Robert F. Dorr's MISSION TO TOKYO: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This book describes what it was like to bomb Japanese cities via B-29 raids conducted by the U.S. during 1944 and 1945. Most of the action is from the American perspective and takes place on the air-base islands off Japan from which most raids were launched (chiefly Tinian and Saipan), in the air while over water, or over Japan itself.
The book starts with early attempts to conduct high-altitude bombing from hastily constructed Chinese bases. That didn’t last due to the ineffectiveness of high altitude bombing and the impossible logistics of working from China. By the time Pacific islands near Japan were taken by the U.S. and B-29-capable runways and bases constructed, the decision had been made to discontinue high-altitude bombing in favor of low-level incendiary attacks.
Incendiary attacks including the devastating firestorms visited on Tokyo and other Japanese cities take up most of the book. The primary focus is on the airmen, the “thousand kids” as they were sometimes called, starting with the impacts on them of Curtis Lemay’s decision to abandon high-level bombing for low level drops of incendiaries. We follow individual airmen on their missions beginning with the dangerous takeoff of overloaded planes, the accident prone B-29 and its unreliable engines, limping back to land after raids or — even worse for the crews — what it was like to “ditch” at sea or land on Iwo Jima while parts of the island were still held by the Japanese.
Most amazing is the youth of the B-29 crews. Most were still in their 20s, many in the low 20s. Entrusted with such complex equipment and such dangerous missions, it’s surprising that so many survived.
Yet they persevered and, one by one, Japanese cities were put to the torch. It was a grisly business, that all-out Pacific War. Many planes returned covered with, and smelling of, soot from burning cities.
I was reminded again of the ongoing debates about the rightness or wrongness of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the topic covered so well by Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar’s CODE-NAME DOWNFALL: THE SECRET PLAN TO INVADE JAPAN AND WHY TRUMAN DROPPED THE BOMB. Mission to Tokyo, on the other hand, mostly focuses on the events leading up to the atom bomb attacks; only a short section is devoted to those missions, also conducted using B-29s.
The focus here is on “what it was like,” not on high-level strategy, and that’s what makes this book so interesting, especially when viewed from a time when Japan has been an ally for so many years.
Review copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald