The Last Mission: The Secret History of World War II's Final Battleby Jim Smith, Malcolm McConnell
A gripping account of the final American bombing mission of World War II and how it prevented a military coup that would have kept Japan in the war.
How close did the Japanese come to not surrendering to Allied forces on August 15, 1945? The Last Mission explores this question through two previously neglected strands of late—World War II history,/i>
A gripping account of the final American bombing mission of World War II and how it prevented a military coup that would have kept Japan in the war.
How close did the Japanese come to not surrendering to Allied forces on August 15, 1945? The Last Mission explores this question through two previously neglected strands of late—World War II history, whose very interconnections could have caused a harrowing shift in the course of the postwar world. On the final night of the war, as Emperor Hirohito recorded a message of surrender for the Japanese people, a band of Japanese rebels, commanded by War Minister Anami's elite staff, burst into the palace. They had plotted a massive coup that aimed to destroy the recordings of the Imperial Rescript of surrender and issue false orders forged with the Emperor’s seal commanding the widely dispersed Japanese military to continue the war. If this rebellion had succeeded, the military would have proceeded with large-scale kamikaze attacks on Allied forces, costing huge casualties and just possibly provoking the Americans to drop a third atomic bomb on Japan over Tokyo–and continue to drop more bombs as Japanese resistance stiffened.
Meanwhile, in the midst of an “end-of-war” celebration on Guam, Air Force radio operator Jim Smith and his fellow crewmen received urgent orders for a bombing mission over Japan’s sole remaining oil refinery north of Tokyo. As a stream of American B-29B bombers approached Tokyo, Japanese air defenses, fearing the approaching planes signaled the threat of a third atomic bomb, ordered a total blackout in Tokyo and the Imperial Palace, completely disrupting the rebels’ plans. Smith and his fellow crewmembers completed the mission, and a few hours later, the Emperor announced the surrender over Japan’s airwaves, dictating the end of the war.
The Last Mission is an insightful piece of speculative investigation that combines narrative storytelling with historical contingency and explores how two seemingly unrelated events could have profoundly changed the course of modern history.
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Read an Excerpt
1630 Hours, 5 August 1945
The long rows of four-engined bombers sat on the asphalt taxi ramps to the two parallel runways at Northwest Field, Guam, shimmering in the tropic afternoon. They were B-29Bs of the 315th Bomb Wing (Very Heavy), U.S. Strategic Air Forces XXI Bomber Command. This base in the Marianas was 1,500 miles south of the "Empire," the name American airmen had given the Japanese Home Islands. Today, loaded with nine tons of 500-pound bombs and almost 6,500 gallons of aviation gasoline, the Superforts were pushing their 140,000-pound maximum takeoff weight. But that was an increasingly normal risk their crews faced at this stage in the air campaign against Japan.
Halfway down the line of Superforts, waiting for the order to start engines, The Boomerang sat on its hardstand, the sun glare flooding the multipane Plexiglas greenhouse cockpit. A jeep approached, and a full colonel from headquarters climbed a ladder to the nosewheel hatch.
He would be "observing" tonight's mission, aircraft commander First Lieutenant Carl Schahrer announced to his crew over the intercom. This intrusion could be either an unnecessary occasion for a staff officer to rack up some combat hours or the legitimate desire for an experienced leader to watch one of the Wing's smoothly functioning crews in action. In any event, he didn't feel he had to explain himself. The Colonel sat on the deck beside Schahrer's central control console but did not offer to shake hands with anyone, making it clear that he wasn't interested in friendly relations with the plane's crew of junior officers and NCOs.
Tonight's target was the sprawling Ube Coal Liquefaction Company synthetic oil facility near the extreme southwest tip of Honshu. Round-trip mission time had been briefed for just over fifteen hours, thirty minutes. As always, the Superforts carried a marginal fuel reserve, so that they could accommodate a maximum bomb load for the distance flown and predicted winds aloft. This reserve was certainly not the comfortable safety margin peacetime aviators would have expected or indeed demanded on such a long over-water flight.
