Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan

Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan

by Herman S. Wolk

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No published work examines General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s role in depth during the Pacific War of 1944-1945, in the context of planning for the destruction of Japan. In this new study, Herman S. Wolk, retired Senior Historian of the U.S. Air Force, examines the thinking of Hap Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces (AAF), during World War II


No published work examines General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s role in depth during the Pacific War of 1944-1945, in the context of planning for the destruction of Japan. In this new study, Herman S. Wolk, retired Senior Historian of the U.S. Air Force, examines the thinking of Hap Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces (AAF), during World War II. Specifically, Wolk concentrates on Arnold’s leadership in crafting the weapons, organization, and command of the strategic bombing offensive against Japan, which culminated in Japan’s capitulation in the summer of 1945, ending the Pacific War.

The narrative is, in a real sense, a sustained controversy over strategy, organization, and command in the war against Japan. The B-29 long-range bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands dictated unprecedented organization and command; hence, Arnold established the Twentieth Air Force, commanded by himself from Washington and reporting directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This new type of bombing offensive–distinct in command, organization, range, and weapons from the European experience–also called for exemplary operational combat leadership in the field. Here Arnold excelled in his command of the AAF, relieving a long-time colleague (Hansell) in favor of a hard-nosed operator (LeMay). This crucial move was a turning point in the Pacific war.

In the spring and summer of 1945, Arnold was a driven leader, almost willing the B-29 campaign and the air and sea blockade to collapse Japan before the scheduled massive invasion of Kyushu on November 1st. It was a tense race against the invasion clock and the conviction of General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, that an invasion was absolutely necessary. Although the Soviet declaration of war on Japan was a factor in the Japanese surrender, it was the atomic bomb that politically shocked the Japanese to capitulation. Arnold, the architect of the bombing offensive, emphasized that Japan was already defeated in the summer of 1945 by the bombing and blockade and that it was not militarily necessary to drop the atomic bomb.

Wolk brings out important rationales and connections in doctrine, organization, and command not previously published. He also mines sources not previously exploited, including the author’s interviews with General LeMay, Hansell, and Eaker; Arnold’s wartime correspondence; documentation from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library; and postwar interrogations of Japanese officials and civilians. Cataclysm will prove an important addition to the history of the Pacific War, airpower, and the debate over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Cataclysm is a fine book. It deals with a subject that is central to the conduct of the always controversial last act of the Pacific War and indirectly with the creation of the USAAF in structure and doctrine. It will be well received and, more importantly, of great use to a new generation of scholars examining the Pacific War.”—Eric M. Bergerud, author of Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific and Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific

“Wolk's book includes more detail and depth on Pacific air campaign grand strategy than any other available. His work is a solid contribution to the scholarship already available on General Arnold and the strategic air war in the Pacific.”—Dik A. Daso, author of Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Airpower and U.S. Air Force: A Complete History

“Although there have been books about the Pacific War, to include the B-29 campaign, and there have been books about Hap Arnold, there has not yet been a work that ties those two together and looks closely at Arnold as a combat commander. Herman Wolk is a true pro, and his unique book will appeal to military historians of all stripes.”—Phillip S. Meilinger, author of Hoyt S. Vandenberg and Hubert R. Harmon

"In Cataclysm, as in all his other work, Wolk combines detailed research, mastery of the secondary literature, and trenchant analysis. Wolk makes several original contributions to the literature on the development and employment of U.S. military aviation before and during World War II. . . . By delving deeply in his sources and asking original questions, Wolk has produced a volume with which students of the U.S. Air Force and World War II must reckon."--Military History of the West

"The author does an outstanding job of identifying the critical issues and events, helping us understand combat leadership. Hap Arnold did not hesitate to replace a long-time colleague, Haywood Hansell, with the hard-charging Curtis LeMay. This became a turning point in the bombing campaign and in the war. That the author could draw upon earlier interviews he conducted with Generals LeMay, Hansell, and Ira Eaker enhances this study."--Journal of America's Military Past

"The work is based on extensive research in major document collections, important interviews, and a lifetime of work in the field. . . . Cataclysm is an essential volume for the study of strategy in the Pacific war or of the development of American air power."--Journal of Military History

"Cataclysm is an objective, persuasive, articulate account of Hap Arnold and the strategic bombing effort against Japan in 1944 and 1945. It is a must read for any serious student of World War II, air power, and senior-level military command."--Military Review

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University of North Texas Press
Publication date:
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6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan
By Herman S. Wolk

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2010 Herman S. Wolk
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57441-281-9

Chapter One

Roosevelt and Arnold

The roots of the strategic bombing offensive of the Twentieth Air Force against Japan can be traced to the prewar doctrinal struggles at the Air Corps Tactical School and debate within the War Department itself. Despite the twists and turns in the evolution of doctrine, a clear strain can be illuminated between prewar evolution and wartime development and prosecution.

