The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell is a modern warfare book, which tackles one of today’s most pressing questions: how can we achieve the least number of casualties and the highest level of precision in warfare.
Book Title: The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War
Authors: Malcolm Gladwell
Date of Reading: Aug 2022
Table of Contents
What Is Being Said In Detail:
The Bomber Mafia is a great book about WWII events such as the US bombing Germany and Japan and forcing them to surrender. It focuses on the invention of Norden bombsights, napalm, and other aspects of the war that contributed to the advancement of the US Air Force.
With the best storytelling skills, Gladwell gives a detailed account of US generals Hansell and Le May’s role in leading the US Air Force to victory and Japan’s surrender during the Second World War. One of the most important features of this book is the way in which it emphasizes both the moral values of generals and the choices they were forced to make as well as their solutions to minimize casualties or shorten the war.
This book is divided into two parts: the first explains how precision bombing was conceived and how it worked during military operations, and the second describes how the US firebombing campaign forced Japan to surrender.
Introduction: “This isn’t working. You’re out.”
Introduction highlights the topics in this book, like warcraft, air force development, and how Bomber Mafia’s change of command changed the course of World War II.
Part I: The Dream
Chapter One: “Mr. Norden was content to pass his time in the shop.”
Chapter 1 describes how a researcher named Carl Norden, the godfather of precision bombing, revolutionized a war when he devised the Norden bombsight, creating a dream that continued well into the 21st century.
Chapter Two: “We make progress unhindered by custom.”
Chapter 2 introduces the development of the air force at the Maxwell Field, which was the home of the Air Force Tactical School, led by the Bomber Mafia.
Chapter Three: “He was lacking in the bond of human sympathy.”
Chapter 3 explains how the technique of precision bombing has changed from being able to crush everything in its path and make civilians flee their houses to being able to target particular objects without causing civilian harm by means of the innovative technology of precision bombing.
Chapter Four: “The truest of the true believers.”
Chapter 4 is about two heroes of the American air force. One was General Haywood Hansell, who was a true believer in the high altitude precision bombing, and the other was Curtis Le May, a young yet fierce combat commander who led the most successful invasions of the US Air Force during the Second World War.
Chapter Five: “General Hansell was aghast”
Chapter 5 tells how Bomber Mafia’s predictions about precision bombing were misguided and resulted in significant losses during a run over Germany.
PART II: The Temptation
Chapter Six: “It would be suicide, boys, suicide.”
Chapter 6 describes the US Air Force attack on Japan when again the precision bombing doctrine failed to work and how the weather manifested against the war.
Chapter Seven: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Chapter 7 tells the story of napalm, one of the explosives used in WWII. Also, how General Hansell was replaced by Curtis Le May after he failed to achieve his goals and refused to use napalm for fear of the casualties it would bring.
Chapter Eight: “It’s all ashes. All that and that and that.”
Chapter 8 tells us about one of the most devastating and successful firebombing attacks conducted by the US Air Force led by General Le May on Japan during the Pacific War.
Chapter Nine: “Improvised destruction.”
Chapter 9 describes General Le May’s controversial firebombing campaign that led to Japan’s surrender in the summer of 1945, which shocked most air force generals and historians of the time.
Conclusion: “All of a sudden, the Air House would be gone. Poof.”
Conclusion summarizes this story and highlights what can be learned from Bomber Mafia, Hansell, and Le May, and how far the precision bombing progressed in the modern day.
Most Important Keywords, Sentences, Quotes:
“Some new idea or innovation comes along, and it is obvious to all that it will upend our world. The internet. Social media. In previous generations, it was the telephone and the automobile. There’s an expectation that because of this new invention, things will get better, more efficient, safer, richer, faster. Which they do, in some respects. But then things also, invariably, go sideways.”
“The Bomber Mafia is a case study in how dreams go awry. And how, when some new, shiny idea drops down from the heavens, it does not land, softly, in our laps. It lands hard, on the ground, and shatters.”
“The story I’m about to tell is not really a war story. Although it mostly takes place in wartime. It is the story of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer. A band of brothers in central Alabama. A British psychopath. Pyromaniacal chemists in a basement labs at Harvard. It’s a story about the messiness of our intentions, because we always forget the mess when we look back.”
