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Was LeMay's Firebombing Justified?

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: March 16, 2010 
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 Aviation History Reader Poll

Many B-29 crewmen who participated in Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay's firebombing missions to Japan look back on the destructive campaign with mixed emotions. Given Japanese intransigence, do you think the tactic was justified?

Give us your thoughts in the comments box below.


29 Responses to “Was LeMay's Firebombing Justified?”


  1. 1
    grokit01 says:

    Gen. Lemay's actions/orders concerning the fire-bombing of Imperial Japanese cities was TOTALLY justified. Revisionists and the unlearned need to understand what the Jap mindset was at that time in history. The Imperial command structure needed everything they received from General Lemay; as did the Emperor,the common folk, and the men at the sharp end. I could go on and on ad nauseum, but the simple answer remains a simple: YES.

  2. 2
    Phan Manh Tuan says:

    I don’t think so.
    The history of human conflicts shows that destructive campaign would not give any results in breaking down the hard enemy wills to fight on.
    Let’s look at the Soviet Union’s towns in 41-43, the German cities in 44-45 and ask: did the destruction scare the enemy war administration or give chance for the propaganda machine to run hot. Once the war administration (militarists in case of the WWII Japan) didn’t care much about its own people, so what the US air bombing can ?
    Except for hundred of thousand of innocent civilians, most of them women and children, burned alive each night in napalm, what result of the campaign counted ?
    “Would the US lost the war, we would have been convicted war criminals” – something like this was said by W. McNamara.

  3. 3
    Leon G. Smith says:

    I feel LeMay's fire bombing was justified. In the long run, lives were saved. Between the fire bombing and the nukes, we saved many U S soldier lives. My feelings are, beings I'm a Viet Nam Vet, we should go back to the WW II mentality, annihilate our enemies. The radical, Muslim terrorists have no qualms about their type of warfare, why should we. Bring them to their knees, destroy them, then, help rebuild them, as we did Japan and Germany. I might be viewed as some kind of kook, but, I don't care. We should be more concerned for OUR TROOPS safety, rather than be POLITICALLY CORRECT. You fight a WAR to win, not to fight to a draw.

  4. 4
    John Beatty says:

    This is a joke, right? Has to be.

    No one who knows anything about the nature of Japanese industrial organization would ask such a question. Further, no one familiar with the lengths that the Japanese leadership was willing to go to to get what they wanted would ever even think of such a thing.

    "Justified" a half century later is using history to lay blame, not learn about people and why they do what they do.

  5. 5
    Shawn says:

    I believe that the fire bombings were justified. The nature of the manufacturing industry in Japan was similar to that in Germany at the time. There were large manufacturing plants but these were supplied with parts made in home-run industries. They were located in residential areas of the associated cities. The main building material used in Japan at the time was wood and paper.

    The destruction of large residential areas, with associated home
    industries, certainly hurt the Japanese war effort.

    As well, the number of displaced persons would have to be supported by the government which would drain the war effort.

    All of this contributed to seriously weakening the Japanese effort and contributed to ending the war sooner.

  6. 6
    Milt Martin says:

    A piece of history worth remembering …

    One of the most notorious cases of human experimentation occurred in Japan itself. At least nine out of 12 crew members survived the crash of a U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 bomber on Ky?sh?, on May 5, 1945. (This plane was Lt. Marvin Watkins' crew of the 29th Bomb Group of the 6th Bomb Squadron.28). The bomber's commander was sent to Tokyo for interrogation, while the other survivors were taken to the anatomy department of Kyushu University, at Fukuoka, where they were subjected to vivisection or killed.

    I am in agreement with Mr. Beatty

  7. 7
    Bartek says:

    One of my friends wrote a few years ago that bombing the Hamburg ,Drezno ,Berlin etc at 1944 and 1945 got an important pedagogical aspect .None of German cities was destroyed during WW 1st ( French ,Polish,Russian,Belgian cities were ) ,so they just didn't understand what the war really means .
    Thanks for the aerial bombings of WW2ND Germans understood that war doesn't mean that they could kill other people , burn their homes and steal their property , they learned that during the war German people could be killed also , German cities could be burned , German property could be annihilated or stolen .

    Propably the same thing was explained to Japanese by firebombing .

