Thursday 10 March 2005

Curtis LeMay’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the first American firebombing attack on Japan. On the evening of March 9, 1945, 325 B-29 bombers took off from their bases in the Marianas, the first planes arriving over Tokyo just after midnight on March 10 where, over a three hour period, they dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs. According to the most authoritative book on the firebombing campaign, Kenneth P. Werrell’s Blankets of Fire:

The bombing and fire destroyed almost 16 square miles, over 10,000 acres of Tokyo, which was approximately 8 percent of the urban area, and included one-quarter of the buildings in the city… One million people were left homeless and left the city. Casualty figures are inexact, as might be expected in such a mammoth event, ranging from about 80,000 to more than 100,000 killed. Surely the Tokyo fire raid is one of the deadliest air raids of all time, surpassing Hamburg, Dresden, and Nagasaki, and on the scale of Hiroshima, and is certainly one of the most destructive.

In the three years I’ve been weblogging, I’ve written many posts that deal with or mention the Tokyo fire raid:

The reasons for my interest in (some might say, obsession with) the night of March 9-10, 1945 are varied and complex. The simplest explanation might be that the firebombing of Japan—which continued for over five months (from March 9 to August 15, 1945)—is, compared to the atomic bomb attacks, little known outside Japan. Yet nearly half the built-up areas of sixty-four cities were totally destroyed while (according to the estimates of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey) 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million people made homeless.

Earlier in the week, knowing that I did not wish to let this anniversary go unacknowledged yet wondering what else I could possibly write about, I did a Google search on tokyo + firebombing. Amongst the results was a page at which reproduced a Japan Times article by Satō Hiroaki which begins with the astonishing revelation that:

On Dec. 7, 1964, the Japanese government conferred the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun upon Gen. Curtis LeMay — yes, the same general who, less than 20 years earlier, had incinerated “well over half a million Japanese civilians, perhaps nearly a million.”

General Curtis LeMayAlthough Satō-san exaggerates the number of civilian fatalities caused by the firebombing, he is correct about the medal. I thought I was well-informed about General LeMay’s career—before, during, and after World War II. When I first read about this award I was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. But a list of LeMay’s decorations includes “The First Class of the Order of the Rising Sun (Presented Dec. 7 1964).” (I’ve linked to a cached copy of the page since, when I wrote this entry, the Wright-Paterson Air Force Base website appears to be offline.) I note in passing the irony in LeMay’s award being conferred on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This history of the Thunderchief fighter squadrons (F-105D and F-105F) based the Yokota Air Base in Japan includes a reference to LeMay’s award:

When the 36th TFS returned to Yokota in December 1964, it participated in a huge ceremony: on 07 December the Japanese Government presented retiring USAF Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay with Japan’s “First Order of the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun.” In the flyover that followed the ceremony, 8th TFW Thunderchiefs formed the letters “C E L” in the General’s honor.

There is, therefore, little doubt that General LeMay received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class, which—although not the highest Japanese decoration—is an exceptionally prestigious award.

The official Japanese award system was introduced during the Meiji period in 1875. According to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan:

Besides the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum (Daikun’i Kikkashō) as the highest degree of honor for men, the The Order of the Rising Sun (Kyokujitsushō) also for men, the Order of the Precious Crown (Hōkanshō) for women, and the Order of the Sacred Treasure (Zuihōshō) for both men and women were also established.

Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First ClassThe Order of the Rising Sun is awarded for services to Japan, both military and civilian, by citizens or foreigners. The highest grade is the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, Paulownia Flowers (勲一等旭日桐花大綬章). The second-highest grade—the one LeMay received—is the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class (勲一等旭日大綬章). Then there are seven lower grades of the Order of the Rising Sun (Two through Eight).

