The Bombs that Killed Japan.
October 25, 2013
Did you know anyone who was in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11/2001? Over 17,000 people from more than 15 countries were in the two towers at the time of the attack. Two thousand six hundred five people died in New York alone. For me, it was two degrees of separation; a co-worker’s cousin. Similar situation for my wife and dozens of others I’ve spoken with over the years. A young man from our home town died in the Pentagon attack.
Compare this with the more than 400,000 families that displayed the single star at their home during the 1940s to honor the life of a loved one lost in World War II. It seems impossible that any family, town, burg, or metropolis might have gone unscathed.
Whirlwind is about the most devastating air campaign in history, flown against Japan from 1942 to 1945. It begins with the Doolittle Raid just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and takes the reader all the way through the turbulent aftermath of V-J Day.
(Speaking of history foreshadowing current events, in 1943, the Alaska-based 11th Air Force began bombing missions against the northern-most islands in Japan. The weather and maritime atmosphere were more of a danger to pilots than enemy fighters. One mission that began with 20 bombers ended with the loss of nine against only five enemy vessels sunk or damaged. The official report of the Eleventh Air Force described it as “the[ir] most disastrous day.” Ironically, that day was September 11, 1943.)
By today’s standards, “…when any violence inflicted against civilians by a nation-state is widely condemned as immoral, the norms of 1940s warfare may appear horrifically callous at best. Certainly the military engineers who designed firebombs did not consider themselves immoral, nor did the citizens who manufactured them. Rather, they were driven by wartime patriotism melded with resignation to the immediate task at hand.” The statistics provide fodder for the most zealot anti-war advocate while the stories behind them exonerate the participants.
Whirlwind is a collection of vignettes that combine to tell the story of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. Most frustrating is the recounting of the China-Burmese-India experience of the Twentieth Bomber Command wherein 68 of the world’s most advanced bombers departed the mainland for Japanese targets. Only 47 reached their primary target and dropped 221 tons of bombs. Seven B-29’s did not return. Fifty-seven American fliers and one war correspondent died on a mission in which only one bomb hit the assigned target.
Barrett Tillman, author of more than 40 books on military subjects, deftly guides his reader through a part of history that had been previously neglected. His story-telling and timing is superb. His use of statics and technical details is appropriately complemented with tales of humor, courage, inspiration, tragedy and hope.
The cast of characters includes many names with whom WWII aficionados will be familiar (Mitchell, Chennault, LeMay, Nimitz, and Tibbets to name a few) . Tillman also includes a charming if eccentric assortment of mavericks. We meet the inventors of the football helmet and the famous Norden bomb site, as well as the dentist who masterminded the “bat bomb”. There are also encounters with a samurai, a gunslinger, an alcoholic super-ace pilot, a poet, and a gang of well meaning thieves that stole a Medal of Honor. Ground crews and mechanics who kept the planes flying (from the fighters to the bombers) get special attention from the author as they did LeMay.
Even with these complementary stories, it is not difficult to remember that the two main characters are Curtis LeMay and the B-29 Superfortress. Their histories are interdependent and no doubt Tillman drew upon his previously published biography of LeMay for background. LeMay’s adventures earning the experience that brought him to the Pacific along with the development of the technology that spawned the B-29 are at the core of Whirlwind. I was surprised to discover that only 42 years elapsed between Kitty Hawk and Hiroshima! The successes of both Lemay and the B-29 were the precursors to the Cold War development of the Strategic Air Command and the B-52.
Tillman’s professional handling of social, moral, technical, and political issues will leave the reader satisfied and perhaps inspired to learn more about our nation’s history. Although many volumes have been published about the war and the military, your library is incomplete without Whirlwind .