  8. 8
    Bartek says:

    BTW as we are talking about "poor" Japanese cilivians under US napalm ,maybe we ought to talk a little about sacco di Shanghai or about death march at Bataan ? Maybe about mass murds and rapes after the fall of Singapore or something ,but only a little, about Birman railroad ?

  9. 9
    blackwidow14 says:

    Justified ? Well destroying their manufacturing was justified. But I have big problem with burning kids !

    • 9.1
      Ajay says:

      So you would rather that 1 million American soldiers die trying to invade Japan. They would have fought to the last person, before surrendering.

      Naive and idealistic idiot.

      • 9.1.1
        franzyboy117 says:

        The firebombing of Japan destroyed HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of innocent lives. How the bloody hell can you call someone an idealistic idiot for realising this?? You've been brainwashed to think everything the American soldiers do is good and righteous but this was a direct violation of every aspect of the Just War Theory and I for one am disgusted.

  10. 10
    Bartek says:

    To Blackwidow :

    Who started to burn kids during WW2nd ?Germans&Japanese or Yankies&British ?

    P.S.
    Knights from Luftwaffe bombed maternity hospital at Polish town Wielun at the dawn of 01.09.1939 .

  11. 11
    roger says:

    My Dad did that in his B29. was not a thing he would ever talk about.
    Raids on his Saipan base and the bubble blow outs, he did tell me 'abit.
    Wish I could have learned more.
    Roger

  12. 12
    Liam says:

    To answer whether or not this action was justified 60 years later requires looking at the context in which the raids were undertaken. It is easy to judge in hindsight . It is not so easy to put oneself in the positon of Lemay, or his crews, or the millions of allies embroiled in catclysmic conflict dominated by unprecedented leaps in military technology , fervently believing they fought to save their world from abject tyrrany and brutality. Strategic bombing was still in its infancy, although its doctrine was several decades old in 1945. Bombing offered a way to strike decisively at enemy capacity to wage war; high altitude selective bombing could not guarantee a decisive level of damage; there was less distinction between combatants and civilians who aided the war effort in economies slaved to total war. Furthermore ,Japan fought without compromise,and many a blood drenched island and executed POW attested to the unrlenting ferocity of its brand of war.. I think there was plenty of justification for the fire raids. The question is whether or not they were tragic and horrific. Of course they were, as is all war. But, one need not look far to find their justification.

  13. 13
    Tim A. Meinschein says:

    Yes it was needed. I did a paper on the A-bombs stating that you could NOT look at the facts based on research done in '46 and latter, but instead, you had to look at what was known, or "known" at the time.

    The IJNavy, and Army total disregard of the Geneva (and the Hague) Conventions. The fact that the message sent too late on Dec. 7 did NOT declare war (just braking off of negotiations), and the litteral rape of several cities helped everyone feel that since they threw out the rule book, then sowed the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind.

    The fact that there were so many small "feeder" shops, and to totaly disrupt all lines of communication, plus production….Yes It was justified. Also, I believe that a lot of higher ups were getting scared of a house to house fight on each and every Japanese Island, for the whole length of that island. made it even more vital to bring the warlords to their knees, by any means possible. (Look at how many of the IJN's ships were sunk, so heavily damaged as to be out of service, but still their navy fought on). Tim

  14. 14
    A. Pritchard says:

    It may have been a sad necessity, but justifying the use of napalm on civilian population centers in terms of Japanese actions does nothing to support our contention of moral or ethical superiority. If we're supposedly the good guys, aren't we supposed to hold ourselves to the higher standards? In short – a sad chapter, probably a necessary one, but not one to ever be celebrated

  15. 15
    Tim Sweeney says:

    Not to minimize anything, but I have never heard of B-29s employing napalm. After achieving poor results from high altitude with high explosives, LeMay went to incendiaries from low altitude. This proved most effective.
    While I respect the people of modern Japan, the leaders of WWII had demonstrated on numerous occasions a total disregard for civilized standards. They felt that nothing was prohibited for them. Ask the hundreds of thousands brutally murdered in Nanking (to pick one of many dozens of instances of Japanese barbaric behavior) if they felt the treatment of "innocent" citizens under B-29s was inappropriate.
    After enduring the militaristic and ruthless examples of the leaders sacrificing their own people in futile defensive battles at great cost to the US, I would have been comfortable with using whatever number of A-bombs it took to get unconditional surrender. No invasion saved millions of Japanese and Allied lives.