How is it, then, that General Curtis LeMay—who conceived, planned, and prosecuted the firebombing campaign against Japan that resulted in the deaths of at least 330,00 Japanese civilians and the wounding of another 470,000—received one of the highest official awards that can be bestowed by the Japanese government? The same General LeMay who, when asked about the morality of the firebombing campaign, replied:

“Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”

Although the analogy is not quite exact, it is almost as though Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku—the Japanese naval commander who conceived and led the attack on Pearl Harbor—had not been killed in the South Pacific in April 1943 when his aircraft was shot down by US fighters acting on the basis of decrypted Japanese radio reports, but instead had survived the war, managed to evade being convicted and executed as a war criminal, and twenty years later, been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson.

A Google Japan search on the English text string LeMay + “Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun” yielded two results, one of which is a weblog post by “komada” titled ルメイはなぜ開戦記念日に叙勲されたか (Why did LeMay receive a decoration on the anniversary of the outbreak of the War?). Although I could make some sense of the Japanese, it is written in the circuitous style common to Japanese academic discourse. I printed out the weblog entry and took it to my Japanese/English exchange lesson last night. Keiko, my exchange partner, read through it and said: “Mawarikudoi desu ne…

Mawarikudoi (回りくどい) means “roundabout, circumlocutory, indirect,” as in:

「回りくどい言い方はしないで。」 (Mawarikudoi iikata wa shinaide.) “Don’t beat around the bush.”

Keiko explained that in this weblog post Komada-san:

  • notes the dearth of information about LeMay’s medal on Japanese government sites;
  • points out that the medal is not mentioned in profiles of LeMay, even though awards from smaller countries are listed (this, as we’ve seen, is not correct);
  • explains the process by which potential award recipients are selected and vetted (recommended by the Foreign Minister then supported or opposed by government bureaucrats with the final decision made by the Prime Minister);
  • remarks on the lack of any publically-stated reasons for LeMay’s receiving such an award from the Japanese government;
  • notes that athough LeMay’s award was opposed by the Socialist Party, it was strongly supported by Genda Minoru, who had been the naval officer Admiral Yamamoto chose to draft the details of the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor;
  • mounts a complex argument suggesting that LeMay’s award was given in return for an award given to Genda by the United States government, probably in recognition for Genda’s involvement in the purchase of 180 F-104 fighter aircraft;
  • adds that Genda, who had joined the Air Self Defence Force after the war, was involved in the Lockheed scandal in 1976 (he was convicted of accepting bribes to influence the purchase of Lockheed aircraft for the Self Defence Force).

Keiko then pointed out the word tsuzuku (to be continued) at the end of the post and, sure enough, when I got home I discovered that Komada-san had written another two entries following the one I’ve summarized plus a preceding entry titled Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

At this point, then, the mystery of why General Curtis LeMay received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class, remains unsolved. Today I received an email from Keiko asking whether I’d found Komada-san’s other entries and suggesting that we continue to examine the Japanese sources. She added:

When I read about the person who you are interested in today, I was amazed about the fact that Japanese government awarded him the highest honor and he received the medal. Besides such surprise, I couldn’t believe he actually came to Japan to receive the medal. He stood on the land that he bombed until thousands had lost their lives. I wonder what he was thinking when he was walking on Japanese soil then? Did he feel proud?

A Google Japan search for 勲一等旭日大綬章 + ルメイ (LeMay + “Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class” — Japanese government sites only) yields but a single result: the transcript of a National Diet (parliament) session in which the former Japanese ambassador to the United States, Saitō Kunihiko, is being questioned about LeMay’s award.

However, a Google Japan search for 勲一等旭日大綬章 + ルメイ (LeMay + “Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class”) yields 3,360 results—many of which are Japanese weblog entries. The Japanese weblogging community is on the case. It’ll be fascinating to see where this leads.

In the meantime, I’ve made a note to ask Keiko next week how one says “fact check your ass” in Japanese.

Permalink | Technorati


Nice to see you writing again, Mr. Delacour.

