On June 15, 1944, the first Boeing B-29 Superfortress raid flew from China to strike at a factory in Japan. This was the precision target bombing that the United State Army Air Forces (USAAF) had practiced for years. This policy would be abandoned shortly for area bombing of civilian targets. It would represent a major shift from the doctrine practiced in Europe and the policy that had cost so many American lives over German cities.
The B-29 was arguably the finest bomber of the war. It could carry 20,000 pounds of bombs for 2,000 miles round-trip, and had remotely controlled turrets for defense. It incorporated many of the lessons of the air war in Europe, including pressurized cabins and heavy defensive armament.
The B-29s were being massed in daylight raids on precision targets, like their counterparts in Europe had done. The British had abandoned daylight bombing as too costly, preferring area bombing at night. The around the clock bombing raids had amounted to a second front, with thousands of men and machines held in Germany and away from battlefronts in Russia, Africa, Italy and France.
But that had come at a heavy price. Thousands of aircrew were killed when the B-17s and B-24s were sent over Germany without fighter cover. However, they did lay waste to huge areas of Germany.
Now the bases were available to do the same to Japan. Quickly it became apparent that the planes could not sustain operations in China and were moved to the Marianas. The precision targets were not successful, partly due to the lack of fighter cover and partly due to the construction of Japanese factories, refineries and military institutions. Unlike Germany, which required hundreds of tons of high explosive for each attack to wreck the stone and brick buildings, high explosive from high altitude did not have the same effect on the paper and wood structures predominant in Japan. The Jet Stream, previously unknown to the Americans but well known to the Japanese, prevented the vaunted Norden bombsight from high level precision accuracy.
When General Curtiss LeMay arrived and took command in January 1945, he ordered a switch from high altitude high explosive precision daylight attacks to night area bombing with a mixture of incendiaries and antipersonnel weapons. This prevented the firefighters from putting out the fires, which spread wildly. The Americans were essentially adopting the Royal Air Force’s European tactics.
From March 1945 through the end of the war, many Japanese cities were subjected to area bombing with incendiaries. Tokyo, Osaka, and many other cities were burned out by firestorms that reached over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The bombings may have killed as many as 500,000 people. What took the RAF seven years to do to Germany, 20th Air Force did to Japan in eight months. Japan lacked radar, high altitude fighters in numbers, and trained pilots. The Japanese press made much of ramming attacks, which horrified American crews, but did little to stop the onslaught. By August 1945, only Kokura, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were relatively intact as Japanese urban areas.
After the atomic attack of August 9, hundreds of B-29s hit the rubble of Tokyo again. On August 15, the last battle of the Pacific War was between a flight of Consolidated B-32 Dominators, another kind of American heavy bomber, and Imperial Japanese Navy fighters. That same day the Emperor proclaimed the armistice. The war was over.