  16. 16
    Liam says:

    The incendiaries used contained a version of napalm

  17. 17
    endtheoccupation says:

    Those of you who think these attacks were justified should remember what Brigadier General Bonner Fellers said about them. He described the air raids as "one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all history." That was his assessment, and he was one of MacArthur's most valued and trusted colleagues. If you think the "ruthless and barbaric killing of civilians" is justified, Al Queda has a job for you.

    One should not be blind to one of the most bitter historical ironies imaginable: the Japanese are now underwriting the very crimes for which Japanese officials were executed in 1948. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in the LA Times during the invasion of Iraq, the initiation of aggression against the people of Iraq on March 19, 2003 is another "day that will live in infamy." The US is now contemplating aggressive war against Iran, based on false pretexts similar to those used in the Iraq crime. We are now an aggressive pariah state that arrogates to itself the right to attack other countries at will — and we are a far more significant threat to the people of the world that Japan was in 1941. By justifying the firebombing of Japan's cities on the basis of Japanese behavior, you are by inference justifying mass casualty attacks on the United States. The detonation of a nuclear device in an American city is justified in your view as a matter of elementary logic.

    • 17.1
      krb says:

      Your passion for dennograting the U.S. is certainly noticable and one sided for the most part. My guess is that you are a liberal politically. You certainly have the right to your opinion, but I also have the right to disagree with your accessment and believe you are wrong. Please allow me to appologize in advance if I seem offensive, but I feel very strongly about what I am about to write.

      The U.S. has to my knowledge never engaged in offensive action against anyone without due provocation. Even Vietnam was an engagement that started because of the aggressive actions of a communist regeme.

      Japan and Germany started WWII by engaging in horrific actions against their neighbors. The U.S. tried to stay out of it, but was forced by circumstance to engage. We had to…the world would have spiraled into a darkness the likes of which we might not ever have been able to correct and it would have cost many more millions of lives to do so. What happened to Japan and Germany was a horror that they brought onto themselves.

      America is the most generous and peace loving peoples in the history of civilization, but when provoked, we will defend ourselves and have every right to do so. Everytime we've been forced to do so, is because liberal leadership stuck their heads in the sand and allowed our defenses to dwindle to the point of stagnation where others beleived we didn't want to or were afraid to fight. That is their most lasting legacy.

      To be quite honest, I'm sick and tired of hearing the revisionist view of history as though the U.S. was the evil that started it all. Just think about that statement for a moment. What has the middle east contributed to the world in the last 100 years…absolutely nothing except hate, fear, war, and strife. Their own political climate is what has kept them from progressing into the future…they approach everything from an ideological point of view…only it's their view that counts and no one else's. Quite frankly, its amazing to me just how patient the U.S. and West in general has been toward these poeple. While they rave and rant about death the America, death to Britain…we sit idly by and watch with patient confidense. Unfortunately, sooner or later, we are going to be provoked again into an unwanted war where a lot of people are going to die.

      It's the revisionist liberals who believe the U.S. is at fault for everything that is going to set the stage for that to happen…then, like liberals often do, never take responsibility for what they allowed to happen and deflect blame toward those who tried to prevent it from happening.

    • 17.2
      SW45 says:

      @ Endtheoccupation! I aggree with You 100%. The reason our people and gov't are so cavalier about war and killing is because none of our cities have ever been destroyed and laid waste like we did to German & Japanese cities! The American public called Al Qeuda MONSTERS for the 9/11 attacks which killed 3000 American civilians who were non-combatants. The civilians of those German & Japanese cities were non-combatants, just like the 3000 civilians that Al Qeuda killed on 9/11 were non-combatants.

      The U.S. air force burned and incinerated old men women, children and babies. There is no way if you have a moral bone in Your body that any person would justify this. Imagine Your own children burning to death @ 2am in the morning at the hands of enemy bombs! Believe you Me, the American public would be wholey outraged if the same firebombing was done to us.

