombs. However, the problem was that any missions against the Japanese were to be from a base in China . It was 1,300 miles way over the high Himalayas . Everything would have to be flown into China over what was called “The Hump”.
The Chinese base for him was in Sichuan, Province. At that time the city was called Chengtu. Today it is called Chengdu . What happened there is still a highly emotional thing for the Chinese, even to this day. They needed to construct an airfield for the US bombers, but they had no machinery for such a task——no road graders, no steam rollers for packing down a runway, nothing but hand tools. But it had to be done.
70,000 people from that area came together with only their hoes, and picks, and shovels, and wheelbarrows. Just the clay and dirt would not support the weight of those huge planes. They meticulously arranged river rocks like they were bricks and covered them with clay. To pack them, they went up into the mountains and cut out huge cylinders of rock for rollers. It took several hundred people to pull one of them up and down the runways. They worked feverishly and when they finished, they had constructed the longest runway in the world at that time and the largest parking area for planes. To this day, the task that those, mostly poor farmers accomplished primarily with their bare hands is a deeply emotional thing for Chinese that I have visited with.
That runway is covered with concrete now, but I have landed on it many times. China now builds huge infrastructure projects to keep their economy humming. They only use a part of it presently, but Chengdu has one of the largest air terminals in the world. It is certainly the largest I have ever seen.
Lemay was totally chagrined at these kinds of logistics. They had other cargo planes to fly over the hump, but all the B-29s had to be used to haul cargo too. It took seven trips over the hump to haul enough fuel for just one plane to go on a combat mission. It took 1,000 trips before they were ready for their first mission from Chengdu.
Washington felt that Lemay was way too valuable to ever risk another combat mission and issued those orders. Lemay practically burned up the communication channels back to Washington . He maintained that a Commander could not lead a successful operation unless he led his men into combat. Finally, they agreed to let him go on one mission—–only one. So, of course, he chose the first one.
After studying all the possibilities, he decided to bomb the big Japanese steel plants at Anshan in Manchuria. It was a main supplier of steel for the Japanese war effort, but he chose it for a different reason. It was reported to be defended by the best Japanese fighter aircraft and pilots. He wanted to see how good their pilots were, their tactics, and he particularly wanted to see how good were the B-29’s power driven gun turrets and central fire-control system.
On September 8, they were ready for the mission. Lemay ’s outfit was called the Twentieth Bomber Command. They had 115 B-29s at Chengdu . They were loaded and made ready for Anshan . Lemay took his place in the lead plane. All but 7 of the Superfortresses got off the ground that day and 95 reached the Anshan steel plants.
They were all watching for Japanese fighters. As they approached the target, they suddenly found them, airborne, in squadron formation, poised to attack. Lemay , accustomed to facing German fighter squadrons in almost identical situations, expected now to get some answers to those important questions in his mind. Not just how clever and relentless were the Japanese pilots, but how tough and resourceful were the men in his new outfit?
The Japanese squadron leader totally misjudged the B-29s’ speed. He never dreamed planes that big would be going that fast. By the time he got turned around he was never able to catch them. His spotter plane did make one pass, but did no damage. Also, contributing to his problems was that his fighters were designed to fight at 17,000 feet, but the B-29s were bombing from 25,000 feet.
They dropped 200 tons of bombs. Japanese antiaircraft fire perforated several planes, including Lemay ’s. They lost only four planes on the mission. They managed to put much of the steel plant out of commission for at least a year, and the rest of it for at least 6 months.
Lemay never did explain to anyone why, but after their first mission to Anshan he grounded the entire 20th Air Force for an extended period of time. He set up intensive training groups for all the pilots, navigators, gunners, and maintenance crews. This was consistent with his almost paranoid emphasis on training that he had insisted on back in Germany.
Lemay managed to bomb two of the Japanese aircraft factories closest to China , but other than his logistical problems, he had the problem that there was almost no way to get weather information out of China . This was just intolerable and meant many aborted missions.
He was not a fan of the Communists, but he knew that Mao Zedong was not that far away down at Yenan from which he was fighting the Japanese and in a perfect position to send weather information. And even more important than the weather to Lemay was getting back the many pilots that were going down in northern China due to the B-29’s mechanical problems.