This was not peacetime, however. It was the fourth year of relentless war that had begun for America with the Imperial Japanese Navy's bombing of Pearl Harbor. During the forty-four months since Pearl Harbor, sixteen million Americans had put on uniforms and scores of millions more had gone to work in war industries. The three-year campaign against Nazi Germany and its Italian Fascist ally, which had cost America more than 200,000 killed or missing, had finally ended with victory in May 1945.
In the Pacific, the Japanese had been invincible for the first six months of the war, defeating weaker American, British, and Dutch forces in the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, and the Netherlands East Indiesand capturing hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners as well as seizing a trove of natural resources that Japan desperately needed to maintain its huge fleet and support its armies, which had been engaged in Manchuria and China for years.
The American counteroffensive in the Pacific had gathered momentum slowly because President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had agreed on a "Germany first" strategy in which the major Allied effort would be focused on the European Theater of Operations (ETO) until Hitler was defeated; only then would the Allies' full might shift to Japan. The protracted and bloody island-hopping campaign resulting from this policy that began at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 1942 had involved savage sea and naval-air battles, costly amphibious assaults, and bypassing strong Japanese garrisons on beleaguered fortresses such as Rabaul and Truk. American strategy had been to drive a line of air bases north from the Solomons across the vast blue void of the Pacific, so that the Japanese Home Islands could be brought within range of the B-29 Superfort as soon as that revolutionary new bomber was available in "sufficient numbers." More than 100,000 Americans had been killed, seriously wounded, or were missing in action in the Pacific up to this point in the war.
But the strategy had eventually proved sound. With the retaking of Guam, a prewar American territory, and the capture of Saipan and Tinian farther north in the Marianas, the United States finally had its B-29 bases. And the airmen aboard The Boomerang this stifling afternoon of August 5, 1945, were just one of more than a thousand Superfort crews flying from airfields that had transformed these islands into the world's largest air base.
The Boomerang's ten crewmen greeted the coolly distant Colonel as they accepted so many other minor irritants of life in a combat wing. Schahrer glanced around to verify that, despite the heat, everyone within sight of the Colonel had his parachute harness clipped correctly over his yellow rubber Mae West and nylon mesh survival vest and that the sleeves of his tan nylon summer flying suit were rolled down as regulations required. Carl Schahrer, 26, a short, slight, and soft-spoken aviator devoted to his crew, now ignored the senior officer and worked through the Pre-Start checklist with his flight engineer, Technical Sergeant Hank Gorder, who sat facing aft behind the pilot, First Lieutenant John Waltershausen, seated at the controls on the right of the flight deck.
Gorder, at 28, was the oldest man on the crew. A big, rawboned Norwegian from the small town of Grafton, North Dakota, he hunched at his complex panel of multiple instruments, switches, and engine controls. Among many other tasks, Gorder faced the challenge of establishing the optimal "cruise control" that would balance the variables of altitude, air temperatures, winds, and aircraft weight to conserve fuel during the long mission. He also had to continually adjust the cowl flaps to keep the temperatures of the four powerful but notoriously trouble-prone Wright-Cyclone R3350 engines within safe limits.
Bombardier First Lieutenant Dick Marshall's "office" was forward of the flight deck, in the exposed Plexiglas nose of The Boomerang. He came from a well-off California family with interests in the furniture business. At 27, he was the second-oldest man in the crew, but he seemed even more mature.
An open bulkhead separated the flight deck from the so-called navigator's compartment aft of the pilots. In reality, navigator First Lieutenant Tony Cosola, a handsome, coolly competent Italian-American from San Francisco, shared the compartment with First Lieutenant Rich Ginster, the radar operator, and Sergeant Jim Smith, the radio operator. Ginster, Waltershausen, and Cosola were all just 23, the youngest officers on the crew. Studious and unobtrusive, Ginster did his job with quiet efficiency.
