« Revisionist History

Bombs-Away LeMay


The arguments, accidents, cold-blooded logic and sheer serendipity that led to the longest night of the Second World War. Part three.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Pushed her question was nagging me who killed choose this truth problem. It isn't just bad its deadly Angela, poor and I'm a historian of Harvard and staff writer at the new Yorker has been a lot of time trying to solve mysteries like this one, so I decided to start a podcast. It's called the last archive hotel ten stories from last hundred years, a history of America and of our arguments about truth, and ever
The last archive brought to buy Pushkin Industries, Curtis Emerson Le May, who, for the better part of twenty five years, dominated the greatest fighting force. The world has ever known, had three nicknames old iron, pants the demon and bombs away LE may. He was not that category of leader who led by force of wit, charm and charisma, nor was he some great thinker, the kind of leader whose appeal lies with carefully thought out. Manifestoes and elaborate ideologies LE may never took his cigar out of his mouth long to say anything. He belonged to a different category. The one tickets overlooked national May. I had, in my view, is the greatest air commander in history. I'm talking. Military historian, Konrad Crane, no historian rights. Second world war without considering the leg,
similar May everything he touched. He transformed he. He was it dynamic leader. He shared the typical use of his of his airman. He was that he was the best navigator. The air force had was a great pilot. He could do mechanic stuff. He was the air forces ultimate problem solver, but it was one of those guys that you would, if you gave him a problem to fix you. A lot of questions I was gonna, do it bombs? Luella may was known as someone who get the job done. My name is Malcolm global. You listening to revision is history by podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This is part three of my four part series about Curtis, the May and the events of March nineteen. Forty this episode is about the role
people like Kurdistan may, in times of crisis. In the normal course of events, we are led by people of ideas and people of charisma, but when things start to go badly, those people get pushed aside and the problem solver take centre stage Only the problem solver doesn't play by the same rules: Let me give you an example of what it means to approach the world the way someone like Curtis Demay did it's not one of the signature stories in the lab a legend, it happened long before he was famous yours before the Second World war. He would mention it sometimes in passing in some of the interviews he gave in retirement, but it's one of those stories that made me stop
and say. Oh, I think I understand him now in nineteen thirty, seven, with the threat of war in Europe growing the army's air core wanted a chance to practice their bombing technic real world practice only with dummy bombs. Fifty pounders filled with water. I'm a guy in the story. I imagine that the air force has been battling. The major contribution France in the country ever since I've got a rough, nobody paid much attention to This is an interview loom gave to the AIR Force Academy in nineteen seventy one, a few years after leaving his as chief of staff of the air force when he was taking the post retirement victory lap, the famous generals take, We wanted an exercise where we could drop on a battleship find about for the practice run to work. The air called needed the navy to play.
Long fight, a battleship out on the seas, give out its coordinates at the last minute and dare the bombers defined in this. Before sophisticated radar and Navigation AIDS to find a battleship. You have to see it with your eyes, then hit its narrow decks with a bomb from thousands of feet up the while flying at hundreds of miles an hour. The navy was not enthusiastic wildly. They agreed Herbert Avenant. Besides, our bee in August off the West Coast August of West Coast has nothing but for a thousand miles out there and they deliberately picked it the first time. I'm sure how could you spot a battleship in a thousand miles of fog to make matters worse. The navy bent the rules. The agreement was to have the war game run for twenty four hours from noon. The first
until noon the next, but the Navy didn't give out the coordinates of a ship. You assess Utah until late the first afternoon and the coordinates they gave were wrong off by sixty miles thousand miles of fog. Late directions take directions. A needle in a haystack would have been easier at ten minutes before noon. At the very last moment, the may found the ship and dropped his bombs. Now, of course, he found a ship. There was nothing, but they could not do if he put his mind to it. That's not the point of the story. The point is what happened before he dropped his bombs. The navy was certainly couldn't be found, so they took no precautions. The sailors were all over the decks going about their business. They were supposed to take cover in a bombing
