Many claimed credit for the unprecedented and dramatic switch to low-level bombing, but LeMay made it happen. On the night of March 9-10, 1945, LeMay changed everything by ordering crews to leave guns and ammunition behind, forget about high altitude, and make their bomb runs between 5,500 and 9,000 feet. The U.S. military had pondered using firebombs against Japan – a nation of buildings made of wood and paper – for years, and was already dropping some incendiaries from great heights.
What was new about the great Tokyo mission was not the choice of weapon – fire – but the decision to approach and bomb at low level while leaving guns behind. This was supposed to enable B-29s to carry more fuel and bombs, but many crews ignored LeMay’s order and went to Tokyo that night fully armed. They were certain LeMay would get them killed.
Enter “Reb” Carter.
Airplane commander Fling briefed his B-29 crew in late afternoon.
“No guns,” said Fling.
“No guns?” someone said. “This cannot be right.”
Danger and Disbelief
Listening intently, left blister gunner Carter had good reason to ponder the circuitous path he’d followed from urban Atlanta to this tropical paradise that wasn’t a paradise. Carter, twenty-one, had trained to become a pilot and had been halted in his tracks by the odd situation that prevailed in the autumn of 1944 when the Army found itself with too many of them. He was at four bases before he emerged as a fully trained gunner.
Carter had been a local yo-yo champion back home. A tall, toothy, eager Georgia boy delivered at birth by a doctor who arrived at his house via horse and buggy, he was a distant cousin of another Carter who was a year younger and would one day be U.S. president.
Now, “Reb” wondered to himself whether he’d also been born with no sense of hearing. “We can’t have escort fighters to protect us at night,” Carter thought. Figuratively speaking, Carter told himself he smelled trouble.
The Fling crew in God’s Will was going to follow the battle order to the letter. “It looks like we’re going to Tokyo unarmed,” Carter told Fling. “I hope the big brass know something we don’t.”
LeMay launched 334 Superfortresses from ten bomb groups belonging to three bomb wings on three Marianas islands. Each plane had an 11-man crew. Because he had been briefed on a future secret weapon still under development back home, LeMay could not take the risk of being captured. Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, who’d had had a key role in planning the incendiary raid from the beginning – and was considered the only officer on Guam harder, tougher and meaner than LeMay – led the strike. Of the bombers that took off, 279 actually dropped bombs on Tokyo, led by special pathfinder crews who marked a central aiming point.
God’s Will was supposed to be one of the first B-29s over target. When the radar set in the bomber broke down, the Fling crew got lost. While others were torching the city, the Fling crew mistakenly flew northwest. They would later determine that theirs had actually been the first B-29 over the Japanese mainland that night – about an hour after midnight – but they did not find their bearings until the bombing had almost ended.