Tag Archives: World War II

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue


YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Lt. Gen. Burton Field, United States Forces Japan commander and 5th Air Force commander, gives Tomo Ishikawa, Gakushuin Women’s College student, a hug after she presented him 1,000 origami cranes March 16, 2012. The students made a total of 4,000 origami cranes and gave 1,000 to a member of each service. This was in appreciation for all the help given by the 5th Air Force to the Japanese citizens stranded by the tsunami.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Chad C. Strohmeyer)

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue

War is hell.

Vile.

Scars are left on those who had to endure the horror…

Those who witnessed it…

Those who fought in it…

But then hopefully there is a healing.

Perhaps it will take a generation or two.

But it will happen.

Capt. Ray Smisek receiving his second Distinguished Flying Cross on Guam, August 25, 1945. Incredible bravery indeed. Courtesy S. Smisek.
Capt. Ray Smisek receiving his second Distinguished Flying Cross on Guam, August 25, 1945. Incredible bravery indeed. Courtesy S. Smisek.

Perhaps one will never forget… but one can forgive.

Perhaps is it wrong of me – a person who never endured war – to say it so simply.  Forgive.

But I have witnessed forgiving with Old Man Jack… Mr. Johnson…

Warriors have forgiven and tried to move on with their life in spite of nightmares for the rest of their lives.

Civilians, too.

The result is endearing friendship.  The same USAF that bombed Japan assisted thousands of stranded Japanese civilians after the tsunami.  The world has benefited but at the cost of the sanity of single souls so many decades ago.

Captain Ray B. Smisek

On Sept. 2, 1945, Captain Ray Smisek once again made a round trip flight to Tokyo.

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A glimpse at a formation of B-29s flying over the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Perhaps Capt. Smisek’s B-29 is pictured. National Archives.

This time, it was as a member of one of the great air armadas ever assembled in history.  Over 300 carrier based Navy planes and hundreds of B-29s.  MacArthur rightfully wanted to make an impression upon the Japanese people by ordering a huge flyover Tokyo Bay and the USS Missouri, where the formal surrender documents were signed.  (They were to fly over at the moment of the signing but were late, upwards of ten minutes.  MacArthur apparently whispered to General Hap Arnold of the USAAF something to the effect of, “Now would be a good time, Hap,” with respect to his missing armada.)

It was the crew’s 21st mission.  They were going home.

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Official Mission List, retained by Capt. Smisek’s bombadier, Capt. Alfonso Escalante. Courtesy of S. Smisek.

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In Part 1, son S. Smisek said of his father that he hated to kill anything – even bugs.  That was his character.

Capt. Ray Smisek returned home to his parents after the war and tried his hand in the Los Angeles real estate market; he also worked as a cook in a restaurant.  He must have made one heckuva Sauerkraut, one of his favorites.

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Capt. Ray Smisek with his parents after returning home. They must have been proud. Photo courtesy of S. Smisek (Copyright).

But…  Ray Smisek had met a young woman while he and a back-seater were on a cross-country training flight in 1942.  They were flying from Greenville, Mississippi when the BT-13 trainer developed engine trouble.  To make matters worse, there was a bad storm.  Not swell conditions when you’re training to be a pilot.  Fortunately, the clouds miraculously parted and a small town below was bathed in forgiving sunlight.  He said he did a barrel roll and dove through the break in the clouds.  It turned out to be a rural airport in Springfield, MO (now known at the Springfield-Branson National Airport).

On the USAAF’s dime, he was put up in a posh hotel.  After noticing “this sweet thing walk by” per his son, Ray Smisek asked a desk clerk if he knew who she was.  Seeing the twinkle in his eye, the clerk contacted the gal’s father who agreed to let him meet his daughter…but under the father’s mindful eye.  She apparently “had a guy”, so to speak, but they still ended up becoming pen pals.  Those letters must have been so important to a young man off in a faraway place facing death at any time.  It may have been fate but her beau tragically perished in a B-24 Liberator accident in England.
She was a singer in the “big bands” era of the 40’s and traveled extensively.  Remembering there was no internet, Ray finally tracked her down in 1947.  She was in Houston for a gig.  His son tells me he drove for two days straight to get to where she was performing.  Ray had a note he had written and asked a waiter to hand it to her.  It said, “Let me take you home and love you forever.  Ray!”  The note is a precious heirloom; the family still has it.
After getting married, Ray re-enlisted in the newly organized USAF (It was separated from the US Army.).  He flew for 16 more years in service of our country and retired from the USAF as a Colonel in 1963.  Along the way, they had five children; one was born at each station at which he was assigned.  Talk about the hardships of a military family.
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Family picture taken in the 1980’s, with Ray (plaid shirt) and his wife (red blouse), five children and the grandparents to the right of center. Courtesy of S. Smisek.

S. Smisek explained to me that his father rarely, if ever, talked about his time at war while he was growing up.  That was very typical, you see.  His son wrote very eloquently:

When I was growing up, he never spoke much of his time during the war. When asked about those times, I could see a sullenness come over his face, then he would most often ask me another question just to change the subject. In those rare exchanges when he would answer, he made it very clear that he desired no recognition for what he had done. He desired no contact with his fellow comrades, felt no honor for the devastation he had helped cause, and amazingly to me, felt no affection whatsoever for the incredible aircraft which had brought he and his crew back safely from so many missions over so many horrible places.

He, along with the rest of these brave young men, was an ordinary and yet an extraordinary human being – a person who offered some of his life’s most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so that countless others would have the freedom to accomplish theirs.

Raymond B. Smisek was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer in 1989 and passed away at home, surrounded by his family, in August 1990.  He was just 70 years old.  His son believes his father also suffered from another cancer – one related to unhealed scars from war.  His son said they were cancers of the soul and spirit, much more damaging than those of the body.  His wife – the singer in the big bands of the ’40s – passed away in 2001.

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Please visit his son’s tribute to the men of the 330th Bombardment Group at www.330th.org.  For the sake of the families of the WWII airmen, S. Smisek has researched and brought many of the pieces together of what it was like for their fathers at war.  Through his website and in a sterling triumph several years ago, S. Smisek played a key role in coordinating the meeting of a Japanese gentleman living in Canada with a B-29 pilot from his father’s squadron. Seventy years earlier, the Japanese gentleman was in Kumagaya Japan as an eight year old, running from the bombs being dropped from the pilot’s aircraft.  The two finally met and it was moving and emotional moment per S. Smisek.  For an article of the meeting, please click here.

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Aunt Eiko

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Dad took this picture of the Tokyo Station in 1947. His G-2 HQ was to his left in front of the Palace. The station was being rebuilt, courtesy of the US. Notice the rickshaws lined up in front; the Japanese had no cars until the late 50’s. Also note the trees; they are burned.

There was no escaping bombardment for Aunt Eiko, even after moving to Fukui slightly inland from the Japan Sea; the US Navy shelled their farming neighborhood heavily.  She also vividly remembers a small group of high school aged Japanese soldiers relaxing at the nearby beach and still cries inside knowing their fate.

