Home Aviation History Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan

Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan

by Dario Leone
Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan

Because of disappointing results garnered from high-altitude B-29 bombing using high-explosive ordnance, LeMay decided to switch to low-altitude incendiary missions…

General Douglas MacArthur is one of the towering figures of World War II, and indeed of the 20th century, but his leadership of the second largest air force in the USAAF is often overlooked.

In the aftermath of a humbling defeat by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942, MacArthur and his air chief General George Kenney were determined to rebuild the US aerial presence in the Pacific. This growing force was crucial in supporting Allied naval and ground forces as they battled to push back the Japanese Air Force, retake the Philippines, and carry the war north towards the Home Islands.

Nevertheless, MacArthur never had tactical control of the B-29 force.

As explained by Bill Yenne in his book MacArthur’s Air Force, The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was not only the supreme manifestation of strategic airpower in World War II, but also the weapon that was used to execute the strategic air campaign that would play a pivotal role in the ultimate defeat of Imperial Japan.

General Hap Arnold, the commanding general of the USAAF, briefed Chester Nimitz and Douglas MacArthur on the B-29 and had found them both wanting tactical control of the B-29 within their respective theaters.

Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan
Douglas MacArthur smokes one of his favorite corn cob pipes on a ship bound for Luzon Island in the Philippines on Jan. 20, 1945. Five Star Insignia on his collar denoting him general of the Army. (AP Photo/Pool)

However, Arnold felt that operational control of the super weapon should be in the hands of someone who had an eye on the ultimate strategic goal, rather than someone preoccupied with narrowly defined tactical goals within a theater of operations. Moreover, Arnold was determined to use his ultimate manifestation of strategic airpower strictly for a strategic mission, that of defeating Japan through attacks on Japan itself.

Therefore, he solved to personally maintain control of the B-29 force from his seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The entire operational Superfortress fleet would be assigned to the USAAF Twentieth Air Force, which was activated in April 1944 and commanded directly by Arnold. “I could do nothing but retain command of the B-29s myself,” Arnold wrote in his memoirs. He continued:

“I could not give them to MacArthur because then they would operate ahead of Nimitz’ command; I could not give them to Nimitz since in that case they would operate in front of MacArthur’s advance. So, in the end, while everybody wondered why, I kept personal command of the Twentieth Air Force. There was nothing else I could do, with no unity of command in the Pacific. I could find no one out there who wanted unity of command, seemingly, unless he himself was made Supreme Commander.”

This decision did not prevent Kenney, on behalf of MacArthur, continuing to lobby for B-29s. When Kenney was in Washington, DC in January 1944, he told Arnold, “I could destroy the oil refineries of the Dutch East Indies and the Japanese would be unable to keep the war going.”

He had written to Arnold asking to “let me change over my B-24 groups to B-29 outfits, so that I could drop ten tons of bombs per airplane instead of four.”

Kenney recalled that Arnold replied that he “would not make any promises but said that if I had a runway big enough to take them by July, he might let me have 50 B-29s at that time.” Kenney recalled that he issued orders for “construction of a 10,000-foot runway at Darwin, with parking for a hundred B-29s.”

Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan

The 10,000-foot runway at Darwin was completed, but it would never host the B-29s of which MacArthur and Kenney dreamed. Instead of Australia, Arnold would send his Superfortresses to China. Arnold was seeking a place within striking distance of Japan at which to base his big bombers. In the spring of 1944, the only places were in China, and Arnold settled upon Chengdu, which was about 180 miles from Chungking (now Chongqing), Nationalist China’s wartime capital, and 2,200 miles from Tokyo.

The initial operational deployment of the B-29s was with the XX Bomber Command of the Twentieth Air Force, commanded by Major General Kenneth B. “KB” Wolfe. As a production engineering specialist with the Air Materiel Command, Wolfe had overseen the technical development of the Superfortress. The first mission was flown on Jun. 5, 1944 against Japanese facilities in Bangkok, as Thailand was allied with Japan and it was a conduit for supplies flowing into Burma. In the first mission against a target inside Japan, bombs fell on Yawata ten days later. The next major raid on Japan came on Jul. 7.

