Book review

In 1940, Seattle-based Boeing engineers designed a massive beast of an aircraft. The B-29 Superfortress — composed of 55,000 parts — had a tail three-stories high, enormous propellers and a 5,500-mile range.

The aircraft, one of which is on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, would play a key role in World War II as the U.S. Army Air Forces on the Pacific Front launched long-range strikes on industrial targets. Then, in March 1945, when those attacks failed to adequately slow the Japanese war machine, a commander shifted to incinerating crowded civilian neighborhoods with napalm-packed incendiaries.

James Scott chronicles this World War II aviation history in a compelling and ambitious new book “Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb.”

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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This is an uncomfortable, and important, chapter of World War II history for Washington state, where the B-29 was birthed, and the nation.

Scott writes about the challenges faced in building the B-29s, the hardships faced by the flight crews who flew them over Japan, and the jousting among Army Air Forces commanders who shaped U.S. bombing policy. Some struggled with the moral implications of targeting civilian populations while others embraced that policy.

The first and most deadly firebomb raid was on March 10, 1945, and hit Tokyo. Through the strength of his archival research and interviews with Japanese survivors, Scott puts readers in the hell that was Tokyo that day as the payloads from 279 B-29s set off ferocious fire storms that swept through a city where homes became fuel for the inferno.

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He writes of people fleeing through narrow alleys as their clothes and hair spontaneously ignited. One first grader burst into flames as he struggled to remove an air-raid hood, Scott writes.

That Tokyo attack killed more than 100,000 civilians, a greater number than is estimated to have been killed Aug. 9, 1945, in Nagasaki by an atomic bomb made of the plutonium produced at Washington’s Hanford site.

After the initial firebombing of Tokyo, Japan’s civilian death toll climbed much higher as portions of more than 60 other cities were lit on fire by B-29 strikes.

“There was this huge cost to victory, and it was born on the backs of Japanese civilians,” Scott said in an interview.

The book maintains a taut narrative packed with details like the near-death experience of a 22-year-old gunner who was catapulted out of his plane after it was struck by Japanese fire.

The bombing campaign was designed by Curtis LeMay, who later in his life would gain notoriety for advocating that North Vietnam be “bombed back into the stone age” and was chosen by former Alabama Gov. George Wallace as a vice presidential running mate in an unsuccessful 1968 third-party bid for the presidency.

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Scott offers plenty of important context to the raids. He amply details the sense of urgency among the U.S. Army Air Forces leadership to try to finish off the Pacific conflict and avoid a ground invasion of Japan. And, in an interview, he notes that by the time LeMay developed the campaign, the Japanese, Germans and British all adapted bombing campaigns and other tactics that targeted civilians.

But he also offers some stark assessments of the strategy developed by LeMay.

He writes that LeMay’s Tokyo mission would “put a bull’s-eye on the kitchens living rooms and bedrooms of Japan’s workers.

“This was no ordinary mission — and LeMay knew it. This was murder.”

LeMay would later confide to an aide that “If we lose, we’ll be treated as war criminals. “

Another important character in the book is Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell Jr., who was a staunch defender of an Army Air Forces doctrine developed earlier in the war that sought to win the war by bombing key industrial sites — not the wholesale slaughter of civilians. He initially commanded the Pacific-based B-29 fleet but was relieved of that duty, and replaced by LeMay.

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“Hansen was too civilized a fighter for what America needed now,” Scott wrote.

Visitors to the Museum of Flight exhibit can get a sense of the scale of the enormous B-29 aircraft and a brief accounting of the switch from high-altitude bombing targeting industries to the firebombing tactic “that soon devastated most of Japan’s industrial cities.”

Matthew Burchette, the Museum of Flight’s senior curator, said that there has been discussion of a more in-depth accounting of the bombing campaign. He said that the museum faces many hard choices about what history to include and what to leave out. And unfortunately, the exhibit area for the B-29 does not have much room for expansion.

“Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb”

James M. Scott, W.W. Norton & Company, 432 pp., $35, available Sept. 6

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