The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

It’s amazing to note how one small, somewhat insignificant event can have the power to change the course of history.

That’s the case when a change in command of a U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) bomber group happened on the island of Guam in the Marianas in January of 1945, when General Curtis LeMay took over from General Haywood Hansell. These were two commanders with two different approaches when it came to the air war against Japan. However, this change in command, which on the surface looked insignificant, actually changed the tide for the remainder of the war; not only how it was waged in the air, but how it led to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which prompted the unconditional surrender of Japan eight months later and subsequently, the end of World War II.

The Bomber Mafia
The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, $34)

For his latest book, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell took a page from his “Revisionist History” podcast and offers readers a fascinating gem of hidden history with The Bomber Mafia.

The book had its roots as an episode from this podcast, as Gladwell masterfully puts together a series of diverse narratives and people whose common goal was to wage a more humane, accurate air war through new innovations and practices, and turns them into a logical, cohesive story.

The dramatis personae of this book begins with Carl L. Norden, a Dutch scientist who invented the 55-pound bombsight device that was used by the USAAF during the war so bombers could drop their deadly payload with accuracy (with Norden’s rather odd goal of enabling a bombardier to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from six miles up). Then there’s the actual “Bomber Mafia”, a group of high-ranking USAAF officers who steadfastly believed in the concept of precision bombing that would target the enemy’s supply chain, and contribute towards a quick end to the war (but failed miserably during an air raid on a ball bearings factory in Schweinfurt, Germany). And there’s two college professors – Louis Fieser from Harvard and Hoyt Hottel from MIT – whose respective experiments in creating a highly flammable oil-based product led to the creation of napalm, which was used by USAAF bombers on March 9 and 10, 1945 to literally burn Tokyo to the ground (and was used to a much wider, yet deadlier, effect during the Vietnam War). And finally there’s LeMay and Hansell, whose approaches to bombing enemy targets were quite diverse. Hansell believed in the precision bombing method – which was constantly bitten by bad luck since he took command – and LeMay was a fan of the more devastating scorched earth method, which was why he used napalm during the March raid on Tokyo (by the way, it was LeMay who piloted the B-29 bomber “Enola Gay” when it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945).

Gladwell’s penchant for the lesser known details of history that had a quiet impact on its outcome is quite prevalent when you read The Bomber Mafia (especially when he details his visit to the much ignored museum in Tokyo called the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage). In fact, this book is a shining example of hidden history. It shows how a bunch of tiny fabrics that on the surface can have little or no significance at all, can be painstakingly woven together and its end result play a major part of the overall tapestry; in this case, the fabrics are the people and events that make up the once overlooked contribution of the air war, and the large-scale tapestry is World War II. It kind of reminds me of Victory Through Air Power, Major Alexander P. de Seversky’s 1942 book that explained his theories of aviation and long-range bombing that could be key to an Allied victory, which was adapted as a vital animated feature-length documentary by the Walt Disney Studios a year later, and played just as an important role in the Allies’ long road to victory in the air war against Germany and Japan.

This book offers an important lesson on not turning your back to history’s little events, for they possess just as much importance to its outcome on a grander scale. That concept is served rather symbolically in the book’s final two sentences: “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman –

Other articles from

Montreal’s Italian week becomes italfestMTL

Montreal's best pizza slice

Montreal’s best pizza slice

Is it possible to get an A for a 5-paragraph essay assignment in 1 hour? We can safely say yes, a student can get an A+ mark if he turns to EduJungles

Bathroom renovation

What is the real cost of a bathroom renovation using tiles?

Since they are the most used rooms in a house, bathrooms require regular maintenance and, at times, a complete bathroom remodel. According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, your budget for a bathroom remodel should be about 5% to 10% of the cost of your home’s value. If you are thinking of a bathroom

Ontario online gambling

Ontario online gambling sector reaps whopping $124M revenue in Q1

The global online gambling industry is one that has gone from strength to strength over the course of the last few years. Driven by improvements in technology which have served to strengthen the quality of gaming platforms as well as better security protocols that have helped gamblers feel more secure when making large monetary transactions

casino movies

Top Casino-Based movies to watch on Netflix

Casinos are one of the most exciting places which offer unlimited fun, exciting games, and unforgettable experiences. This long-practiced culture is depicted well in some of the films. With the rise in online casinos, the thrill has increased much more. For example, you can explore top online casinos in Quebec and play comfortably at home.

Favourite casino games

6 Favourite casino games among Canadians

In case you’ve recently become interested in playing casino games, you might not be sure where to start. How about looking at the people around to see what they are opting for? Here are the most popular games in Canada. The popularity of casinos in Canada With each province and territory of Canada having the

Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The world lays to rest her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Today, Queen Elizabeth II will be laid to rest. There will be pageantry and ceremony, and the faith that so defined how she approached her life. But more than that, there will be so many people. Her Majesty loved meeting people and hearing their stories. They, in return, loved her. For 70 years, she was

rents in Canada

Average rents in Canada up as much as 26.5%

The national average rent for all property types on increased 11.1 per cent year over year in August and rose 16.8 per cent since the recent low of $1,676 per month in April of last year. The average listing on is nearly $200 more expensive than a year ago. Average rent increased more than 20 per cent

Mtltimes Subscription

The latest on what’s moving Montreal and the world – delivered straight to your inbox