American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War by Patrick Coffey


Preface. These are my notes from “American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War” (2013) by Patrick Coffey . Absolutely horrifying, especially chemical warfare. Here’s the publishers weekly blurb of what this book is about:

“Science historian Coffey surveys the history of American military weapons development since WWI, focusing on the interactions between the military, science, and industry, and politicians in developing key weapons systems. “Scientists and inventors were active participants” in WWI, an entirely new development in conducting warfare. Coffey highlights several major types of weapons, including chemical munitions, bombers and bomb-sights, nuclear warheads, and the M-16 rifle. He also notes challenges to effective weapons development, such as the exaggerated claims made by the Army Air Force in WWII of pickle-barrel accuracy for its bombers; a lack of comprehensive military understanding of science, as was the case in the early development of chemical weapons; inter-service rivalries that impede effectiveness and efficiency while raising costs; and the influence political expediency has on funding. By no means comprehensive, the book deals with only a handful of weapons systems, some of which are notable due to controversies and problems attached to them. Nonetheless, Coffey delivers an interesting book that introduces the general reader to a little-known perspective on military history.”

These excerpts will give you more of an idea, but are just bits and pieces, for a coherent narrative, read the book.

Grim as this book may be, the “bright side” is that post fossil fuels armies won’t be able to cause such harm as the number of airplanes, tanks, and other diesel-fueled vehicles declines. Let’s hope that nuclear weapons disappear though before the worst of the final wars over resources begin.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

[Let’s start out with the most “amusing” part of the book before the grim stuff.  What could possibly go wrong with this plan?]

In January 1942 Adams sent the following idea direction to FDR, which began with “the lowly bat is capable of carrying enough incendiary material to ignite a fire”. His plan was to attach small firebombs to millions of bats and  release them over Japanese cities, where they would roost in every attic. After a suitable delay, the bombs would detonate, igniting all of urban Japan. It was all thought out: bats hibernate during the winter, so they could be easily collected, equipped with bombs, and warmed up just before release. And since bats weigh less than one-half ounce, … which means that approximately 200,000 bats could be transported in just one airplane.

But before this could happen questions needed to be answered: Could an incendiary bomb be made that was small enough for a bat to carry? How could millions of bombs be attached to bats? Could bats be brought in and out of hibernation at will? How would the time-delay fuses work? What would keep them from triggering early and incinerating the bomber carrying the bats? How would two hundred thousand bat firebombs be stored and then dropped? No one asked any questions about the ethics of capturing millions of bats, stapling firebombs to their chests, dropping them from bombers, and incinerating them.

Von Bloeker volunteered to test the load-carrying capability of a bat; to everyone’s surprise, healthy Mexican free-tail bats, which could be found in the millions in Carlsbad Caverns, could each carry fifteen to eighteen grams—more than their own weight—and still fly. That set an upper limit on the weight of the incendiary. Fieser and his team constructed a small, pencil-like napalm bomb with a delayed chemical trigger that could be set by a syringe injection.

The first tests were scheduled for May 1943 at Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles. The goal was to test bats’ load-carrying capacity and the altitude at which they would come out of hibernation. The plan was to capture 3,000 bats at Carlsbad, fly them in a B-25 bomber to Muroc, keep them in a hibernated state in refrigerated trucks overnight, attach dummy bombs to their chests, and drop them at a series of different altitudes the next morning. Fieser’s report of the test: Everything went off on schedule, and shortly after dinner the bomber flew in loaded with kicking, shrieking bats. … The crates were loaded onto the truck and the refrigeration turned on full tilt. But the howling went on without abate for a couple of hours, and it became evident that the refrigeration unit was not adequate to cope with such a large amount of body heat all of a sudden. So we mounted a series of fans in position to blow air in over cakes of ice. Finally, about midnight, the noise ceased; hibernation had been accomplished. … A first batch of bats in hibernation with weights attached was dumped out of the bomber [the next morning] at low altitude. … Other batches were released from higher and higher altitudes. … Eventually it was clear that the bats were not in hibernation but dead. The cooling had been too efficient.

The next test was at a new auxiliary airfield at Carlsbad Army Air Base, much closer to the source of the bats. Because the test was top-secret, even the colonel who commanded the base was banned from the site, and the CWS ran the test behind locked gates. The bats were packed like eggs in specially designed crates, stacked for release by the bomber. It all went like clockwork. After the bats dropped, they came out of hibernation and flew.

