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Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942–1945

by Barrett Tillman, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, $28

Barrett Tillman has written a workmanlike and comprehensive journalistic account of the air war against Japan. Whirlwind represents much more than just a retelling of the massive strategic bombing of Japanese cities by B-29s that burned out the heart of Japan’s major cities. It presents the reader with a judicious discussion of the wider role of air power in the Pacific war between the United States and Japan. And air power in the Pacific was not just the realm of the Army Air Forces but of the Navy and Marines as well. In fact, as Tillman makes clear, without the Navy’s massive island-hopping campaign—which reached the Marianas in summer 1944—there would have been no effective strategic bombing campaign of the Japanese Home Islands until much later. Such a delay would have had immense strategic consequences.

Tillman opens his book with an examination of prewar doctrine in the Army Air Corps and the technological developments that would eventually make possible the bombing of Japan. He also provides the necessary background to the U.S. Navy’s development of carrier aviation. Nevertheless, in an account that supposedly covers the air war from 1942, Tillman spends no time examining the crucial air and naval battles around Guadalcanal, the Solomons and New Guinea. Those battles proved crucial in breaking the back of Japanese naval and army air forces and creating the basis for the American surge toward Japan, which had begun in November 1943 at Tarawa and had carried U.S. military power to the islands of Guam and Tinian eight months later. Moreover, buried in those events is the astonishing performance of Lt. Gen. George Kenney, whose leadership of Fifth Air Force placed him among the most innovative and imaginative airmen of World War II.

Barrett’s book is thus chiefly about the aerial campaign against the Japanese Home Is lands rather than the overall use of Allied air power against Japan’s military might. As such, it provides a thorough and interesting account of the differences between the B-29 offensive and that waged by the Navy’s massive force of fast carriers. The 1944 B-29 assault from China was an almost complete failure, and, as Tillman highlights, the initial effort from the Marianas was not much more successful. Desperate to make the B-29 a success, given its immense cost, the chief of Army Air Forces, General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, turned to Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, who would launch the nighttime firebombing raids that ultimately devastated Tokyo.

By summer 1945, Japan lay in ruins under an aerial onslaught that had wrecked its cities, ravaged its landscape and military bases and largely cut off its oceanic trade through aerial mining in conjunction with submarine attacks. Tillman does not directly address whether the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary, but he implies there was little choice—the bombings ended the war before the mass starvation of the Japanese people and the catastrophe an invasion would have been for both the American and Japanese people.

Despite their desperate situation, Japan’s leaders showed little willingness to consider surrender. Tillman captures that mindset in a startling quote. Vice Adm. Takejiro Onishi confided to his diary, “The enemy’s offensive operations are drawing ever nearer to the home islands, and air raids…are getting more severe by the day…[and] the logistical situation…has become dire.” Yet he concluded, “I can guarantee absolutely that Japan will not lose.…The war is just beginning.”

Overall, Tillman has written a solid account of the air war against Japan in the last two years of the war. It is crisply written and aimed at the amateur military historian interested in air power. For those interested in the broader story about the last year of the war and the political and military factors surrounding the surrender of Japan, it is doubtful whether anything will equal Richard Frank’s Downfall (1999).


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here