Radio operator Sergeant Jim Smith, who would be 21 in fifteen days, sat on the starboard side of the compartment, his cramped, windowless station jammed with boxy transmitters, receivers, antenna tuners, and his small Morse code transmission key table. Hoping to become a pilot, Smith had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 after graduating from high school in Des Moines, Iowa. After Basic Training at Sheppard Field, Texas, Smith was sent to the College Training Detachment at Creighton University, Nebraska, for academics and flight instruction. Smith graduated near the top of his class, and it looked as if his dream of becoming a pilot was about to be realized. But when he reached the next base in Santa Ana, California, he learned that further training for potential flying officers had been closed because of an overabundance: Pilots, navigators, and bombardiers from Europe were being transferred to the Pacific Theater.
Qualified men like Smith had two options: radio operator or gunnery. He chose the radio operator's course because he'd learned that the students who graduated in the top 10 percent would be sent to officers' candidate school. But even when Smith made this grade, the regulation was changed again. Now the top radio school graduates were to be rewarded with assignments to B-29s. Because the new Superforts were suffering so many mechanical problemswith related fatal training accidentsSmith and his classmates did not know if this distinction was much of a reward. But the saga he'd undergone since enlisting was typical of countless other patriotic young Americans caught up in the faceless machinery of the war.
Finally, after training for several months with one B-29B crew, Smith was sent to join The Boomerang's as a last-minute replacement in May 1945, just before the bomber departed for the Pacific.
Behind this compartment, a narrow twenty-six-foot cylindrical tunnel ran above the twin bomb bays, connecting the forward and aft pressurized sections. In the compartment aft of the wings, Sergeants Henry Carlson and Hank Leffler, the right and left scanners, both 21, knelt at their flat circular view ports on either side of the fuselage, prepared to observe the dangerous ritual of engine start, during which volatile high-octane aviation gasoline surged through the fuel systems into the double rings of cylinders, driven by whining turbochargers.
Henry Carlson came close to matching the image of the All-American Boy. Open-faced and good-looking, Carlson always seemed serene and impressed his fellow crew members as a guy who sincerely cared for their welfare. Leffler was tough and stocky, an outdoorsman from Colorado with a ready smile, who usually responded an upbeat "You bet" to questions. The tail gunner, Sergeant Sid Siegel, also 21, came from Connecticut and delivered his stream of good-natured wisecracks with an eastern accent. His combat position was another thirty feet aft of the scanners, in a small, separate pressurized compartment beneath the bomber's towering vertical stabilizer. Sid provided The Boomerang's sole defensive firepower, and the crew knew they could trust him.
Now the afternoon sun beat down on the bomber's aluminum fuselage and the crews' flying suits became sodden with sweat. This was their eighth mission over the Empire, and, as they waited for engine start, each young man had time to quietly reflect on the nature of the war they were fighting.
The Boeing B-29 was a quantum step beyond the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, America's premier heavy bombers at the start of World War II. The standard Superfort was twice as heavy and had a fuselage almost a third longer than the 'Fort and the Liberator and could carry a heavier bomb load twice as far.
And the modified B-29Bs of the 315th at Northwest Field had also been assigned a special mission to match the aircraft's unique characteristics. The Wing was the most specialized unit in the Army Air Forces (AAF) and flew Superforts equipped with the APQ-7 Eagle radar and stripped of all defensive armor and gun turretsexcept for three radar-controlled tail guns (twin .50-caliber machine guns and a slow-firing, ineffective 20mm cannon)which reduced drag and eliminated 7,500 pounds. This modification allowed the 315th's Superforts to carry a bomb of over ten tons to more distant targets than could the other B-29s in the Marianas. Without the turrets, the B-29B did retain two scanners in the waist compartment who spotted fighters for the tail gunner and visually monitored the sensitive engines, watching for oil leaks, smoke, or flames.
