Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Details Emerge About Tragic Loss of Elite Air Force Pararescue Crew and Helicopter in Iraq.

A USAF HH-60 From Alaska Crashes, Crew of Seven Die Near Al-Qaim, Iraq on Thursday.

All seven crew members on board a U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter were killed when it crashed in Iraq on Thursday, March 15, 2018. The aircraft belonged to the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. None of the crew killed in the crash were from Alaska according to a report filed in the Air Force Times on Friday, March 16, by journalist Stephen Losey.

The crash occurred in Anbar Province outside Al-Qaim, Iraq on the Syrian/Iraqi border 400 kilometers northwest of Baghdad along the Euphrates River.

The cause of the crash is unknown at this time. A New York Times story published Friday, March 16, 2018 by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Al Baker reported that, “American officials could not immediately say why the aircraft went down killing all seven service members on board, although enemy fire was not believed to be the cause.”

The HH-60G Pave Hawk is an Air Force specific version of the Blackhawk helicopter with significant modifications for the combat rescue role and it is generally regarded as the most advanced version of the aircraft. Photos of the HH-60G Pave Hawks based at the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing often show the aircraft operating in the high mountains, equipped with snow-ski landing gear. When deployed to the Middle East the aircraft uses standard landing gear. The website for the Alaska Air National Guard 176th Wing lists only one squadron, the 210th Rescue Squadron, as operating the HH-60G. The 210th Rescue Squadron lists six HH-60G Pave Hawks on their official Air Force unit page.

The Air Force Times identified one of the Airmen killed in the crash as USAF Staff Sgt. Carl Enis. Sgt. Enis was an Air Force Reserve Pararescue operator from the 308th Rescue Squadron, 920th Rescue Wing from Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Florida. As a reserve Air Force Pararescueman, Enis also had a civilian career as a commercial real estate salesman in Tallahassee, Florida. He was described in media reports as, “an avid outdoorsman and devoted friend who had a knack for bringing people from different backgrounds together”.

Pararescue operator Staff Sgt. Carl Enis of the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, is reported to be among the service members who died in the HH-60G Pavehawk crash in Iraq late Thursday. (Photo: Courtesy USAF)

Not all of the names of the personnel who died in Thursday’s crash have been released. USAF Central Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Damien Pickart reported via email on Friday that two of the seven airmen killed were Pararescue operators. Lt. Col. Pickart indicated the Department of Defense is expected to post the names and units of all of the airmen by Saturday afternoon.

A post did appear on the New York City Fire Department’s Facebook page saying that two of its firefighters, Christopher Zanetis and Christopher Raguso, were also killed in Thurday’s crash. Their Air Force rank was not indicated in the post.

The ABC affiliate in New York, ABC7, reported that Zanetis and Raguso and an additional two Airmen killed in the crash were members of the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing from Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, New York.

U.S. Air Force Pararescue units are credited with saving “over 1,000 lives in the Global War on Terror since 9/11” according to a 2011 report. During the 2005 hurricane Katrina between Florida and Texas in the United States, Air Force Pararescue operators of the 943rd Rescue Group from Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona were credited with rescuing 1,043 people. Air Force Pararescue is generally regarded as one of the most capable special operations units in the world specifically tasked with combat rescue operations.

Top image: File photo of USAF HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter of the 210th Rescue Squadron. (Photo: USAF)

U.S. Air Force Issues “Gag” Order on Public Affairs Reporting: Is Something Up?

Order for Retraining of Public Affairs Officers Signals Tighter Control on Reporting.

The U.S. Air Force has issued new, more controlled directives for its interaction with media reporters. The new directives may significantly limit the access journalists have to reporting on some stories about the U.S. Air Force. Officials within the U.S. Defense Department and U.S. Air Force handed down a memo on March 1, 2018 titled, “OPSEC and Public Engagement Reset” announcing new, more controlled restrictions on media reporting.

Included in the March 1 USAF Public Engagement Reset directive is the specification that, “Media embeds, media base visits and interviews are suspended until further notice.” The statement goes on to read, “Limited exceptions may be provided by SAF/PA.” (Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs).

The increasingly evolving defense and aerospace media relies heavily on access to military facilities and personnel to generate a wide variety of stories. Storylines, like the ones you read here on The, range from public interest stories that inspire young people to pursue a military career to military technology, reporting on news about training and operations and stories about historical topics.

The U.S. Air Force and other military services work in cooperation with media outlets to provide access to bases, training areas and personnel for the purpose of generating news stories in promotion of military doctrine and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press.

Journalists who report on U.S. Air Force subjects have, in general, voluntarily maintained a balanced relationship between maintaining operational security in the interest of overall national security and bringing news stories to the public audience. Reporters know that if they intentionally or inadvertently report on a topic that violates or presses the limits of maintaining operational security (OPSEC) their access will be revoked and they may create a potentially dangerous circumstance putting U.S. service members and defense initiatives at risk. For all defense journalists, maintaining the balance between operational security and freedom of speech in reporting is a significant responsibility and delicate balancing act.

Dr. Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, conducts a media interview at Holloman AFB in 2017 during a media event. Media specific events grant exclusive access to multiple news outlets providing a broad spectrum of perspectives and analysis on Air Force news. (Photo:

The reasons for this March 1, 2018 change in media directives for the U.S. Air Force could be multi-fold.

During the last decade defense media has evolved and expanded significantly to include vastly greater numbers of media outlets. The quality and credibility of the outlets range from casual social media to major international network news media. Since the onset of media proliferation most of the military services at the national level have done little to adapt their media services to work safely and effectively with the greater number and scale of media outlets. As a result, some public affairs operations have had greatly increased workloads with little strategic direction set against the backdrop of the evolution in media. For the most part, the system has worked well, but the two entities occasionally must moderate the sometimes-conflicting motives of the media to release compelling stories and the Air Force to maintain security. One example was the September, 2017 fatal accident of U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

Lt. Col. Schultz’s remarkable career eventually led to his involvement in classified operations over the vast Nellis Ranges in Nevada. When he died in an accident on September 5, 2017 popular aviation media was rife with speculation about what Lt. Col. Schultz’s mission may have been at the time. Some outlets questioned if Lt. Col. Schultz’s death was being kept classified to protect specific air force programs from criticism. The Air Force was quick to issue media statements from the command level dispelling those theories.

Another reason for changes in Air Force public relations may be more sensational. Several new key technologies may be reaching a level of maturity that mandates a reset of security to protect them from being compromised. The Air Force and aerospace contractors have been selectively public in their disclosures about major programs like the new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B). But as more media outlets across the entire spectrum press harder and harder for a “scoop” the necessary operational security surrounding these programs becomes more difficult to maintain.

Finally, another contributing factor to the change in Air Force media policy may be that the current internal system is simply overloaded. Given the increase in media outlets and growth in public interest and new story lines the current Air Force public affairs system is trying to sip water from a fire hose. There are simply too many media outlets, reporters asking for access and stories and too few Air Force public affairs personnel to moderate the exploding demand for media against the very real need to maintain operational security while ensuring the media outlets are producing quality media.

This new media restriction couldn’t come at a worse time for the Air Force from a recruiting perspective. A central problem facing the U.S. Air Force is a critical pilot shortage. While there may be no quick fix for producing proficient new Air Force pilots a reduction in the volume of inspiring media about Air Force careers will not help drive new officers and airmen to join the Air Force.

Brigadier General Brook Leonard, Commander of the 56th Fighter Wing, speaks to reporters during a media briefing at an F-16 training facility. (Photo:

An embarrassing incident on social media from January, 2018 at Nellis AFB in Nevada was also highlighted in the news earlier this year. USAF Tech. Sgt. Geraldine Lovely of the 99th Force Support Squadron at Nellis posted derogatory comments about subordinates on a social media platform. Here angry remarks, that included profanity and racial slurs, were viewed by over 1 million people and shared over 8,000 times. Tech. Sgt. Lovely was subsequently disciplined and in-service training for the use of social media by Air Force personnel was initiated in response to the incident.