If the test had ended then, it would have been a success. The story according to Couffer: Then Fieser said he wanted the photographic record of bat bombs going off in various realistic situations, “with complete verisimilitude,” as he put it. … [H]e also asked the photographers to shoot some pictures of himself with the bats and their attached bombs. … We attached … unarmed capsules of napalm to half a dozen [hibernating] bats for Fieser to have his fun. Fieser [injected] one capsule after another until all the bats were armed. … Once injected, the capsule became a ticking bomb, a firecracker with a short fuse. Then … all the bats simultaneously came to life. “Hey!” I heard Fieser shout. “‘Hey! They’re becoming hyperactive. Somebody! Quick! Bring a net!” By the time I got there with a hand net, Fieser and the two photographers were staring into the sky. … Exactly fifteen minutes after arming, a barracks burst into flames, minutes later the tall tower erupted into a huge candle visible for miles. Offices and hangars followed in order corresponding to the intervals between Fieser’s chemical injections.”38 Because the bat-drop bombing tests had been run with dummy bombs, no one had ordered firefighting equipment. The air base’s commanding colonel, who had been shut out from the tests, saw the smoke and appeared with three fire engines at the field’s padlocked gates, where he was told to go away.

Perhaps from embarrassment at the Carlsbad fiasco, Fieser tried to get the project killed. The AAF had had enough of bats. Nonetheless, the CWS persisted and managed to get the bat bomb transferred to the Navy, where it was renamed Project X-Ray.41 Burning down the airfield at Carlsbad should have been sufficient demonstration of the bat bomb’s effectiveness, but further tests were scheduled for the German-Japanese Village at Dugway.

Although Fieser had at first resisted the bat bomb, in his memoirs he mourned the cancellation of Project X-ray. He imagined a silent night attack on Tokyo, each plane delivering thousands of bats—no explosions to give warning. Four hours later, “bombs in strategic and not easily detectable locations would start popping all over the city at 4 a.m.,

Nuclear War

The idea that a president can direct or control nuclear war is an illusion. First, if it ever comes to that, the president would very likely be dead or incommunicado. Second, the plans for nuclear war are so complex and intertwined that there are very few options—in 1961, there was only one: unleash every American weapon in what Air Force generals called a “Sunday punch.” Most presidents have shown little interest in nuclear strategy (Carter, trained as a nuclear engineer, was the exception).

Months after Kennedy took office, he asked for a demonstration of the “red telephone” from which he was to respond to a Soviet attack. No one could find it—it had been in Eisenhower’s desk drawer, but Jackie Kennedy had swapped desks when she redecorated the White House.  And the military certainly did not believe in civilian micromanagement. LeMay angrily told Assistant Secretary of Defense John Rubel, “Who needs the president if there’s a war? All we need him for is to tell us there is a war. We’re professional soldiers. We’ll take care of the rest.” Before the Cold War’s nuclear standoff, a president had time to remove incompetent, insubordinate, or unstable commanders, as Lincoln and Roosevelt had done earlier.

But a war with the Soviet Union in the 1960s would have lasted only a few hours, and a “Dr. Strangelove” scenario, in which a rogue general launched a nuclear attack, was entirely possible. General Tommy Power, in charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1957 to 1964, was generally seen as the most likely to do so. He gleefully presented SAC’s plans to launch thirty-two hundred warheads to Secretary McNamara; even his superior LeMay called him a sadist, and his subordinate General Horace Wade said of him, “I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force. … SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands and he knew it.”

Inter- and intraservice rivalry is a repeated motif throughout the book. The most egregious cases: the Navy refused to release Norden bombsights, for which it had little use, to the Army Air Forces, who were attempting precision bombing of Germany in World War II; and the Army and the Air Force engaged in a wasteful missile race in the 1950s—not with the Soviet Union, but with each other.

Service traditions have often impeded the replacement of old weapons with new. The Navy hung on to its battleships even after they were shown to be vulnerable to bomber attack, because its battleship tradition went back to John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard. The Air Force, whose generals rose from the ranks of combat pilots, resisted developing missiles because they threatened its bombers, and it still resists unmanned aerial vehicles because they threaten to make pilots obsolete altogether. As a result, weapons can persist long after they have been proven to be useless or obsolete.

Effective weapons demand to be used, even if they are unsupported by doctrine. Napalm is an example. Developed by Harvard chemist Louis Fieser in 1942, it made the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities an option, although attacking civilians was contrary to the Army Air Forces’ precision-bombing doctrine.