PART I: The Dream
CHAPTER ONE: “Mr. Norden was content to pass his time in the shop.”
“If you were to have made a list in, say, the early years of the twentieth century of the ten biggest unsolved technological problems of the next half century, what would have been on that list? Well, some things are obvious. […] But somewhere on that list would be a military question—namely, is there a more accurate way to drop a bomb from an airplane?”
“So what could be done? A small group of people came to believe that the only realistic solution was for armies to change the way they fought wars. To learn to fight—if this doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron—better wars. And the people who made the argument for better wars were pilots. Airmen. People obsessed with one of the newest and most exciting technological achievements of that era—the airplane.”
“I had a dream…that nations fought each other in order to dictate terms and not to prove supremacy of arms, as military tradition insisted. I had a dream that important nations, the likely adversaries, were industrialized and dependent upon smooth operation of organized and mutually sustaining elements.
I had a dream that the new and coming air capability could destroy a limited number of targets within this web of interdependent features of the modern nation. I had a dream that such destruction and the possibility of more of the same, would cause the victim to sue for peace.” [Wilson]
“[…] there’s an amazing number of elements that [go] into dropping a bomb accurately on a target. If you think about your own car, driving down the highway at sixty, seventy miles an hour, you can imagine throwing something out the window and trying to hit something, even if it’s stationary like a sign or a tree or anything on the side of the road. You get an idea of just how hard that is.
[…] if you’re in an airplane at twenty thousand or thirty thousand feet, the problem is infinitely more complicated.”
“[…] engineers refer to something called “the mind’s eye,” that they see things in their mind, not with their eyes, but with their mind’s eye. And that was truly Carl Norden.”
“And why spend so much on a bombsight? Because the Norden represented a dream—one of the most powerful dreams in the history of warfare: if we could drop bombs into pickle barrels from thirty thousand feet, we wouldn’t need armies anymore.
We wouldn’t need to leave young men dead on battlefields or lay waste to entire cities. We could reinvent war. Make it precise and quick and almost bloodless. Almost.”
CHAPTER TWO: “We make progress unhindered by custom.”
“Revolutions are birthed in conversation, argument, validation, proximity, and the look in your listener’s eye that tells you you’re on to something.”
“For those caught up in the dream of changing modern warfare, that place where friends spent time with one another and had long arguments into the night and saw that look in their comrades’ eyes was an air base called Maxwell Field.”
“The legendary Army general John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American forces in World War I, once wrote of airpower that it “can of its own account neither win a war at the present time nor, so far as we can tell, at any time in the future.” That’s what the military establishment thought of airplanes.
Richard Kohn, chief historian of the US Air Force for a decade, explains that in the early days, people just didn’t understand airpower:”
“The leaders of the Air Corps Tactical School were labeled “the Bomber Mafia.” It was not intended as a compliment—these were the days of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano and shoot-outs on the streets. But the Air Corps faculty thought the outcast label quite suited them. And it stuck.
Harold George, one of the spiritual leaders of the Bomber Mafia, put it like this: “We were highly enthusiastic; we were starting on, like, a crusade…knowing that there were a dozen of us and the only opposition we had was ten thousand officers and the rest of the Army, rest of the Navy.””
“The Tactical School was a university. An academy. But not many of the faculty had any experience teaching. And the things they were teaching were so new and radical that there weren’t really any textbooks for anyone to study or articles for anyone to read. So they mostly made things up—on the fly, so to speak.
[…] Conversation starts to seed a revolution. The group starts to wander off in directions in which no one individual could ever have conceived of going all by himself or herself.”
“I feel quite certain that if the controlling element of the War Department general staff had known what we were doing at Maxwell Field, we would have all been put in jail. Because it was just so contrary to their established doctrine that I just can’t imagine their knowing and allowing us to do it.” [Donald Wilson]
“Aluminum and steel replaced plywood. Engines got more powerful. Planes got bigger and easier to fly. They had retractable landing gear and pressurized fuselages. And those advances allowed the Bomber Mafia to imagine an entirely new class of airplane—something as large as the commercial airliners that had just started ferrying passengers across the United States. A plane that big and powerful wouldn’t be limited to fighting other planes in the sky. It could carry bombs: heavy, powerful explosives that could do significant damage to the enemy’s positions on the ground.