Preceded by my mother, Aunt Eiko and grandma returned to Tokyo sometime in mid-September to find it in shambles.  People were living in lean-to’s, she said, and running water still had not yet been re-established in devastated areas.  Food was a tremendous daily hurdle.  She cannot recall when but she remembers it was such a relief when MacArthur began rationing out beans and drinkable water…but it was American beans.  Still, the beans were appreciated.

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PFC Taro Tanji seated in center flanked by (from left) mom, grandparents and Aunt Eiko. You can make out Taro’s US 8th Army emblem. Taken in Tokyo, December 8, 1946.
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Aunt Eiko got a job at the Tokyo PX, working out of the Matsuzakaya Department Store in the Ginza. You can see “Tokyo PX” on her badge. 1947, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto.

But their greatest savior surviving the first few months after war’s end was another relative – an American.  An American of Japanese descent that is.  Taro Tanji was born in Livingston, CA but was drafted out of the Amache War Relocation Center in Colorado by the US Army.  He became a member of the famed Military Intelligence Service.

He arrived in Tokyo at war’s end as part of the US 8th Army’s Occupation Force.  Through his intelligence connections, he was able to track down Aunt Eiko and family in a suburb called “Toritsu Daigaku”.  Some of it had miraculously escaped burning.

Driving up in his US Army jeep, he stayed at their house every weekend.  Each time, he would bring a duffle bag filled with C-rations, instant coffee and American cigarettes for my Grandfather (which he reluctantly accepted – funny story).  Yes, Aunt Eiko ate the Spam and deviled ham.  Taro managed to get in a good word and found both Aunt Eiko and my mother jobs at the PX.

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Aunt Eiko and her love in her life, Puri. Circa 1952, Toritsu Gakuen, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

Things were tough until the early 50’s.  Dogs as pets were still rare as they also needed to be fed…but Aunt Eiko wanted dearly to achieve one of her dreams – to have a dog.

And so she did… She named him “Prince”, or “Puri” when you shorten “Pu-ri-un-su” pronounced in Japanese.  She loved him until he passed away in 1968.  She was devastated, of course.  I think Puri was an escape from the war’s ugliness for her.

She met Paul Sakuma sometime in the late 60’s; he was a Hawaiian born Sansei who was also drafted by the US Army into the Military Intelligence Service by the US Army.  He was attached to the 720th MP Battalion to serve as a translator.  He told a funny story to Aunt Eiko where the MPs frequently raided certain types of “houses”…  You know…  GI’s were prohibited from “fraternizing with the enemy” so they would raid them.  One time, there was a fellow MIS Nisei caught inside.  He made sure the “howlies” couldn’t escape…but held the door open for the Nisei.  After being discharged, he decided to stay in Tokyo to live and worked for the USAF as a civilian employee, using his knowledge of Japanese as a go-between.

Uncle Paul at Ft. Snelling's top secret Military Intelligence Service Language School, circa Winter 1945.  The old barracks is seen in the background.
Uncle Paul at Ft. Snelling’s top secret Military Intelligence Service Language School, circa Winter 1945. The old barracks is seen in the background.

They married but had no children – but a week before my first marriage in 1980, I got a phone call from Aunt Eiko in Tokyo.  She was sobbing uncontrollably.

Uncle Paul had gone upstairs in their beautiful home he just had built for them after washing her car.  He screamed, “Eiko!”  It would be his last word; he suffered a massive heart attack and died, right there at the top of the stairs in his brand new home.

Soon after his death, Aunt Eiko immigrated to the US along with my grandmother.  She became an US citizen about a dozen years ago.

In an irony, the country that bombed her city to ashes in 1945 bestowed upon her beloved husband Uncle Paul (as well as to Uncle Taro) the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010 for their service to the country.  While both had passed away before the award, Aunt Eiko cried for happy when I surprised her with the medal.  She said, “Even after all these years, Paul still brings me happiness.”

Holding Uncle Paul's Congressional Gold Medal for the first time, Aunt Eiko cried for happy.  Incidentally, she became an American citizen about ten years ago.
Holding Uncle Paul’s Congressional Gold Medal for the first time, Aunt Eiko cried for happy. Incidentally, she became an American citizen about a dozen years ago. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto.
With her best friend - August 1963
Aunt Eiko with her childhood friend – the one who was burned during a firebombing. August 1963, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

As for her childhood friends, she is all who remains now at 88 years of age, just like Old Man Jack.  Her friend who was burned during the firebombings was one of the last to pass away.  She was the tall girl standing behind Aunt Eiko atop the Asahi Newspaper Building on October 30, 1937 and shown here in 1963.

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A most sincere thank you to S. Smisek without whom this series would not have been possible.  I wish him continued fortune with his 330th Bomb Group’s website, helping those descendants piece together their father’s contribution in World War II.

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My two youngest kids standing beneath the Enola Gay in 2010, the most famous B-29. Her single bomb destroyed my father’s Hiroshima high school and damaged my grandmother’s home as well. Read the story by clicking on the photo.  Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto.

Previous parts can be found by clicking on the links below:

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 2

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 3

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4


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One of my WWII aviation lithographs; it shows a P-38 Lightning ironically over Leyte where my uncle was killed. Drawn by my good friend Mike Machat.

The View From the Ground

“うわぁ。。。二つの尻尾。。。それはその時代の飛行機だ。。。”, my Aunt Eiko said. “Oh, my… The twin tails… Its that plane from (the war).”

She just saw my lithograph of a WWII P-38 Lightning.  She and my parents had come for the first time after we moved into our house across the street from Old Man Jack. I had just put up my WWII aviation art gallery and she immediately recognized this US fighter plane with its distinctive twin tails from the war.  She said it strafed the high school that she was walking near.  She was about 18 years old.

Funny how things stick in your mind from war.

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Circa 1930
(L to R) Mom and Aunt Eiko, circa 1931. Tokyo.

Along with my mom and grandparents, Aunt Eiko lived within walking distance of the Imperial Palace in Shimbashi, Tokyo.  Back then, the Emperor was god.  To live so close to the Imperial Palace meant your family had some extra change.

Although a photo of their house from that time no longer exists, the home was typical of that time.  Beams and floors made of wood. Doors called “shoji” (framed in light wood with paper “windows”) slid open and close.  By sliding, they saved space as regular doors would have to swing open and close, taking away precious space.  The floors were “tatami”, or boards wound with rice straw.  Believe me, they are uncomfortable to sit on to say the least.  Many homes still sported thatched roofs, or kusabuki, made with layers of a type of reed.  But all in all, the homes were made with wood products or straw.  Not exactly fireproof.

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My Aunt Mieko (dad’s side of family) standing in front of our traditional style home, circa 1936. Although my dad’s home shown here is in Hiroshima, the construction is the same as my aunt’s: wood and paper. Behind her are the “shoji”, or sliding door panels as well as the hard tatami mats. As a side note, all these shoji were blown out by the atomic shock wave.

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As three generations usually lived in a family home, Aunt Eiko had the same close knit circle of girl friends having stayed together through high school.  Families rarely moved back then.  The girls took classes in “kimono”, shamisen (a guitar of sorts) and cooking – very traditional fare for a Japanese girl.  To them, etiquette was to be followed, never to be broken.  I would think she had a crush on someone just as any girl would have…but she has not said.

