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.
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.”