#BookReview – Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb

#BookReview – Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb

James M. Scott, Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb. W.W. Norton: New York, NY, 2022. Hbk. 420 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

9781324002994

There will always be an inevitable struggle between popular historians writing for the general public and academic authors whose writing is often aimed at those working in the so-called ‘ivory tower’ of academia. However, the work of academic historians inform that of popular historians whose work reaches a wider audience of readers, some of whom are thus, in turn, inspired to become academics. This was certainly how I became interested in the profession of being a historian. Nevertheless, every so often, an author comes along who is that rarest of creatures: the unicorn, or that rare writer who blends academic credentials and methodology and the ability to spin a readable tale. James Scott is that unicorn with his new book, Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb. Scott, a journalist and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is the author of several best-selling history books, including Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila and Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

The history of America’s strategic bombing during the Second World War has recently been sensationalized with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia (2021). However, Black Snow is, in reality, the Bomber Mafia book you have wanted to read. Indeed, if Gladwell’s book was an appetizer, then this is the main course and dessert. Scott more fully explores the background and motivations of Generals Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay and, given the length of Scott’s work, produces a much more coherent explanation of how and why each man acted in accordance with their desires to end the war. Black Snow, focusing on the experience of Japan’s civilian population on the ground, is also reminiscent of Stephen Bourque’s Beyond the Beach (2018) and Richard Overy’s The Bombers and the Bombed (2014). Each of these volumes provides well-needed reminders of the horrific suffering faced by those on the receiving end of bombings. Moreover, Scott is at his best when describing the situation on the ground from the perspective of the Japanese who lived through the bombing. To achieve that end, Scott interviewed 11 survivors and spent research time at archives in the United States and the Center for the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage, the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, and other institutions in Japan.

39th_Bombardment_Group_B-29_bombing_to_Hiratsuka_19450716
A cockpit view of two 39th Bomb Group B-29s out of North Field (Andersen) on a mission to Hiratsuka, Japan, 16 July 1945. (Source: Wikimedia)

While other books have focused on the strategic bombing campaigns against Japan, such as Herman S. Wolk’s Cataclysm (2010), Barrett Tillman’s Whirlwind (2010), Daniel Schwabe’s Burning Japan (2015), and Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire (1996), few have done as well as Scott has in presenting a comprehensive treatment. Once again, Scott’s focus on those on the ground is where this book truly adds to the conversation and the historical record. While the morality of the bombing of Japan is not the subject of this review, and there is, again, a wide literature on the subject, Scott’s ability to detail and compare the actions of some of Japan’s citizens against those wing commander – and future commander of the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command – Thomas Power is thought-provoking rather one is an expert in the field or coming to this area fresh. Power called the bombing of Japan ‘the greatest show on earth’ (p. 248).

Black Snow is geared towards a wide audience and not for the expert in the field. Given this, one area where the book may be seen to fall down to those with more detailed knowledge of the subject is in the book’s biographies of Generals Henry “Hap” Arnold (pp. 13-9) and LeMay (pp. 97-109). These are slightly overextended to someone who is not approaching the subject for the first time. However, this is really a minor critique.

Overall, Black Snow is a terrific addition to the historiography of the use of air power in the Pacific War of the Second World Ward. As mentioned, the work will appeal to both buffs and scholars alike, and both will find much to engage within these pages. Black Snow is a needed addition to the conversation of what air power can and cannot do, but more importantly, what air power can do when restraints are removed and why the United States must guard against unrestricted aerial warfare in future conflicts.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and is the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. Formerly he was the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021),  Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie. 

Header image: A Boeing B-29A Superfortress of the 6th Bombardment Group on a mission to Osaka, Japan, 1 June 1945. (Source: Wikimedia)