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Aunt Eiko, front row, third from left, and circle of close friends. Her closest friend, standing to the left of her, was slightly burned during a firebombing.  Taken atop the Asahi Newspaper Building, Tokyo, Oct. 30, 1937.

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Before the Firebombing

Sometime in late 1943, my aunt says my grandfather decided to move the family, a rarity, due to her illnesses.  Apparently, my grandfather thought the unhealthy downtown Tokyo air was exacerbating her ills so they moved into another wooden frame home in Higashi Senzoku, a couple of kilometers south of Shimbashi.  It does not appear potential bombings by US planes was the reason to move at this time.

Soon thereafter, though, the family received mandatory evacuation orders (強制疎開). My Aunt believes this to be late in 1944… Times were tough.  Food supplies had already dwindled to nearly nothing. To make it worse, only older doctors remained as many younger ones were conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army as well.

They moved to her grandfather’s home in Omiya, Tokyo; it is about a mile due west of the Imperial Palace:

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Omiya, the Imperial Palace and childhood home.

A drawing of the wood home in Omiya:

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The actual traditional wooden home (立ての木) in Omiya, Tokyo where my family took refuge during the bombings. It is about a mile west of the Imperial Palace. This was drawn on extremely thin paper – much thinner than the old tracing paper we had here in the States – by my great-grandfather, Wakio Shibayama. Undated but post-war.

The Firebombing

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My aunt’s writing. (Copyright Koji Kanemoto)

March 9, 1945 was about two weeks before my Aunt Eiko’s 19th birthday.  Due to the strenuous and meager living conditions, I doubt any birthday party was in the works.  I doubt there were many birthday parties at all.  There was little to be had as Japan was losing… and losing badly.

Aunt Eiko was at their grandfather’s house in Omiya that night when the pathfinders found their mark.  She says they all gathered in the front yard to gaze towards the Imperial Palace after hearing the first explosions.

She notes on the left:

東京大空襲が3月10日にあっておじいさんの家の庭でB-29の爆弾、焼夷弾が落とされる時の雨が降る様な音とその爆弾の数の多いことにだいたいおどかされた。そのおとのザ~ザ~というのが今でも耳にのこっている。

In doing my best at translating, she says:

We were in the front yard of my grandfather’s house when the firebombing started on March 10.  The B-29s were dropping shocking amounts of bombs and firebombs – so many that they sounded like heavy rain coming down.  I will never forget that sound (of the falling bombs); it is still vivid in my ears even today.

A year earlier, my youngest daughter was interviewing her for a 5th grade family biography project.  One requirement was that the family member’s history was interesting or unusual.  Naturally, since experiences like my aunt’s are not found in school textbooks today, I recommended she interview Aunt Eiko about her war experiences in Tokyo.

ちょうちん
提灯 or paper lantern.

During the interview, Aunt Eiko said the (AN-M69) incendiary sticks were like thousands of 撥 (bachi, or the drumsticks used for taiko drums) raining down from the sky… that there were so many of them that it looked like swarms of insects.  She also described the thousands of trailing streamers (attached to each stick) reminded her of ribbons fluttering in the breeze.¹  Unlike what many of us believe, she said the B-29s came for hours… that there would be a rash of explosions then the B-29s would disappear only to hear the now familiar drone of more B-29s approaching then more bombs.

In earlier conversations², she described seeing hundreds of flashes of light at roof top level during the firebombings.  It wasn’t clear to me then but it is clear now that the flashes she witnessed were likely the smaller high explosive bombs dropped from the B-29s hitting structures and exploding.  She also sadly described the homes burned like 提灯 (chouchin, or paper lanterns) and that the waves of heat distorted distances (like looking through the heat waves rising from your street in summer).  It made it hard to judge how far – or how close – the fires were.

The Firestorm

The main concentrations of fire occurred not just in the area behind and to the left of the Imperial Palace; Aunt Eiko said incendiaries (possibly dispersed due to the heat thermals) ignited neighborhoods just to the left of her Omiya house where they were staying. (Embers would have achieved the same results, however, and may be more likely.)

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The city’s fire department was largely staffed by women who were not professional firefighters. Importantly, note the clothing worn by the mother and child in the forefront. Source: “The Reports of General MacArthur“.

According to studies, death occurred through suffocation, incineration, and heat.

Fed by winds and with a fire department largely staffed by women volunteers, the fires spread rapidly and raged out of control. These firefighters attempted throwing dirt or sand on the incendiaries, a hopeless effort. When there was water pressure, the water pressure was low.  Reports indicated the firefighters tried to douse the civilians as they fled but the water would soon evaporate from the heat.

Suffocation occurred as the great fires sucked all the oxygen out of the air. They just couldn’t breathe.  Those that were able to find cooler river water tried to keep their faces above the water; but they, too, simply suffocated due to the lack of oxygen. In some instances, fleeing civilians attempted to seek shelter in areas that had pretty much burned but their bodies were found later in a small cluster.  They suffocated to death together as oxygen became depleted.

Extreme heat was another cause of death as temperatures soared to 1,800F.  Asphalt bubbled and steel bridges became frying pans.  People panicking ran or were herded towards bridges or rivers only to be pushed into the waters by the ensuing masses of humanity trying to flee.  Unfortunately, the water was at boiling temperatures and they were essentially boiled to death once they fell in.  Escape paths were blocked with debris, downed power poles, burning trees…and bodies.  If one could not escape the heat, that person simply burst into flames.  Horrifically, superheated air swirled down towards street level.  People would then literally burn from the feet up when their pants would catch fire.

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A Japanese artist’s depiction. Note the pants on fire and the swirling heat.  While unsure, the name appears to be Takahide.

Incineration was the worst, the most painful death I would assume.  One aspect not widely known by the general populace is their type of clothing contributed greatly to their demise of burning to death.  Their cloth-based head gear (see painting of women firefighters shown earlier) was meant to protect their ears and head from bomb explosions – not a firestorm.  In the end, this protective head gear easily caught fire as did their loose fitting trousers.  Aunt Eiko reported a girl she knew ran from the fires with a baby strapped onto her back in traditional Japanese style.  Through all the noise, screaming, running and panic, the girl was unable to notice until too late that burning jellied gasoline had landed on the baby’s face and had died.

No photos of corpses are deemed necessary here.

Aftermath

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A wall exhibit at the Tokyo History Museum, showing the extent of the area destroyed by firebombing. The Imperial Palace is just right of center. The Omiya house is in the burned zone, in the very center.

Aunt Eiko has never said whether the Omiya home survived the firebombings and I don’t intend to ask.  While this Tokyo raid was the first of several, I cannot understand why my great-grandfather would have sketched the home out, apparently from memory, unless it no longer existed.

Japanese reports of the aftermath indicate that due to the thousands of burned corpses or of those who suffocated, it was nearly impossible to walk through Tokyo without stepping on bodies.  Further, as the seared corpses disintegrated, their ashes would swirl up into the air.

She, my mother and grandmother finally fled the city on or about July 1, 1945; grandfather stayed behind for reasons never known to her.  They lived at another cousin’s yam farm in Fukui, helping to farm the fields while living on meager rations.