If there is a singular theme to this story it is that media and stories have expanded and changed faster than Air Force public relations capabilities. This, set against a backdrop of what may be some emerging (and exciting) new technologies for the Air Force has caused the story faucet to be turned off. Now it is up to reporters to figure out innovative ways to quench readers’ thirst for Air Force news in this new information draught.

Top image: News reporters interview Maj. Henry Schantz, commander of the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., on April 18, 2012. Schantz, who is based at Langley Air Force Base, Va., will be piloting the F-22 in Louisville’s 22nd annual Thunder Over Louisville air show, to be held along the banks of the Ohio River on April 21. The Raptor is the U.S. military’s premier fighter aircraft, with capabilities that are unmatched by any other plane. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Maj. Dale Greer)

U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet Crashes in Key West, Florida: 2 Reported Dead.

Aircraft Was from Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 213 On Routine Training Sortie. It’s the 14th major incident involving a Hornet of any variant since May 2016.

A U.S. Navy Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet two-seat combat aircraft crashed at approximately 4:30 PM EDT, Wednesday, March 14, 2018 near Key West, Fla. Both crew members are being reported as dead after being transported to Lower Keys Medical Center in Florida. Reports indicate the crew did eject from the aircraft prior to the crash. The aircraft was from Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 213 “Black Lions” based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. The aircraft went down one mile east of the runway on landing approach to Boca Chica Field, Naval Air Station Key West when the accident occurred.

Photos from the crash location show the aircraft with gear and hook down, upside down on the surface of water; other amateur shots show an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter hovering over the same area after the F/A-18F appears to have submerged.

According to an official statement released by the commander, Naval Air Forces Atlantic, “Search and rescue crews were notified shortly after the crash where they recovered both the pilot and weapons systems officer from the water approximately one mile east of the runway. Both were taken by ambulance to Lower Keys Medical Center,” A later announcement read, “Both aviators have been declared deceased. Per Department of Defense policy, the names of the aviators are being withheld until 24 hours after next-of-kin notification.”

The Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet is a twin-engine, two-place multi-role combat aircraft widely used by the U.S. Navy primarily in the ground attack role. The aircraft is also being operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. It is a more advanced version of the original F/A-18 Hornet multi-role aircraft introduced by McDonnell Douglas.

Here’s what The Aviationist’s David Cenciotti wrote last summer when reporting about an F/A-18E of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 146  assigned to the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) that departed the runway during an emergency landing at Bahrain International Airport on Aug. 12, 2017 (the pilot successfully ejected):

Dealing with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, four aircraft were lost (fortunately resulting in 0 fatalities) including the one lost last week: two VFA-211 F/A-18F jets from NAS Oceana collided and crashed 25 miles E of the Oregon Inlet, Nags Head, NC on May 26, 2016; earlier this year, on Apr. 21, 2017, a VFA-137 F/A-18E crashed during a landing attempt on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Celebes sea, between Indonesia and the Philippines.

Legacy Hornets are crashing at an even more alarming rate: two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 Hornets from MCAS Miramar crashed on Nov. 9, 2016 near San Diego. Another F/A-18C crashed near USMC Air Ground Combat Cente, Twentynine Palms, on Oct. 25, 2016. A U.S. Navy F/A-18C belonging to the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, Detachment Fallon, crashed on Aug. 2, 2016, 10NM to the south of NAS Fallon. On Jul. 27, 2016 a USMC F/A-18 belonging to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed during a night strafing run on a weapons range near Twentynine Palms (killing the pilot). On Jun. 2 a Blue Angels Hornet crashed after taking off from Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport (KMQY), Smyrna, Tennessee: the only pilot on board was killed in the incident.

Aircraft may crash for a variety of reasons, not always technical ones. Still, the rate of Hornet crashes in the last years seems to be unusual and, as such, concerning.

According to a report published in September 2016 by Stars and Stripes, since 2012, the number of major Navy and Marine Hornet and Super Hornet accidents have increased by 44 percent as a consequence of sequestration and subsequent cuts in flight hours for training at home.

