The Bomber Mafia: Success, But At What Cost?

(Photo Credit: Keystone/ Hulton Archive/ Bettmann/ Getty Images)

People often don’t stop and consider the decision-making process that went into the bombing of Japanese towns during the Second World War. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book and audiobook The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War examines the arguments put forward by Brig. Gen. Haywood Hansell and Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay on the best way to bomb Japan during the Second World War.

Origins and opposition

The Bomber Mafia was an idea that originated from the slaughter in the First World War. In the immediate years following the First World War, army leadership expected the Air Corps Tactical School  (located in Langley Field Virginia) to produce air officers trained to use airpower to support ground troops.

However, rather than use airpower as a secondary strategy, airmen training at ACTS joined together to develop a new idea with a focus on airpower as a primary wartime weapon. Their idea was a new bombing strategy that could utilize airplanes as new war weapons.

These early airmen developed a doctrine that envisioned strategic bombing to paralyze an enemy’s industrial infrastructure which would, in turn, eliminate his war-making capacity.

Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field
The Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama.
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When this doctrine was developed, it faced a great deal of opposition within the military. In fact, the eventual nickname of “bomber mafia” was developed because of the bitter debate between the United States Army staff and the Air Corps, who felt that a separate air arm was required to command them. In the early interwar years, Senior Army leaders still thought of aviation in terms of observation and attack rather than pursuit and bombing. Any attempts to express the school’s views and ideas were quickly shot down by Army General Staff.

Money posed another problem for the pilots at the ACTS. At the time, the military budget was very limited, and neither the Army nor Navy was willing to give up the limited sum of money they were allotted. It was much easier for the Army and Navy to regard the Air Service as just another Army combat arm rather than as an independent and equal service.

Air Corps Tactical School
Students at the Air Corps Tactical School completing a map solving exercise at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Circa 1930s
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, The ACTS (who changed their name to the Air Service Tactical School in 1922) continued to investigate ways in which airpower might influence future combat. In 1931, the school moved from Langley to Maxwell Field near Montgomery Alabama. It was here that the “Bomber Mafia” was truly born.

The emergence of the Bomber Mafia

By the time the Air Service Tactical School moved to Maxwell Field in 1931, the idea of supremacy in airpower had become the official goal of the vast majority of staff and students. There grew to be a small circle of men who came to represent these ideals and would be known to history as the primary figures involved in the “Bomber Mafia” — including Harold Lee George, Haywood S. Hansell, Robert Olds, and Curtis LeMay.

The Bomber Mafia believed that airpower would become the deciding factor in future wars. They believed that airpower should be not just a new weapon but also a new service in the military equal to the Army and the Navy. Their goal was to create a long-range Air Force with the capability to attack and defeat an enemy by bombing military industries in its homeland. In doing so, the Bomber Mafia reasoned, conflicts wouldn’t only be shorter, but could also eliminate loss of human life.

Two B-29 Superfortress bombers
Two B-29 Superfortress bombers, circa 1940s. The Superfortress is a type of heavy bomber that the Bomber Mafia was trying to acquire.
(Photo Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/ ClassicStock/ Getty Images)

Of course, the next necessary step to implement this doctrine was establishing a large fleet of heavy bombers, meaning that the United States government would have to reduce their funding to naval and ground forces. By 1935, however, the Bomber Mafia had made great strides in acquiring this fleet and were able to test out their doctrine, which now centered on the use of high altitude, daylight, precision bombing to bomb enemy infrastructure. The Bomber Mafia’s strategy was tested (although only in optimal conditions) and by the beginning of the Second World War, the Bomber Mafia’s doctrine had become the primary airpower strategy for the United States.

The Second World War: Curtis LeMay vs. Haywood Hansell

Haywood Hansell was a junior member of the Bomber Mafia who rose through the ranks in command throughout the Second World War. In August 1944, it was announced that General Hansell would command the XXI Bomber Command based on Saipan. Planes of that command were involved in the raiding of the industrial sections of Tokyo.

Hansell was a big believer in the Norden bombsight — a technical innovation that would allow forces to focus on taking out specific targets. The Norden bombsight worked, but unfortunately only in ideal weather and visibility conditions. Although it was a solid idea, the Norden bombsight didn’t work in practice, primarily because the technology did not yet exist to do the additional computations that real-world issues required.

Haywood Hansell
Major General Haywood S. Hansell, circa 1951.
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately for Hansell, the Norden bombsight did not work in the way he had anticipated. Strategic bombing raids in Japan were largely unsuccessful under Hansell’s command as they caused little damage to Japanese wartime and military industries. At the end of 1944, Hansell was replaced with his rival Major General Curtis LeMay. LeMay was a believer in napalm — a bombing tool in the form of a burning gel that was designed to cause maximum damage to Japanese homes.

Rather than focus on the strategic bombing of Japanese industrial complexes, LeMay began a campaign against Japanese civilians using strategic bombing strategies and dropping napalm on 66 Japanese cities.

LeMay receiving an attack memo, March 1944
Curtis E. LeMay (center) receiving an attack memo from Brigadier General Thomas S. Power (right) and Brigadier General Lauris Norstad (left).
(Photo Credit: Bettman/ Getty Images)

LeMay was most famously responsible for the bombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, 1944. More than 2000 tons of firebombs were dropped in this raid, and it’s estimated that up to 330,000 people were killed in this attack. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that more civilians lost their lives by fire in Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any other time in the history of man.

Aerial view of Tokyo after the American bombings in 1944
Aerial view of Tokyo after the American bombing campaign, Mary 1944. (Photo Credit: Mandadori via Getty Images)

When bombers reflected on this attack, veterans Jim Marich recalled “hating what they were doing” but “thinking we had to do it. We thought that raid might cause the Japanese to surrender.”

Ultimately, the Bomber Mafia’s theory of the primacy of unescorted daylight strategic bombing was proved wrong. Fleets of heavy bombers could not achieve ultimate victory without to assistance of the Army and Navy. The Bomber Mafia’s doctrine was further proved wrong as victory in the War did not come any quicker and wartime casualties were not minimal— especially thanks to the actions of Curtis LeMay.

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Years after the March 1944 attack on Tokyo, LeMay stated that “killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.” These attacks on Japanese civilians by the Bomber Mafia may have aided in hastening a victory for the Allies, the question remains — victory, but at what cost?