Review of WHIRLWIND: THE AIR WAR AGAINST JAPAN 1942-1945


Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barrett Tillman’s study of the Air War against Japan is a remarkably fresh and interesting history. Tillman takes the reader from roughly the time of Midway to literally the last day of the Pacific War against Japan. The focus is primarily the aviation war against the Japanese Empire, primarily conducted by the Americans, and the steps taken to position America to invade the home islands of Japan. This is a story with many anecdotes and avenues, but it is primarily a tale of the development of the B-29 Superfortress, its rush to maximized production, fielding and introduction as a combat arm, all the while in conditions that seem monumentally challenging in retrospect. America’s need for a extremely long ranged aircraft that could handle a very heavy payload led to the development of the B-29, Deployment first in China, then in the island hopping campaing in the Marianas (to establish a forward base for bombing Japan’s home territories). Tillman illustrates that there were many considerations and personalities in play in the Pacific War, from the ascerbic, political Hap Arnold to the daredevil Jimmy Doolittle to the cooly analytical Curtis LeMay. Tillman (quite rightly) dwells heavily on the personalities involved, taking time to break up the straight historical narrative by zeroing in on a less luminary personality (such as an individual pilot or other crew member) at the end of most chapters in WHIRLWIND. Barrett does give the naval aviators and allied RAF their due towards the end of the book, but that is in keeping with the focus of the book, which is firmly on the bombing activities of the Japanese home islands leading up to the aborted invasion. There are a few voices that are not heard in any great detail, such as the view of the Japanese pilots and aviation crews themselves. Someday someone will write the definitive history of the Air War from the Japanese point of view, but that is not this book– the Japanese are mentioned in very broad brush terms compared to the Americans, with the occassional anecdote livening up the narrative. With all that there’s no doubt that I learned some new things from reading WHIRLWIND. For one thing, the book challenges the assumption I had in the back of my mind that the B-29 flew serenely over Japan at high altitudes and was rarely challenged by Japanese air crews (quite the opposite in both counts). Tillman doesn’t pull any punches, showing both sides of the equation of some pretty controversial subjects, such as the low level precision firebombing of Japan, and the use of the atomic bombs. Tillman does not lionize his subjects; he depicts all of the participants (low and high ranked) as individuals and paints his picture warts and all. I found WHIRLWIND to be a good (not great) history of a subject I had been suprisingly ignorant of prior to reading it. Recommended for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs.

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