Moreover, F/A-18 Hornets of all variants have shown a steady yearly increases of what the Navy calls “physiological episodes” due to oxygen deprivation and cabin decompression since May 1, 2010, and the U.S. Navy has linked the deaths of four Hornet pilots that occurred over a span of 10 years to “physiological episodes” (PE). Such deadly incidents are not all the direct result an oxygen system failure but are linked by the fact that pilots experienced various symptoms that fall within the scope of a PE: dizziness, vertigo, oxygen shortage, blackouts, etc.

The Super Hornet incident in Bahrain was the second involving a Super Hornet in 2017, the fourth one since May 2016. But it was not the last one. In October 2017, a Spanish EF-18 Hornet, belonging to the Ala 12, crashed during take off from its homebase at Torrejon Air Base, near Madrid, killing the pilot. Then, in January this year, a Royal Australian Air Force EA-18G Growler, the electronic warfare variant of the Super Hornet, caught fire during take-off at Nellis AFB, Nevada while participating in the Red Flag 18-1 combat training exercise. Both crew members were uninjured in the incident.

Russia Test Fires New Kh-47M2 Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile

First “Kinzhal” Fired from MiG-31 in Southwest Russia Hits Target According to Russians. But it’s a modified Iskander SRBM.

The Russian Aerospace Forces have conducted the first successful test firing of the air-launched Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile according to state sponsored media outlets.

The missile, supposedly named Kh-47M2 and referred to as the “Kinzhal”, was fired from a modified MiG-31BM (NATO reporting name “Foxhound”) over Southwest Russia. A report published on Facebook by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the “unique” MiG-31 that fired the missile had been “modernized”. Rogozin did not specify what modifications or “modernized” meant.

In video and still photos portions of the weapon seen in the test launch are obscured by imaging software, presumably for security purposes.

The official news release from the Russian Aerospace Forces read in part, “MiG-31 jet of the Russian Aerospace Forces conducted a test launch of hypersonic aviation and missile system Kinzhal in a set district. The launch was successful, the hypersonic missile hit the designated target at the field.”

Kinzhal is claimed to be a strategic air-to-surface strike missile. The missile is claimed to have maneuverable flight characteristics not typically seen in hypersonic, solid fuel missiles. Observers of Russian missile programs have voiced skepticism about Russia’ performance claims however. According to Russians and reference sources the Kinzhal missile has a top speed of Mach 10 and maintains some ability to maneuver throughout its performance envelope including at hypersonic speed. If accurate, these capabilities could make the Kinzhal difficult to intercept by anti-missile systems. The missile is reported to have a range of 1,200 miles (approximately 2,000 kilometers). This, added to the reported 1,860-mile unrefueled range of the MiG-31BM long range, supersonic interceptor, gives the Kinzhal potentially intercontinental strike capability. The missile is also reported to be nuclear-capable and able to hit ground as well as naval targets.

Still photos of the MiG-31 Foxhound released by the Russian Aerospace Forces were obscured over some areas of the new Kinzhal missile. (Photo: Russian Aerospace Forces)

Writer and analyst Kelsey T. Atherton wrote in Popular Mechanics, “Don’t believe the hype about Russia’s hypersonic missile” back in June, 2017 when discussing Russia’s Zircon missile, a sea launched hypersonic missile. The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway compared the new Kinzhal with Russia’s existing Iskander short-range ballistic missile in his analysis.

This first Russian Kinzhal test comes several months after the Indian Brahmos-A hypersonic missile test from November 22, 2017. The reported performance of the Indian Brahmos was a top speed of Mach 7 and a range of 290 kilometers. The Indian hypersonic missile was launched from a modified Sukhoi Su-30MKI. The Indian hypersonic missile project was completed in close cooperation with the Russians.

A screen grab from the video released on YouTube details the new Kinzhal missile. (Photo: Russian Aerospace Forces/via YouTube)

Hypersonic cruise missiles have the capability to defeat or degrade the effectiveness of most current surveillance and anti-missile systems because of their speed (and, in the case of this new Kinzhal, claimed capability to maneuver). The choice of the aging MiG-31, that would probably launch the Kinzhal from +60,000 feet at supersonic speed, is aimed at giving the tactical ballistic missile much more reach than it would have if launched from the ground: indeed, during the Cold War, the long-range high-altitude interceptor was supposed to be used as launch platform for anti-satellite weapons that could destroy targets in near space. Capable to carry up to four long-range R-33 missiles and four short-range R-77 missiles, not only was the MiG-31BM expected to carry a weapon able to shoot down space satellites; it was also intended to be used as a “cruise missile interceptor”: the Foxhounds have been involved in tests to intercept cruise missiles, previously Kh-55 and more recently Kh-101, for years.

While the Kinzhal appears to be an air-to-ground missile the pairing of this nuclear capable hypersonic missile recalls the much older AIR-2 Genie nuclear armed air-to-air missile with a 1.5 kiloton warhead. The AIR-2 Genie and earlier versions of the same missile were deployed by the U.S. Air Force from 1957-1962.

In remarks from an earlier state of the nation address at the beginning of March, Russian President Vladimir Putin told media that the Kinzhal has been “operational” prior to this test launch. Russian media also said there had been “250 test flights” to validate the operational status of the Kinzhal prior to this test launch. There was no mention if the missile or any more of the modified MiG-31s are operationally deployed yet.

According to defense journalist Babak Taghvaee, six MiG-31BM interceptors have already been turned into launch platforms and they are based at Akhtubinsk:

In contrast with the Russian claims, while traveling to Oman, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that nothing Russia demonstrated changed the Pentagon’s perspective.

“I saw no change to the Russian military capability and each of these systems that he’s talking about are still years away, I do not see them changing the military balance. They do not impact any need on our side for a change in our deterrence posture.” Indeed, the missile seems to fuel the propaganda machine more than it actually changes the strategic balance. However, it’s a development worth following, especially if we consider the maritime strike capability that an air-launched ballistic anti-ship missile brings in the game.

Russia’s firing of the Kinzhal joins not only the Indian hypersonic missile tests from last year but also the Chinese DF-17 hypersonic glide missile tests and the U.S. tests of hypersonics being conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

73 Years Ago Today: The Deadliest Air Raid in History, Operation Meetinghouse.

Worse than the Nuclear Strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Tokyo Fire Raid.

01:00 Hrs Local, Tokyo, Japan. March 9-10, 1945.

All of Tokyo is a funeral pyre.

Burning at over 1,100° Fahrenheit, rising flames create their own hurricane vacuum that inhales everything combustible to fuel the growing, miles-wide conflagration.

Fluttering to the ground in a wobbly topple incendiary bomblets continue to rain down from the night sky. These are not normal aerial bombs. The tiny bomblets are soft blobs of gooey, formless terror. They are E-46 chemical incendiary bombs or “fire bombs”.

The E-46s, one type of several incendiaries used in the raid, are dropped a mile above the city. They fall inside what looks like a conventional bomb casing built in Mays Landing, New Jersey. The nine retainer straps on the outside of the bomb break in unison, allowing the cluster bomb canister to open. They dispense a blizzard of 47 smaller, soft cheesecloth bags. The bags continue to tumble to earth. There is no concussive explosion or shockwave. No shattering glass. They quietly plop onto thatched rooftops and wooden buildings and begin to burn. And burn.

It is a strange, slow-motion attack. There are few thundering explosions. The air raid siren rises in volume through the night air. Then the low rumble of aircraft in the darkness overhead, the quiet pop and smack of incendiary packages bursting open and landing on rooftops as the first bomblets hit. A rising chorus of panicked screams follows as the fires begin to spread. The small fire from one bomblet quickly connects to another, then another, and then more. Soon the fires consume a city block, then the blocks of fire connect. More bags of fire land. The growing fire monster needs air to survive, and it begins a massive, city-wide yawn for oxygen to fuel its building inferno. Wind speeds pick up, pulling paper, cloth, even people into the building fire-hurricane.

Hell has come to earth.