The war ended six weeks later.  What happened in between is another story altogether.

Part 5 of “The Firebombing of Tokyo” will be an epilogue.

I hope you will stay tuned.

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 5 (Epilogue) is here.

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NOTES:

1. That even surprised me as I didn’t know the incendiaries had streamers, so much so that I asked her what she was talking about.

2. Just like Old Man Jack and many other combat veterans, Aunt Eiko (along with my father) suppresses many of the horrific war experiences she witnessed.  She “gives” things out little by little.

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 2


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Fifi – the last flying B-29 Superfortress in the world. Taken by me flying over my house on November 13, 2010. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

Superfortress.

Or the “Superfort”.

That’s what we called them here in the States; nicknames for the Boeing B-29 bomber.

My aunt called them “地獄からのトンボ” or dragonfly from hell.

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Development

The development of the B-29 actually started before WWII began for the US – in 1939.  Perhaps there were some shenanigans back then but Boeing had engineered a pressurized cockpit for their B-17 Flying Fortress (from whence the nickname Superfortress hailed from) for the USAAF.  Conveniently, the USAAF put together in 1939 a call for a new bomber capable of 400 mph while carrying a 20,000 pound payload.  The B-29 was born.

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Destroyed Frye Packing Plant. Boeing archives.

Her development was not smooth.  Indeed, it was the most advanced aircraft design of its time with its pressurized crew compartment and ten remote control dual .50 caliber Browning machine guns.  The second prototype YB-29 crashed into the Frye Packing Plant in Seattle killing her pilot, Eddie Allen, all ten of her crew of engineers as well as 19 workers on the ground.  (In fact, two engineers managed to bail out over Seattle but they were too low for their parachutes to deploy.)  As an indication of things to come, an engine caught fire 20 minutes into the flight causing the horrendous crash.  As the plane was secret, there was a tremendous cover-up as well.

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Test pilot Eddie Allen from his cockpit of the XB-29. Boeing archives.

The production of the B-29 was a nightmare.  Due to immensity of the aircraft for its time, there were no manufacturing facilities large enough to house it let alone build it.  Four assembly plants were utilized with Boeing’s Wichita plant eventually becoming the hub.  The plane’s complexity exacerbated the production; over a thousand sub-contractors were involved.  Production changes were so prevalent, numerous and on-going that even when a B-29 had been assembled, it was towed to a holding area in Wichita to have major modifications done post-production.  The freezing weather also made work a nightmare.  Production was so poor that even when about 97 were delivered in 1943, only about 15 were flyable.

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Source unknown.
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Posed photograph of workers working on B-29 cockpit module. National archives. Undated.
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First B-29 out of Wichita, Kansas, Fall 1943. National Archives.

Some examples of these major flaws included:

  1.  Defective pressure seals around cockpit windows and gunner blisters;
  2.  As each plane had about ten miles of wiring and electronics, there were numerous failures;
  3.  Wing structure needed post-production modifications;
  4.  Cockpit glass were distorted;
  5.  The analog computers used for the new “remote control” machine guns were problematic; and,
  6.  As as mentioned, the engines overheated to the point of being set on fire during flight.

Because production of the first B-29’s were done “on the run”, the first 100 built were really built by hand by unskilled laborers.  Each one differed from another.  One end result of this production on the run was that there were significant differences in weight between supposedly identical bombers.

Only personal intervention by the great General Hap Arnold improved the production problem… but it took months.

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The first combat deployment of the B-29 occurred from the China-Burma-India theater of war on June 4, 1944.  Ninety-eight B-29s flew to targets in Thailand.  However, the results were dismal (Reports indicate perhaps one bomb hit target. Most bombs landed two kilometers off target.).  As another indicator of things to come, five B-29s were lost during the mission.  They were not lost due to enemy fire; they crashed due to mechanical failure.

Under the command of Curtis “Iron Pants” LeMay, the first bombing mission to Japan occurred on June 15, 1944.  Sixty-eight B-29s took off from bases around Chengdu and bombed a steel plant in Yahata, Japan.  As a first indicator of an ugly pattern, only 47  of the 68 B-29’s reached their target.

As in the XB-29 prototype crash, the engines were the most serious operational defect.  They utilized the 2,200 hp Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engine with 18 cylinders in two rows. One central design defect rested within the top five cylinders of the radial engine.  These radial engines needed massive air flow to cool them off.  Unfortunately, engine shortcomings, i.e., engine failures, led to a number of crashes at take off when the planes were fully loaded with ordnance or at other unfortunate times during their long flights.  Engines needed overhaul or replacement only after about 75 hours of operation to give you an idea of their unreliability.  Bombing missions to Tokyo averaged 15 hours in the air.

Later models – the B-29B or ‘”Silverplate”¹ – would be stripped of all defensive armament except for the tail gun.

Imagine being on the plane during that time flying over thousands of miles of ocean…exponentially worsened if you were under attack.

I wonder what unpleasant thoughts kept gnawing at Capt. Ray Smisek and his crew during one of their missions.

He was flying the Chevy Citation of the skies.

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Ordnance

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AN-M69 cluster incendiaries were shipped in metal tubes. Source: http://www.japanairraids.org/?page_id=3242.

AN-M69s

In essence, there were many combinations of bombs used in the bombing of Tokyo.  For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on a couple.

The AN-M69 Incendiary Bomb was a cluster-type jellied gasoline (napalm) weapon; the gel would be contained in a cheesecloth sack then enclosed in a metal tube.  The Standard Oil Development Company started work on the weapon two months before Pearl Harbor.  The engineering goal was to develop an incendiary device with as little magnesium as possible due to supply constraints.  The objective of this weapon was to simply burn things (and the enemy) up.  Ironically, German buildings were the initial target but as the war progressed, use against Japanese targets became the focus.

Test of an AN-M69 incendiary device against a “Japanese style” building. Undated.

The most common cluster assembly (the M19) held 38 individual AN-M69s, nicknamed “Tokyo Calling Cards” by her crews; the B-29s would release the M19s 5,000 feet above a target. As the M19 canister would break open, the force of the wind would deploy the streamer attached to each AN-M69 stick.  As the individual AN-M69s scattered in the air stream, they would orient themselves to the nose-down position.  The M1 fuse would activate after hitting the ground or target, then would lay there 3 to 5 seconds allowing the stick to lay on its side. After those seconds, the explosive charge would disperse the burning jellied gasoline, clinging to anything it touched.

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An excellent schematic of the AN-M69 with a 38 stick cluster. Courtesy of S. Smisek.
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A close up of an actual AN-M69 incendiary bomb. Courtesy of S. Smisek.

For a USAAF film taken of its assembly and testing:

Each B-29 could carry 40 M19 canisters in their bomb bays with each canister carrying 38 AN-M69s. Using simple (non-common core) multiplication, that would be 1,520 AN-M69s per each B-29.  A raid could involve hundreds of B-29s.

There were other variations of this concept, such as the M17s.

AN-M41

We have all been camping at one time or another.  When we try to start a campfire “the old way”, the kids would be sent about looking for smaller twigs and branches to be used as kindling.  Larger logs would then be placed upon the then burning kindling.