Then disaster. From the New York Times, January 16, 1916: “Hydrogen Leak Suspected; Interior of E-2 Wrecked; … Daniels Orders Inquiry.” The E-2 submarine had been rocked by an explosion while it was in dry dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It had been testing the Edison battery. Four men were killed immediately, and another would die a few days later. Ten others were injured. As Hutchison and Edison claimed, the alkaline Edison battery could not emit chlorine. But if a cell of an Edison battery was reversed (that is, after full discharge, it was subjected to an external current in the direction of discharge), the cell’s water would decompose into hydrogen and oxygen—an explosive mixture, especially in the confines of a submarine.

The Navy was not listening to him. Edison later told a reporter, “I made about 45 inventions during the war, all perfectly good ones, and they pigeon-holed every one of them.” He would send an idea to Daniels, Daniels would send it to someone in the Navy, and nothing would happen. Edison could not get the Navy to even explain what was needed. He complained that he was “pulling ideas out of the air” and wrote Daniels, “I am still without adequate information about submarine warfare in actual practice as no one … has given me any data of real value. Until I get some kind of data, I will have to depend on my imagination.” Edison’s greatest contribution was not his inventions but his common-sense analysis. He asked for information about submarine attacks, for example, and when he was told the data had not been compiled, he put his own analysis team together. In November 1917 he sent Daniels and the British Admiralty a report with graphs, charts, and forty-five maps. The conclusions he drew were straightforward. Most German submarine attacks were near French and British ports; if ships operated there only at night, they would be much less vulnerable. German subs also seemed to be lying in wait in prewar shipping lanes and near lighthouses, so those areas should be avoided. Merchant ships should be equipped with radios so that they could call for help from destroyers if attacked. Moreover, merchant ships’ old (and useless) sailing masts could be sighted by enemy subs from a great distance and should be removed. Smokeless anthracite coal should be burned in danger zones in order to reduce visibility, and lookouts should be stationed not on deck but at portholes near the water’s surface, where they could spot a sub’s periscope in profile against the sky. The Navy proved willing to listen to these, perhaps because Edison had given them to the British as well.

Concerning the E-2 explosion, the Navy was right: Hutchison had negligently ordered a procedure—the deep and rapid discharge of 240 battery cells in series, half the submarine’s complement—that was almost certain to emit hydrogen. Hutchison was right too: the Edison battery was safer than the lead-acid battery and not specifically to blame for the explosion, as a lead-acid battery (or any other wet-cell battery) subjected to that procedure would have emitted hydrogen and exploded in the same fashion. But Hutchison and Edison never seemed to understand that the technical cause of the E-2 explosion was immaterial, at least as far as the Navy was concerned. The Navy knew that Edison considered its officers to be ignorant martinets—he said so often enough. And when Hutchison blamed the explosion on the incompetence of the E-2’s captain, the Navy, which prided itself on its traditions and autonomy, closed ranks. Its officers saw Edison as an irrelevant meddler, Hutchison as a snake, and Daniels as a political hack. Edison was perhaps America’s greatest inventor, but he was woefully ignorant of the ways of the military.

The twentieth century would see this sort of misunderstanding repeated many times.

By the time the United States entered World War I, the Europeans had been gassing one another on the battlefield for two years. The American Army had no experience of chemical weapons. It should have worried about defense against gas attacks—training officers and individual soldiers, providing masks and decontamination gear, and familiarizing its medical staff with treatment of gas casualties—but it did not, and American soldiers would suffer as a result. Rather than concentrate on defense, the Army began a crash program to develop its own poison gas, a secret weapon that would force Kaiser Bill to his knees.

Gas was a horror, beginning with the first attack at Ypres in April 1915, when the Germans released chlorine gas from six thousand cylinders. When chlorine comes into contact with unprotected human tissue, it reacts immediately, burning the skin or the eyes if the exposure is prolonged or concentrated. When chlorine is inhaled, it corrodes the lungs, which fill with fluid. There is no antidote to chlorine poisoning—with moderate exposure, the body may heal itself, but if the exposure is severe, the victim drowns in his own fluid. One soldier described it as “an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these—a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife-edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The color of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the color protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.”

Haber took charge of the German poison gas effort and developed gases that were even more lethal. Phosgene, sixteen times as deadly as the same amount of chlorine, was first used by the Germans and then quickly deployed by both sides. About the time that America entered the war in 1917, Haber developed dichlorodiethylsulfide, which was to become known as “mustard gas” because of its slight mustard-like odor. Unlike chlorine and phosgene, which had their principal effects upon the lungs, mustard was a blistering agent that caused skin burns, blindness, and internal and external bleeding. Soldiers often took four to five weeks to recover or die, putting a further load on the enemy’s medical services, and the pain was so bad that soldiers had to be strapped to their beds. Here was a far more terrifying weapon than chlorine. Because mustard attacked the skin, soldiers had to cover every inch of the body in a poncho during an attack. And mustard had another advantage—whereas phosgene and chlorine dissipated quickly, mustard was actually not a gas but a liquid that was sprayed as an aerosol. It was persistent, poisoning grass, plants, and the earth for days. It could be used to deny territory to the enemy, to support the flanks in an infantry advance, and to cover a retreat. Mustard was by far the most deadly agent used in the Great War.

The gas mask, especially the heavy British single-box respirator, was one more burden for the soldier to carry into battle. Soldiers in the trenches found themselves constantly sniffing for gas, and a soldier in a gas mask, even if it was functioning, was half blinded, unable to aim properly or to see peripherally.

Haber believed that chemical weapons were a natural stage in the evolution of warfare. Advances in the technology of artillery and machine guns had led armies to burrow into trenches; the next step was to develop chemical weapons, which would make those trenches uninhabitable.

Haber believed that gas was of greatest advantage to the most industrialized nations—the Germans were best at it, the British better than the French, and the Russians hopeless. He saw conventional warfare as a game like checkers, but gas warfare like chess—gas shells might contain two or even three agents, and that forced the combatant armies to develop a new gas mask filter to block each new combination.

While the French and British deplored the Germans’ gas attacks in their propaganda, they were vague about the effects of gas because they did not want to scare the Americans off. By the spring of 1917, the Allies imposed a total news blackout on gas warfare because, in the words of the British assistant secretary of war, it might result in an “unreasonable dread of gases on the part of the American nation and its soldiers.

The majority of the United States troops entered the European fight during and after the German spring offensive of 1918. The Germans had a field day gassing the green American soldiers, whose casualty rate was extremely high.

More than a year after the United States’ declaration of war, the American Expeditionary Force at last required that gas officers be assigned to each unit.

While mustard gas had proven to be an extremely effective blistering agent, it was considered too persistent to be used on the offensive—it hung around so long that it would poison the attacker’s own troops as they moved into territory that the enemy had abandoned. It had another disadvantage: its physiological action is delayed for hours, like a particularly hellish poison ivy, so enemy troops were often not immediately aware they had been gassed and would continue fighting. Captain Lewis was asked to find a poison gas that would outdo mustard, one that was “(1) effective in small concentrations; (2) difficult to protect against; (3) capable of injuring all parts of the body; (4) easily manufactured in large quantities; (5) cheap to produce; (6) composed of raw materials that were readily available in the United States; (7) easy and safe to transport; (8) stable and hard to detect; and, most importantly, (9) deadly.

A colleague suggested that Lewis take a look at Father Nieuwland’s doctoral dissertation, in which the chemist-priest had described combining arsenic trichloride and acetylene. The result had made him deathly ill. When Lewis repeated Nieuwland’s experiment, he found that the results matched his goal—immediately painful, more toxic than mustard, and less persistent than mustard because it decomposed in water.

Conant had continued in Harvard’s graduate program and received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1917, just as the United States entered the war. He and two chemist friends could see that many organic chemicals were selling at very high prices because of the war. They decided to manufacture benzoic acid, but they found that producing chemicals in large batches was not the same thing as working in laboratory flasks: they burned down one building and used the insurance settlement to move the business to a second. When Roger Adams, an instructor in organic chemistry at Harvard, moved to the University of Illinois, Harvard offered Conant the open faculty position.* He accepted, and the move to Harvard was timely, as the benzoic acid business ended in catastrophe with a second fire two months later.

The government had difficulty convincing chemical companies to produce poison gases. The work was dangerous, and the only customer—the government—would immediately discontinue purchases whenever the war ended.

In the spring of 1918, the Army pushed to take control of all chemical warfare operations, including research and production within the United States. On June 28, President Wilson established the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS). Although Gen. Pershing had earlier removed Gen. William Sibert from command of the 1st Infantry Division before it was deployed in combat, he recommended him to command the CWS, with Gen. Amos Fries reporting to him and running things in France. Because Lewisite was to be America’s secret weapon, it was not produced at Edgewood but assigned its own production site in Willoughby, Ohio, about thirty miles from Cleveland. The similarities between Willoughby in World War I and Los Alamos in World War II are striking: Willoughby was called “the mousetrap,” because soldiers could get in but not out—no one assigned to Willoughby was transferred until after the armistice, and soldiers were told they would be court-martialed if they revealed what was being manufactured or even where they were stationed.

Gas had not broken the deadlock of trench warfare, and against a properly trained force equipped with masks and skin protection, it was not a wonder weapon. For all the war’s combatants, less than 5 percent of casualties were due to gas. For all but the Russians, who never developed a satisfactory mask, less than 5 percent of the gas casualties were fatal.

Douhet proposed a grand thesis, that airpower in future wars would take the battle beyond the trenches, destroying the enemy’s industrial base and with it the will to resist. The bomber and biological or chemical weapons would complement each other: “One need only imagine what power of destruction that nation would possess whose bacteriologists should discover the means of spreading epidemics in the enemy’s county”.  Douhet was not the only one with plans to combine chemical weapons and airplanes; shortly after the war’s end, the New York Times quoted an unidentified American military source: “Ten airplanes carrying ‘Lewisite’ would have wiped out … every vestige of life—animal and vegetable—in Berlin.”16 Mitchell had planned an assault using incendiary bombs and poison gas on the interior of Germany for 1919. But because the first American night bombers did not arrive at the front before the armistice, his ideas remained untested.

Douhet argued that the object of war was not to defeat the enemy’s army but to destroy the enemy’s will and ability to resist, and that this could best be done by striking behind the front. He saw the airplane as the ultimate offensive weapon; it could soar over the trenches and attack anywhere with great rapidity.

Bombing would win a war, the school taught, not by directly attacking enemy forces but by destroying the enemy’s ability and will to resist. Because a modern society was so complex, removing a few key components of its industrial web—rubber, oil, transportation hubs, steel mills, chemical plants, ballbearing factories—would result in a breakdown of industrial production, an inability to supply troops, and a collapse of civilian and military morale.

The ACTS argument that bombing could win a war was almost entirely theoretical, and events in World War II in Europe would prove it wrong; Britain would survive the Blitz, Germany would maintain war production while under intense and sustained bombing attack, and the Soviet Union would reorganize its economy after abandoning its European industrial base and retreating thousands of miles. In none of these countries did a collapse of either the industrial web or of civilian morale force a surrender or even negotiation.

The ACTS’s precision-bombing doctrine was based on unfounded assumptions, and it ignored problems. First, precision bombing would require visual sighting of targets and would need to be conducted during daytime. But in daylight, bombers would be more vulnerable to enemy fighters. Long-range escort fighters capable of matching the bombers’ range were not seen as technologically feasible, and the Air Corps leadership saw no possibility of getting Congress to simultaneously fund both new bombers and new fighters. So the problem was simply denied: the ACTS assumed that armed bombers flying in tight formation would be able to defend themselves against enemy fighters. Second, daylight precision bombing would require clear weather for targets to be identified. In fact, cloud cover in Europe could last for weeks, as would be seen during World War II. Third, at low altitude, bombers would be vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire. The ACTS solution was to bomb from high altitude. That would admittedly make precision bombing more difficult, but the ACTS instructors assumed that this was a technological problem that could be solved—that an accurate bombsight capable of correcting for aircraft instability, headwinds, tailwinds, and crosswinds—would be developed. Fourth, a long-range, high-altitude, high-payload bomber with multiple defensive guns would be required. The Air Corps assumed that it would eventually get such a plane, although it was unlikely that the War Department or Congress would approve purchase even if one were offered, as it did not fit either of the Air Corps’ defined missions of coastal defense and combat support.27

Between 1936 and 1940, in clear weather, the Air Corps dropped 115,000 practice bombs from an altitude of fifteen thousand feet. After arbitrarily excluding misses of more than a thousand feet, the average miss was still well over three hundred feet.5 The Air Corps’ answer was more bombers dropping more bombs—if one bomber could not hit the target, perhaps forty could. Hap Arnold, in charge of the Air Corps’ combat arm, organized his teams into forty-plane formations that would drop their bombs simultaneously. Accuracy improved, but not by enough. One of the founders of the strategic bombing doctrine, Laurence Kuter, began to lose faith. He calculated that destroying the Sault Ste. Marie locks, one of his Air Corps Tactical School textbook examples, would require 120 bombers and a thousand bombs, which would yield the nine hits that would do the job.