In August, dissatisfied by the slow pace of the XX Bomber Command operation, Arnold replaced Wolfe, the technician, with Major General Curtis E. LeMay, a tough, results-oriented leader who had been commanding the 3rd Air Division of the Eighth Air Force. In October 1944 LeMay commanded the XXI Bomber Command too which had absorbed XX Bomber Command assets.

Because of disappointing results garnered from high-altitude bombing using high-explosive ordnance, LeMay decided to switch to low-altitude incendiary missions. The object of strategic bombing is to destroy an enemy war economy by destroying industry, and because much of Japanese industry depended upon subassemblies manufactured in urban areas, burning out urban areas was a better way of destroying the economy than bombing larger factories, as had been done in Germany.

As LeMay told this author four decades later:

“I made up my mind to make some major changes in the way we were using the B-29s because it was now clear that we couldn’t possibly succeed by basing our strategy on our experience from Europe. That system wasn’t working. It was a different war with different weather and a different airplane. It called for a different solution. As I looked over the reconnaissance photos, I noticed that there wasn’t any low-altitude flak such as we’d encountered in Europe. It looked reasonable to me that we could fly a successful mission with less fuel and a larger bomb load by going in low, particularly if we went in at night. After sizing up the situation and knowing that I had to do something radical, I finally arrived at the decision to use low-level attacks against Japanese urban industrial areas using incendiaries. Even poorly trained radar operators could find cities that were on or near the coast, and going in at between 5,000 and 8,000 feet instead of 25,000 feet would ensure that all the bombs would fall in the target area. This method solved the weather problem because, instead of getting the force ready and then waiting for the right weather, we would go in under the weather when we were ready.”

Here’s Why LeMay (and not MacArthur) Had Tactical Control of the Super Weapon that Played a Pivotal Role in Defeating Imperial Japan

Earlier XXI Bomber Command missions had averaged around 6o B- 29s, bur LeMay decided on overwhelming Japanese defenses with a series of maximum effort missions, each involving around 300 Superfortresses. Between Mar. 9 and Mar. 20, such missions were flown at night against Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya until stocks of incendiaries were depleted.

LeMay recalled:

“… it was April 13 before we had built up large enough stocks of incendiaries to support a full-scale mission, but we flew a lot of smaller-scale missions while we were waiting for more bombs. The Navy scurried around and got some ships, and in six weeks we had the bombs. We never caught up from then on, though. We simply bypassed the bomb dumps, and with the help of the Seabees, some Marines that were supposedly in a rest camp, and anybody else that was around, we brought the bombs from the supply ships directly to the hardstands of the airplanes. Soon we were dropping over 3,000 tons per mission.

“I was not happy, but neither was I particularly concerned, about civilian casualties on incendiary raids,” LeMay explained to Yenne candidly. He continued:

“I didn’t let it influence any of my decisions because we knew how the Japanese had treated the Americans — both civilian and military —that they’d captured in places like the Philippines. We had dropped some warning leaflets over Japan, which essentially told the civilian population that we weren’t trying to kill them, but rather that we were trying to destroy their capability to make war. We were going to bomb their cities and burn them down. We suggested they leave for their own safety.”

MacArthur and Kenney watched as American airpower finally struck major blows against the heart of Imperial Japan. Although Arnold never gave them the B-29, he did give them a very heavy bomber. The Consolidated B-32 was finally operational by the spring of 1945. The Fifth Air Force 312th Bomb Group became a “very heavy bombardment group,” and B-32s were sent to Clark Field on Luzon in June 1945.

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MacArthur’s Air Force is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Tomás Del Coro from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA via Wikipedia

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