The Japanese mainland was immune to air attack
in the two and a half years after the Doolittle Raid
of April 1942. But the U.S. 20th Air Force began
operating from India and China in mid-1944,
striking Kyushu factories in November. Logistics,
however, forced the B- 29 command to relocate in
the Marianas, where Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay began
expanding the most capable bombing force on
European-style high-altitude bombing was
ineffective over Japan, where the jet stream played
havoc with accuracy. Thus, in early 1945, LeMay
shifted tactics and threw away The Book. On the
night of March 9–10, he sent more than 300 Boeings
against Tokyo at low level, dropping incendiaries
rather than high explosives. The results were
astonishing: Overnight, one-sixth of the capital was
razed, with at least 85,000 people killed.
Fire raids continued, searing Nagoya, Yokohama,
and other production centers. Japan was burning to
the ground almost nightly, but the doom-laden war
cabinet refused to consider surrender.
By then, carriers had returned to Empire waters,
beginning a series of strikes in February and
continuing through summer. The once-mighty
Imperial Navy lay largely fuelless in harbor, where it
was pounded into the mud of Kure and other ports.
Then came August.
On the 6th, one B- 29 dropped one bomb on
the port city of Hiroshima and destroyed it in
milliseconds. The Enola Gay turned for Tinian,
leaving a looming radioactive mushroom cloud.
The atomic age had arrived.
Still, Japan refused the Allied demand for
surrender. Thus, on the 9th, Bockscar destroyed
Nagasaki. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves of the
Manhattan Project had predicted that two
A-bombs would be necessary, and he proved
prescient. On the 15th, the emperor broke
tradition and personally intervened, overriding
his hard-line cabinet.
Airpower had won its ultimate victory in the
last battle of the world’s greatest war.
In the 20 months between Santa Cruz and
Saipan, the character of the Pacific War had
completely shifted. The Imperial Navy declined
a fleet engagement until June 1944 when the
Fifth Fleet set its sights on the Mariana Islands.
Sitting 1,500 miles south of Tokyo, Saipan,
Guam, and Tinian could host an armada of B-29s
within reach of Japan’s major urban industrial
areas. There was no choice but to oppose the
A two-day battle began on June 19, when nine
Japanese carriers threw seven attacks against
America’s 15. The results were so lopsided that
the clash was immediately dubbed “the Great
Marianas Turkey Shoot.” More than 300 Imperial
Navy planes were destroyed, and two carriers
were sunk by U.S. submarines.
The next evening, scouts of Task Force 58
found the retreating Mobile Fleet at extreme
range. Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher lofted 220 planes
on a 300-mile strike, knowing they would recover
in darkness. Avengers sank another carrier, then
the Americans turned eastward in a moonless sky.
Short on fuel, probing the darkness, they were
welcomed by searchlights from every task group.
Losses were heavy due to ditchings and flight-
deck crashes, but Japan was finished as a carrier
power. When Tokyo’s flattops deployed for the
last time at Leyte Gulf four months later, they
were sacrificial decoys.
Thus, airpower was the reason for seizing the
Marianas. Carrier planes enabled the amphibious
troops to work unmolested, and B-29s benefited
from their combined effort. Next target: Tokyo.
Lt. “Ike” Kepford, top ace of
VF- 17 “Jolly Rogers,” flies his
F4U-1A #29 off the coast of
Bougainville, New Guinea, in
March 1944. (Photo courtesy
of Jack Cook)
The view off the fantail
of the Princeton must
have depressed Japanese
commanders: Four carriers
stretch to the horizon with
many more in the area of the
home islands. The end was
in sight. (Photo courtesy of