Conant asked Fieser to look into explosions that had damaged a DuPont plant that manufactured divinylacetylene, a chemical used in coatings and in the manufacture of neoprene rubber; if the stuff could blow up a chemical plant, there might be a military use for it. Fieser enlisted E. B. Hershberg, a member of his research group who was a reserve Army officer in the CWS. The two of them poked at different batches of divinylacetylene as it dried, and they watched the batches turn from liquids to gels. At the end of each day, they burned the gels and watched them spark and sputter. Even as they burned, however, the gels did not turn liquid but stayed sticky and viscous. This suggested that a bomb composed of the material might scatter globs of burning gel. Hershberg filled tin cans with black powder and divinylacetylene and set them off in deserted areas in the nearby town of Everett. The results, he reported, were promising.7

CWS’s official history notes that “supplies of M-69 bombs were becoming available in 1943, when the AAF was giving thought to the strategic bombing of Japan. … What was the best incendiary for the new mission?” That question was answered by experiment, by simulating Japanese (and German) housing as closely as possible. At Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, the NDRC employed Standard Oil Development as the principal contractor in the construction of a “German-Japanese Village” that was repeatedly bombed, burned, and rebuilt.22 Nothing was overlooked in the village’s design. Brick, wood, and tile structures were outfitted with authentic furniture, bedspreads, rugs, draperies, children’s toys, and clothing hanging in closets.

Standard Oil built two types of Japanese roofs as well—tile-on-sheathing and sheet-metal-on-sheathing. To ignite Japanese homes, the tatami mat—the rice-straw mat that was used in flooring nearly every Japanese home—would be key. Ideally, a bomb that had punctured the roof would stop on the mat. If the bomb went through the floor and embedded itself in the earth, a fire would be less likely than if it sprayed burning gel across the tatami, which would yield impressive results: the mat, the paper-and-wood walls, and the futon and zabuton cushions would all quickly ignite. Standard Oil acquired authentic rice-straw tatami mats from Hawaii and the West Coast.

From May through September 1943, four different incendiary bombs were tested on the German-Japanese Village. The napalm-filled M-69 proved most successful.

Everyone involved in the design, the construction, and the repeated destruction and reconstruction of the German-Japanese Village knew exactly what he was doing, and yet no one expressed ethical objections. Euphemisms such as “de-housing” could not disguise what was being done at great expense and effort. The CWS, with the direct support of the AAF, designed and tested a very effective weapon to do precisely what AAF doctrine precluded: to burn civilians in their homes.


Fifteen square miles of Tokyo disappeared that night, and more civilians died in Tokyo than would perish in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki a few months later. The Tokyo bombing of March 9–10, 1945, remains the most devastating air raid in history.

The center of the attack hit the Tokyo flatlands, where the Sumida River passed through thousands of wooden workers’ houses. “Around midnight,” Guillain wrote, “the first Superfortresses dropped clusters of the incendiary cylinders the people called ‘Molotov flower baskets.’” These were cluster bombs dispersing M-69 bomblets filled with napalm, and large fires immediately erupted. “The planes that followed, flying lower, circled and criss-crossed the area, leaving great rings of fire behind them. Soon other waves came in to drop their incendiaries inside the ‘marker’ circles. Hell could be no hotter.” The high winds made fighting the fires impossible when a house could be hit by ten or even more of the M-69s, which “were raining down by the thousands.” As they fell, Guillain noted, the cylinders scattered “a kind of flaming dew that skittered along the roofs, setting fire to everything it splashed.” The “flaming dew,” of course, was napalm. Almost immediately the houses, which were made of wood and paper, caught fire, “lighted from inside like paper lanterns.” The results were nightmarish: The hurricane-force winds puffed up great clots of flame and sent burning planks planing through the air to fell people and set fire to what they touched. … In the dense smoke, where the wind was so hot it seared the lungs, people struggled, then burst into flames where they stood. … [I]t was often the refugees’ feet that began burning first: the men’s puttees and the women’s trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing. Proper air-raid clothing as recommended by the government consisted of a heavily padded hood … to protect people’s ears from bomb blasts. … The hoods flamed under the rain of sparks; people who did not burn from the feet up burned from the head down. Mothers who carried their babies on their backs, Japanese style, would discover too late that the padding that enveloped the infant had caught fire. … Wherever there was a canal, people hurled themselves into the water; in shallow places, people waited, mouths just above the surface of the water. Hundreds of them were later found dead; not drowned, but asphyxiated by the burning air and smoke. … In other places, the water got so hot that the luckless bathers were simply boiled alive.

Curtis LeMay, whom we have seen as the Eighth Air Force’s most successful commander in Europe, planned and directed the Tokyo attack.

“Drafts from the Tokyo fires bounced our airplanes into the sky like ping-pong balls,” LeMay later wrote. “According to the Tokyo fire chief, the situation was out of control within minutes. It was like an explosive forest fire in dry pine woods. The racing flames engulfed ninety-five fire engines and killed one hundred and twenty-five firemen. … About one-fourth of the city went up in smoke that night anyway. More than267,000 buildings.” He quoted the Air Force history of the war, and he italicized the quote: “No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property.

On March 13, Osaka; March 16, Kobe; March 18, Nagoya again. Five raids in nine days, 32 square miles destroyed in Japan’s four most populous cities—41% of the area the AAF destroyed in all of Germany during the entire war, and at a total cost of only 22 B-29s and their crews.  LeMay quit there, at least for a time—he had run out of napalm.

The idea of destroying Japan with incendiaries was not invented by Curtis LeMay or by Hap Arnold. It had many fathers. Gen. Billy Mitchell had suggested the possibility of burning Japan’s “paper and wood” cities as early as 1924. In November 1941, George Marshall threatened to “set the paper cities of Japan on fire” if war came. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Churchill recommended “the burning of Japanese cities with incendiary bombs.” President Roosevelt saw in the RAF’s 1943 destruction of Hamburg in an incendiary firestorm “an impressive demonstration” of what might be done to Japan. For the Americans, however, it was important that bombing civilians have the appearance of bombing military targets. A May 1943 request for a bombing plan noted, “It is desired that the areas selected include, or be in the immediate vicinity of, legitimate military targets.

Vannevar Bush recommended that incendiaries be used against Japan, sending Arnold a report in October 1944 that estimated that they were five times as effective as high explosives by weight. Bush did say that switching to incendiaries would require a decision at a high level, but this did not bother Arnold, who already knew that he had the president’s backing. Arnold kept both Marshall and the president informed about firebombing. While they might not explicitly endorse his actions, they did not raise objections.

Even the atomic bomb did not end the incendiary attacks, which continued between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then after Nagasaki until the Japanese surrender. The AAF wanted to win its independence by defeating Japan without a land invasion (a hope that was “not for public consumption,” as LeMay wrote to Arnold and Norstad),41 but it had no plans beyond running its bombing machine, which worked so smoothly that it had its own momentum.

The AAF exulted in the destruction. One press release crowed that a “fiery perfection” of “jellied fire attacks” had “literally burned Japan out of the war,” that the “vaunted Twentieth” had “killed outright 310,000 Japanese, injured 412,000 more, and rendered 9,200,000 homeless.” For “five flaming months … a thousand All-American planes and 20,000 American men brought homelessness, terror, and death to an arrogant foe, and left him practically a nomad in an almost cityless land.” In his final war dispatch, Arnold found a way to make Americans feel the terror of firebombing. He included a map of Japan, with the name of each of the sixty-six firebombed cities paired with the name of an American city of the same size.‡ So much for Roosevelt’s prewar condemnation that bombing civilians “sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman.”

FDR did not fund the Briggs Committee, so his scientific adviser Vannevar Bush had the Carnegie Foundation, of which he was director, provide funding for the first few months. Briggs eventually scrounged up enough money from the Naval Research Laboratory to buy Szilard and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi some uranium and graphite, and he then waited for further direction from the president, which was not forthcoming. Sachs, Szilard, and Einstein pressed for action, but there seemed to be no urgency. The United States was not yet at war, and many scientists viewed the whole idea of atomic energy as a pipe dream. The required critical mass of uranium-235 might be tons, and other priorities—a peacetime draft, bombers and their bombsights, Navy ships, radar—were more pressing.

With the fall of France in June 1940, defense work acquired a new urgency for Roosevelt, and Vannevar Bush convinced the president to centralize weapons research and development. Roosevelt authorized formation of the National Defense Research Committee, with Bush at its head and the Briggs Uranium Committee reporting to him. Bush recruited Harvard’s president, James Conant, as an NDRC member and put him in charge of all chemical projects, including explosives and poison gas. The Briggs Committee was getting a bad reputation. Karl Compton, the president of MIT and an NDRC member, sent Bush a letter complaining of Briggs’s incompetence in managing atomic research, pointing out that “our English friends are apparently farther ahead than we are, despite the fact that we have the most in number and the best in quality of the nuclear physicists in the world.” He complained that the Briggs Committee “practically never meets.”6 Bush convened a National Academy of Sciences panel to consider Briggs’s fate. When the panel learned that the British thought they might have a bomb in two years, it recommended “that it would be advisable to have [the Briggs Committee] reconstituted so that a man of action would be the main executive.

