Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

Annihilation by Fire

When Japan caught us unprepared for a Pacific war she was able to project her armies so quickly in all directions that a buffer zone was established which seemed unbridgeable by bombing planes. So it was in those days when the Flying Fortress and the Liberator, with maximum range of a couple of thousand miles, were the best planes we had and those in minute quantities. Tojo was able to boast with some justification that the sacred homeland would never be violated by enemy planes. But plans for the production of long-range bombers and the capture of bases close enough to use them proceeded side by side.

The Super Fortress was the design accepted for the plane to bridge the gulf between potentially accessible bases and Japan, and the Marianas were selected as the best available bases from which the super-raids could be launched.

It is another great tribute to American planning, production and organisation that the fruition of these parallel plans was achieved simultaneously. While Marines and Army troops were fighting at that time the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War at Saipan, in the Marianas, the appearance of the giant planes which were to operate from there was dramatically announced with the news of the first Super Fortress raid from bases in China on the Japanese steel producing centre of Yawata.

By the time Saipan had been captured and the necessary fields developed, enough Superforts had come off the assembly lines to stage the first mass raid on Tokyo. While lying offshore at Saipan on the eve of the invasion we had been told that within six months U.S. planes would be bombing Tokyo from Saipan. The first raid actually came within five months.

Conversion of the sugar-producing islands of Saipan, and later Tinian and Guam, into some of the world's greatest heavy bomber bases was one of the major achievements of the Pacific war. It requires an extremely good foundation for taxiways and hardstands to support the weight of monster Superforts loaded with bombs and gasolene and extra long and strong runways to get them into the air.

Existing fields on Saipan had to be strengthened, lengthened and widened before even the ordinary planes could operate. Aircraft engineers who built the first operational field landed six days after the assault troops, filled up 600 craters in the Jap field and had it running as a fighter strip within twenty-four hours.

Fortunately the island abounds with mountains of coral rock which forms an excellent base for roads and airstrips. Crushed and mixed with asphalt it provided good surfacing material.

Special black-tipped roads were built to bring the coral rock from the quarries to the airstrip, roads along which no one could travel unless they were hauling coral. Along the "Great Coral Road" dump trucks travelled night and day, one every 40 seconds for weeks and months on end. Air force engineers and Seabees (construction battalions) quarried, scooped, dumped and levelled, keeping pace with the workers in Boeing's factories, who were turning out the giants at record speed for the first great raid.

Lavish use of equipment and back-breaking work on Saipan was matched by the enthusiastic support of the heavy-bomber programme back in Washington. Dozens of airfields on the U.S. west coast and hundreds of transport planes were thrown into the project, to give the advance teams on Saipan everything they needed to have the base ready on time.

By the time I arrived in Saipan in mid-November, the base was almost complete and B-29's were arriving daily, to be checked over for their history making mission.

The Super Fortress, apart from being able to deliver heavier bombloads farther than any other plane, is also the most beautiful aircraft yet produced. Smoothly tapering like an artist's brush handle, it rides like a feathered dart. Inside the seemingly slender tube are gadgets which enable it to be flown comfortably through the sub-stratosphere by crewmen without oxygen masks, and which enable the guns to be fired by remote control with director as much as 40 feet away. Pressurized and heated cabins permit pilots and crewmen to move around in normal dress in an altitude considerably higher than Mount Everest. The central fire control, with the principle of the naval gun director applied to an airplane for the first time, increases the gunners' efficiency and makes the Superfort the most dangerous aircraft in the world for fighters to tackle as the Japs have since discovered to their cost. The gunner simply twirls two knobs, like focusing a camera, keeping the enemy plane in a rectangular frame. A special computor automatically calculates the gunner's and the enemy's plane speed, direction and flight angle. He just presses a button when an enemy plane fills up a sufficient portion of the rectangle. Each gunner can fire his own guns as well as others from five different gun positions if companion gunners are wounded and the central control can take over all five positions if necessary.

The first raid was delayed for several days because of bad weather, and that was a difficult period for the pilots and crewmen. Each morning we went along at 4.30 a.m. to the field. Crewmen were in their planes, and for the first few mornings some planes actually taxied up for the take-off, when reports came in that there was still a "front" over Tokyo and bad weather along the sixteen hundred mile route. Weather planes were sent out morning and evening to track down storms and plot the best course for the raid, but the weather continued to be bad. Pilots and crewmen, tense with excitement after each evening's briefing, had a badly let-down feeling when the raid was cancelled morning after morning.

The hazards on the thirty-two hundred mile return flight from Saipan to Tokyo were enough to turn a layman's hair white overnight. With the bombload they were carrying, and the height they needed to attain to avoid Jap fighters and anti-aircraft fire the planes had only just enough gasolene to make the round trip. The most direct route was over Jap held islands with good anti-aircraft defences. At that time Iwo Jima was still in Jap hands and there was no possibility of the planes making forced landings on fields within 600 miles of Tokyo. In the event of "baling out" at the height at which the Superforts would be flying, one had to clamp on an oxygen mask, jump with an oxygen bottle under the arm and drop for two minutes before pulling the parachute rip cord, otherwise the three minutes' oxygen supply would be exhausted, and in the rarefied atmosphere one's lungs would collapse within thirty seconds. And if one did survive the parachute descent, it would be to land in Jap occupied territory or in the sea. Small wonder the strain of waiting began to tell on people's nerves.

But the day came on 24th November, when the weather was judged perfect. Perfect over the target area, along the route and a perfect forecast for the night landings back at base.

One by one the beautiful silvery "dream-boats," as the crewmen call them, floated off the runway, the first rays of the sun glinting on their polished wings. They seemed to use up the last hundred yards of the runway before they lifted off and then dipped away out of sight over Magicienne Bay to wheel north and appear later soaring in evenly spaced line bound for Tokyo.

The postponement for a few days enabled Brig.-Gen. Hansen, who as Commander of 21st Bomber Command was directing the raid, to send more planes than originally intended, as fresh batches were arriving daily. Instead of 70 planes as at first planned, more than 100 took off to commence the destruction of the world's richest cluster of military targets.

The Tokyo, Yokohama and Yokosuka areas, each within 20 miles of the other represent to Japan what the Ruhr does to Germany with the Bremen and Hamburg ship-building yards and docks thrown in.

From the spillways of the great Mitsubishi plant in Yokohama and from the Yokosuka naval yards near Yokohama slide Japan's major output of carriers, battleships and cruisers. In the 20 miles separating Yokohama from Tokyo are factories turning out aircraft engines, machine tools, precision instruments, rolling stock, locomotives, and heavy guns. About 40% of Japan's heavy munitions production stems from this area.

Back in our Quonset hut we waited with some anxiety for the flash signal of "bombs away" that would tell us the Superforts had reached their objectives safely. With great winds roaring through the sub-stratosphere at well over 100 miles per hour it was a ticklish navigation feat to bring the planes over the target areas, especially with no landmarks available until snow-capped Fujiyama came in sight. But the signal did come, the planes got to Tokyo, and all but four returned safely.

At the air-strip that night the ground crews were "sweating it out" on the hardstands waiting for the planes they worked and lived with, to come home. "When mechanics are allotted to a plane they worry about plane and crew almost as wholeheartedly as a mother frets over her firstborn babe. As the sun went down and darkness closed over the airfield, they paced up and down the hardstands, allotted to their particular planes, glancing nervously at wrist-watches, taking a few puffs at cigarettes and throwing them away.

There were eager glances at the sky as we heard the heavy drone of motors, and cheers went up from all over the field as powerful landing lights lit up the runway and the first returning Superfort headed down to land. By the time the first plane hit the runway a second pair of headlights were already gleaming through the velvety blackness. The planes landed as precisely as they had taken off one a minute raced down the runways then veered off with dully roaring engines to taxi across to the hardstands and the exultant waiting ground-crewmen.