Arnold did not attend the Tactical School, but in the 1930s the struggle by the school's faculty to define air doctrine held great import for the air forces that Arnold would lead in World War II. Instructors at the ACTS-including Muir Fairchild, a future Air Force vice chief of staff-evolved the precision bombing doctrine, aimed to destroy the enemy's war-making industrial base. What has been overlooked however, and will be pointed out in this chapter, is the emphasis the Tactical School also placed on morale or population bombing. It was the targeting of civilians and the workforce in 1945 by the Twentieth Air Force that played a major role in forcing the Japanese surrender. Thus, there is a clear connection between the prewar evolution of doctrine and the morale attacks by the B-29 campaign, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Viewed doctrinally, the atomic bombings were not an over-turning of the precision bombing doctrine, but rather the reflection of a constant thread in the development of air doctrine going back to the Tactical School. The B-29 force in the Pacific at the start-under Hansell-inherited the precision doctrine that was subsequently overturned by LeMay's population bombing, under pressure from Arnold and his staff in Washington.

Doctrine however, did not evolve in isolation, but was integral to building an air force. Here President Roosevelt and General Arnold needed to find an accommodation over how and in what numbers to conduct an air power buildup. Although anxious to gear up and produce big numbers of aircraft, especially bombers, the president had a major interest in distribution of production aircraft. He determined that the British required a high priority in the fight against Nazi Germany while Arnold made the case for structuring an American air force.

No delivery weapon has generated more awe and terror than the strategic bombing plane. Yet, in the history of warfare the strategic bomber has enjoyed a relatively short period of dominance. Employed by Germany in World War I, it is most commonly associated with the American and British bombing offensives of World War II. However, tracking down the history of the strategic bombardment idea and the evolution of doctrine are difficult and chancy tasks at best. "Strategic" refers to long-range air attacks conducted independently of ground and naval forces, i.e., against industry, sources of the enemy's military power, and against his population. By "tactical" is meant strikes against ground or naval forces and their supporting elements. Absolute precision recreating the doctrinal tensions of the times almost always proves to be problematical at best. Strategical concepts evolve from the circumstances of a period and are usually developed independently, if not simultaneously, by theorists and military officers.

During World War I, on November 28, 1917, Lt. Col. Edgar S. Gorrell, chief of the Strategical Aviation Branch of the Air Service in France, described the first American plan for a strategic bombing campaign, a recommendation to bomb the German industrial centers of Dusseldorf, Cologne, Mannheim, and the Saar Valley. "The object of strategical bombing," he observed, "is to drop aerial bombs upon the commercial centers and lines of communication in such quantities as will wreck the points aimed at and cut off the necessary supplies without which the armies in the field cannot exist." Significantly, during World War I, Lt. Gen. Jan C. Smuts recommended to the British War Cabinet formation of what subsequently became the Royal Air Force and he also proved visionary about air operations by observing that "there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous areas on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate."

After World War I, the development of air doctrine proceeded in concert with advancing aircraft technology and the breakdown of diplomacy in Europe. Significantly also, the American public's opposition to bombing became more intense. World War I, marked by trench stalemate and bombing of civilians in London, had made a lasting impression and the nation's mood grew increasingly isolationist. In 1926, the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) published Employment of Combined Air Force-subsequently revised under the title, Air Force-which for the first time articulated the idea that the basic air objective was the enemy's "vital centers," population, and air force. Air Force borrowed from Italian General Giulio Douhet, whose seminal work, Command of the Air (1921 edition), was translated into English. Douhet emphasized that an attack on morale should be made at the outset of hostilities.

It is, however, not possible precisely to trace the intellectual twists and turns that mark the evolution of the strategic bombardment idea. Nonetheless, one can attempt to discover the major developmental lines. Not all of Douhet's concepts were original. In World War I, Germany led the way in strategic bombing and before it ended the British and Americans developed strategic formulations. But Douhet became the first to put these concepts into coherent form. Although he was especially interested in alleviating Italy's military problems, he structured a total war scenario universal in its application. Command of the Air reveals Douhet's total disenchantment with the Allied war strategy. He abhorred the casualties attended by no clearly articulated political objectives, save to press on to victory. His harsh indictment of wartime superiors resulted in his serving a year in prison; in 1920, a military court reversed this verdict.

Aerial duels appalled him. Airplanes were offensive machines; no effective defense against them existed. Effective military action depended on mastery of the air and the major objectives should be industry and population, not military forces. Equally important, air units should strike first and in mass without waiting to declare war formally. It was not necessary to engage and defeat the enemy's air force. The same objective could be accomplished by striking factories and air bases. To Douhet, the airplane was unique. It could reach the enemy's vitals without being stopped. Attacking the enemy heartland required an independent air force functioning completely independent of the army and navy. It would command the air and exploit it "to crush the material and moral resistance of the enemy." Thus, surface forces were relegated to a defensive role and they would hold the line while the air offensive destroyed the enemy's ability to continue.

For the air strike force he foresaw a "battle plane" that could bomb but also defend itself. Bombers might be lost, but they would not be turned back. Because the airplane was radically different from other weapons, wars would be total in scope. Douhet's conception of air warfare and the organization of air forces provided a model on which later ideas could be grafted. His emphasis upon an independent air arm and the aerial offensive and his downgrading of the pursuit plane were welcomed in other air services including the American. Despite the fact that time revealed Douhet to have badly underestimated the ability of civilians to stand up under bombing and to have greatly misjudged the tactical utility of aircraft (he had plenty of company), his early framework remains impressive given the status of technology at the time.

Distinguished British and American air officers, Sir John Slessor and Generals Laurence Kuter and Curtis E. LeMay among them, have disparaged Douhet's influence, but not his ideas. This difference is worth noting. Their adherence to "principles" strongly suggests Douhet; it must be noted that air advocates have never been quick to credit their intellectual predecessors. Because Douhet may not have been widely read by air officers does not mean that his views failed to influence them. And although he may not have had a great deal to do with the way air forces developed or were equipped, his ideas were relevant to air strategy, to the way in which air forces were later used. Aside from the question of influence, the fact remains that on the basis of the warfare he prophesied, his reputation as the foremost of early air theorists remains unchallenged.

After World War I, the development of air doctrine proceeded in concert with advancing aircraft technology and the breakdown of diplomacy in Europe. Brig. Gen. William (Billy) Mitchell considered the "bombardment airplane" as the foundation of air power. In his book, Skyways (1930), he emphasized that combat was the attempt to control "vital centers," the cities "where the people live, areas where their food and supplies are produced and the transport lines that carry these supplies from place to place."

The advent of air power which can go straight to the vital centers and entirely neutralize or destroy them has put a completely new complexion on the old system of war. It is now realized that the hostile main army in the field is a false objective and the real objectives are the vital centers. The old theory that victory meant the destruction of the hostile main army, is untenable. Armies themselves can be disregarded by air power if a rapid strike is made against the opposing centers, because a greatly superior army numerically is at the mercy of an air force inferior in number.

Thus, between the wars, the advanced ideas of Mitchell and his followers set up a long-running clash with the War Department over the role of the Army's air arm. The War Department General Staff insisted that the function of the air arm was to support the ground army: the so-called close support mission. The airmen advocated the independent air mission, following Mitchell's primary concept of striking the "vital centers." They also put forward the idea that airmen knew best how to organize and employ air forces.

