Medium 9781574413441

Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan

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No published work examines General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold's role in depth during the Pacific War of 1944-1945, in the context of planning for the destruction of Japan. In this new study, Herman S. Wolk, retired Senior Historian of the U.S. Air Force, examines the thinking of Hap Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces (AAF), during World War II. Specifically, Wolk concentrates on Arnold's leadership in crafting the weapons, organization, and command of the strategic bombing offensive against Japan, which culminated in Japanese capitulation in the summer of 1945, ending the Pacific War.

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1. Roosevelt and Arnold

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Roosevelt and Arnold

The roots of the strategic bombing offensive of the Twentieth Air Force against Japan can be traced to the prewar doctrinal struggles at the Air Corps Tactical School and debate within the War Department itself. Despite the twists and turns in the evolution of doctrine, a clear strain can be illuminated between prewar evolution and wartime development and prosecution.

Arnold did not attend the Tactical School, but in the 1930s the struggle by the school’s faculty to define air doctrine held great import for the air forces that Arnold would lead in World War II. Instructors at the ACTS—including Muir Fairchild, a future Air Force vice chief of staff—evolved the precision bombing doctrine, aimed to destroy the enemy’s war-making industrial base. What has been overlooked however, and will be pointed out in this chapter, is the emphasis the Tactical School also placed on morale or population bombing. It was the targeting of civilians and the workforce in 1945 by the Twentieth Air Force that played a major role in forcing the Japanese surrender. Thus, there is a clear connection between the prewar evolution of doctrine and the morale attacks by the B-29 campaign, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Viewed doctrinally, the atomic bombings were not an over-turning of the precision bombing doctrine, but rather the reflection of a constant thread in the development of air doctrine going back to the Tactical School. The B-29 force in the Pacific at the start—under Hansell—inherited the precision doctrine that was subsequently overturned by LeMay’s population bombing, under pressure from Arnold and his staff in Washington.

 

2. Planning for the Defeat of Japan

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Planning for the Defeat of Japan

American war planning designed to oppose Japanese aggression was nothing new. Early in the twentieth century, the Joint Army and Navy Board had promulgated a series of color designations for various countries. Japan was assigned the code color Orange. Over the years, these Orange plans were revised, outlining strategies by which Japan could be defeated. Between the wars the Navy took the lead, with help from Army planners, to evolve theoretical plans to defeat Japan. Despite this early concern about Japan with its threat to American interests, corroborated in the 1930s by virulent Japanese aggression against China, it should be emphasized that Anglo-American planning in World War II rested on the firm, early decision—made in the ABC-1 discussions in January–March 1941, well before the United States entered the war—that Nazi Germany was the main enemy, Europe the decisive theater: “It should be a cardinal principle of American-British strategy that only the minimum of force necessary for the safeguarding of vital interests in other theatres should be diverted from operations against Germany.”1 Thus, the U.S. and British Chiefs of Staff took the view “that Germany is the prime enemy and her defeat is the key to victory. Once Germany is defeated, the collapse of Italy and the defeat of Japan must follow.”2

 

3. Arnold Forms the Twentieth Air Force

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Arnold Forms the Twentieth Air Force

During the war, no other project exemplified Arnold’s determination and drive like the B-29 and his concerted attempt to make the revolutionary big bomber operational in the Pacific. He was determined to employ the Superfortress against the Japanese homeland, thus writing “a new chapter in the history of the Army Air Forces.” The B-29 program has been called the greatest gamble of the war, greater than the Manhattan project that developed the atomic bomb, an investment of $3 billion compared to $2 billion for the bomb. Here Arnold enjoyed the firm support of President Roosevelt who during 1943 promised Premier Chiang Kai-shek of China that the long-range B-29s would be deployed to China to undertake the bombing of Japan.

The development of the B-29 strategic bomber began prior to World War II and continued during the war under the so-called Very Long Range (VLR) project. The grave difficulties experienced by the Army Air Forces in the development and production of this revolutionary aircraft, together with Arnold’s own iron determination to deploy this weapon against Japan, are the keys to understanding Arnold’s insistence that it was not necessary to drop the atomic bomb. Arnold, as Chief of the Army Air Corps, initiated the B-29 development program on November 10, 1939, two months after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Arnold’s move came in response to a recommendation of the Kilner Board to request authority of the War Department to let contracts to develop a four-engine bomber superior in range, speed, and bomb load to the B-17 and the B-24. Boeing’s design for the XB-29 was judged to be superior by the Air Corps, and the XB-29 contract was let in September 1940.1 On October 17, 1940, Arnold wrote to Louis Johnson, the Assistant Secretary of War, that the B-29 was the only weapon with which the Army Air Forces “could hope to exert pressure against Japan without long and costly preliminary operations.”2

 

4. Arnold Places LeMay in Command

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Arnold Places LeMay in Command

In July 1944, Brigadier General Hansell, then the Chief of Staff, Twentieth Air Force, wrote to the Joint Staff Planners: “Sustained B-29 operations against the aircraft industry of Japan from bases in the Marianas will commence on or about 1 November 1944. Within three months thereafter, the effects of these attacks will begin to be felt.” As it turned out, in a great irony, Hansell in effect had written his own epitaph as commander of the XXI Bomber Command.