  18. 18
    John S says:

    Does the Rape of Nanking ring a bell? Bataan Death March? To cite civilian suffering is not a consideration of the Japanese government or soldiers, or populace, nor should it have been one for our government. The most important considerations that we had were:
    1-Limit American Casualties- Mission Accomplished
    2- Keep Stalin from taking a big bite out of Japan (Like he did to Poland at the beginning of WW2) Mission Accomplished

  19. 19
    Mark T. says:

    I teach at a community college and one of my students, a middle aged woman of Japanese descent and I were talking before class about WWII. She said if it had not been for the atomic bomb, she wouldn't be here today. She believed the bombings, atomic and fire, were justified because if we had invaded Japan, her father, an army officer, would have died at the front and her mother, a school girl at the time, was being trained, along with every other school boy and girl, to resist invading soldiers with sharpened poles. It is something that shouldn't be glorified nor condemned. It had to happen. If we had not bombed Japan as we did, how many of us wouldn't be here? On Okinawa, we had casualties in excess of 50,000 killed and wounded. Conservative estimates for the invasion of Kyushu, (Operation Olympic) were put at 500,000 dead and wounded. Operation Coronet estimates were as high and since this would have been mainly an American operation, those were our fathers.

    Another thing to think about is that if we had in fact invaded, the Soviet Union would have been involved at some point on Japan proper and Japan, like Korea and Viet Nam, would have been divided north/south for administrative purposes and a different world situation would have been put in place. The fire bombings were horrific, but the alternative would have been much more horrible for both sides.

  20. 20
    krb says:

    That is a tough one…morally, it's never justified to killed innocent civilians…in times of total war…it happens, it just can't be helped. The Japanese were no stranger to dishing out that sort of action…just ask the Chinese. By the time the fire bombings occurred, Japans industry was pretty much burned out as it was.

  21. 21
    KBRTV says:

    You people got to keep in mind, they were no such thing as laser-guided smart bombs and cruise missiles which made precision bombing a reality like we have today. That's why because of horrible inaccuracy from high-altitude bombings during World War II, especially in the concept of Total War, carpetbombing cities was the only way to get things done to demoralize the civilian population and to destroy their war effort. Yes I know it sucks but as i said, it was the only way to get things down back then.

    As for this question, it was justified to the fact that the firebombings on Japanese cities was mainly designed to burn much of buildings and destroy military installations as possible. Most of the buildings in Japan were made of wood and paper where in Europe, the buildings were made of bricks and steel.

    General Curtis LeMay decided that since most Japanese buildings were made of wood and paper, he authorized the use of incendiary bombs to burn them easily to the ground. By late 1944, Japan had decentralized most of the war parts from the factories and workshops and moved them into residential homes, basically in a sense, you could say there was not a single civilian target visible at all.

    http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/full/195
    Here the three main points why the firebombing was justified:

    1) Article 27 of the 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare on SECTION II HOSTILITIES stated that "In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes. It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs, which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand."

    The fact is that the Japanese authorities did not do it prior to the USAAF incendiary raids basically makes them guilty for civilian deaths when the bombs started dropping into the cities. The attacking air forces would have to spare non-military centers from damage easier if the civilian and military targets were visibly marked. We did earlier in 1944 using precision bombing methods but the clouds and heavy anti-aircraft fire prevented them from visibly seeing the targets.

    2) Article 26 of the 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare on SECTION II HOSTILITIES stated that "The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities."

    The U.S. Army Air Forces had dropped more than 63 million leaflets across Japan warning civilians in those cities they were to be bombed within a few days and urged civilian population to evacuate the city. I don't think the Japanese Air Forces had dropped leaflets at Pearl Harbor warning the unprepared and uninvolved non-war participating U.S. soldiers that it was going to be bombed.

    3) Lastly but not least, Article 25 of the 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare on SECTION II HOSTILITIES stated that "The attack? or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited."

    The 67 Japanese cities bombed by U.S. B-29s was MOSTLY defended, most of the the cities pretty much were defended if they had military and industrial installations that was vital to the Japanese Empire.

    CONCLUSION: So yes the firebombings of Japan was JUSTIFIED, not because it killed innocent civilians, but because based on the three factors, almost all the cities in Japan were legitimate military targets, cities were warned ahead of time in anticipation of our air raids, and none of them were plainly marked visible to the attacking air forces.