Planes were eagerly scanned for flak-holes, and some of them had gaping rents in fuselage and wings that would soon be patched up again. In one, the rear gunner had been suffocated when a piece of flak penetrated the pressurised cabin, stunning him before he could clap the emergency oxygen mask to his face.

The first planes had taken the Japs by surprise, but by the time the second and third waves swept over the capital, heavy ack-ack was reaching up for them and Jap fighters weaving round waiting to pounce.

Brig.-Gen. "Rosie" O'Donnell, who led the raid, was in the second plane to land, and as he dropped out of the hatch, a tired, greyfaced, boyish looking figure, he told correspondents:

"We didn't intend to score a knock-out blow with one punch, but at least we've landed the first punch and we'll keep on hitting until Japan begins to bleed internally."

The first B-29 raid was a landmark in the war against the Japs. It was a propaganda weapon the effect of which the Japs could not dispute. They could cover up land defeats, present naval disasters as great "victories," but they could never laugh off the fact that fleets of Super Fortresses had hammered and would continue to hammer their sacred capital. The first raid was not intended to destroy Tokyo, but was a strategic blow at the Japanese aircaft industry, designed primarily against the Nakashima aircraft engine factory.

General Hansell had warned correspondents before the planes took off that we must not expect that Tokyo would flame up like the matchwood city it was popularly thought to be:

"We are not trying to set fire to Tokyo in these raids. Perhaps later on we will decide to destroy not only Tokyo, but every other big city in Japan. When we want to do that we will do it and we'll carry the right sort of bombs to do the job with. For the moment we are concentrating on their industries."

It was just four months later that the policy on bombing Japan was changed. Perhaps it was because of the difficulties in the street fighting for Manila and the Jap deliberate destruction of that city that influenced the decision to burn out the Japanese cities.

I was in Guam on 10th March, 1945, when the Superforts came back from dumping 2,300 tons of incendiaries on Tokyo in the greatest fire raid of the war and the first on Japan. The world's greatest incendiary target had been touched off by the war's greatest incendiary raid. Never, since the great fire of London, had there been such a conflagration as started early that Saturday morning in the centre of down town Tokyo, where in the most inflammable portion of the city the population density exceeds 100,000 people per square mile.

As the last planes to leave the target area arrived back, crewmen told of fires seen eighty miles distant and of smoke pillars up to eighteen thousand feet. Soot in the bomb bays of the planes in part confirmed their stories.

For the first time the Superforts had gone in at night on a low-level attack, dropping their devastating new bombs from five to six thousand feet. Tokyo's elaborate anti-fire precautions were of little use against raids of this size. The whole city had been divided off into "fire units" with streets of houses ripped down to provide wide breaks between each isolated unit of fifty to a hundred street blocks. Water reservoirs had been built into the firebreaks, so that fires started in one area would not sweep through to neighbouring "units." This would have been all right in the case of fires started in one small section of the city, but was useless in pattern bombing from three hundred planes which dumped their loads into each individual "fire unit" and burned it out completely.

Photographs brought back by reconnaissance planes the day following the fire raid, showed fifteen square miles of the city, from north and east of the Emperor's Palace and in a broad swathe down to the waterfront, completely burned out, with roofless walls of a few concrete buildings in each "fire unit" the only objects still standing. Later photos showed even these walls crumbling under the camera's lenses.

While the fires in Tokyo were still smouldering another fire raid was launched against Nagoya, Japan's third largest city, and even more inflammable than Tokyo. Osaka-Kobe, Yokohama and Nagasaki districts soon had their turn, and every few days later raids of increasing dimensions against Japan's leading cities were carried out.

The destruction of Japan had begun.

The Superfort raids, like the development of carrier warfare, were something the Americans were able to perfect in an amazingly short time for the specific purpose of waging war across the long reaches of the Pacific, destroying at a blow the defensive weapon of distance that the Japs most counted on to ward off defeat.