Now, why would that be so devastating? Because if you put one of these newly powerful engines inside one of these newly massive airplanes, that plane could fly so far and so fast for so long that nothing could stop it. Antiaircraft guns would be like peashooters. Enemy fighters would be like small annoying gnats, buzzing harmlessly. This kind of airplane could have armor plating, guns at the back and front to defend itself.
And so we arrive at principle number one of the Bomber Mafia doctrine: The bomber will always get through.
The second tenet: Up until then, it had been assumed that the only way to bomb your enemy was in the safety of darkness. But if the bomber was unstoppable, why would stealth matter? The Bomber Mafia wanted to attack by daylight.
The third tenet: If you could bomb by daylight, then you could see whatever it was you were trying to hit. You weren’t blind anymore. And if you could see, it meant that you could use a bombsight—line up the target, enter the necessary variables, let the device do its work—and boom.
The fourth and final tenet: Conventional wisdom said that when a bomber approached its target, it had to come down as close as it could to the ground in order to aim properly. But if you had the bombsight, you could drop your bomb from way up high—outside the range of antiaircraft guns. We can drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from thirty thousand feet.
High altitude. Daylight. Precision bombing. That was what the Bomber Mafia cooked up in its hideaway in central Alabama.”
“The Air Force is obsessed with tomorrow, and with how technology will prepare it for tomorrow.”
“War, in its classical definition, is the application of the full weight of military forces against the enemy until the enemy’s political leadership surrenders. But Wilson thought—is that really necessary? If we just take out the propeller-spring factory in Pittsburgh, we cripple their air force. And if we can find another dozen or so crucial targets just like that —“choke points” was the phrase he used—bombing could cripple the whole country..”
“They’re not really investigating the psychology of bombing. They’re not investigating the sociology of bombing. They’re not really even investigating the politics of the bombing—that is, the implications the bombing would have for populations, societies, and for governments. What they’re really doing is focusing on the technology of the bombing of the time, what target sets it would allow the bombers to hit.”
“You can see why Donald Wilson, only half jokingly, said that if the Army had known what was going on at Maxwell, they would have put all the members of the Bomber Mafia in jail. Because these men were part of the Army, but they were saying that the rest of the Army was irrelevant and obsolete.
You could have hundreds of thousands of troops massed along the Canadian border, complete with artillery and tanks and every other weapon imaginable, but the bombers would just fly right over them, leapfrog all the conventional defenses, and cripple the enemy with a few carefully chosen air strikes hundreds of miles beyond the front lines.”
“Tami Biddle, a professor of national security at the US Army War College, explains the Bomber Mafia’s psychology this way: I think there’s a fascination with American technology. I think there’s a strong moral component to all this, a desire to find a way to fight a war that is clean and that is not going to tarnish the American reputation as a moral nation, a nation of ideas and ideology and commitment to individual rights and respect for human beings.”
“So the Bomber Mafia went to Washington and produced an astonishing document that would serve as a template for everything the United States did in the air war. The document is titled “Air War Plans Division One” (AWPD-1).
The Bomber Mafia was ready for war.”
CHAPTER THREE: “He was lacking in the bond of human sympathy.”
“It turns out that people were a lot tougher and more resilient than anyone expected. And it also turns out that maybe if you bomb another country day in and day out, it doesn’t make the people you’re bombing give up and lose faith.”
“The areabombing advocates had this cleverly deceptive word they used to describe the effect of their bombing: dehousing. As if you could destroy a house without disturbing its occupants. But if my house is gone, doesn’t that make me more dependent on my government, not more inclined to turn on my government?”
“The British had their own version of a Bomber Mafia—with an equally dogmatic set of views about how airpower ought to be used. Actually, the word mafia is not quite right—more like a single bombing mafioso. A godfather. And his name was Frederick Lindemann.”
“If you wanted to understand the befuddling attitude the British had about bombing, Snow said, you had to understand Lindemann.” [Author: C. P. Snow]
“His passions were much bigger than life…[They] reminded me…of the sort of inflated monomania of the passions in Balzac’s novels. He’d have made a wonderful Balzacian character. And, I said, he’s a figure who made a novelist’s fingers itch.”
“Lindemann was a great believer in the idea that the surest way to break the will of the enemy was by bombing its cities indiscriminately.”
“One time Lindemann was asked for his definition of morality, and he answered: “I define a moral action as one that brings advantage to my friends.”
“Arthur Harris was a psychopath. His own men called him Butcher Harris. In one of his first major statements upon taking the post, Harris quoted Hosea, one of the bleakest of the Old Testament prophets: “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else and nobody was going to bomb them…They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.””
“We weren’t aiming particularly at the civilian population. We were aiming at the production of everything that made it possible for the German armies to continue the war. That was the whole idea of the bombing offensive.”
“The most important fact about Carl Norden, the godfather of precision bombing, is not that he was a brilliant engineer or a hopeless eccentric. It’s that he was a devoted Christian.”
“And when he came back to his air base in England, he said, We need a new plan for the war in Europe, one that will show the British that there is a better way to wage an air war.”
CHAPTER FOUR: “The truest of the true believers.”
“We have much to learn. That’s Hansell: unflinchingly honest, a little naive, but fundamentally a romantic, with all that implies.”
“When Ira Eaker was looking for someone to defend the doctrine of high-altitude daylight precision bombing against the skepticism of the British, there was no question whom he would pick. That was a job for Haywood Hansell, the truest of the true believers.”
“The Army Air Force strategists drew up one of the most ingenious plans of the war: a raid in two parts. The main event would involve 230 B-17 bombers sent against the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories. But to make the main event possible, there was to be a diversion.
And whom did they choose to command this crucial, treacherous second arm of the Schweinfurt raid? The best combat commander they could find: a young Army Air Forces colonel named Curtis Emerson LeMay.”
“A captain by thirty-three, then a major, a colonel, a brigadier general, and by the age of thirty-seven a major general. LeMay was a bulldog. He had an oversize square head, with hair parted triumphantly just a shade off the middle. He was a brilliant poker player. A crack shot. He had a mind that moved only forward, never sideways. He was rational and imperturbable and incapable of self-doubt.”
“The Bomber Mafia was made up of theorists, intellectuals who conceived of their grand plans in the years before the war from the safety of Montgomery, Alabama. But Curtis LeMay was the one who figured out how to realize those theories.”
“So imagine, then, the thinking of the Bomber Mafia in the summer of 1943. The men needed to validate the theories formulated back at the Air Corps Tactical School. They needed to deal a death blow to the Nazi war machine. They needed to prove that ball bearings were the crucial choke point of the German military infrastructure.”
CHAPTER FIVE: “General Hansell was aghast”
“The fundamental problem at Schweinfurt was not the botched execution of the battle plan, however. That was just a symptom. The real problem had to do with the mechanical cornerstone of the Bomber Mafia ideology: the Norden bombsight.”
“And I haven’t mentioned the most important factor of all: the weather. The Norden depended on visual sighting of the target. You looked through the telescope, saw what you wanted to hit, then entered all the information: wind direction, airspeed, temperature, the curvature of the earth, and so on. But of course if there were clouds over the target, nothing worked.
In the days before sophisticated radar, there was no way around this problem. You crossed your fingers and prayed for a sunny day. If you got clouds instead, sometimes you would scrub the mission. But as often as not, you’d go anyway and take your chances. You had to. If you lingered too long on the tarmac, you would lose the element of surprise.”
“The year 1943 was a dark time for the Bomber Mafia. Every one of its ideas crumbled in the face of reality.”
“The Eighth Air Force was being directed to bomb a church on a Sunday at midday, as people were coming out of Mass.
At the preflight briefing, the airmen had been in shock. This wasn’t what they had signed on to do. It wasn’t what the Eighth Air Force stood for.
One navigator—who had been raised in a strict Methodist household—went up to his commanding officer and said he couldn’t do it. This was British-style area bombing, not American bombing. The navigator was told he faced court-martial if he didn’t fly the mission. So he did. And you know who else was in that briefing room, trying to wrap his head around what was happening? Haywood Hansell. One of his airmen later wrote simply: “General Hansell was aghast.”
“What did Festinger make of all this? The more you invest in a set of beliefs—the greater the sacrifice you make in the service of that conviction —the more resistant you will be to evidence that suggests that you are mistaken. You don’t give up. You double down.
As Festinger recalled in an oral history, “One of the things we expected would happen would be that, after the disconfirmation of this prediction… they would…have to discard their belief, but to the extent that they were committed to it, this would be difficult to do.””
PART II: The Temptation
CHAPTER SIX: “It would be suicide, boys, suicide.”
“All war is absurd. For thousands of years, human beings have chosen to settle their differences by obliterating one another. And when we are not obliterating one another, we spend an enormous amount of time and attention coming up with better ways to obliterate one another the next time around.”
“[…] some of the ugliest fighting in the entire war was over three tiny clumps of volcanic rock that no one outside the western Pacific—no one—had so much as heard of before the war started.”
“Leading the air attack on Japan was the most important job of Hansell’s career. At that point, it was probably the most important job in the entire Army Air Forces. But the air attack plan was—in every sense of the word—absurd. Deeply absurd.”
“[…] the crucial fact: Between Kolkata and Chengdu are the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. The pilots called the Himalayas “the Hump.” If you thought that an air war launched from the Marianas was absurd, well, this was much, much worse.”
“Over the course of the war, how many American planes do you think crashed while trying to navigate over the Hump? Seven hundred. The flying route was called “the aluminum trail” because of all the debris scattered over the mountains.”
“That was how the air war in the Pacific was going in the fall of 1944. Whose position was more absurd: Curtis LeMay’s or Haywood Hansell’s? That’s easy. Guam to Japan was hard. But India to Japan was insane.”
“No amount of human ingenuity or single-mindedness could overcome the obstacle of the Himalayas.
In the many considerations and reconsiderations of LeMay’s legacy, there have been all manner of theories about his motivation for what he would do the following spring, when he took control of the air war in the Pacific. I wonder if the first and simplest explanation isn’t just this: when a problem solver is finally free to act, he will let nothing stand in his way.
Then there’s Haywood Hansell. His predicament was different; he was the true believer.”
“As Hansell recalled, “We were on Saipan with about forty or fifty B-29s [and] a deadline of the thirtieth of October. We had a deadline for an operation against the Japanese aircraft industry…and we had no target folders; we didn’t know where the Japanese aircraft industry was.””
“San Antonio One was hugely symbolic. It demonstrated that Japan could finally be reached. But was it a success, as a military operation? After the war, speaking to cadets at the Air Force Academy, Hansell tried to put a good face on things. “The operation wasn’t as good as we would have liked, but as an initial effort, it did show it could be done. This was a very doubtful issue at the time.”
The operation wasn’t as good as we would have liked was, to say the least, an understatement.”
“Part of the difficulty was the same problem the Bomber Mafia had had over Europe: clouds. The bombardiers looked for the target through their Nordens and couldn’t find it. But there was another problem with the weather, a problem much worse and much bigger than anyone at the time could understand.”
“Meteorologists were crucial to the success of bombing campaigns, particularly in the days before sophisticated radar. You had to know whether there were clouds over your target. Or whether there was a typhoon poised to swallow up your command.
But the tools available to meteorologists of that era were crude. I know this is a digression, but the easiest thing to forget about the Second World War is that it took place in another technological era. It’s half twentieth century and half nineteenth century.
The chief tool meteorologists had at that time were balloons, weather balloons that would float up into the atmosphere carrying little instrument kits that could record the wind, the temperature, and the humidity and transmit that information back to earth by radio.”
“The dream hatched back at Maxwell Field in the 1930s and brought to life by the genius of Carl Norden had run up against an unstoppable force in the skies over Japan.
This is not the same kind of obstacle as the Bomber Mafia faced over Schweinfurt and Regensburg. There, Hansell could justify to himself that the problem was solvable, that the first raid was a learning experience, that the raids could get better and more accurate.
Every revolutionary understands that the path to radical transformation is never smooth. Software programmers have a beta version, and then a 1.0 and then a 2.0, because they realize that they can never get it right the first time.