size they didn't. So what did we may do he bomb to Utah anyway? Raining fifty pound water bombs down on the sailors very were so ashore work We found out that of men, all over the decks. Everybody dies. The game black ashes, we are rumours that there are a few people. Imagine how other types of leaders might have had. The decision to bomb. After seeing sailors out in the deck the thinker would have understood the moral dimensions of willingly harming one of your own in the course of a routine training exercise, the charismatic leader would have wondered what will my own men think me if they seated and capable of such a casual, active brutality, but the problem solver? The problem was to find the Utah and
bonnet, and so he bombs it. I'd rather have somebody who is real Stowbody debt, something, I was wrong. We did something about them. Are you a vastly do nothing? You cannot do nothing in the world view of the problem solver. Even if what you end up doing is horrifying In his memoirs they may says there were rumours for years at some sailors got killed the bombing exercise of nineteen thirty seven and then he says quote. I remember watching the first bomb which smashed into the deck it sent splintered pieces of wood flying in every direction. I hadn't realised that would could frank like that
was a learning opportunities who knew would react it that way he files that fact away and goes on to the next problem. In the first years of the Second World WAR, the american fight against the Japanese was defined by a single fact. Japan was beyond the reach of the. U S air force. The american workhorse bomber was the bee. Seventeen. It had a range of roughly two thousand miles, that's a thousand miles out and a thousand miles back now. Look at a map of the world from Say January of nineteen. Forty four and try and find an air base controlled by the allies that is within a thousand miles of Tokyo. You can't and if you can't reach Japan, how on earth are you going to feed them? This solution comes into parts
began here: the Exact geographic centre in the United States, Grand Island Nebraska that boy sounds familiar. Doesn't it it's Ronald Reagan? Long before he became president Reagan, narrative newsreels. During the second World WAR, a man were here from every corner of the country and a few corners outside it? they were handpicked, picked american mixture of draft ease and West point a butcher's teachers and bankers of your son, husband and father. In the news, real, we see soldiers arriving in barracks, handsome, crisp uniforms. All gaze not at a magnificent gleaming airplane Hayworth. Twenty nine, the super designed to carry more destruction.
And carry a higher faster farther than any bomber ever built before and a complete this mission, that's exactly what she was going to have to do she d be twenty nine. Was one of the great achievements of the American WAR effort and enormous bomber dedicated entirely to the fight against the Japanese in the wars Specific theatre, to be twenty nine range, fifty six hundred miles much better than its predecessor. So then came the second step In the summer of nineteen forty four in some of the most brutal fighting of the war, the Marines captured three tiny specks in the middle of the western Pacific The Mariana Islands Guam Sigh PAN Antennae and why would they captured? because the merry others with thirteen hundred and forty two miles from Tokyo straight shot across the ocean put
the twenty nine, together with the merry honours and overnight the odds of beating Japan shifted June Eighteen, forty four as a arguably the most important. The war you have D day and where that we go shore Northwest Europe. You have been Asia Marianna as in the Pacific. These the final break, breaking of the internal defence line of the Japanese, the fall of the total government, because of that, so it is that all that stuff happens in that same month throughout the summer and fall of nineteen. Forty four, the Navy built massive bases on each of the captured islands of the merry on is the biggest base contained the largest airport in the world, that was antennae and six runways
the equivalent of three bolder dams with a concrete and when they were finished, the military began flying in brand new, be twenty nine bombers. Hundreds of them final base was no longer a myth. Four thousand miles farther west, with only one refueling step on the way. Lay the island of Cyprus less than four months before it had still been in the hands of the Japanese to head up the newly created, be twenty nine strike force known as the twenty first bomber command, the military brass brought in a high priest of the bomber mafia, a brilliant young general named Haven. Cancel, Haywood Hensel came from an Arris to Craddock southern military family. His great grandfather was a general in the Confederate Army. His grandfather, a confederate officer, Hansel's father, had been an army surgeon who came to dinner in
