How the WWII ‘Bomber Mafia’ Lost the Short-Term Battle But Won the Strategic War

Curtis LeMay Haywood Hansell Roger Ramey
Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay; Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell, Jr.; Brig. Gen. Roger M. Ramey, Chief of Staff for Hansell. (Army Air Force photo)

After the undeniable horrors of the Great War, a group of Army Air Corps generals spent much of the 1930s brainstorming ways to use airpower to make war bombing more strategic while keeping casualties to a minimum.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book and audiobook “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War” digs deep into one of the lesser-known rivalries of the war, the one between Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell and Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay about the best way to bomb Japan in hopes of ending the war in late 1944 and early 1945.

Hansell was a junior member of the Bomber Mafia, a group that put its faith in the new Norden precision bombsight. The airmen believed that the tool would allow forces to focus on taking out specific targets that could cripple the enemy’s production lines rather than engaging in the kind of indiscriminate bombing that the Germans did on London and the Allied forces would against Dresden.

Unfortunately for its believers, the Norden bombsight was a brilliant idea that didn’t quite work in practice, mostly because the technology did not yet exist to do the additional computations that real-world issues required to move beyond the theoretical ones that worked so well in the lab.

Gladwell delves deep into how the Norden didn’t quite deliver for Hansell in Europe and how the (as-yet-undiscovered) jetstream made it even more difficult to use in American bombing raids over Japan.

Fortunately for LeMay, there was another new technology on the horizon. Scientists at Harvard repurposed a failed Dupont Chemical product and refined it into napalm, the most brutal bombing tool devised before the atomic bomb and one particularly suited to cause maximum damage to the wood-and-paper houses of Japan.

LeMay replaced Hansell at the end of 1944 and soon began a campaign of terror that eventually visited virtually every major city in Japan. Rather than focus on industrial or military targets, the napalm bombs spewed all over cities, destroying housing and killing civilians in a most devastating way.

LeMay believed that the campaign was so effective that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 weren’t even necessary, because his campaign already had made clear the price if Japan declined to surrender.

Gladwell raises two fascinating points. First, the U.S. command didn’t really seem to understand what LeMay’s campaign was doing to Japan. The destruction was so far beyond anything they’d seen before that the reality of the reports coming in from American bases in the Mariana Islands just didn’t register.

The second is that Japanese politicians and historians actually thanked LeMay for the campaign after the war. In spite of the horrifying damage inflicted by napalm bombs, many Japanese believed they’re what caused the government to surrender. If the Allied forces had been forced to invade Japan, the country likely would have been split up by the Soviets and Americans after the war, and the casualties are almost impossible to imagine.

Ultimately, though, the Bomber Mafia was right. We now live in a world where it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that a bomber flying at 50,000 feet can tickle a target’s nose hairs with the advanced systems we now have in place. The kind of indiscriminate destruction that LeMay used to win the war is absolutely a thing of the past, at least for American forces.

Gladwell conceived this project as an audiobook and previously made much of it available as a podcast, so the production values for the audio version are impressive. There are actual recordings of interviews conducted by Gladwell and also taken from documentaries filmed or recorded in the decades since the war. There is even a score and plenty of effective sound effects. If you’re an audiobook listener, that’s the version to choose.

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