The Uniqueness of the Pacific Air War?

Professor Robert Citino has posted that there was a degree of uniqueness about the war in the Pacific. One area where theis was certainly the case was in the conduct of the strategic air offensive against Japan that was inexorable linked to General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold’s desire to create an independent air force.[1] In many respect it represent the apogee of strategic air power for the United States Army Air Force during the course of the Second World War. Key to this was the formation of the Twentieth Air Force that was equipped with the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Arnold had personally overseen the development of the Superfortress as he saw it as the key to the conduct of the campaign against Germany and Japan and therefore central to the achievement of independence. Key to the production the B-29 was the support that Arnold received from President Franklin Roosevelt who hoped to support the Chinese with B-29s based in that country. The Twentieth Air Force was formed on 4 April 1944 under the direct command of Arnold himself with responsibility to the Chiefs of Staff. This presaged the role that Strategic Air Command would play in the post-war defence set-up. XX Bomber Command was deployed to China under the command of Brigadier General Kenneth Wolfe. However, the results achieved from China were disappointing and it would eventually withdrawal to India. At the same time, Major-General Curtis LeMay had replaced Wolfe.[2] In April 1944, XXI Bomber Command had been formed and by August 1944, it was deployed to the recently recaptured Marianas Island. From here, B-29s were to attack Japan. Initially commanded by Major-General Haywood Hansell, who had been Chief of Staff to the Twentieth Air Force in Washington, he would be replaced by LeMay when the later moved from XX Bomber Command. The key reason for this replacement was due to the ineffectiveness of Hansell precision targeting policy against Japanese targets. LeMay would radically change the targeting policy to one of area bombing using firebombing tactics with a directive that was issued on 19 February 1945. The firebombing of Tokyo in February and March 1945 most notably represented this.[3] Ultimately, the use of air power to deliver the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reinforced the strategic role of USAAF and set a pattern for its central role American post-war nuclear deterrent force. Arnold had played an important role in the coordination of the bombs development and it’s eventually implementation.[4]

The strategic direction of the campaign of the campaign from Washington represented the peak of strategic air power for Arnold. It placed USAAF on a co-equal footing with both the army and navy in the pacific theatre as rather than reporting to a theatre commander as General Carl Spaatz did in Europe; Twentieth Air Force reported directly to Washington. It was well recognised that this amounted to an independent air force for USAAF. Arnold was also keen to avoid cooperating with the RAF who planned to deploy its own strategic bombing force, Tiger Force, to the Far East once the war in Europe was complete.[5] Here they expected a similar command set-up as to that which had existed in Europe where through Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal both Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris and Spaatz reported to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, however, they were rebuked on this point when it was made clear that the Twentieth Air Force would only report to the US Chiefs of Staff; a clear indication that this campaign belonged to the Americans. A final reorganisation of operations took place on 16 July when Spaatz took command of the US Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific due to the impending deployment of the Eighth Air Force to Okinawa. Lieutenant General Nathan Twinning would command Twentieth Air Force while Eight Air Force was still commanded by Doolittle. Arnold continued to act as the executive agent for the strategic air forces and issued directives on behalf of the US Chiefs of Staff.[6]


[1] Herman Wolk, Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and Defeat of Japan (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2010) passim.

[2] On LeMay see; Curtis LeMay with MacKinlay Kantor, Mission with LeMay (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1965); Thomas Coffey, Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Cutis LeMay (New York, NY: Crown, 1986)

[3] William Ralph, ‘Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan’, War in History, Vol. 13, No. 4 (November 2006); Mark Seldon, ‘A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities, and the American Way of War from the Pacific War to Iraq’ in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young (Eds.) Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New York, NY: Free Press, 2009).

[4] Wolk, Cataclysm, pp. 163-206; Jacob Meulen, ‘Planning for VJ‐day by the US Army Air Forces and the Atomic Bomb Controversy’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1993).

[5] On the diplomacy of this issue see; Nicholas Sarantakes, ‘The Royal Air Force on Okinawa: The Diplomacy of a Coalition on the Verge of Victory’, Diplomatic History, Vol. 27, No. 4 (September 2003) pp. 479–502. More generally see; Nicholas Sarantakes, Allies and the Rising Sun: The United States, the British Nations, and the Defeat of Imperial Japan (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009).

[6] Wolk, Cataclysm, pp. 160-161.

11 responses to “The Uniqueness of the Pacific Air War?

  1. Fair, I think. Unique in its’ time both organisationally, and from a command perspective. You point out that this is only one of the ways the conduct of the Pacific Air War was unique. Perhaps the failure to utilise the potential of RAAF units is another? A couple of further thoughts, if I may: could not one point to facets of almost any campaign and annoint them “unique?” Secondly, back to the Pacific air war, I don’t find the chosen set up suprising as the last thing the US wanted was the reappearance of the British Empire in what they saw as their neck of the woods/ sphere of influence? What is ‘Mare Nostrum’ in an American accent?

  2. Very nice piece. A couple of points – firstly, of course, that despite the attitude of American chiefs, Macarthur in particular, it wasn’t just an American war, despite the American’s heavy share of the burden – the air war in the Pacific was also shared with the Royal Australian Air force, the Royal Dutch Air force, the RAF and to a lesser degree the RZAF…
    I think as per Adam’s comments above, they were obviously very keen to both assert themselves as ‘victors’, ensuring the world started to take them seriously as a superpower, and prevent the former colonial powers in the region from reasserting themselves in what they increasingly saw as their sphere of influence – this is played out post-war by the Americans supporting independence movements in French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies etc
    I think this foreign policy position was also partly as a result of having entered WWI quite late on, and not having being taken seriously as a contributing victorious power, despite their important role in propping up the allied offensives of 1918. The American high command was very keen to avoid this, and we see specific examples like Macarthur preventing Australian troops from participating in the Philippines campaign and side-lining them to mopping up in Borneo and New Guinea. I think this was very much done with a view to ensuring the ‘glory’ in the Pacific War would go to the US. Likewise the USAAF wanted to be seen as the key contributor in the Pacific air war to prevent any of the other Allies, the British in particular, from using their key contribution as a post-war negotiating platform.

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  4. Of course, any campaign can be considered unique, and indeed, I suspect we can go round in circles citing examples of how various campaigns are from the forces deployed to the political aims underpinning the campaign. Each war is unique. However, Robert’s point relates more to how it changed the attitude of a nation for the conflict. In that aspect I suspect it is unique. American public opinion turned very quickly from isolationism after Pearl Harbor. Taking that further, the use and control of strategic air power, which was underpinned by American concepts of progressivism, from Washington was a unique aspect of an already unique campaign. I agree that the misuse of the RAAF and the Australians in general, is representative of the uniqueness of the American position in this theatre. However, we must remember this was a position that the Australian government largely acquiesced to when Macarthur arrived there in 1942. As to not wanting the British there, yes, I agree, there is an element of that. However, it must also be tempered by the strategic quandary the British found themselves in by 1944. Churchill was adamant that we must be seen to regain the empire in SE Asia, however, the Chiefs of Staff viewed that best way to achieve this was to be involved in the main thrust of the campaign through the Central Pacific and launched from a base in Australia. Vociferous debates raged between them in early 1944. The eventual commitment of British forces was a poor half way house that perhaps fulfilled certain political objectives. On this I can suggest reading Nick Sarantakes’ work.

  5. newsflash: air power historian finds use of air power ‘unique’ :D

    in other news; water remains wet ;)

  6. Pingback: The Uniqueness of the Pacific Air War? | Birmingham War Studies·

  7. The key airpower target at the end of WW2 was the one the 20th Air Force never struck, the Kanmon Undersea Railway Tunnel between Honshu and Kyushu.

    The Kanmon Undersea Railway Tunnel — often called “Kammon” in various WW2 and post WW2 documents/histories — was the key piece of transportation infrastructure for Operation Olympic — the cancelled invasion of Japan — which was left untouched at the end of WW2.

    The Shimonoseki straits were mined in March 1945, cutting off large
    ship traffic between Honshu and Kyushu.

    The Kanmon Tunnel was included in an April 1945 SWPA/FEAF high priority transportation campaign target (See Transport plan on pg 115 of MacArthur Reports).

    Between April and August 1945 the Japanese Army in Kyushu built up from 300,000 troops to 900,000 troops. The majority of this build up happened in June, July and August 1945 through the Kanmon Undersea Railway Tunnel.

    The Kanmon Railway tunnel was reserved as a target for the joint 20th Air Force/OSS Javaman remotely piloted boat-bomb that would have been controlled by a 20th Air Force plane, with four 85-foot Javaman to be delivered by submarine or Fast Destroyer transport (APD) within one-night cruising range of an 85-foot air rescue boat tarted up as a fishing boat.

    A cursory review of the physical structure and approaches to the Kanmon Railway Tunnel makes the idea that Javaman could actually pull off the closure of the tunnels highly doubtful. The problem is that both approaches to it were long — the northern one required going past fortified islands and the Southern approach had the Kyushu coast as the left flank for several hundred miles. You were not going to get APD’s close enough past Kamikazes and an 85 ft boat was too hefty to move more than one at a time on a US Fleet Boat. This is why the US Navy called the Javaman operation off after the battle experience at Okinawa with Kamikazes.

    This Javaman project kept the Kanmon Railway Tunnel off the US Navy carrier, 20th Air Force and FEAF target lists until June 1945.

    After the Javaman program was cancelled, the Kanmon tunnel was
    assigned to the 20th Air Force B-29 bombers, which firebombed both Moji and Shimonoseki, which were either end of the electric railway tunnels.

    Firebombing was ineffective in destroying the rail lines, tunnel
    entrances or the electrical power plant supplying the tunnel electric
    engines.

    After August 7, 1945, the Kanmon Railway tunnel was reassigned to the FEAF, (This targeting change is in both the 6th Army 28 July 1945 dated Field Order 74 and 5th Amphibious Force order COMPHIBSPAC A11-45 dated 6 August 1945) which made one attempt to bomb the tunnel that was thwarted by bad weather.

    The US Strategic Bombing Survey cut off all information on Japanese railway transportation statistics past 30 June 1945, so those fact was not visible in a narrative form I just related.

    This is what one of the most researched USSBS reports said in two very small and disconnected foot notes on the subject –

    THE UNITED STATES STRATEGIC BOMBING SURVEY
    The Effects OF Strategic Bombing ON JAPAN’S War Economy
    Appendix A,B,C
    OVER-ALL ECONOMIC EFFECTS DIVISION
    December 1946

    Page 39

    “* One mission scheduled against the Kammon Tunnel entrance was frustrated by foul weather and this particular target was later specifically assigned to other forces. There remained, however, at least four vital rail yards in the area, Moji. Shimonoseki, Ilatabu, and Tobata, as well as bridges and yards on the Sanyo-, Kagoshima, and Chikuho lines which were essential to the movement of Kyushu and Ube district coal.”

    and

    Page 62

    “‘ Even if it had proved impossible to do serious damage to the Kammon tunnel which had been designated as a target for special weapons. Responsibility for its destruction had been shifted to the B-29′s.”

    Point in fact, the transportation campaign the Japanese War USSBS reports harp on were almost completely unnecessary.
    The Imperial Japanese Army had pushed so many train engines and rolling stock through the Kanmon tunnel to Kyushu that the overall Japanese railway system was operating at 30% capacity at surrender.

    The majority of the equipment for those 600,000 extra troops was still on rail cars in tunnels, burnt out factory area sidings in Northern
    Kyushu or in caves adjacent to rail heads at war’s end.

    When the the USMC V Corps occupied Kyushu and Western Honshu, it could not move into western Honshu ports because of the 20th Air Force laid pressure fused sea mines. It used Kyushu rolling stock to go through the Kanmon Tunnel into Honshu.

    Had the Atom Bomb failed to obtain a surrender from the Japanese Emperor, it is doubtful the USAAF would have gotten the independence it sought. The very independent command set up General Hap Arnold created would have been blamed by MacArthur for the Japanese build up on Kyushu after the invasion.

  8. One aspect that was unique to the Pacific strategic bombing was the targeting. As the article states Lemay changed the targets from ”pinpoint” (for that day and technology) to area firebombing with minimal attempt at justification under the concept of military-industrial web. Spaatz resisted strongly all attempts to change the bombing techniques of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces in Europe to area targeting. One could possibly argue that there was a tinge of racism involved, not to mention a thirst for revenge against the Japanese.

    I do agree that the other nations involved in the Pacific war were shoved to the side as the American air forces grew in strength. Funny how tightly integrated the air coalition was in the early days, when any airplane that flew was a valuable asset, compared to the last year of the war.

  9. My understanding is that the final B-29 wing (or Air Division, not sure) deployed to the Marianas before the end of the war was equipped with the latest production model, which featured an advanced ground-mapping radar bombing system. These aircraft, after arriving in-theater in late June, carried out about 15 precision bombing missions against Japan’s petroleum infrastructure, pretty much destroying it — although by mid-1945 that infrastructure was operating at a very low capacity and this effort had no impact on the outcome of the war. .

  10. Jay – I agree that racism may have played a part in the decision-making process. One only has to read John Dower’s ‘War without Mercy’ to see that race played an important part. However, how much is hard to ascribe to decision-making processes. I suspect there is a degree of realism in LeMay’s thinking and recognition that pinpoint targeting was not working. This was recognized as much in Europe and is part of the reason why ‘marshaling yards’ became targets of choice. Eaker, Doolittle and Spaatz were quite aware of the problems of adhering to industrial-web theory. Indeed, Spaatz, once appointed to the strategic air forces in the pacific claimed that he would publically continue to adhere to precision bombing despite what LeMay was doing.

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