The AN-M41 was a 20 pound fragmentation bomb, held in clusters.  There is nothing very unique about this weapon.  Upon hitting a target, it’s mission was to simply break things up upon impact.  Smaller pieces would then be easier to burn, much like kindling in concept.

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A cluster of AN-M41 20 pound fragmentation bombs. Copyright and courtesy of S. Smisek.
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AN-M41 clusters above an armorer being readied in a B-29 bomb bay. They are flanked by M-19s each containing 38 sticks of the AN-M69 incendiary bombs. Copyright and courtesy of S. Smisek. (For another rare image courtesy of S. Smisek of the M-19s being assembled by her armorers, please click https://flic.kr/p/j2tpA7

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I would think it would take immense courage to be flying in an aircraft being shot at while carrying these explosives.  In colloquial terms, it took balls.

Lots of it.  You were in a flying gasoline tanker.

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Captain Ray B. Smisek, standing at far right, and his gallant crew. Guam 1945. Copyright and courtesy of S. Smisek.

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The perilous B-29 missions will be coming next in Part 3.

Hope you’ll stay tuned.

Edit: You can find the other chapters in the links below:

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 3

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue

NOTES:

1 Ironically, the secret codeword Colonel Paul Tibbetts of the Enola Gay was given by General Hap Arnold while assembling his atomic bombing group was “Silverplate”.  If Tibbetts encountered any administrative SNAFU, he could get anything ordered by using the secret codeword.

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1


A View From Both Sides

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From left: Grandmother, Dad in US Army uniform 1947 and his youngest brother (seated), circa 1943. The writing is my aunt’s; you can see “B-29”.  Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

My Aunt Eiko called me in April of 2011; you can tell she was crying.

“I’ve seen this before,” she said in Japanese.  She was watching the TV footage of the disaster caused by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Dumbfounded, I asked, “How could you have seen this before?  The earthquake just happened.”

“完全な破壊。。。戦争思い出したわぁ。。。” or loosely translated, “From the war…  I remember seeing this (complete destruction) from the war…”

Ironically, she was recalling what she saw exactly 66 years earlier – April 1945 – when Tokyo and many other cities were firebombed in an all out world war.

She was there.

And so was someone else from the other side of the Pacific.

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Through the miracle of WordPress, many of us here have met in the most peculiar of ways –  the hub being World War II…  Perhaps ironic but nevertheless destiny.

For instance, pacificparatrooper‘s father was in the US Army’s 11th Airborne and parachuted into combat over the Philippines with my Dad’s youngest brother killed later on Leyte as a Japanese soldier.  JeanneRene‘s father fought on the wretched islands as a critical Seabee.  Of course, my neighbor Old Man Jack was a sailor fighting to survive in the thick of things on those “stinkin’ islands” – Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Okinawa and Green Island.  Mr. Johnson fought and was wounded on-board CV-6, the USS Enterprise, manning the 20mm AA guns as a US Marine.  Although they returned, they did not return home unscathed.

None of them did.

The Main “Human Beings” of this Story

This series hopes to present the ugliness of war as personally experienced by two human beings – one who was on the ground and one who was in the air.

…The scarring of a Tokyo teen-aged girl on the ground: my Aunt Eiko.

Circa 1932
(L to R) Aunt Eiko, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma. Circa 1938, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

…AND the scarring of a young B-29 Superfortress pilot in the US Army Air Force’s 330th Bomber Wing: Capt. Ray B. Smisek who flew bombing missions over Japan.

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Ray B. Smisek (to right of nose gear) after a safe return from a bombing mission to Gifu. Behind him is the B-29 he captained with a crew of ten young men, the “City of San Francisco”. 1945. Courtesy of son S. Smisek (copyright).

There is one sad, dreadful thing about their fateful relationship: neither had asked for it.

Neither had asked for war.

A very bitter war.

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Ray B. Smisek, the Gent

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A “life is good” portrait of Ray Smisek on Catalina Island. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

One person I met online was S. Smisek.  He has an extensive photo collection on flickr of his father’s service during World War II; that is where our paths crossed (his photo link is here).  His father was Capt. Smisek, the captain of “City of San Francisco”, a B-29 bomber flying out of Guam as part of the 330th Bombardment Group, 458th Squadron.  Born in Minnesota in 1920, he was also a lead pilot – a very heavy responsibility let alone if under attack.

His son shared with me his remembrances of his father.  He shared that Capt. Smisek liked flying above all else – especially open cockpit.

“(His dad) liked Czech and German food, like Sauerkraut, sausage and beer. Polka music. Baseball and football.  He loved baking bread and pastry.  Made amazing sourdough pancakes and Christmas bread. He loved gardening.  He could grow ANYTHING and liked to tinker on anything and everything around the house.  Fix it… or break it if it already was fixed.

Capt Smisek Football at 18 yo Thrid from front right
A young Ray Smisek, third from right. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

He hated hunting. Did not like to kill anything.  He would pick up bugs and release them outside.  Used to freak us kids out!

He liked his newspaper and watching the news.  He occasionally smoked a pipe.  Wore Old Spice aftershave all the time I knew him (I keep some around to this day.).  He loved licorice. 

He was honest as the day is long.  A man of his word.  A handshake was an agreement.  A promise.  A very strong Republican who loved Richard Nixon and John Wayne.  He liked Louis L’Amour books.  I think he dreamed of being a cowboy.

(Dad) hated racists.  Always gave everyone a chance. Maybe two and that’s it.”

Aunt Eiko, the Teenager

(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.
(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.

My Aunt Eiko and my mother had lived with my grandparents in Tokyo since their births in the mid-1920’s. Their childhood home was next to the Ginza at Shimbashi 5 Chome; think of it as Japan’s Beverly Hills.  It is within walking distance from the Imperial Palace.  My aunt says the picture to the left was taken near their Shimbashi home and next to a relative’s kimono shop in the Ginza.

As a child, she was apparently sickly.  They say she was quite skinny from this ailment and that ailment; the food shortage didn’t help much although my grandfather reportedly had black market connections to obtain food once in a while.  Nevertheless, she had a weak digestive system.  She has it to this day.

Like most Japanese “upper society” girls of that time, she was required to know how to play the shamisen, or a Japanese stringed instrument.  She was also trained on the silk kimono – it was an elaborate dress that took a couple of hours to put on properly.

Showa 14 Aki - Fall 1939 / Grandma in center, Aunt Eiko on right
Aunt Eiko on right playing the “shamisen”. Tokyo, Autumn 1939.

Aunt Eiko didn’t disappoint anyone’s ear drums when she saw a bug.  She screamed really loud when a bug got near her.  It was easy to see them since they get as big as footballs there in Japan.  Ok, I’m exaggerating – a little.

She had an artistic flair, with her grandfather being a noted painter and art professor.  She loved “ikebana”, or flower arranging.  In fact, she made it her career after war’s end, becoming one of the top ranked ikebana instructors in Tokyo.

Amazingly, in spite of her stomach ailments, she liked cooking; unfortunately, she had a knack for burning things.  I know.

Most of all, she loved dogs.  After feeding one with her chopsticks, she’d just go right back to using them to feed herself… but with food a scarcity, her love for dogs would have to wait until quite a while after war’s end.