But in the case of the jet stream over Japan, there was no 2.0 version, no revision that Hansell could use to bolster his faith. High-altitude precision bombing in the midst of a jet stream is impossible.”
“The dreams of revolutionaries go awry when they are forced to confront an unanticipated obstacle—not a rational obstacle such as inexperience or haste or miscalculation, but something immovable. And in that moment of vulnerability and frustration, with his dream in pieces all around him, Haywood Hansell, like Jesus in the wilderness, was presented with a temptation. […]
You can have everything. Victory over your enemies. Dominion over all you can see from twenty thousand feet. All you have to do is walk away from your faith.”
CHAPTER SEVEN: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
“During the war years, to use the cliché, the right hand of the United States government did not always know what the left hand was doing. And one of those shadowy left-handed projects was Hoyt Hottel’s subcommittee.”
“You drop the bomb, and the gel scatters. And it doesn’t just burn itself out. Big globs of gel fly in every direction, and those globs stick to whatever surface they land on—and keep burning and burning and burning.”
“Hottel grouped whatever fire he saw into three categories of destructiveness: (a) uncontrollable within six minutes, (b) destructive if unattended, and (c) nondestructive. Napalm was the hands-down winner, with a 68 percent success rate in the first category on Japanese houses. It caused uncontrollable fires. By contrast, British thermite ran a poor, distant second.
With napalm, the United States had built itself a superweapon. And the Army was so proud of its new bomb that it made glowing promotional films about it.”
“Because napalm would solve all the problems Haywood Hansell and all his precision bombers had had in the war thus far. Precision bombing wasn’t working.
Hansell was struggling under some of the most difficult conditions faced by any combat commander in the entire air war. His planes couldn’t hit what they wanted to hit because of the high-altitude winds and the clouds over Tokyo. So maybe, the thinking went, don’t bother aiming at anything at all. Just burn everything down. The place is a tinderbox.
All Haywood Hansell had to do was switch to napalm. He could carry out morale bombing against the Japanese, only with a weapon far, far deadlier than the bombs the British used on Germany. Sixty-eight percent success rate in category (a) on Japanese houses, where the fires became uncontrollable within six minutes.”
“[…] when a commander goes into a command with an idea of what’s going to work, first of all, they believe it. They have to believe it because you couldn’t send so many men into combat if you just didn’t believe in what you were doing.”
“[…] he was a true believer, but he was not the kind of man who was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people. He just didn’t have it. Didn’t have it in his soul.”
CHAPTER EIGHT: “It’s all ashes. All that and that and that.”
“Precision-bombing doctrine starts with the requirement that the bomber come in high, well above the range of enemy fire and antiaircraft guns. LeMay throws that doctrine out the window. He decides the B-29s will have to come in under the jet stream.”
“Then there are the clouds. The Norden bombsight only works if the bombardier can see the target. But Japan can be almost as cloudy as England.”
“Jet stream plus heavy cloud cover means low. Low means night. And the decision to switch to night raids means you can’t do precision bombing anymore—no more fiddling with the Norden, no more tight-formation flying in order to coordinate bomb strikes, no more agonizing over exactly where the target is.
And what weapon will he use for these attacks? Napalm. Napalm will work perfectly.”
“But every now and again, there are hints of another LeMay—for example, when he says, “I’ll admit some uneasiness.” That’s code for I was terrified, but of course he couldn’t let anyone see that.
You cannot lead airmen into battle if they can sense your fear, so terror turns into a shrug and an epic bit of understatement. LeMay was uncompromising with his men in terms of how relentlessly he prepared and drilled them, but he was that way for a reason. Because he cared about them.”
“That it was the duration of war, not the techniques of war, that caused suffering. If you cared about the lives of your men—and the pain inflicted on your enemy—then you ought to wage as relentless and decisive and devastating a war as you could. Because if being relentless, decisive, and devastating turned a two-year war into a one-year war, wasn’t that the most desirable outcome?”
“War is a mean, nasty business, and you’re going to kill a lot of people. No way of getting around it. I think that any moral commander tries to minimize this to the extent possible, and to me the best way of minimizing it is getting the war over as quick as possible.”