linen suit in Panama, HAT Hansel himself was a skilled dancer, a poet and inefficient Otto of Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas. His favorite book was Don Quixote. He felt a connection with a night tilting at windmills. He put flying first, Paulo second and family a distant third. Once the story goes early in his marriage. He heard a baby cry and turned to his wife. What sets out that's your son. She said he liked to carry a swagger stick like the english Army officers did as a child. He was nickname possum because of the narrowness of his face. The name stuck The final mission as a pilot, a bombing run over Belgium, Hansel and his exhausted crew, with the rendition of the popular musical song, the man on the flying trapeze. This is the most famous version, Eddie counters,
He floats through the air with the greatest of ease his daring young man on the flying trapeze. His actions are graceful, all girls, he does please and my love was stolen away I web of all the bombing fundamentalists to come out of the airport tactical School Heyward Hansel was the truest believer the Idealist air power. Intelligently in search of deployed could bring any enemy to its knees. Well, the first operation against How was it calls on Antonio one? It was coordinated with joint, cheap, our strategy, which made the timing extremely away As a matter of fact, we were gonna. We were some danger of falling on this operation. When person here he'll takes over in the Marietta's in nineteen. Forty four, he said
to himself. What is the critical vulnerability of the japanese war economy? Can my new be twenty ninth attack? The answer to him is obvious. The japanese aircraft manufacturing plants, which Almost entirely concentrated in a few factories in and around Tokyo in particular, the neck of GMO aircraft. Company noted Subaru today knock a Jew made at least a third of all japanese combat aircraft engines. Hansel said: let's hit knack of GMO and will cripple the japanese fighting force. The newsreel Ronald Reagan, narrated, is all about that. First attack I Hansel, unlike a GMO six hours later, through the clouds they saw Hu Jia, Here comes a modern symbol. Phosphorus bombs
the beach. Twenty ninth travelled fifteen, hundred miles. Mile scenarios skimming over the ocean at several thousand feet as they approach Japan, they climbed twenty five or thirty thousand feet out of harm's way. They turned at Mount. Fuji then came in from the west overtook here. Here, speaking over aerial shots at the city, Reagan base it on thick within a radius of fifteen miles of the imperial Alice live seven million Japanese our people, we used to think of a small, daddy polite concerning themselves. Only with floral arrangements and rock and the cultivation of silkworms, but it isn't silkworms and it isn't imperial palaces. These men are looking for in the suburbs of Tokyo huge Naga GMO aircraft plan. Well, but what are you waiting for?
like I said, He data on visits thick that first mission, San Antonio one, was hugely symbolic proof that PAN could finally be right each, but was it a success as a military operation after the war speaking to cadets, they are forced to carry me. Hansel tried to put a good face on things. The operational life like helping children can be done, and this was a very. Social issues. At the time the operation wasn't as good as we would have liked was, to say the least, an understatement. None
of the bombs dropped by Hansel be twenty ninth actually hit and academia plant. So Hansel tried again three days later same thing: Hansel sent mission after mission. I one of his last attempts. He went back with seventy two be twenty nights. They missed, supplant and hit a hospital Would Hansel couldn't solve the problem because the problem was much bigger than any one? At the time understood, I was looking on line for new airports. Of course I went to the normal bread and I saw the cost hundreds of dollars for little pieces of plastic. We should itself
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Out of the storm, there's mount food recent right in front of us and it's a gorgeous cider really is I tried to describe what went wrong on those first, be twenty nine precision attack and Tokyo. His bombardier, a man named Glenn, starts to make his calculations on their bomb site lining up the Knacker GMO factory. But the telescope on the bomb site wooden line up turn around they said is I can't get this damn telescope on the target and so called a writer operator check our ground. Sweden see what our ground speed is. He came back as we got a hundred and twenty five, not tail. When he's ever go about four hundred eighty miles an hour, some possible. It can't be. There's no winds, like their new airforce pilots had ever experienced. What is now happening to the be twenty nine bombers over Japan, they expected wins
A fraction of these pits we're goin four hundred eighty miles an hour when we should be gone. Three hundred and forty miles an hour said. Well, land grab the damn bombs. He dropped We were already twelve miles this story because when they were bewildered and back at base, they could explain what happened to their superiors briefly, I gave us third degree. They said no, there is no. Such thing there The wind like that you're lying! You didn't make it over the target year, just making this up, but one who, after another, arrived back at the honours and told the exact same story. Tell you how powerful these winds were. A reconnaissance plane went up one time to take some pictures after a mission to see how effective they've been and the navigator