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In Part 2, we will visit the B-29 Superfortress, her crews and the ordnance she would typically carry into battle above Japan.

Hope you’ll stay tuned.

Edit: You can find the other chapters in the links below:

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 2

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 3

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue

Two Old Keys to Memorial Day


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Old Man Jack entrusted me with his house keys “…in case he shot himself in the foot” as he put it. Now covered in dust is Old Man Jack’s favorite baby – the F4U Corsair albeit a toy. He would push that button in once in a while, listen to this toy’s engine sound and watch the prop spin… It would echo a bit in my hallway…

I looked at these two old keys in my hand.  They belonged to Old Man Jack and the thought of Memorial Day instantly crossed my mind.

Two old keys to Memorial Day.

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A year ago, I had written a blog about Memorial Day (“It” and Memorial Day).

At times, I feel the meaning of Memorial Day has either faded or has changed.

In essence, many people living in today’s “politically correct” society have taken the sacrifices of our fallen to mean a three day weekend.

Sad…but that’s how I feel.. and it angers me.

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When I looked at those two keys, my mind raced to some of the things Old Man Jack said.

But mostly, to the things he could not say.

In the twelve years I was honored to know him, he would abruptly blurt out something once in a while when we were talking in his garage… while sitting in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his wife.

There was no story associated with these mutterings.

“Boys got killed on those stinkin’ islands…” then raise his thick, white eyebrows.

Or, “Hell, I pissed in my pants.”

Or once in a while, he would make a muffled smack with his lips then slowly shake his head left and right… and not say anything more.

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One such utterance was mentioned in “Old Man Jack’s Love”.

Upon gazing upon his beloved Corsair in front of him after over 60 years, he began weeping.

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Ground crew working on a Corsair in heavy rain.

After recovering and meandering next to his plane, he simply let out, “Some of (the pilots) just didn’t come back.  I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?’”

He said that because as Ground Crew Chief, he was responsible for the airworthiness of the plane a young Navy or Marine pilot would take out on a mission…to shoot at the enemy…or be shot at.  These planes had to be in the best fighting condition as lives depended on it.  But he frequently said “they had to make do” because they never had enough spare parts… so they HAD to improvise.

One time, he said a bushing had been shot out on a plane that had to go on a mission the next morning.  Old Man Jack did what he could.  What he must.  He soaked two pieces of coconut logs in engine oil overnight.  When it came time for the pilot to take off, he clamped the oil soaked wood around the cabling and used baling wire to clamp them together as tightly as he could.  The plane left on its mission – with the young pilot behind the stick…in a plane with oil soaked coconut log as a bushing.

Unbelievable.

Now perhaps you understand the depth of his utterance of, “…or was it me?”

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Old Glory shimmering off a P-51 Mustang at the Chino Planes of Fame Museum.

I will never have an answer because the question could never have been asked of him.

But I feel Old Man Jack carried tremendous guilt in his heart about something that happened on those stinkin’ islands.

Not just bad; real bad.

Deep down, my heart tugs at me that someone within Old Man Jack’s reach died that shouldn’t have… and that Old Man Jack feels personally responsible for his death… and he carried that anguish for all these years.

Torment.

Grief.

Guilt.

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As Old Man Jack said, some of the young pilots didn’t come back.

They were killed or are forever missing in action.

That is for whom Memorial Day is all about.

To remember and honor those that did not come back…and not a Memorial Day sale.

Two old keys to Memorial Day…

When America – and the Press – Was Supporting Our Troops 100%


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This was from a time when the entire nation was 100% behind our troops…  even our media.

March 1942… here in southern California.

She, an aspiring starlet named Marilyn Hare, was determined to kiss 10,000 soldiers in early 1942 and while doing so, boost morale…  Not only for the troops facing an uncertain future but the country.  At this time, the news was filled with the conquests of the Japanese military in the Pacific.  The Doolittle Raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea would not happen until the following month.

Times have changed yet our young are still sent to war.

For the uplifting photo series of this kissing wonder in LIFE, please click here.

What Did FDR Know? – Part 4


 

honolulu headline

As we saw in Part 3, Japan and America are now at war.

While not directly related to the question of “What did FDR know?”, it is deemed critical for readers to understand the damages suffered by the US military – and specifically its naval and air assets – on December 7, 1941.  It is also important to realize the huge advantage the Japanese Imperial Navy had over the U.S. Navy.  Lastly, it is important for readers to note the unbridled successes of the Japanese military at that time… and what unbelievably followed.

For the vast majority, Americans are under the belief that the US was caught flat-footed with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Indeed, 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged.

Of those ships damaged, all but three of the ships at Pearl Harbor were refloated and repaired (Note: Pearl Harbor at its deepest is about 50′.):

  • The USS Arizona – too badly damaged to be salvaged,
  • The USS Oklahoma – raised but considered too obsolete to be worth repairing, and,
  • The USS Utah – also considered obsolete.

In addition, the US had 188 aircraft destroyed plus 159 were damaged; the majority were hit before they had a chance to take off.

uss calif

There were a total of 2,403 American casualties, including 68 civilians.  Most of the military killed were on the USS Arizona (1,177 killed).  Most of the civilians killed were from improperly fused anti-aircraft shells fired by US batteries hitting in Honolulu.  There were 1,178 wounded military personnel and civilians combined. (1)

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A downed Zero in a Hawaiian neighborhood.

Japanese naval forces sailing for the raid included four heavy aircraft carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 35 submarines, and 11 destroyers.  Indeed, a powerful fleet projecting tremendous offensive firepower.  All survived unscathed; all but 29 Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers.

In the Pacific Theater, Japanese forces were rolling over Allied forces at will with victories in Thailand, Malaya, Wake Island, Guam Island, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, Dutch Indonesia and the invasion New Guinea.  The Imperial Japanese Navy dominated in the Pacific, attacking Allied bases in Australia and Ceylon; they even bombed or shelled coast of North America at will albeit with minimal effect.

But, the great sea battle of the Coral Sea and more specifically at Midway essentially put a halt to the wave of Japanese victories… barely five months after Pearl Harbor.

How could that possibly be?  Wasn’t our Pacific fleet crippled?

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So… how DID the US Navy stop the Japanese advance at these critical battles at Coral Sea and Midway?  After all, at the time of Pearl Harbor, the US Navy only had three aircraft carriers in the Pacific: the USS Enterprise, USS Lexington, and USS Saratoga.  (The USS Hornet was still on shakedown cruise and the USS Yorktown and USS Wasp were deployed in the Atlantic.)

Of course, the heroics of our sailors and Marines played a most dominant role but you may wish to ask yourself:

  • Were American aircraft and ships better than their Japanese counterparts?  No, production of new classes of ships and aircraft would not arrive in the Pacific until 1943.
  • Did American forces have more men, aircraft and ships? Again no, the tide of the American industrial strength would not be felt in the Pacific until 1943.
  • Was it better leadership?  No.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was arguably equally matched by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the overall commander of Japanese forces during the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.
  • Did our navy stumble upon the enemy out in the Pacific by sheer luck or happenstance?

