Part 4 - A case study in modernization: Challenge #3 operational effectiveness

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 20th Air Force History Office


Challenge #3: Operational Effectiveness

Once Superfortresses began rolling off assembly lines at a rapid rate and arriving in Allied-controlled regions in the Pacific under the command of Twentieth Air Force units, Arnold’s last major challenge was assigning leaders best-suited to lead the forces charged with operating this unique weapon system.

Of utmost desire was using long-range bombers against a Japanese adversary and forcing its nation’s political leaders into submission before a proposed land invasion of the home islands was necessary.

Arnold remained dismayed that the Army Air Forces had been unable to avert a land invasion of Europe. If his air forces were able to coerce Japanese capitulation without resorting to a ground invasion – one that, incidentally, most U.S. military leadership considered imminent – such a feat would provide an added postwar benefit of demonstrating the value of an independent air force. Once again, though, time wasn’t a luxury as military leaders began planning for an initial land invasion projected for November 1945.

Against that layered backdrop, Arnold placed responsibility for his envisioned undertaking on the new Twentieth Air Force – with its experienced bombardment crews operating and maintaining unproven B-29s.

Arnold selected Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell to command the XXI Bomber Command. Hansell had extensive experience fighting in Europe before this assignment, bringing to command his own goals of proving the value of precision, daytime bombing of strategic adversarial targets – in other words, not area bombing – intended to cripple Japan’s military-producing abilities.

Hansell, however, had limited success deploying B-29s on specific targets, with his units frequently reporting poor results upon returning to base.

Hansell was not responsible for every shortcoming: supplies were slow to arrive on the islands, to include munitions and spare parts; maintenance technicians had not fully grasped how to repair the new aircraft; target information over Japan was still in its infancy; and no one neither anticipated nor yet understood the 140 mile per hour jet stream patterns over the Pacific, especially while attempting to fly at 30,000 feet, at an altitude no other bomber had flown previously.

Despite these barriers, Hansell persisted in conducting precision daylight bombing operations – even if it meant repeatedly reporting delayed outcomes and worrisome results to his superiors.

Arnold allowed Hansell opportunities to reverse these negative trends, but he couldn’t wait forever – especially with the White House demanding faster and better results from the B-29s. As hoped-for results proved elusive, and aware that Roosevelt was intimately monitoring Twentieth Air Force’s operations over Japan, Arnold replaced Hansell with Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay in January 1945. Because Hansell was unwilling to sacrifice precision bombing to save his career, Arnold removed him from command – one of many second- and third-order effects from Arnold’s overall ambitions.

Upset with the progress of B-29 operations in the Pacific, General Arnold replaced Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell (left) with Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay (right), as commander of XXI Bomber Command in January 1945. Hansell was unwilling to sacrifice precision bombing for immediate and visible attacks against Japan. This photo was taken January 20, 1945, during one of the few overlapping days between the two leaders before Hansell’s departure from the Pacific Theater. (Photo credit: The 20th Air Force Album, D. Perkins)

LeMay, who previously commanded XX Bomber Command in the China-Burma-India theater, had demonstrated the results that Arnold coveted. According to one contemporary, “LeMay was writing half-page reports telling Arnold what he did yesterday, and Hansell was writing a three-page report explaining why the mission aborted.”

Before his re-assignment, LeMay received the following message from Arnold, reiterating the latter’s point that the B-29 mission was one component of a larger objective:

“As I told you before you went out to India, the B-29 project is important to me because I am convinced that it is vital to the future of the Army Air Forces. I think progress has been made, and you have contributed materially to this…. I think we can do better bombing with the B-29 than has been done by any aircraft up to this time, and I expect you to be the one to prove this.”

LeMay, as with Arnold and Hansell, faced his own challenges. He, too, failed to produce the immediate results expected of him, largely because he implemented Hansell’s precision bombing strategy that led to the same outcomes as his predecessor.

“I had to do something.”

LeMay did several things, in fact. To get around ferocious winds, he ordered that aircrews fly at 7,000 feet, far lower than the 30,000-foot ceiling the aircraft was capable of reaching. He shifted to nighttime missions in lieu of daytime attacks, a practice at odds with how U.S. bombers – LeMay included – operated in Europe. He also moved away from targeting strategic chokepoints supporting the Japanese war economy to striking densely populated areas composed of highly flammable wooden structures and thus ripe for producing firestorms across Japanese urban centers.

In sum, LeMay shifted to tactics entirely contrary to Hansell’s – and showing immediate results, at least visually.

The best-known mission, code-named Operation MEETINGHOUSE, occurred over March 9-10, 1945. This was the deadliest – and arguably the most devastating – air attack of World War II. For this mission alone, more than 300 Superfortresses dropped more than 1,600 tons of incendiary bombs over 15 square miles inside Tokyo.

The results were startling: between 90,000 and 100,000 people died from flames that, in some areas, reached temperatures of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Another one million were rendered homeless from the attack.

It was the highest death toll of any air raid during the war, to include each of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Operation MEETINGHOUSE marked a new phase in the way that B-29 forces conducted bombing operations in the Pacific, setting a standard for firebombing campaigns that devastated Japanese cities throughout the remainder of the war.

And these shifts in tactics and strategy were cheered by none other than the Twentieth Air Force commander, Arnold. Having just recovered from his fourth heart attack during the war, Arnold praised LeMay and his forces for their “fine work,” adding that this mission, coupled with “the fact that by July 1 you will have nearly a thousand B-29’s under your control, leads one to conclusions which are impressive even to old hands at bombardment operations.”

Aware that these controversial tactics had satisfied Arnold and others stateside – both those on the home front and in leadership positions – LeMay sustained this area bombing pressure on the Japanese population. If munitions were available, LeMay wasn’t shy loading them onto aircraft.

Continue to Part 5 - A case study in modernization: War’s end – modernization objectives met here.

This is part 4 of 5 of an article that was adapted from Dr. Prichard's briefing at the Fall 2022 Twentieth Air Force Senior Leader Conference held at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The following resources were used in the development of both that presentation and this article:

Maj Gen (ret) John W. Huston, ed., American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries, vol. 2 (Maxwell AFB, AUP 2002)

Maj James M. Boyle, “How the Superfortress Paced the Attack Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (December 1964): 63-69

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2021)

Herman S. Volk, “The Twentieth Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (April 2004): 68-73

Charles Griffith, The Quest: Haywood Hansell and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Maxwell AFB, AUP 1999)

William W. Ralph, “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan,” War in History 13, no. 4 (2006): 495-522