    The Japanese government and the military did not abide by the rules of war when they started the imperial aggression against Asia dating back to the 1930s. They committed outrageous war crimes on innocent civilians just for the sake of killing civilians. They did the same thing to soldiers after laying down their arms and surrendering to them as well. The Bushido Code that was practiced at the time required the Japanese to fight to death. To surrender was a shameful act. Until they were convinced of their total annihilation, nothing would have stopped them from defending Japan to the last man.

    Besides, Japan began the war with America from the air at Pearl Harbor without a declaration of war and without warning. You don't start something like a war unless you consider the possibility you might actually get your @ss handed back to you.

    They committed outrageous war crimes on civilians and surrendered soldiers that didn't receive any warning. They raped and beheaded civilians and POWs and enslaved the populaces they conquered.

    Firebombing Japan from the air was designed to convince civilian population that the war is useless and persuade their government to surrender. It actually pretty worked and by the end of the war, the Japanese people had lost faith in their government because they care more about the war than the lives of the civilian population. It's easier to bomb Japan from the air rather than dropping our soldiers into the Japanese mainland to be slaughtered in the thousands since our intent was to reduce our lives, not the lives of enemy civilians (Well we did drop warning leaflets on their cities telling them to leave).

    A lot more people will die had the U.S. not firebombed and two nuclear bombed their cities. Terrible that 300,000-500,000 Japanese civilians died but better to save our lives rather than theirs and better than to invade the Japanese mainlands that would cost millions of American and Japanese lives.

  22. 22
    Sam McGowan says:

    The fire-bombing of Tokyo (which was actually conceived in Washington) was as justified as the firebombing of German cities by RAF Bomber Command.

  23. 23
    Scarlett McKay says:

    Well when you put into consideration that the b29 cost more than the manhattan project,and the pure evil of the japanese in ww2,they would of had no qualms of doing the same to civilians,look how they treated the people of there conquered territory,put this into context that they thought their emperor was a go… we was right to Burn the country to the ground

  24. 24
    John Stockhausen says:

    Inasmuch as the Japanese war economy relied on small businesses that were widely dispersed in urban centers, yes. I also think that it's a partial misnomer to state that it was "Curtis LeMay's" firebombing. The executioners' name is immaterial when the Head of State gives the execution order. IF the primary goal was only the destruction of the civilian populace, then the firebombing was simply barbaric. I also believe that legitimate military goals were attributed to these campaigns.P.S.- I hope that we can dispense with name calling if we disagree. I would imagine that this is not a 3rd grade topic.

  25. 25
    Kidtypole says:

    Was Japan's aerial bombardment of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanking, Canton, Chongqing, and other Chinese cities justified? No, because the intent of the Japanese bombings was to destroy Chinese civilian morale by bombing them just to terrorize them into submission in effort to force the Chinese government to sue for peace. In fact, it was Japan that started the whole terror bombing way before the German bombing of Guernica in 1937, when they indiscriminately bombed key targets during the First Battle of Shanghai in 1932, killing 1,000 Chinese civilians within a few hours. Later during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937-1945, the Japanese started to adopt the policy of carpetbombing officially during their campaigns as both a tactical and genocidal policy throughout the rest of the war.

    The American bombing of Japanese cities was not intended to kill off the Japanese civilian populace but to destroy the cottage industries and factories that were situated in populated areas. It was an effort to disrupt the industrial logistic and material support to the enemy in the battlefront and by severely limiting the enemy's war industry, it would severely cripple the Japanese military's will to wage war. If a factory filled with 100 tanks is taken out, then there would be no tanks at all. If a factory filled with bombs and rifles is taken out, there would no bombs and rifles that would used to inflict massive damage on the enemy's forces. That's the rationale why we bombed Japanese cities. Civilians were not innocent if they directly took part in the enemy's war machine (e.g, by manufacturing munitions in factories). By doing so, they made themselves legitimate targets rather than protected persons.

    Like it or not, It's not fair for today's generation to have a voice in condemning the B-29 aircrews who were flying over enemy territory to destroy the enemy's war industry, dominated by the unprecedented leaps of military technology, believing they were going to put down the tyrannical nations hellbent on dominating the free world.



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