If it wasn’t the above, how was the US Navy able to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy at Coral Sea and Midway then stop them?

It was MAGIC.

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Battle of Coral Sea, May 4 – 8, 1942

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Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942.  Source: Pacific War Museum.

By March 13, 1942, OP-G-20 had completely broken JN-25.  Until then, about 10% to 15% of a JN-25 message that was intercepted could be read. (2)  However, enough could be deciphered to understand the Japanese were gearing up to attack Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea on May 7, 1942.  By taking Port Moresby, Japan could extend its reach beyond northern Australia and further south.

Upon receiving the intelligence from the deciphered JN-25 messages, Admiral Chester Nimitz decided to move a fleet into position in between Port Moresby and Australia.  He issued such orders on April 17, 1942.  However, he had but two carriers available for action – the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown.  This battle was definitely NOT a chance encounter; it was planned.

jn25 sampleIn fact, deciphered messages allowed the US Task Force 17 to be in position before the Japanese fleets arrived to attack.  But lacking sufficient capital ships and aircraft that were inferior to the Japanese Zero, the outcome was far from certain.  The sailors and Marines were largely untested as well.  (The USS Hornet and USS Enterprise were unavailable due to their critical roles in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo; it took place two days later on April 18, 1942.)

With but two carriers and support ships, the US fleet was outgunned especially considering our aircraft was obsolete.  The Japanese fleet sailed with a Shoho (a carrier), several cruisers and destroyers, and a dozen transports filled with troops.  A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which laid on New Guinea’s eastern flank, with the target being Tulagi. To protect these two invasion fleets, the Japanese carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku would spearhead yet a third fleet to provide air protection.

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The USS Lexington explodes and sinks. (US Navy archival photo)

While the ensuing two-day Battle of Coral Sea was considered a draw, U.S. forces inflicted enough damage on the Japanese navy to force it to withdraw.  In addition, as the Japanese were unable to secure the port, their military was forced to fight in land warfare, which proved disastrous for the Japanese.  Of most importance, the fruit of the battle saw the Japanese carrier Shoho sunk, with both the Zuikaku and Shokaku damaged and forced to retire.  Therefore, they were made unavailable for the critical Battle of Midway, just about four weeks later.

However, we lost the USS Lexington, a major loss. And while the USS Yorktown suffered heavy damage as well, the Japanese believed her to have been sunk; instead, the USS Yorktown was made seaworthy through the extreme efforts of repair crews at Pearl Harbor.  While two weeks had been estimated for repairs, the repair crews had her back on the seas in just 48 hours.

This strategic victory was made entirely possible because of secret MAGIC intercepts.  The Japanese still did not believe their complex JN-25 had been broken.

Battle of Midway, June 4 – 7, 1942

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Captain Joseph Rochefort, USN, head of OIC, Pearl Harbor (Photo NSA)

Arguably, the paramount triumph from the breaking of JN-25 on March 13, 1942 was the Battle of Midway.  This is one battle that my neighbor, Mr. Johnson, fought on board the USS Enterprise as a very young US Marine.  From decrypting the Japanese naval messages, the U.S. naval commanders knew the general battle plans of Admiral Yamamoto – even the timetable.  Yamamoto’s strategy was to have aircraft carrier task forces launch both a diversionary raid off the Aleutian Islands then lure the U.S. Navy to Midway Island.  His goal was to decimate once and for all what remained of the American fleet after Pearl Harbor.

Yes, the deciphered intercepts did not state in the clear Midway was the target; the messages simply designated “AF.”  While CINCPAC felt strongly it was Midway, it was Captain Joseph Rochefort of OP-20-G who wily suggested how to establish for certain what “AF” stood for.

Rochefort was Officer in Charge (OIC) of Station Hypo in Pearl Harbor, the nerve station in Hawaii for deciphering JN-25 intercepts.  An expert Japanese linguist and during the most critical month of May 1942, Rochefort reviewed, analyzed, and reported on as many as 140 decrypted messages per day. These reports were directly piped to the highest-ranking fleet commanders.  He brilliantly strategized for American forces on Midway to send out a radio message saying that they were running short of fresh water.  Rochefort and his group waited anxiously to see if Japan would take the bait. Finally, OP-G-20 intercepted a Japanese message: AF was running short of fresh water.

Establishing Midway as the target, the U.S. Navy assembled what it could.  America was still short on capital ships and better aircraft.  After a 48 hour turnaround, the USS Yorktown joined the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet.

While remembering that by virtue of deciphering coded Japanese messages, the Japanese Imperial Navy had three less carriers to deploy after their losses at Coral Sea – a very critical fact.  After a fierce three-day battle at Midway, U.S. naval aviators sank all four Japanese aircraft carriers in Yamamoto’s task force – the Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga.  All four participated in the assault on Pearl Harbor, effectively turning the tide in the Pacific.  Yes, luck was involved during the actual battle but certainly, the courage of our young men at sea and in the air was incredible.  They had proven themselves but at great cost in lives and materiel… including the USS Yorktown.

Unbelievably, the Chicago Tribune published a darned story revealing that the U.S. had known about Japanese battle plans in advance.  They had, in effect, revealed that JN–25 had been broken. Inexplicably, key Japanese leaders never found out about the article.  Darned media – even back then.

Assassination of Admiral Yamamoto

State funeral Yamamoto
State funeral procession for Admiral Yamamoto, 1943.

As school history books had once shown, the battle planner of the Pearl Harbor attack was Admiral Yamamoto.  He did know of the might of the U.S. having attended Harvard University – yes, Harvard – from 1919 to 1921, studying English.  He did, in fact, oppose taking on the U.S.  But Yamamoto had one trait which would lead directly to his death: his intense desire to be punctual.  The US counted on this.

Codebreakers intercepted then learned after deciphering messages that the admiral was scheduled to inspect a naval base on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18, 1943.  The detail even included his minute by minute itinerary.  Some top US officials were hesitant to use this information for fear that doing so would tip off the Japanese that their codes had been broken. Nevertheless, the decision was made to assassinate Yamamoto. That morning, eighteen P–38 fighters left their base at Guadalcanal at the other end of the Solomon chain and arrived at Bougainville precisely ten minutes before Yamamoto’s plane was making its approach. The admiral was killed in the attack, depriving Japan of its most experienced and accomplished admiral and sapping Japanese morale.

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Flights paths: Yamamoto (red) and USAAF (black). Also notice “Green Island” north of Bouganville. This was “Old Man Jack’s” last battle station. USN Archives

To mislead the Japanese that the fighters had arrived purely by chance, the air force flew other risky patrols to the area, both before and after the attack.  It was not a “one shot in the dark” mission.  It was deeply thought over and planned out – because we were able to intercept and decipher coded Japanese messages.(3)  They also spread “rumors” that the information was from coast watchers.

The Japanese did not change JN–25, and for the remainder of the war, U.S. intelligence intercepted and read thousands of Japanese messages.  A portion of a secret OP-20-G report, circa 1943, is below listing the number of coded Japanese messages intercepted:

Japan’s Plan

Early in 1942, Japan decided to block the Allies from setting up bases in Australia. Operation MO would send a large invasion force to Port Moresby, the capital of New Guinea. From Port Moresby, the Japanese would be able to project air power beyond the northern tip of Australia and establish bases even further south (Hearn).

