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Tokyo bombing

The deadliest raid in history

LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Americans usually skip over the ugly birth of napalm, says Malcom Gladwell in this four-part Revisionist History podcast (episodes 4-7). Harvard barely acknowledges that the invention happened in one of its own basement laboratories. In May the Best Firebomb Win (episode 5), we learn of the sticky gels, “mad scientists” and desert “bake-off” that created one of the world’s worst “wonder weapons”.

But the man who unleashed napalm on 66 cities in Japan, General Curtis LeMay, wasn’t squeamish. A problem-solver and “progressive, skilled warmonger”, he vowed to bring Japan to its knees from the air – but left Hiroshima and Nagasaki to others. On 9 March, 1945, 334 B-29 bombers approached Tokyo laden with 1,665 tons of the superweapon.

In six hours, more people lost their lives by fire “than at any time in the history of man”. It looked like “the mouth of hell”. A firestorm hundreds of blocks long, visible 150 miles away, burnt with such intensity and duration that “it created and sustained its own wind system”. More than 100,000 people died, not just by incineration, but because the incredible heat sucked the oxygen from the air. By the end of the summer, LeMay’s firebombing campaign had killed half a million Japanese. At Hiroshima the atomic bomb killed about 80,000 people and at Nagasaki there were 45,000 fatalities.

The B-29s flew at 5,000ft, “so low that the smell of burning flesh permeated the aircraft”. In a candid moment, LeMay told one of his subordinates: “If we lose this war, we’ll be tried as war criminals.” But Japan surrendered unconditionally and LeMay became JFK’s chief of staff in 1961 – and was lauded as one of the most distinguished combat commanders of World War Two. History, says Gladwell, is truly written by the victors.

Listen to the episodes here.