Mitchell's thinking evolved through several phases. He came out of the war an advocate of the tactical use of aviation. Bombing was a means of keeping the enemy's reinforcements from the battlefield. He was neither a champion of strategic bombing nor of aviation support for the Army and Navy. Pre-eminently, he thought military aviation indispensable to the nation's security, its first line of defense. Later, Mitchell argued for a strategic concept of air power, for striking the enemy's air force on the ground. Also, industry would be the target, especially aircraft production. However, Mitchell's tour of the Far East in 1923-1924 convinced him that Japanese cities were "highly inflammable." In 1923, the great Tokyo fire had killed over 100,000 people. Mitchell informed the Navy's General Board that Japan was more vulnerable to air attack than any country in the world. He still believed in pursuit aviation and in the utility of the long-range escort. Mitchell later supported formation of a Department of Aeronautics and a Department of National Defense to supervise the three services. He was supported by Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, Chief of the Air Service, and Major Carl Spaatz, but the War Department General Staff and Navy Department noted indisputably that aviation had never decided a war. On the other hand, they recognized the airplane's capacity for reconnaissance and ground support.

Emblematic of the temper of the times, the Morrow Board report of November 30, 1925, came out squarely against formation of a Department of Aeronautics, observing that air power had not yet proved its value for independent operations. Such missions could "be better carried out under the high command of the Army or Navy...." The United States had no reason to fear an enemy air attack:

No airplane capable of making a transoceanic flight to our country with a useful military load and of returning to safety is now in existence.... With the advance in the art it is to be expected that there will be substantial advance in the range and capacity of bombing airplanes; but, having in view present practical limitations, it does not appear that there is any ground for anticipation of such development to a point which would constitute a direct menace to the United States in any future which scientific thought can now foresee.... The fear of such an attack is without reason.

Mitchell's vituperative attacks resulted in his court martial in October 1925. Mitchell was particularly adept at recognizing promising ideas to develop and publicize. He was ahead of his time, one of America's most brilliant technologists, impatient because others could not share his enthusiasm and confidence in machines that had yet to demonstrate their capacity. Mitchell's influence on Arnold was beyond question. Arnold's confidence in technology, his belief in publicity, and his faith in unified air power could all be traced to Mitchell. But Mitchell's vindication awaited the development and production of planes not yet on the drawing board. With the energy of a crusader, he had been driven by issues that, when aired publicly, could only arouse discord. Not willing to compromise, he became isolated. After Franklin Roosevelt became president, he hoped to influence a change in air policy, but he couldn't turn the tide alone and soon became disenchanted. He died in February 1936, a proud zealot to the end.

In the mid-1930s, advent of the GHQ Air Force gave the Army airmen a striking force as concern over hemispheric defense accelerated. This reflected the danger that a foreign nation might gain air bases in Latin America from which to attack the United States. The leadership of the Air Corps reasoned that long-range reconnaissance bombers were required to be capable of offensive action. Concomitant with establishment of the GHQ Air Force on March 1, 1935, the B-17 bomber arrived on the scene and in the mid-1930s events in Europe began to energize the Roosevelt administration toward the path of rearmament. Specifically, in 1937, the creation of the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan began to tilt American rearmament toward aircraft and offensive concepts.

In the meantime, the Air Corps Tactical School evolved theories of air doctrine based on advancing technology and offensive air concepts and tactics, which by the late 1930s would form at least a theoretical foundation for the Air Corps going into World War II. The primary objective in war, the school's theorists emphasized, was to break the enemy's will to resist, forcing him to capitulate. Air forces would not attack armies, but nations themselves. This kind of advanced concept depended on using aircraft offensively. The ability to attack the enemy's vital points depended upon accurate intelligence to pinpoint the enemy's critical industrial, economic, and social centers. This was the genesis of the high-altitude "precision" daylight bombardment air doctrine. Theoretically, it also stressed the counter-air force mission, attacking the enemy's air forces. All of this, as indicated, was dependent upon timely, accurate intelligence.


Excerpted from Cataclysm by Herman S. Wolk Copyright © 2010 by Herman S. Wolk. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

HERMAN S. WOLK retired as Senior Historian, U.S. Air Force. After receiving B.A. and M.A. degrees from the American International College, Springfield, Mass., he studied at the Far Eastern and Russian Institute, University of Washington, 1957-1959. He was historian at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command, 1959-1966. He served in the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D.C., from 1966 to 2005. A fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, he was awarded the Maj. Gen. I. B. Holley Award for significant contribution to the research, interpretation, and documentation of Air Force history. He was the author of Strategic Bombing: The American Experience; Planning and Organizing the Postwar Air Force, 1943-1947; The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947; Fulcrum of Power: Essays on the Air Force and National Security; and Reflections on Air Force Independence.

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