the pilot and told him they were going three miles an hour backwards. There was something you could afford to do because it went from east to West you're gonna be a sitting. Doug for japanese fighters are their flag to solve that puzzle. Hansel turned to his team of meteorologists did Robin trained at the University of Chicago back in the days before a sophisticated radar, meteorologists were crucial to the success of bombing campaign. If you were doing a daylight bombing run over a city, you had to see the target it all. Line up the bomb site and if the skies were to cloudy that was impossible so going or not going on emission hinge on the weather forecast. But the tools available to meteorologists of that era were crude. The easiest
and if we get about the second World WAR is it. It was another technological era, its half twentieth century and half nineteenth century. The chief tool of the meteor ology of that time were balloons, whether balloons that would float up into the atmosphere carrying little instrument kits that could record the wind, the temperature and the humidity and true Smith, that information back to earth. I asked John Louis about those days he's a scientist. The desert Research Institute in Nevada He knew a number of the media biologists who work with the air force during the war and these balloons they can. I forgive me so very naive question a connected by a rope or they just free floating on all their waste oil. Finally, as the pressure gets longer, as the balloon goes higher in the atmosphere, they expand, expand, expand Kaboom, they they explode and they fall to the ground with the instrument attached and at that
They had a message on all the estimate package's. Could you please return this to the University of Chicago in the Pacific field of war? That technique wasn't gonna work so that they were the meteorologists in the middle of the Pacific, with one of the most important job in the whole outfit figuring out when to send the bombers and their baffled. What's with these wins on a theoretical level today have assessed. Action that there may be very high winds, and I ought to set the air force or is it that they dont reach a conclusion until the pilots come back with there, had not reached the conclusions and tell the pilots kinda. What slowly became clear the pilots had stumbled on. It previously unknown phenomenon in the upper atmosphere. What came to be known as the jet stream,
a river of fast blowing air that circles the globe, starting at around twenty thousand feet. Some scientists had theorized about the jets. But until the be twenty nine was built, no one had ever flown at altitudes high enough to experience those winds first hand this fact stream of air. Very narrow moves from north to south, in both hemispheres basically is dividing the very cold air. Of the polar regions from the more warm middle attitude and equatorial air yeah when you say very narrow how narrow I would say typically two hundred kilometers across something on that order so that's the narrowness of it
it entirely encircled earth it does. So what is the problem facing the pilots gathered on the merry on us that, in the winter of nineteen, forty four and the early spring of nineteen, forty five, this Harold Hurricane Force, band of air, known as a jet stream, happens to be directly over Japan, and that makes it impossible for Hansel to do any of the precision bombing that he had planned to do. If they fly across it, the plane will get blown sideways if they fly into it. They'll be fighting to stay aloft and be easy targets for the Japanese and if they fly with it, doubly racing too fast to take proper aim in the service of a conviction that bombing could bring Japan to its knees. Thousands, of Marines had been killed in the fight to capture the merry on us: the construction of the three island, Airbus
This had been one of the most intensive engineering feats of the war, the be twenty nine was, Three billion dollar project has forty three billion in today's money. All of that investment in the air or against the Japanese. By December of nineteen. Forty four had come up. Empty handed And all the other brass and Mary honours were bewildered when a true believers discovers that his God cannot save him. What's left nothing, Heyward Hansel was finished. In January of nineteen forty five cancer was relieved of his post as head of the twenty First Palmer Command in his was put the man you bring in when all else has failed. Curtis the man even DEC, later. Possum Hansa would bristle what asked about the circumstances of his departure and the person who,
placed him in the Pacific. He had taught the may at the airport tactical school. And was his commanding officer in Europe here, cancel again at the efforts Academy, nineteen sixty seven, he's just been asked to name who he felt with the finest officers of his generation report you my little real, fairly three outstanding one wash all commanders, Joe Virgil. They were There are still very much the same way as they were when a great challenge obviously intelligent momentum, normal personal integrity. Incorrect Would you recommend? Is that all His last grew well, exactly Le May was not a patrician with swagger stick here,