"At the end of December 1948, seven Japanese war criminals were executed; the next day MacArthur announced the release of all other class A war criminal suspects.145 Thus Kishi Nobusuke, a class A war criminal who served as Vice Minister of Industry and Commerce in 1930s and Vice-Minister of Munitions during the war (a sort of Japanese Albert Speer) was released and later became an enthusiastically pro-American prime minister.146 A German diplomat reported in 1951 that "Because of their superior discipline, a large number of our old friends will once again be taking up leading positions."147 (Forgiveness of useful war criminals worked the other way too: in 1964 the Japanese government awarded Curtis LeMay the First Class Order of the Rising Sun for his contribution to the postwar development of the Japanese air force.148)"


Posted by Shelley on 11 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

i'll be interested to read what you come up with. based on the quotes you and shelley have currently, it sounds like the war was treated, among government officials, like a sports match, after which the players politiely shake hands with their opponents, perhaps commenting "great shot in the second half!" i suspect to a large extent this is still true today, though perhaps not so blatantly as to award medals like this. i can imagine at some point military officials lose themselves in the strategizing and forget that these are human lives with which they're keeping score. i look forward to the followup.

Posted by scott reynen on 11 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Here's some good info on Curtis LaMay:

Posted by Mary on 12 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

One of the most extraordinary sequences in "The Fog of War", Errol Morris's finest work, involves Robert McNamara recounting how he worked for LeMay on the firebombing. "Were we war criminals?" he asks. "I guess so." It's following by some Philip Glass music, over which are shots of burning cities, with the names of the Japanese cities destroyed. These are accompanies by comparisons of similarly-sized US cities. When you see something like "Tokyo = New York, 51% destroyed" it gives those of us on the allied side back then some sense of the scale of the devastation.

Everything I ever read about Curtis LeMay makes me like him less.

Posted by rocky on 13 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Golly Shelley, all I had to do was search Google for "lemay 'order of the rising sun'" and I'd have saved myself (and Keiko) a bunch of trouble. What remains fascinating, however, is that a search on for the same terms in Japanese -- "ルメイ 旭日大綬章" -- yields only a single result: the transcript of the parliamentary session I mentioned. It's as though the award has been almost totally erased from the official record.

Scott, I can't be sure but there must have been a whole lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in order for LeMay to receive that award. As you say, much is forgotten at the rarified levels at which that "game" is played.

Mary, thanks for the link. Interestingly, the General Thomas Powers who is described as "not stable" and "a sadist", was the highest ranking officer on the first Tokyo raid (LeMay was not allowed to fly, although he had flown many missions over Germany).

Rocky, I found that sequence in The Fog of War both extraordinary and disturbing -- when I first saw the film at the cinema and then later when I'd purchased the DVD. I must confess, however, to having an ambivalent attitude towards Curtis LeMay. Had I been been a member of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, I suspect I would have preferred to have served under General LeMay, who not only led by example but also had a reputation for attempting to minimize the casualties of the men under his command whilst inflicting the greatest damage on the enemy. Although it's easy (with hindsight) to see the firebombing campaign against Japan as unjustifiable, I'm uncomfortable with judging past events by contemporary values and standards. LeMay was honest in admitting that, had the United States lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal. The reverse side of that admission is that at least some of the Japanese who were tried (and executed) as war criminals were the victims of victor's "justice" -- while the Japanese commander-in-chief, Emperor Hirohito, was -- for political reasons -- quickly rehabilitated.

Posted by Jonathon on 16 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, thank you for the last paragraph of your comment. Your observation there about LeMay is accurate. As is your observation about serving with LeMay. He was, if nothing else, highly effective in the use of air power in the execution of war.

As for the political reasons for the prosecution of some and hasty rehabilitation of others... It is easy to second guess the decisions made 60 years ago, but I think history has shown that those decisions were, at the least, much better than the victors terms and decisions made only 25 years earlier (the close of WWI). Distasteful maybe, but effective. It is also not highly unusual for former soldiers and air men to respect their former enemies, in fact it is more common than most who have not served in combat would believe.

Posted by Eric on 16 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour