Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II

Article excerpt

Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II by Kenneth P. Werrell. Smithsonian Institution Press, 470 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560,1996, 350 pages, $39.95.

The 50th anniversary of the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the resulting controversy over the display of the Enola Gay, provided ample evidence of how few people were able (or perhaps willing) to place these events in context of the strategic-bombing campaign waged against Japan. Ironically, this subject has suffered more from mistreatment than neglect (e.g., see Dr. Jeffery J. Roberts's article "Peering through Different Bombsights: Military Historians, Diplomatic Historians, and the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb" in the Spring 1998 issue of Airpower Journal).

Although arriving too late to join that debate, Blankets of Fire surpasses previous works by asking better, although not unique, questions, such as "How did an air force committed to daylight, high altitude, precision bombing of point targets end up dropping bombs on cities and civilians? And, after all was said and done, how much did the bombing contribute to the defeat of our enemies?" The answers benefit from the author's unique blend of scholarship and practical experience. In the process Dr. Werrell presents a comprehensive look at the B-29, its World War II operations, and its impact.

Many readers will recognize Dr. Werrell from his other works, including past contributions to APJ and its predecessor (Air University Review). As one might expect, Blankets of Fire is thoroughly researched, well written, and supported by extensive sources and statistics. Moreover, Werrell explains in the preface that he feels he was destined to write this book. While stationed in Japan in the early 1960s, he piloted a WB-50, a derivative of the B29 used for weather-reconnaissance flights. This experience not only provided incentive for the book but also gave him significant expertise and some insight into events without the potential biases of an actual participant.

Beginning with the evolution of US strategicbombing theory, Werrell establishes the basis for both the doctrine of daylight precision bombardment and the development of aircraft such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and a long-range heavy bomber that would become the B-29. He then takes us through the complex and troubled development history of that aircraft. Sometimes called Gen Henry "Hap" Arnold's "three billion dollar gamble," the B29 was the most ambitious aircraft program of the war-and the most expensive (surpassing the $2 billion spent to develop the atomic bomb). Plagued by technical difficulties-including engines prone to catch fire-contractors, maintainers, and crews fought the difficult and often dangerous "Battle of Kansas" trying to field operational aircraft with trained crews. Werrell concludes that they were ultimately successful, but this was a balancing act-fielding something good enough and soon enough in a wartime situation-- and readers should judge for themselves.

Just where were they headed? The narrative lays out the political and military calculations that initially committed them to the China-BurmaIndia theater under the code name Matterhorn in April 1944. The logistics of staging out of India and the austerity of the advanced bases in China became legend, with the operation proving little other than a baptism of fire for men and planes. …