The Port Moresby landing force sailed with about a dozen transports filled with troops, several cruisers and destroyers, and a half-size carrier, Shoho (Bennett, Hearn). A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which lay on New Guinea’s eastern flank. The specific target in the Solomons was Tulagi, which was the colonial capital. To protect these two invasion fleets, Zuikaku and Shokaku would lead a separate covering force to create a blanket of air protection (Bennett).

The U.S. Prepares

By March 1942, the United States had cracked part of the current Japanese Naval (JN) code, JN-25. However, U.S. intelligence could intercept only about 60 percent of all Japanese transmissions and had the resources to analyze only about 40 percent of the messages it did intercept (Parshall and Tully). Even then, code breakers typically could read only 10 to 15 percent of the code groups in a message (Parshall and Tully). U.S. intelligence primarily used direction-finding equipment to learn where many Japanese ships were and where they were heading (Parshall and Tully).

Beginning on April 16, U.S. intelligence began using this spotty information to piece together an understanding of a Japanese plan to move south with carriers (Parshall and Tully). On April 17, Nimitz ordered the carrier Lexington to join Yorktown in the Coral Sea (Bennett). If Halsey had been able to move Enterprise and Hornet there too, the U.S. might have been able to destroy the Japanese fleet. But Enterprise and Hornet needed refitting after the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942, and could not get there in time for the fight (Parshall and Tully).

– See more at: http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/battle-of-the-coral-sea#sthash.P5voInlO.dpuf

Japan’s Plan

Early in 1942, Japan decided to block the Allies from setting up bases in Australia. Operation MO would send a large invasion force to Port Moresby, the capital of New Guinea. From Port Moresby, the Japanese would be able to project air power beyond the northern tip of Australia and establish bases even further south (Hearn).

The Port Moresby landing force sailed with about a dozen transports filled with troops, several cruisers and destroyers, and a half-size carrier, Shoho (Bennett, Hearn). A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which lay on New Guinea’s eastern flank. The specific target in the Solomons was Tulagi, which was the colonial capital. To protect these two invasion fleets, Zuikaku and Shokaku would lead a separate covering force to create a blanket of air protection (Bennett).

The U.S. Prepares

By March 1942, the United States had cracked part of the current Japanese Naval (JN) code, JN-25. However, U.S. intelligence could intercept only about 60 percent of all Japanese transmissions and had the resources to analyze only about 40 percent of the messages it did intercept (Parshall and Tully). Even then, code breakers typically could read only 10 to 15 percent of the code groups in a message (Parshall and Tully). U.S. intelligence primarily used direction-finding equipment to learn where many Japanese ships were and where they were heading (Parshall and Tully).

Beginning on April 16, U.S. intelligence began using this spotty information to piece together an understanding of a Japanese plan to move south with carriers (Parshall and Tully). On April 17, Nimitz ordered the carrier Lexington to join Yorktown in the Coral Sea (Bennett). If Halsey had been able to move Enterprise and Hornet there too, the U.S. might have been able to destroy the Japanese fleet. But Enterprise and Hornet needed refitting after the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942, and could not get there in time for the fight (Parshall and Tully).

– See more at: http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/battle-of-the-coral-sea#sthash.P5voInlO.dpuf

Crane Library, National Archives, College Park
National Archives

Purple and D-Day

The importance of MAGIC and the breaking of the “Purple” Japanese consulate code cannot be understated.  For non-historian readers, the reach and military value extends far beyond the waters of the Pacific.  It extends to Europe…specifically D-Day and the shores of Normandy.

As revealed in “What Did FDR Know? – Part 2” of this blog series, the US broke the code for this cipher before the attack at Pearl Harbor.  The US did their best to keep the wraps over this great intelligence triumph.  However, Nazi Germany’s own intelligence had good evidence that SIS had broken Purple and informed the Japanese.  Unbelievably, Japan refused to believe it.  (I believe this is part of the Japanese culture – to not place importance on “water cooler” talk.)   Only when Congressional hearings and investigations into who knew of the Pearl Harbor attack reveal this did the Japanese accept it.  Unfortunately, is was much after war’s end.(4)

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Baron Hiroshi Oshima, 1939.

Per “What Did FDR Know? – Part 1”, Baron Hiroshi Oshima was the Japanese envoy to Berlin and used his Purple machine to communicate frequently with Tokyo.  Luckily for the US, Oshima was also an Imperial Army colonel at the time of appointment and loved war strategy and armaments.  He followed intimately the German conquests in Europe and their latest technologies. He sent very detailed reports to his superiors in Tokyo of what he had learned using the purple cipher machine, which the US was able to intercept and decipher immediately.

Oshima became a favorite and a confidant of Hitler.  Hitler – being so full of himself and pompous – shared with Oshima the most secret and sensitive of his war plans with him.  Hitler even gave Oshima a tour of the German defenses in Normandy!  As per his character and routine, Oshima transmitted very detailed reports of the Nazi defenses at Normandy.  This was obviously key in the preparations for D-Day, so much so the deciphered intel was immediately transmitted to General Eisenhower.  Not quite what we read in our textbooks…

And while the public is led to believe the U.S. did not know if the German commanders took the bait that the D-Day invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais, Oshima secretly gave the US confidence that the Germans had taken the deception through his messages to Tokyo.  The Nazis were preparing for the landing at the wrong beaches.  (Note: this is not to lessen the somberness of those killed or missing in action at Normandy.  Further, this is not to lessen the importance of wartime security.)  Further, with their true belief that the invasion at Normandy was a diversion, the Panzer divisions were not immediately released to engage the Allied invading forces until too late.

In recognition of this value to Japan, he was promoted in a few short years from Colonel to Lt. General.  Oshima’s prolific reporting prompted US General George C. Marshall to say Oshima was, “…our main basis of information regarding Hitler’s intentions in Europe” in 1944. (5)

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Final Query for Part 4

Why did the U.S. decide to take intense preparatory military action for Coral Sea based only on partial deciphers of JN-25?  As stated, OP-20-G did not break JN-25 completely until March 1942.  However, OP-20-G was able to adequately decipher JN-25 messages – even one sent by Yamamoto himself – only until about one week before Pearl Harbor when a code key was changed.  What could the reasons be for the U.S. not taking similar defensive or offensive action at Pearl Harbor before the actual attack commenced?  Was it because of incomplete intel?  Were deciphered messages not of importance to FDR… or they not reach FDR at all?  Were diplomatic deciphers not important?  Did top brass feel their carriers would be sunk facing tremendous attacks and therefore, the Pacific War would be lost from the get-go?  Or…?

Of course, there can be as many reasons as there are people.

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NOTES:

(1) National Park Service

(2) “At the Interface” documentary based on interviews of Donald M. Showers, USN, ret.

(3) Public teaching in the past was true at the surface – that the US had intercepted a radio message “sent out in the open” by a brash young officer.  Now you know it was the work of cryptanalysts working under tremendous secrecy.

(4) National Cryptologic Museum

(5) “Hitler’s Japanese Confidant” by Carl Boyd