Overhead a procession of 300 of the world’s largest strategic bomber, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, rains flaming death with no quarter. This is Operation Meetinghouse. It remains the single deadliest air raid in human history, with a higher attributed death toll than either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki nuclear strikes or the fire raids on Dresden, Germany and the strategic bombing of German cities like Berlin.

File photo from WWII shows B-29s dropping incendiary bombs during a daylight raid over Japan. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The number of Japanese deaths in the Operation Meetinghouse air raid on the night of March 9-10, 1945 is disputed. The morbid accounting estimates a “low” of “88,000” (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1945) to a high of 200,000 deaths- a fifth of a million- by Elise K. Tipton, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Over 1 million people are homeless. More will die of burns, disease and malnutrition in the coming days and weeks as every relief effort is not just stretched to the breaking point, it is shattered many times beyond it.

The stage for this human catastrophe was set years earlier, beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But the factors that converged to enable the severity of Operation Meetinghouse took years to build, like a stack of petroleum soaked rags piling up in a corner until one day…

Japan was geographically isolated. Its conquest of the Pacific region was brutal beyond measure. Prisoners of the Japanese were often tortured, malnourished and diseased. There was little humanitarian treatment of prisoners. Many island populations were forced into slavery by the occupying Japanese. During one forced-march of U.S. and Philippine prisoners from Saysain Point and Mariveles, Bataan through almost 70 miles of jungle trail to a train station at Camp O’Donnell on April 9, 1942, as many as 18,650 prisoners died, including an estimated 600 Americans. The atrocity became known as the Bataan Death March. It followed closely on the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor a few months earlier.

The aggression between the Japanese and Allied forces was easily stoked by fears of an invasion in the United States. Barrage balloons flew over west coast U.S. cities. Fears of Japanese submarines landing saboteurs on the California beaches ran rampant. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks the Japanese stoked American fear by using crude balloon bombs released from submarines in an ineffective attempt to start forest fires in the American west. Japanese-Americans were confined to internment camps for “security” but were treated humanely compared to allied prisoners of the Japanese.

Both sides leveraged the racial differences between the Japanese and the Anglo-Americans to reinforce the notion that the other side was not human, but monsters who must be destroyed. Both populations bought into the narrative that this was a titanic battle for survival, and that the loser would be annihilated. In modern terms the war was portrayed as a kind of zombie-apocalypse. Propaganda portrayed the “Japs” as miniature, soulless yellow rodents with buck teeth and babies impaled on their bayonets. The Japanese painted the Americans as pale, marauding giants bent on murder, global domination, greed and conquest attempting to drive the Japanese to extinction.

In the months and years preceding Operation Meetinghouse the Pacific island-hopping campaign by the United States gathered momentum with the invasions of Rabaul, Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, advancing across the Pacific toward Japan.

Incendiary aerial bombs were tested on mock targets at the Dugway Proving Grounds in the U.S. (Photo: Standard Oil Company Archives)

But the distances between the islands were vast, making logistics difficult and creating a constant fury of running sea battles. The U.S. was making progress though. As the succession of invasions got closer to the Japanese home islands the fighting took on an even more maniacal brutality. In February, 1945, the U.S. invaded the island of Iwo Jima, the first landing on Japanese home territory. The fighting was horrific. Over 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors died while Japanese casualties were above 20,000. Iwo Jima was only 9 square miles. The Japanese and American forces traded nearly 3,000 lives per square mile on the barren island.

If the ratio of 3,000 lives lost for every one square mile of territory regained were applied to all of the Japanese islands covering 145,932 square miles the body count could rise to… 437,796,000 deaths, an impossible number six times greater than Japan’s total population. The improbable equation suggested Japan faced annihilation if invaded.

During strategic planning meetings in the U.S. estimates of the number of Allied casualties from an invasion of the Japanese home islands mentioned numbers that exceeded one million Americans. Japanese casualties would be much higher. Japan’s total population recorded in late 1945 was 71,998,104. In Russia’s defense of its homeland from invasion by the Germans they had somehow endured a staggering 26.6 million dead according to a 1993 study by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the greatest loss of human life by any country, in any war. It was reasonable to suggest Japan may lose well over 10 million people if the U.S. attempted an invasion of the main Japanese islands prior to forcing a surrender.