Lemay was awakened from his sleep again and had the unusual insight (that I am convinced that God Himself put into his head) that he should send a plane down to Mao and request his help. The next morning, he sent an officer from his communications section down to Yenan on a C-47 with all the communications equipment that he would need. He got a call back right away that Mao said he would cooperate.
That afternoon, Lemay loaded another C-47 completely full of medical supplies and sent it down to Mao. They say that those Chinese doctors spent all night unloading all these medical supplies and shedding big tears the whole time. All they had up to that time were bandages and splints and alcohol. They had never even seen the new sulfa drugs we had that would keep a wounded soldier from getting an infection from his wounds.
When Lemay heard that; the next morning he sent down another plane with doctors to show the Chinese how to best use all those medical items.
After that, he not only got much better weather information, but every downed pilot was escorted safely back all the way to Chengdu.
Last year, some Chinese friends took me way up to Mao’s mountain hideout at Yenan. Because of its location in those mountains, I observed that it would be almost impossible to attack it successfully. I was allowed to go in and see Mao’s rooms, his bed, and even his little office. It was all very sparse, even the mostly bamboo buildings.
It was nothing like his sumptuous residence on the lake in Hangzhou after he took over all of mainland China and was absolute dictator. I have visited that residence too and can assure you it is not sparse like his hideout at Yenan.
By now, the US Marines had captured the Mariana Islands. They had not yet taken Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but they immediately began constructing airports on Tinian, Guam, and Saipan . There were still some Japanese hiding out and fighting, but just as soon as these fields were available, B-29s arrived and under General Hansell the 21st Air Force was formed there.
Yes, the B-29s were pressurized. Its engines were turbo-supercharged. Its guns were mechanized. And it was capable of operating at 35,000 feet, above the effective altitude of Japanese flak and the best Japanese fighters. But it took twenty-three tons of gasoline to get that high and all the way to Tokyo and back. That limited them to only three tons of bombs per plane.
Adding to that, and what no one had ever known before, was that some of the strongest jet-stream winds in the world were over the Japanese islands. Much of the time they were over 200 mph and shifted in different directions. This made precision bombing almost impossible.
On every mission that he tried, Gen. Hansell was losing 3 to 4 planes in the Pacific between Japan and the Marianna’s due to mechanical problems and achieving very little results. Hap Arnold and the other generals did not know the answers to all this, but they knew what they needed to do——get Lemay there and in charge.
On orders, he packed-up the 20th Air Force and moved to the Marianna’s. They merged the 20th and the 21st together into the largest bomber force in history. Tinian became the largest airfield in the world as respects numbers of planes.
There were still no adequate quarters there. Lemay slept in a tent with the rest of the guys for awhile. He also started his intensive training of all these new pilots, and navigators, and gunners, and ground crews. He got the whole operation into much better shape, but because of the problems with the jet-streams over Japan , his results were not much better that General Hansell’s.
As was usual with him, he did not believe in spending all this money and enormous effort without getting results. And they were not getting the desired results.
At that point in the campaign the Navy brass asked Lemay to fly out and meet with them. They wanted to know if he thought it was necessary to take Iwo Jima, the little volcanic island that lay about half-way between Japan and the Marianna’s. His answer was an emphatic, “Yes”. He needed it for landing B-29s that could not make it back to the Marianna’s, and for a base for fighter planes to protect his bombers over Japan, and for air-sea rescue units to pluck his crews out of the Pacific when their planes went down near there.
He did help with bombing Iwo Jima a little in preparation for the landing, but at that time the Navy was much more interested in what they called Task Force 58. They were planning on sending this huge task force right up to the Japanese mainland and attacking Tokyo proper with their carrier planes. They promised Marine general, “Howlin’ Mad” Smith that they would shell Iwo for ten days prior to its invasion. They shelled for only 3 days and he really became “Howlin’ Mad”, and rightly so. He later wrote that “ Iwo Jima cost too much” because of the Navy’s preoccupation with their Task Force 58.
The Navy did send two-hundred plus ships for Task Force 58. They flew 2,074 sorties against Tokyo over three days, and dropped 513 tons of bombs and rockets. They also destroyed 415 Japanese planes with a loss of 102 of their own 1,091 planes.
On those same three days, an average of 167 B-29s flew 439 sorties and dropped a total of 1,220 tons of bombs (two-and-a-half times as much as the task force) on the Japanese Mainland. The B-29s shot down only 46 planes but lost only 5 of their own.
Meanwhile, Hap Arnold and Washington were boiling for better results against Japan ’s war-making infrastructure. Admiral Nimitz wanted to bring the 20th/21st Air Force under his control. And General McArthur of the Army, who was like and emperor looking for an empire, wanted it under his control.
With all the prayers being offered up about this war by Christians and non-Christians across the free world, I firmly believe that God was giving Lemay extraordinary help and insight. After my visits and correspondence with him, I just know that this is true. And at this particular moment in the war effort, I am confident that God’s Spirit Power directly intervened.
The President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already conclusively determined that Mainland Japan would be invaded. The estimate was that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 US service men would die from what would be absolutely fanatical Japanese resistance. Lemay knew that too, and he felt deeply that he had to do something to prevent this carnage, that it was his personal responsibility.
Suddenly, on a particular night on Guam he was waked up in the middle of the night just like he was in Germany . Clearly in his mind was the answer——a simple answer that no one had thought of. The Japanese antiaircraft shells all had fuses to explode at 21,000 feet and up. It would take two to three weeks to change those fuses. He could bomb at low levels for at least that length of time without the big flak shells. They would just whiz right on by.
He had been advised that at low levels the Japanese short range guns would shoot down all his planes if he ever tried, but it was clearly in his mind that this was not true. I just know that God was showing him that, and that he would have at least 3 weeks before the Japanese could install short range antiaircraft guns of any consequence and change those fuses.
Japan had intentionally decentralized 90% of its war related production into small subcontractor workshops placed in civilian districts. It made the Japanese war industry largely immune from conventional precision bombing with high explosives, all spread out and scattered among the civilian residences. Also, because of the threat of earthquakes all these civilian districts were made of wood and bamboo, not brick or stone.
When Lemay went into the briefing room and announced that tonight the B-29s were going to bomb Tokyo from between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, once again the guys wrote home: “Mama, I ain’t coming home!”
What really amazed them was when Lemay informed them that all guns and munitions and gun crews would be taken off the planes to make it possible to carry more incendiaries. The gunners wanted to fly anyway to keep their crews together, but they were required to stay home.
So on the night of March 9, 325 B-29’s were loaded with M-47 incendiary clusters, magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm.
At just after midnight on March10 the pathfinders laid a huge, flaming X across that section of Tokyo where all those subcontractor workshops were located, making the parts for new aircraft. The main force followed and dropped 1,665 tons of incendiaries. They created the greatest fire storm in history.
Lemay was out on the flight line the next morning to meet General Powers; who was leading the mission, upon his return. As instructed, Powers was to climb to 10,000 feet after releasing his bombs. He said at first there was a sprinkling of fires throughout the target area. Then these fires grew until they merged into one great conflagration. By the time Powers turned for home, the center of Tokyo was an inferno.
Photos the next day showed that at least fifteen square miles of Tokyo had been obliterated. Official Japanese figures showed that there were 84,000 fatalities and 41,000 were badly injured. More than half the fatalities resulted from suffocation when the fire sucked all the oxygen up into the sky. A million people were left homeless and 267,200 buildings were destroyed. But the most important thing was that a great part of Japan ’s ability to make war was destroyed, especially in this area for making parts to construct aircraft.
Between March 1945 and August 1945 the B-29s destroyed over 40% of the built-up areas of 66 more Japanese cities the same way. The dropping of the two atomic bombs were under Lemay’s supervision, and people say they were the reason for Japan ’s surrender. I am sure that helped, but I am convinced that what happened to Tokyo and the 66 other cities was the main reason for all those hundreds of thousands of US service men not having to die.
Lemay was greatly criticized and castigated for killing so many civilians.
When I asked him about that here is what he told me: “When Japan surrendered and MacArthur flew in to take over its occupation, I was in the 2nd plane right behind him. On the way to the Occupation Headquarters I asked our driver to take me through that part of Tokyo that had been burned on the early morning if March 10. What I saw was that the only thing still standing were all those drill presses, lathes, and other machines for making aircraft parts. When I saw that, I felt vindicated.”