Americans extracted as much information as possible from the British. When Roosevelt gave the order to proceed with development of the bomb in March 1942, the Manhattan Project was born. The Americans had more money, engineering resources, and émigré scientists than did the British and soon took the lead. Bush, Conant, and Gen. Leslie Groves, the Project’s military director, imposed a policy of “restricted interchange,” refusing to give the British scientists any information that would not contribute to developing a weapon during the current war. Security considerations were certainly important in that decision, but both sides also had their eyes on the postwar strategic balance and on the profits to be made from nuclear energy. British scientists and administrators pressed Churchill to demand full information sharing, and Churchill duly pressed Roosevelt. More than a year later, in August 1943, the two leaders signed what would be known as the “Quebec Agreement”: the two nations would pool their resources, and information would be freely exchanged among scientists working in the same field.9 (This free exchange would eventually allow the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British team, access to Los Alamos.)

When the Germans were advancing, from 1940 to1942, they had no interest in gas because it would have slowed them down. From 1943 on, their cities were vulnerable to aerial gas attacks, especially after the Normandy invasion, when the Allies had air superiority. And near the end of the war in Europe, when Hitler might have been willing to use his secret nerve gases in scorched-earth revenge warfare, confusion and the interference of subordinates would have made gas attacks difficult to organize.

Roosevelt deserves much of the credit for the worldwide forbearance. Both he and his predecessor Herbert Hoover detested gas. When Congress passed a bill in 1937 promoting the Chemical Warfare Service to a Corps—with the same status as the infantry or artillery—FDR vetoed it, saying, “It has been and is the policy of this Government to do everything in its power to outlaw the use of chemicals in warfare. Such use is inhuman. … I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished.”1 He maintained that attitude throughout the war, threatening retaliation against any enemy’s first use. And he kept Churchill, who several times considered using gas, on a short leash.

Gen. Robert Travis, the commander of the nuclear mission to Guam, rode as a passenger on one of the B-29s. Takeoff conditions were ideal, with the wind almost directly head-on at seventeen knots. The pilot ran a full power check and released the brakes for takeoff. Just as he lifted off, his number two engine failed, and he feathered its propeller. Then the landing gear failed to retract, and when he tried to make a 180-degree turn, he could not keep the left wing up. He slid the plane to the left to avoid a trailer court and crash-landed, left wing down, at 120 mph. The crew escaped with minor injuries, but twelve passengers, including Gen. Travis, were killed. Twenty minutes after the crash, the chemical high explosives in the atomic bomb detonated, scattering tamper uranium, killing seven more and injuring 173 others. Only nine atomic bombs arrived in Guam.

Truman and Secretary of Defense Johnson had slashed the pre–Korean War defense budget under the assumption that possessing the atomic bomb would allow the United States to wage war on the cheap. Throughout the Korean War, both the military and the president had considered use of the bomb but had never found the right moment. Oppenheimer summed it up: “Are [atomic bombs] useful in ground combat? … What can we do with them?”26 Truman had his own ideas, which the Joint Chiefs or even LeMay would have been unlikely to approve. In his diary, Truman imagined giving the Soviet Union a ten-day ultimatum: either withdraw all Chinese troops from Korea or America would use its atomic weapons to destroy every military base in Manchuria, including any ports and cities.



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2 Responses to American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War by Patrick Coffey

  1. Bert Lustig says:

    Hi Alice,
    Really appreciate your hard work on It’s incredible to me how much material you wade through and publish.

    Just one note: I find it hard to differentiate your comments from the body of the quoted text.

    I’m sure you have already seen this:
    As a person living in West Virginia (eastern panhandle not directly effected by fracking, so far) and on the earth, I found this report very disconcerting. I hoped the fracking bubble would pop before they could do any more damage, but it looks like they are multiplying their destructive power and will continue until the finance money stops flowing.
    Keep up the good work,
    Bert Lustig

    • energyskeptic says:

      I agree. Any suggestions? My husband told me I need to start my comments out with Preface, and indicate the start of the article with ***. I keep interjecting my ideas for analysis, history, and larger perspective. I’ve tried to put them within [xxxx] and italics, and lately “I think” or believe, etc., but this a shortcoming, I agree

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