Strategic Air Raids and Nuclear Bombing of Japan
World War II was a war of unprecedented feats and military actions. Never before had two global superpowers faced off and clashed in predominately ocean-based warfare. In addition, the tremendous focus on air power and supremacy was unique to the modern warfare tactics of World War II. In the end, America’s military expansion and strategy of systematically bombing Japanese cities and military targets was successful, although it did lead to the controversial decision to drop the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities.
While America’ s attention was directed primarily towards the escalating war in Europe against Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, an unexpected blow to the U.S. military force in the Pacific suddenly mobilized the country to war. The unforeseen and devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 pushed the US off the cliff of neutrality into the savage waters of war. In response to the crisis at his hands, Roosevelt ordered the creation of tens of thousands of aircraft. However, the US initially did not possess more than 5500 aircraft due to the recovering economy and isolationist politics leading up to the war.(Madison) A transformation therefore occurred in which the US economy became wholly devoted to supporting the war effort. In addition, America’s strategy concerning its air production changed significantly due to the observed superiority of European aircraft power and abundance. The shift to aerial warfare incited the US to increase its production steadily from 12,000 aircraft annually in 1941 to 96,000 in 1944.(Madison) An increase in manpower accompanied this expansion and the number of Air Corps personnel rose precipitously from 43,000 in 1939 to 300,000 by the Pearl Harbor attacks.(Madison) With this augmentation of personnel and aircraft, the Air Corps developed into the US Army Air Forces, which was the coequal of the Army Ground Forces and Army Service Forces. Through the strengthening of the US’s air power, it was afforded the ability to wage a steady campaign utilizing aircraft to strategically bomb the Japanese in the Pacific.
Japan’s aggressive offensive in the Pacific was so sudden that American forces were initially fighting a defensive battle to prevent their annihilation. The beginning of the war with Japan proved costly for the US when Pearl Harbor was devastated. Several battleships and 180 aircraft were destroyed in the strike.(Cunningham) Immediately following this act of aggression, the Japanese assailed American occupied Wake Island and overpowered the hopelessly outnumbered naval force and personnel stationed there. Guam also fell to Japanese invaders in December 1941 as Japan expanded its defensive circle in the Pacific further. An amphibious troop landing and air attack on the allied American and Philippine military bases also swiftly overtook the Philippines in early 1942. The possibility of Australia’s being isolated and further islands falling under control of the Japanese conquest called for the formulation of an American strategy to regain its territory in the Pacific. In conjunction with General MacArthur’s ground forces in New Guinea and the Philippines, the US forces would “island hop” through the Marshall, Caroline, and Marianas islands and put Japan within striking distance of the advanced B-29 Superfortress bombers. Through the use of US naval and ground forces, the USAAF would gain superiority over the Western Pacific. While a major component of the US’s military force, including its aircraft, was appropriated to the European theater of war, a sufficient air force contributed greatly to America’s gaining the upper hand against Japan. In a daring air raid of Tokyo by American B-25 bombers in 1942, the Americans inflicted minor damage to the city.(Isserman) However, it had a powerful psychological effect on the Japanese military, which reallocated more aircraft to home defense and delayed its Pacific conquest. Shortly after, a battle between carrier-launched aircraft in the Coral Sea resulted in a Japanese tactical victory but a strategic defeat as its advancement had been thwarted for the first time in the war. The tide of the war continued to shift in America’s advantage at Midway, where US aircraft again suffered losses but were able to force a Japanese evacuation. With newfound momentum, the US regained its footing and launched an offensive that would steadily push the US through the Pacific to Japan itself.
America’s strategy of “island hopping” was now put into full effect. The plan was to bypass heavily fortified Japanese forts and strongholds and focus on less defended islands in order to advance to Japan. In addition, the strategy was intended to leave the bypassed islands isolated and therefore rendered useless. Admiral Niimitz and General MacArthur coordinated the strategy in the Southwest Pacific and Central Pacific Fronts. With an overextended and insufficiently defended Pacific empire following its rapid conquest after Pearl Harbor, Japan was vulnerable to America even in its weakened state. A major victory at Guadalcanal of the Solomon Islands, coming after seven months of fighting from 1942 to 1943, allowed the US to build vital airstrips that were to be used in New Guinea. From 1943 to 1944, as MacArthur’s forces moved north through New Guinea, the US secured airbases in the Solomon Islands and gained a clear strategic advantage in the South Pacific.. Meanwhile, island hopping in the Central Pacific steadily drove American forces closer to the home island of Japan. In the Marshall Islands, after seizing the islands of Kwajalein and Eniwetok, the US bombarded the naval base on Truk and then bypassed it to capture Saipan and Guam in 1944.(Isserman) Saipan was particularly important to the US as it allowed B-29 bombers to strike targets in Japan. In 1945, after the seizure of another strategically crucial island, Iwo Jima, the US began a systematic approach of aerially bombing Japanese cities. The utilization of fire-bombing on the predominately wooden buildings of Japanese cities caused massive destruction along with a high death toll. Many cities lost vast portions of their infrastructure and hundreds of thousands died in the devastation. In Tokyo specifically, 80,000 were killed while 1.5 million were left homeless.(Cunningham) The extensive destruction inflicted by B-29 bombers on Japanese cities was undeniable; however, Japan refused to unconditionally surrender.
The creation of the most powerful weapon on Earth, the atom bomb, caused a strategic dilemma for the US’s military. Either the nuclear bombs would be dropped on two cities and thousands of civilians would consequentially perish, or a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home island would ensue and possibly just as many or more people would die in the struggle. Obviously, America would rather sacrifice Japanese lives and quickly end the war rather than losing more men and stringing out the war. Therefore, nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The chief of the Manhattan Project described the significance of the bomb after the first nuclear test, “As to the present war, there was a feeling that no matter what else might happen, we now had the means to insure its speedy conclusion and save thousands of American lives.”(Account, July 18, 1945) This power was used to its fullest potential, as Japan was practically shocked into submission. Although the fire bombing campaign, made possible by island hopping tactics, proved to be lethal to Japan’s infrastructure, the nuclear bombs were still unleashed, concluding the war in a mushroom cloud of smoke.
"Account, July 18, 1945, of the 'Trinity Test,' the First Atomic Bomb Explosion." Eyewitness to America's Wars, Vol. 2. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. American History Online. Cunningham, Eric. "Island Hopping and Leap-Frogging: World War II." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society.ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 15 May 2013. Isserman, Maurice. "Pacific Island-Hopping." World War II. New York: Facts on File, 2003. N. pag. Print. Madison, Rodney. "U.S. Army Air Forces: World War II." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO,2013. Web. 14 May 2013.