not read Cervantes and sing musical theatre to his crew. At the end of long missions, he had no time for demonstrations of personal integrity and character. He had a problem to solve. Stop sure mornings, with the news that matters in just ten minutes. I'm Nile Abou host of axioms today, every week day I'll be talking to a team of award winning journalists to bring you scoops from the White House. Analysis on the economy and insights into the trends show
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Venture strategy worked out. His mind is still open. Yes, that is correct. I'm talking again with the military historian Konrad Crane about Curtis the May after it takes over command from General Heyward Hansel in January of nineteen forty five Emily cure It is a reconstruct his thought process how he all the reasons why he arrives at the strategy finally arrives at. So we begin the spy, does he begin by doing exactly what Hansel had done? Well, he he walks Then he looked around and sees the primitive nature of this the facilities and said this won't do the maze they were the military's infrastructure. On the merry on us. It was all built by the Navy's construction battalion. The sea bees Lama has lost none of his disdain for the name the people who cheated the bombing exercise years before he gets invited to up to her
dinner, that more limits who also had coronary honours- and he goes over the nemesis place- uneasiness ornate, almost a palace gets fed on. Formal naval style dinner with the table class and being served everything so bites. The admiral limits to visit him for dinner in the next couple days and I remember it shows up to four. Dinner and sit at a concept hot on a couple of creates eating, see rations and, at the end of the end of the male limits, looks at La May and says I get your point. And then he started sending more construction material salami to help finish up the rest of the facilities by the early spring of nineteen. Forty five, the May was ready. He starts out by trying his own version of the strategy taken by his predecessor. He decides to take out the Knacker Jima aircraft plant in Tokyo,
His perception is that he still expected to do how to precision bombing so he's gonna do everything he can. And to make sure that health through precision bombing is, can be more effective. The masons too genes against neck, a GMO in January, one in February they're in early March, hundreds of be twenty and making the long track to Japan and India and plant is still standing. He's run up against the same obstacle has Hansel did Can I force a japanese surrender from the air if I can't hit anything when he realizes is fixed? All those problems is nothing else. You can tweak noises
I'm gonna try something different limit. First realisation. Is it the jets dream is a powerful force. It can't be wished away and is making everything else impossible. The first principle of precision bombing doctrine is it. The bombers should come in high well above the range of enemy fire and anti aircraft guns. The may throws it out the window. Decides to be twenty. Ninth we'll have to fly at lower altitudes under the gesture, and once she realizes who's going to have to your lower altitude, then that leads to a whole. Set of other conclude: and from that next logical step, precision bombing was supposed to be daylight bombing. You needed to see the target before you could line up the bomb site If the maize bombers came in low during the day, they would be sitting ducks for the japanese air defences, so he decides they have to come under cover
night once you realize you can't go to high altitude anymore. It drives kind of the rest of his decision process. Jets, dream means low low means night. And the decision to switch to nitrates means you can't do precision bombing anymore Because there's no way with the technology of the time that a bombing crew be able to focus on any precise target if they couldn't see it. So, just like that criticism, a dozen about face the man who came of age in a high church, a precision bombing decides at the most crucial juncture of his career, to abandon his faith, to bomb indiscriminately to become an area bomber and what weapon
Would he use for that task? He knew as well as anyone the reports from the army testing grounds back in America, where perfect replicas of japanese towns had been incinerated by Harvard New Wonder weapon. The whole plan is so radical. When the may send a copy of it to Washington for the approval of his boss, General Hap, Arnold make sure it arrives on a day when Arnold isn't in his office, so he can get that. Initial raid off before Arnold raised chance to look at it very much because he realizes taken a risk, be twenty nine. Very valuable is very risky attack. Backdoor at night, low altitude He leaves most of the ammunition and gunners behind crucial fact.
