Burning Japan: Air Force Bombing Strategy Change in the Pacific

Burning Japan: Air Force Bombing Strategy Change in the Pacific

Burning Japan: Air Force Bombing Strategy Change in the Pacific

Burning Japan: Air Force Bombing Strategy Change in the Pacific


Between the grinding battles of the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and the finality of the atomic bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. Air Force conducted a bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands that escalated to new levels of destruction.

Burning Japan is an investigation of how and why the air force shifted its tactics against Japan from a precision bombing strategy to area attacks. The guiding doctrine of the 1930s and 1940s called for focused attacks on specific targets deep behind enemy lines. Eager to prove itself, the nascent Army Air Force at first lauded the indispensability of strategic bombardment in areas otherwise unreachable by the army or navy. But when strategic bombing failed to yield the desired results in Europe and in initial efforts against Japan, the United States switched tactics, a shift that culminated in the area firebombing of nearly every major Japanese metropolis and the burning of sixty-six cities to the ground.

Daniel T. Schwabe closely examines the planning and implementation of these incendiary missions to determine how an organization dedicated to precision decided on such a dramatic change in tactics. Ultimately, Schwabe maintains, this strategic reimagining helped create a comprehensive offensive strategy that did immense amounts of destruction which crippled Japan and brought an end to World War II.


The end of World War II in the Pacific is known for its bloody island battles and the use of two atomic bombs, bombs that marked the end of one era and the dawn of a more modern and colder one. Part of the sweeping away of the old ways in 1945 was the scrapping of the fleets of bombers that tore apart the Axis powers. Fleets of B-17s, B-24s, B-26s, and even B-29s were crushed, smelted, or sold by the airfield as scrap metal. The conventional strategic-bombing doctrine that dominated the 1930s and 1940s was pushed aside and replaced by a nuclear strategy of massive destruction.

The first plane to carry the mantle in this new era of massive destruction was the one that started it all over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the B-29 Superfortress. Lost in this new paradigm of atomic warfare, however, was the larger role the B-29 played in the last year of the war in the Pacific, one of conventional bombing. The B-29s of the 20th Air Force (AF), like those of its fellow numbered air forces in Europe, carried out a strategic-bombing campaign against the industrial power of Japan. True, the strategic bombers in the Pacific never achieved close to the number of planes the European forces did, or operated in theater for nearly as long as the European units, but they did contribute mightily to the defeat of Japan and the evolution of strategic airpower. The men of the 20th AF bombed specific targets with iron bombs and burned to the ground almost all the major cities of Japan.

This book tackles the question of how the U.S. Air Force, dedicated to precision bombing, moved to area attacks as an avowed tactic. Others have written about what the Pacific air campaign, 20th . . .

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