As noted, the XX Bomber Command’s B-29 Matterhorn operation led by Wolfe and then LeMay, established under great pressure from Roosevelt, suffered from major logistical difficulties. Similarly, operations in the Marianas under Hansell got off to a slow start. Arnold, already seemingly anticipating a race in the summer of 1945 to force Japan to surrender without an invasion, had been quite clear in his marching orders to Hansell. The AAF commander termed the effort to knock Japan out of the war with the B-29 campaign as the “The Battle of Japan.” He reminded Hansell that he was “watching you from day to day with the greatest anticipation.” Arnold reminded Hansell that “we have a big obligation to meet . . . we must in fact destroy our targets and then we must show the results so the public can judge for itself as to the effectiveness of our operations.”1 This was vintage Arnold: get the job done quickly and then we shall show the results to the American people. Arnold had an extraordinarily sensitive ear to the citizenry.

 

5. June 1945: A Meeting at the White House

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June 1945: A Meeting at the White House

The spring of 1945 witnessed an intensive review of strategy and command by the Joint Chiefs. MacArthur continued to put himself forward as the potential supreme commander in the Pacific, the one to lead the ultimate invasion of Japan. Realizing that King and the Navy leadership would never accept it, MacArthur at the close of 1944 looked forward to the ultimate assault on Japan which would end the war. He wrote to Marshall: “I do not recommend a single unified command for the Pacific. I am of the firm opinion that the Naval forces should serve under Naval Command and that the Army should serve under Army Command. Neither service willingly fights on a major scale under the command of the other. . . . The Navy, with almost complete Naval Command in the Pacific, has attained a degree of flexibility in the employment of resources with consequent efficiency that has far surpassed the Army. It is essential that the Navy be given complete command of all its units and that the Army be accorded similar treatment. Only in this way will there be attained that complete flexibility and efficient employment of forces that is essential to victory.”1

 

6. Arnold, Potsdam, and the Atomic Bomb

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Arnold, Potsdam, and the Atomic Bomb

Arnold had only two weeks in Washington between his return from the Pacific and the TERMINAL conference in July at Potsdam with Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. This turned out to be the last major wartime conference, coming three months after Germany’s surrender, and featuring Harry Truman, the new American president. Truman, who had been sworn in as president on April 12, 1945, and who for several years in the Senate had been Chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, had not known about the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Stimson had been entrusted by Roosevelt with supervision of the atomic project while Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves managed it. On April 25, Stimson briefed Truman on the “highly secret matter,” informing him that “within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.”1 After Germany’s surrender in May, the Joint Chiefs had expressed concern that the American public would become weary of the war. Admiral King noted that pressure on the home front might “force a negotiated peace, before the Japs are really licked.” Marshall was worried about “the possibility of a general letdown” after V-E Day, not only among the citizenry, but also within the American military.2

 

7. Who Was Hap Arnold?

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Who Was Hap Arnold?

In the Pacific, a time compression evolved in the strategic bombing campaign.1 Only two months of the incendiary campaign had passed between LeMay’s Tokyo raid in March and the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. With the intensive B-29 campaign, Arnold and the American airmen overcame Japan’s will to continue in less time than was the case with Germany. Ironically, what Arnold hoped for in Europe evolved in the Pacific: the B-29 incendiary campaign crumbled Japan.

The evolution of the B-29—going back to the report of the Kilner board well before U.S. entry into World War II—perfectly followed the march of aircraft technology. General Arnold and the Army Air Forces specified the requirement for a very long-range bomber that far exceeded the B-17 in all important categories. Based on the AAF doctrine of high-altitude precision bombing, the B-29 would fly higher, farther, and with a greater bomb load. There was no doubt that from early on, and through the war, Arnold and the air leadership viewed the potential success of the revolutionary B-29 as proving the case for a postwar independent Air Force. Arnold went so far as to admonish Haywood Hansell, his B-29 commander of XXI Bomber Command, that the results of his bombing campaign would determine the future of the Army Air Forces. The irony of the campaign was that LeMay, who succeeded Hansell, only had success when he area-bombed with incendiaries at low level at night over Japan, a stunning departure from the original specifications and doctrine. Thus, the strategy and tactics of strategic bombing clearly came to be based upon the dual impetus of technology and circumstance—what would work at the time and place. In this regard, as I have noted earlier, the AAF’s early strategic bombing doctrine was found wanting in both Europe and the Pacific. Escort fighters proved to be a necessity in Europe where tactics and targeting evolved haltingly, leading to enormous frustration on Arnold’s part. In the Pacific, as Norstad and Hansell pointed out, target data was at first somewhat scarce and constantly required modification, culminating in LeMay’s area bombing offensive in the spring and summer of 1945. Just prior to the dropping of atomic bombs, the AAF had finally concluded that an eleventh-hour bombing campaign against the railroad system might bring Japan down.

 

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