In the brutal calculus of global war there had to be a discounted solution to the horrifying equation.

Unbeknownst to nearly every person in the U.S. government and military, there was a small group of women and men working on a war-ending weapon in the remote desert of the southwestern United States, but that secret weapon, a bomb that released the energy of a splitting atom, was months away and still not a sure thing.

In the interim the U.S. felt it had only one option; massive fire-bombing of Japanese cities to destroy their war manufacturing and demoralize their population, forcing capitulation. It was late February, 1945.

The March 9-10 Operation Meetinghouse fire bombing centered on Japanese defense infrastructure. The Japanese had dispersed a significant amount of defense-related manufacturing to cottage industries in the outlying areas of Tokyo and other cities. Attempting to destroy each one with precision high-altitude bombing was impossible.

The Americans had a new super-weapon capable of striking Japan. It was a gigantic, gleaming silver bomber bigger than anything seen before. The huge plane was sleek and aerodynamic, with long, narrow wings and four massive engines prone to catching fire. It’s long, cylindrical fuselage was pressurized for high-altitude flight without supplemental oxygen and the crew compartments were heated. Even its defensive fire-control system was remote-controlled. The forward gun turret was fitted with four .50 caliber machine guns, twice the number on the top turret of the older B-17. Unlike the B-17 bomber crews, crews of the new mega-bomber did not have to wear heavy, electrically-heated flight suits and rely on oxygen to stay alive at altitude. These bomber crews fought in tropical utility shirt-sleeves.

The new plane was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. My father was a draftsman and engineer for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Washington at “Plant 2” near the Duwamish River then. He worked on the top-secret development of the B-29. One of his assignments was to help draw plans for a pressurized crew tunnel through the bomb bay compartment from the front of the aircraft to the rear. He was sworn to secrecy during the aircraft’s development. Not even my mother knew what he was working on. Another project was to prepare drawings of the remotely controlled defensive gun control system.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a massive technological advancement over previous long range bombers. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The B-29 Superfortress was designed for high altitude strategic attacks. But the early high altitude airstrikes on Japan by B-29s were largely ineffective. The conventional explosive bombs did little damage on a large enough scale. Bomber crews were also wrestling with a new weather phenomenon encountered by the high-flying B-29. They discovered a consistent, ultra-fast wind aloft that ruined bombing accuracy called the “jet stream”.

In January, 1945, the commander of strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands was Major General Curtis LeMay. A somewhat controversial figure, LeMay was a pragmatist when it came to achieving military victory. It was simply a matter of lethal arithmetic. LeMay ordered the B-29s to begin bombing at night from low altitude instead of during the day. To improve aircraft performance and bomb payload, he ordered all of their defensive machine guns and their gunners removed.

LeMay’s Superfortresses would attack Tokyo on March 9-10 under the cover of darkness from low altitude, showering targets with fire bombs. Pinpoint accuracy was unnecessary. The first wave of bombers would drop their weapons to form a gigantic, flaming “X” to mark the center of the target. The rest of the Superfortresses would simply drop theirs as close as they could. The fires would do the rest.

Map of Tokyo showing areas most likely to burn during Operation Meetinghouse. (Photo: USAF Archive)

It was difficult to keep the B-29s flying. Their four huge Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines, the largest ever, were prone to catching fire. Maintenance was constant to prevent engine fires. When the heavily loaded bombers strained to take off, heaving massive bomb and fuel loads into the air, crashes were common.

Some aircraft were to launch from Tinian and Saipan, others from Guam. There were two parallel 8,500 foot runways recently built on Guam specifically to support the B-29 strikes on Japan. From this field Superfortresses of the 421st Bombardment Squadron, 504th Bombardment Group, would take-off.

Author Robert F. Dorr wrote what may be the definitive account of the Tokyo fire raid in his book “Mission to Tokyo”. Dorr wrote that while nearly all of the air crews in the B-29s on the night of March 9, 1945 were experienced veterans, many of them felt they would not survive this mission.