“The bombs fell from the B-29s in clusters. They were small steel pipes twenty inches long, weighing six pounds each, packed with napalm. Little baby bombs, each with a long gauze streamer at one end, so that if you looked to the sky that night in Tokyo, there would have been a moment of extraordinary beauty—thousands of these bright green daggers falling down to earth.
And then: boom. On impact, thousands of small explosions. The overpowering smell of gasoline. Burning globs of napalm exploding in every direction. Then another wave of bombers. And another.”
“The next night, back on Guam, LeMay was awakened around midnight. The aerial photos taken during the attack were ready. As news spread, people came running from their beds. They drove up in Jeeps until the room was crowded.
LeMay, still in his pajamas, put the photos down on a large table under a bright light. There was a moment of shocked silence. St. Clair McKelway was standing in the room with all the others and remembers LeMay gesturing at the vast area of devastation. “All this is out.” LeMay said. “This is out—this—this—this.”
General Lauris Norstad stood next to him and said, “It’s all ashes—all that and that and that.””
CHAPTER NINE: “Improvised destruction.”
“After the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, Curtis LeMay and the Twenty-First Bomber Command ran over the rest of Japan like wild animals. Osaka. Kure. Kobe. Nishinomiya.
LeMay burned down 68.9 percent of Okayama, 85 percent of Tokushima, 99 percent of Toyama—sixty-seven Japanese cities in all over the course of half a year. In the chaos of war, it is impossible to say how many Japanese were killed—maybe half a million. Maybe a million.”
“He [Stilwell] had been taught back at West Point that soldiers fought soldiers and armies fought armies. A warrior of Stilwell’s generation was slow to understand that you could do this, as an American Army officer, if you wanted: you could take out entire cities. And then more. One after another.”
“I wonder if the explanation for Stimson’s blindness isn’t the same as the explanation for Stilwell’s. What LeMay was doing that summer was simply outside his imagination.”
“The historian William Ralph calls LeMay’s summer bombing campaign “improvised destruction””
“But up above, people like Stimson and Stilwell could not—or would not —wrap their minds around what LeMay was doing. They struggled not just with the scale of the destruction LeMay planned and inflicted on Japan that summer but also with the audacity of it. A man, out there in the Marianas, falls in love with napalm, comes up with an improvised solution to get around the weather. And then he just keeps going and going.”
“The ground invasion of Japan—which both the Japanese and American militaries dreaded—never had to happen. In August of 1945, Japan surrendered. This was exactly the outcome LeMay had hoped for that night in March, after he sent his first armada of B-29s to Tokyo. He had sat in his car with St. Clair McKelway and said, “If this raid works the way I think it will, we can shorten this war.” You wage war as ferociously and brutally as possible, and in return, you get a shorter war.”
“Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone—Americans and Japanese—back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible. In 1964, the Japanese government awarded LeMay the highest award their country could give a foreigner, the First-Class Order of Merit of the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun, in appreciation for his help in rebuilding the Japanese Air Force.”
“Somewhere in retirement, Haywood Hansell saw that announcement in the newspaper, and I’m sure he wondered why he didn’t get an award as well for the effort he put toward fighting a war with as few civilian casualties as possible. But we don’t give prizes to people who fail at their given tasks, no matter how noble their intentions, do we? To the victor go the spoils.”
“We can admire Curtis LeMay, respect him, and try to understand his choices. But Hansell is the one we give our hearts to. Why? Because I think he provides us with a model of what it means to be moral in our modern world.
We live in an era when new tools and technologies and innovations emerge every day. But the only way those new technologies serve some higher purpose is if a dedicated band of believers insists that they be used to that purpose.
That is what the Bomber Mafia tried to do—even as their careful plans were lost in the clouds over Europe and blown sideways over the skies of Japan. They persisted, even in the face of technology’s inevitable misdirection, even when abandoning their dream offered a quicker path to victory, even when Satan offered them all the world if only they would renounce their faith.
Without persistence, principles are meaningless. Because one day your dream may come true. And if you cannot keep that dream alive in the interim, then who are you?”
“Curtis LeMay put the bomb-damage photos of Schweinfurt and Regensburg in the foyer of his house because he wanted to remind himself every day of how many of his men were lost in the course of what he considered a fruitless mission.