The only thing, let me let's his pilots have to defend themselves is a tale Gunnar. All other guns are removed. He wants to save as much weight as possible for bombs in the AIR Force archives. It is still defined interviews from long ago with pilots who remember the day when I told them what was going to happen that night in a register, gash Irish for you, you never thought about the election high altitude fly. This is a be twenty nine navigator named David Braden. Anyone out and the bottom of your aircraft have been painted black sure. What should he do? They should go with a different thing. Most gas out. It was a suicide mission and did Britain's commander The may know this is gonna work. Of course he didn't, but remember his words: the crew. Of the man who gets things done. I'd rather
have someone who is real stupid, but did something then have someone who had vacillate and do nothing Curtis? The May was going to do something He was going to area bug Tokyo under cover of night with napalm. I woke up. One day I do not, therefore, about two months. I had done anything my share, a better do: shopper, I wonder if this is why the may fascinated so many people in his day because of his ability to make tat sudden turn to turn his back on who he was in the service of solving the problem
Curtis. The May was a member of the bombing mafia, a graduate of the airport tactical school, a proponent of precision, bombing progress unhindered by custom later in his career. He would champion something called the be seventy bomber, an airplane, so absurdly complicated, so ridiculously advanced, so preposterously, expensive and so deliciously end fantastically tricked out, but the air force only built to prototypes what of it. Crashed. The other has spent its entire life in a museum. Le May was in his heart always little boy who ran after aeroplanes in the sky and yet, when he needed to, he could take all that his entire identity, the modern progressive skilled war maker and throw it out.
Window may worded the idea for the low level fire attacks originate. We had ideas line Barton, poured water My basic decision nobody said anything about my son reply by reality As a result, I had to produce them. And produce a mermaid wrong ass good land around there as one half of actual results. Less reason why, on the night of March night, nineteen, forty five, the may launched operation Meeting House
He sent three hundred and thirty four be twenty. Nine from the merry honours to Tokyo loaded with as much napalm as they could carry the target was not the Knocker Jima aircraft plant. That plan was over. The new target was a densely populated region of Tokyo straddling the Scimitar River, a few miles east of the Imperial Palace Zone, one the first few bombers drop flares marking time. Area for those followed the may was sending in his bombers at five thousand feet incredibly low. That was so crazy. The Japanese were completely unprepared. The bombs fell from the be twenty nine in clusters. They were small steel pipes, twenty inches long weighing six pounds packed with tee
anti napalm little baby bombs, each with a long silver gauze streamer at one end, so that if you looked in the sky that night in Tokyo There would have been a moment of extraordinary beauty, thousands of these little silver daggers falling down to earth and then boom on impact. Thousands of small explosions burning, gloves of napalm thrown in every direction all told by morning. One thousand six hundred and sixty five tons of napalm dropped on Tokyo in one night. Circling high above Tokyo is the master bomber amazed deputy. The power cord geographic, the attack, Conrad Green, says it. Power sat in his cockpit joint pictures of everything he saw
He remarked you're. The air was so full of incendiaries. You could not have walked through them by two thirds. Seven, the largest visible fire firers about, was about forty blocks long and fifteen wide. The smoke was up to twenty five thousand feet. When he draws his last sketch, which is about an hour after the initial his first one, there's basically is core of separate areas. Fifty two thousand city blocks bearing at the same time and his last portal Report says that the glove from the fires is visible. A hundred fifty miles away, the napalm creates a firestorm, a conflagration hundreds of blocks. A fire of such intensity. Induration that it creates insist, in disowned, win system, everything burns, sixteen square miles, buildings burst into flame before the fire even reaches them.
After the war, the? U S, strategic bombing survey concluded the following: probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six hour period than any time in the history of man more than a hundred thousand people, that night frankly low shows you look like you're looking emails do not imagine that big over the most of the spring and summer of nineteen forty five the may went onto firebomb another sixty six japanese cities in the ass of war. The dead would never counted the fight I'll tell may be as high as half a million there about five thousand feet. They are but he loved their low enough that the the smell of burning flesh permeates the aircraft. They actually are fumigate the aircraft when they land
in the merry honours, because the smell of burning flesh remains with an aircraft to cities were spared, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They were left for another day and another airforce command with a different idea of how to win a war. On August fifteenth, seventeen, forty five twelve noon, the emperor of Japan surrendered The air force was ass to bring Japan to its knees from the air The ground invasion could be avoided. They succeeded next week the reckoning when you burn alive hundreds of thousands of civilians in the course of a military objective. What happens next.
Vicious history is produced by meal, a bell and leaving us do with Jacob Psmith Aluys Linen and on a name. Our editor is Julia Barton original. Scoring by Luis Gara, mastering by Flood Williams fact checking by Beth Johnson special thanks to the Pushkin crew. Had a Fain Carly, Mig Liore, my a caning, Maggie Taylor, Jason, Gambro and, of course, Jacob Whisper, I Malcolm
Transcript generated on 2020-07-23.