Major General LeMay’s order for the Superfortresses to fly without their defensive guns was not well received by crews. Robert F. Dorr wrote that the commander of one B-29 named “Lady Annabelle”, Capt. Percy Usher Tucker said, “I’m not leaving guns behind”. Other crew members said, “I’m not sure what General LeMay is thinking.” While official historical records did not indicate it, some crews kept guns and gunners on their aircraft, not putting the gunners’ names on the crew manifests for the mission.

Prior to Operation Meetinghouse, no bombing raid this large had been flown this low. Low altitude bombing missions were prone to heavy losses, as proven by the infamous Ploesti oil field raids in Romania in 1943. At Ploesti, losses of the B-24 Liberator bombers were horrendous when they flew into a maelstrom of enemy flak and the rising smoke of burning oil tanks on the ground.

While numerous historical accounts all agree that once the B-29 crews were airborne they were all-business, on take-off it was different. Most of the crew except the pilots sat idly in the dark aircraft hoping against a catastrophic engine failure with a full fuel and bomb load. One starboard gunner, Cpl. John R. Dodd, had a white-knuckle grip on his rosary. His voice came over the intercom saying, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

Oddly, the B-29s did not fly in formation on the way to Japan, but in a long, single file procession stretched out over miles and hours.

Reports differ about the lights being on or off in Tokyo that night. Some aircrews interviewed by author Robert F. Dorr told him they saw lights in the streets below. Japanese survivors say the standard air raid prevention protocols were in place, but often ignored. There was a quarter moon over Tokyo the night of the strike, so most B-29s made easy work of the long navigation to Tokyo. They arrived over the target accurately within minutes of their assigned time on target.

Few photos of the raid exist, but many survivors painted their impressions of its horrors in the years after. (Photo: USAF Archive)

The pilots handed control over to their bombardiers who steered the aircraft to the precise release points using the autopilot slaved to their Norden bomb sights. Then they dropped their bombs.

Just before 2:00 AM in Tokyo the air raid was ending. Rising heat from the conflagration below caused massive turbulence for the last waves of bombers as they arrived over Tokyo. The planes bucked wildly on columns of ascending hot air. The target below was alternately obscured by smoke or illuminated by waves of flame below. Accurate bombing was impossible. So, the planes simply dumped their lethal ordinance. Losses of B-29s over the target were moderate.

When it was over, Tokyo was destroyed.

Interviews with survivors of Operation Meetinghouse on both sides are eerie. They both say some of the same things. The day after the raid there was an oppressive silence. In Tokyo, charred survivors, many with clothes singed off their bodies, wandered listlessly back into the smoke and embers of Tokyo’s ruins to find anything they could salvage. There was little. Among B-29 bomber crews who returned from the raid there was fatigue, exhaustion and the onset of a new phenomenon that did not yet have a name, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neither side emerged from Operation Meetinghouse unchanged. Even the granite-faced General Curtis LeMay seemed sobered by the aftermath.
The B-29 crews fought with tenacity to reach their targets and strike it accurately. While the moral ramifications of the raid would be debated to this day, these crews did not have the luxury of reflection on their mission. Japan was a desperate and lethal adversary entering its death throes. There was no negotiation, no time or space for moderation.

From the altitude of 73 years that has elapsed since Operation Meetinghouse aerial bombing has evolved tremendously. While “humane” is never a word to describe aerial bombing, airstrikes have become more precise and produce less “collateral damage”, the antiseptic term coined for civilian casualties. Operation Meetinghouse was also one more straw added to the camel’s back of Japan’s resistance that was final broken by the nuclear strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year.

In retrospect Operation Meetinghouse is largely missing from popular U.S. history of WWII. Few people know it happened. U.S. history classes almost never mention it, even though it was the largest air strike in history. But remembering this cataclysmic, deadliest air strike is key to avoiding any similar repeat in the future.

One of only two currently flying Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, “FiFi”. (Photo: Tom Demerly/