I would feel better about Curtis LeMay if he had also hung the strike photos from the firebombing of Tokyo—to remind himself, every day, of what was lost in the course of what he considered his most successful mission.
As Biddle says,
Those are really unresolvable questions. I hope I never have to face the circumstances that my grandmother faced having two sons in a war and having to maybe hope for the kinds of things that she was hoping for—devastating attacks on an enemy that would finally make the war end so that her boys could come home. I hope I never have to face that in my lifetime. I’m reluctant to judge the people who feel that way.”
CONCLUSION: “All of a sudden, the Air House would be gone. Poof.”
“There is a set of moral problems that can be resolved only with the application of conscience and will. Those are the hardest kinds of problems. But there are other problems that can be resolved with the application of human ingenuity.
The genius of the Bomber Mafia was to understand that distinction—and to say, We don’t have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better. And they were right.”
“The generals began to talk about the B-2 bomber—the Stealth Bomber—the modern-day Air Force’s equivalent of Curtis LeMay’s B-29. But this time, with the power to come out of nowhere, undetectable.
One general said, “So in essence, [in] Fort Myer, where we’re sitting today: you could take the eighty targets you want, and so from above forty thousand feet without seeing it, without [the bomber’s] being on your radar, those just go away.” I asked whether we would be able to hear the bomber’s approach. The reply: “You don’t. It’s too high. You don’t hear it.”
We would all be sitting in our deck chairs in the backyard, and we would look up, and all of a sudden, the Air House—or maybe even some specific part of the Air House—would be gone. Poof.
High-altitude precision bombing.
Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”
Book Review (Personal Opinion):
This book was great. There’s a lot to learn about aviation and warcraft development and get a facts-based perspective on one of history’s biggest moments. Definitely, this is a book you shouldn’t miss both as inspiration for achieving the impossible and as knowledge about one of the most pivotal moments in world history.
My favorite thing about Bomber Mafia was that it believed this war would be short and intelligent, as only the brightest minds could have imagined. As I was reading the story of how napalm was created and how the war was managed, I was struck by how talented and brave the people involved were.
The book gave me a lot of wisdom, not just on warcraft, but also on the tough choices soldiers and generals have to make.
What I liked was the concise yet colorful way in which the Bomber Mafia member, Maxwell Field, and war episodes are described. The writing is so good you don’t get sucked into a paragraph, yet it’s also detailed enough that you feel like watching a documentary.
This Book Is For:
- Researchers and historians who study air force development
- People who enjoy military stories
- Anybody who values high-quality books about moral values and hard choices
If You Want To Learn More
Malcolm Gladwell Goldsmith his book The Bomber Mafia with the How To Academy.
How I’ve Implemented The Ideas From The Book
In spite of this book’s numerous moral questions and insights about innovation and warfare, it is hard to name any single idea that I can put into practice in my daily life.
This book provides an excellent example of how to align moral values, need for recognition, and duty by finding innovative solutions to problems that seem impossible. As this book shows, even the most inconceivable advances can be made when one believes in them.
One Small Actionable Step You Can Do
The book does not provide a straightforward practical tip in the sense that one can apply it. But when reading the story about Hansell, Le May, and other characters, it is certain that you will lay back several times and ask yourself what you would do if you were in their place.
Taking some time to think about the decisions you might have made and solutions you may have found in the critical situations described in this book will help you better understand your own values. In case you find something you are proud of, own it, if not, find out how you can improve it.
Meta description: Discover how the US Air Force Bombers Mafia changed the course of the WWII and invented precision bombing in an engaging story featuring General Hansell and Curtis Le May.
The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan is a self-help book that focuses on the importance of focusing on one goal at a time. The book focuses on a few essential concepts, such as prioritization, creating goals, and the effectiveness of single-tasking over multitasking, among other things. One of the most important lessons that they teach is that the greatest place to focus is on the one thing that, by putting your attention on it, will make areas in your life either easier or irrelevant. The ONE Thing’s ideas and teachings, when applied, will help you achieve tremendous development in all areas of your life, including your work career, your personal life, your relationships, and your spiritual life.
Book Title: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
Author: Gary Keller, Jay Papasan
Date of Reading: June 2022