BTW: The photo art and prose included in any given post are separate creations having nothing to do with each other. Duality and such …
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“Where’d you leave it?” the pilot asked the co-pilot. “Your letter home – where’d you leave it?”
“On my bunk. Two letters; one to my folks and one to my wife. Where’d you leave yours?”
The pilot said, “In my footlocker. Just the one. To a friend.” That they had composed ‘goodbye’ letters home prior to the mission was unusual, but most of the men in the air that night had done it. This time, they knew they were going to die.
He thought about home now – he’d been avoiding it, but, hell, there was nothing else to do besides stare out at the darkness. His daddy back in the Ozarks had been against his enlisting to fight what he considered someone else’s war. He’d tried to explain that if he didn’t enlist he’d be drafted, and his daddy said he could go hide in the woods. Rattled off names of guys who left for the last war and came back ‘odd’ or dead or opted just to not come home. Couldn’t abide it, his daddy told him. But he went anyway. Went because he’d wanted to fly and had heard of this thing called the ‘air corps’. Went through all the training and all the trials. Got to fly and he was good at it. Even met his wife in the process, a woman his daddy hadn’t met, and he was certain wouldn’t abide. And now he was going to be killed. Shot down over Tokyo and go crashing into the hard rocks on the ground and broken into thousands of pieces. He knew it. They all knew it. He glanced over at his pilot. He was more of a hard city-type; Chicago, he’d told him. He often asked the co-pilot, almost wistfully, about his family, as though their existence were a pleasant fantasy. The pilot stared straight ahead, straight into the darkness of the future. The co-pilot checked his watch; six hours they’d been in the turbulent air. In a little less than one more, he thought, he would be dead.
The men of the XXI Bomber Command flew formations of the B-29 Superfortress out of the northern Marianna Islands towards the Empire of Japan. They were trained in high-altitude daylight precision bombing, the goal of which was to knock out the industrial infrastructure supporting the enemy’s ability to wage war while minimizing civilian casualties. They took immense pride in their ability to accomplish their missions effectively, even surgically. They were knights, and they would return chivalry to war.
Unfortunately, they usually missed.
Because they usually missed, they got a new general. And he came in with insane notions.
They flew during the daylight so they could see the target. Cloud cover meant they could almost never see the target.
They flew at 20,000 feet or higher, so they’d be above anti-aircraft fire. High altitude anti-aircraft guns found them anyway.
From at least 20,000 feet the bombs almost never dropped on a straight trajectory towards their targets. Winds had affected them over Europe, and now it turned out Japan had this thing they’d never heard of called ‘The Jet Stream’, so not only were their bombs missing, they were missing wildly.
Their top-secret bomb sights that worked so brilliantly in perfect conditions, that bombardiers had sworn to protect with their lives, that they claimed could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel, were terribly flawed in combat conditions in which nothing was ever perfect. Every effort to be precise, failed.
So, this general concluded, stop trying to precise, stop flying during the day when the enemy can see you, stop flying so high.
Stop trying to be chivalrous and just kill the bastards. Carpet bombing. And in cities, where carpet bombing would yield the most destruction and kill the most human beings. It went against everything they had learned, everything they believed. It made them killers, as though they had never left the ground.
The orders came for 346 B-29’s to take off beginning at 5:35 p.m. on March 9. A Friday. Right at happy hour. It would take fifteen minutes short of three hours for them all to get into the air, or just about the time happy hour gives way to full priced drinks. They would not fly in formation because, at night, they couldn’t see each other to stay in formation anyway. They would also not expend the gasoline needed to stay information, so they could load up on more bombs. Since they didn’t expect enemy fighters, they removed all the big defensive machine guns, except the one in the tail. Less weight meant they could carry even more bombs, and that was important, because they had something new. Something special.
The Americans had invented Napalm. They would burn Tokyo to cinders.
“Ok”, the pilot said when the navigator announced they were ten minutes out. “We’re dropping to 5,000 feet.”
The co-pilot sucked in a breath in spite of himself. Five-thousand measly feet! The general’s own planners feared casualty rates as high as 70 percent. The co-pilot ran the calculation in his head – that was 242 planes!
The city began to emerge ahead – a burning ‘X’. Pathfinders ahead of them had made their runs at right angles, creating a burning ‘X’ inside a four-by-three-mile square populated by 1.1 million working class people and artisans living on straw mats in wooden homes under paper roofs; one of the most densely populated and combustible places on the planet. The rest of the crews were told to aim their bombs for that ‘X’. By the time the co-pilot beheld the scene much of the ‘X’ had filled in with flame; a firestorm with its own weather pattern.
“Christ almighty,” the pilot muttered at the sight, and turned control over to the bombardier. What anti-aircraft fire there was came in either too low to hit the B-29’s or too high, and many anti-aircraft stations had already been engulfed by the flames. There were no night fighters. There was no opposition. It was just them, a million artists below, and roughly one-thousand-eight-hundred tons of napalm.
“He was right,” the co-pilot shuttered in amazement, “That crazy-ass general was right!”
“What the hell is that smell?” the bombardier cracked through the intercom.
The two men in the cockpit started sniffing; the smell, whatever it was, was permeating upward. “What the world is that stink,” the co-pilot muttered. “Crap, it’s getting worse.”
“Bombs away,” the bombardier came back. “Geez, that’s awful! Smells like some kind of burning, rancid ham.”
“Put your masks on!” the pilot shouted. “I know what that is! Put your damn oxygen masks on right now so you won’t smell it!”
They all did as they were told. The co-pilot finally broke the silence. “Are you going to tell us?”
The pilot hesitated. “People,” he said. “Burning hair and skin and human meat.”
The co-pilot wished he hadn’t asked. He hoped he wouldn’t get sick in his mask.
“Navigator, give us a course home,” the pilot said, then began moving the huge beast of an airplane in that direction when he had one.
“Well,” the bombardier cackled again, “At least we’re not dying today, after all.”
The co-pilot caught the pilot’s disturbed expression. He thought of their hours of discussion of art and literature and music and philosophy over the hours and hours they’d spent in the cockpit together. And he wondered if, in fact, on this long night, a little of them had not, indeed, died.
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NOTE: I’ve blown my thousand-word limit by a couple-three hundred, but I didn’t want to minimize the story. Daylight precision bombing was cooked up by a bunch of guys on an airfield out of mind of their superiors in the 1930’s. It wasn’t that it was wrong; it was that the technology to make it work did not exist yet. The firebombing of Tokyo killed over 100,000 people outright and left another million homeless and is regarded as the single most destructive air attack in human history. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed about 75,000 (although tens of thousands more would perish later from the effects of radiation) and destroyed about one-quarter the territory. But there was only one more atomic bomb. After the Tokyo firebombing in March, dozens of fire bombings were conducted on Japanese cities over the next four months, napalm being considerably cheaper than plutonium. Over a million Japanese were killed by these many attacks. Firebombing was justified as a means of shortening the war by making it so horrific it could not be continued. Kill more people now so that even more don’t die later. Today, the morals of this thinking are very appropriately questioned, but the stark reality it that it worked. The crazy-ass general who came up with it thought the atomic attacks were superfluous – he thought his bombers had already done the job. Today in Japan, only a couple small memorials exist to the victims of the attacks. There is some speculation that a few influential Japanese would prefer greater attention be paid to the atomic attacks because it paints Japan as the victim, rather than draw attention to the horror of carpet-bombing cities because, as it turns out, a decade earlier in China they had invented it themselves.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.