But the precision radar bombing system was the plane's most distinguishing feature. The Eagle radar had been designed by legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Luis W. Alvarez and Bell Telephone Laboratories. It operated at a much higher frequency than did earlier radars. Originally developed under a Top Secret project code-named EHIB ("Every House In Berlin"), the Eagle almost lived up to its promise of precision. Although it never saw full combat deployment in the European Theater of Operations, the new radar was perfectly suited for the big B-29Bs flying from the Marianas. The radar employed electronic scanning from an eighteen-foot-long, forty-inch-wide vane fixed parallel to the wings between the Superfort's twin bomb bays. This gave the Eagle-equipped bombers a bizarre appearance, as if engineers had somehow grafted a smaller aircraft to the Superforts' bellies. But the awkward-looking Eagle antenna produced a ground image of unprecedented sharpness, allowing crisp resolution of structures as small as 1,500 feet from high altitude in total darkness or overcast.
In training, the 315th's crews had to perfect the demanding technique of "synchronous radar bombing." The radar operator identified the target in the Eagle's radar beam, which swept a pie-shaped, sixty-degree wedge ahead of the aircraft. Once the distinctive shape of a particular target had been verified, the radar operator tracked it using a reticle on his scope, the Eagle automatically feeding this information to the Norden bombsight in the nose compartment. Meanwhile, if cloud cover permitted, the bombardier was checking his optical sightings against the radar data. A simplified version of this tracking appeared on an indicator in the cockpit, which allowed the aircraft commander and pilot to stabilize the bomber's speed and altitude, working with both the radar operator and the bombardier. When the precise radar data matched the briefed target aiming point, bombsight indices converged, a red light flashed, and the huge load of bombs was released through the open double bomb bays in a preset "shotgun" pattern, which an electromechanical intervalometer automatically controlled to maintain the aircraft's center of gravity while sequencing the bombs to inflict maximum damage.
Over western test ranges in the United States, this technique had worked well, even though the aircrews averaged only 125 flying hours in B-29s, which, by ordinary standards, would have made them grossly unprepared for this sophisticated aircraft. But this was a vastly complex war far too enormous for the airmen to grasp. Nobodyeven most of their senior officers, they correctly surmisedunderstood "the big picture." The demands of that war forced the young men who flew the B-29Bs from Guamand some were indeed very youngto be ingenious and adaptive. They were eager and proud to be flying the Superforts, wanted to be courageous, and were determined not to fail. In night combat missions over the Japanese Empire, synchronous radar bombing was to prove just as effective as it had on bombing ranges in America.
The order came to start engines. When the four big Wright-Cyclones were throbbing loudly and flight engineer Hank Gorder announced his instruments looked good, Schahrer waited for the ground crew below to wave him forward and The Boomerang taxied ahead with the other bombers toward Northwest Field's thinly asphalted crushed-coral runways. Planes were alternating takeoffs every thirty seconds, first one runway, then the other.
The Boomerang rolled to position, and Dick Waltershausen set the brakes while Carl Schahrer ran up the engines to check RPM, magnetos, and manifold pressure. Bombardier Dick Marshall sat in the nose watching the plane ahead of them gather speed on its takeoff run. The heavily laden Superfort passed the concave dip in the asphalt at the midpoint on the 8,500-foot runway but did not seem to be gathering sufficient speed.
"He's not going to make it," Marshall grimly said over the intercom.
In the distance, the tail and fuselage of the bomber disappeared in the rippling heat mirage. The aircraft seemed to have run out of paved runway, crossed the coral overrun, and disappeared down the sheer 500-foot limestone cliff at the far end. The Boomerang's crew realized that ten men had just been killed. And now they were about to attempt taking off in a similarly laden bomber in this hot afternoon air. They all hated the war that forced them to do this. But no one spoke.
Meet the Author
JIM SMITH served with the 315th Bomb Wing, 20th Air Force during, World War II, where he was a radio operator of a B-29B bomber named The Boomerang. He has researched The Last Mission for more than twenty years. MALCOLM McCONNELL is the author or coauthor of twenty-three books, many of them on military subjects. He most recently cowrote Born to Fly with Navy pilot Shane Osborn. He lives near Washington, D.C.
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