Bombing America

America’s Curtiss Hawk fighter
America’s Curtiss Hawk fighter, which was being used by the Allies in Europe in 1939. The Post editors proudly wrote, “Enemy bombers would have little chance to escape these fast fighters,” but Fletcher Pratt said its speed made it no match for German planes. Its only superiority was that it could stay in the air twice as long as the Messerschmitt fighter.

It’s hardly new anymore. An anonymous group angered by the release of a satirical movie, now joins the line of organizations threatening death and destruction in America.

Every day, the world feels a little more like the Wild West, with every cocky, militant group wanting to make its reputation by challenging the sheriff to a gunfight. We’re growing accustomed, if such a thing is possible, to feeling threatened with death at home, in schools, and at work.

There was a time — and not long ago — when we enjoyed a rare moment of security. Between 1989’s collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War and 2001’s assault by religious fanatics, we enjoyed 12 years when we didn’t have to worry about atomic weapons or suicide bombers.

We might have enjoyed it more if we knew such days were limited. Or if we were more aware of how long Americans have been living in the shadow of sudden, surprise attacks. As far back as 1939, Americans were fretting that one of the Axis nations might launch a bombing raid into the United States.

In 1939, Fletcher Pratt considered America’s vulnerability to a deadly foreign attack in “Can They Bomb Us?”

Can They Bomb Us?
Read the entire article “Can They Bomb Us?” from the pages of the December 2, 1939 issue of the Post

As you probably know, the continental states were never bombed in World War II. You might think we were safe because we lay beyond the reach of German and Japanese airplanes. But commercial airlines were flying passengers across both oceans before the war. (Pan Am’s China Clipper in 1936, and the Yankee Clipper in 1939.)

These planes, Pratt wrote, were as different from bombers as Great Danes and greyhounds. Bombers were designed to fly as fast and as high as possible. Clipper planes needed to carry heavy loads for long distances. “Comparing the recent German Dornier or Heinkel bombers with the transatlantic Clippers, we find the military machines nearly 100 miles an hour faster, but with nearly 1000 miles shorter range. It would be physically possible to fit bomb racks to a Clipper and load her with death instead of passengers. But her utmost full-throttle speed of 200 miles an hour would render her virtually a stationary object to the attacks of fighters traveling at 350 miles an hour. Her climbing ability, perfectly adequate for commercial craft, is insufficient even to carry her above the range of 37-millimeter guns, the small change of antiaircraft defense … she would be about as useful in military operations as a truck in a tank battle.”

While the German bombers flew about 100 miles an hour faster than the Clippers, they fell about 1,000 miles short of the Clippers’ range. The flight radius of a World War II bomber, Pratt noted, was 750 miles. If it flew any farther, it wouldn’t have enough fuel to get home.

Anti-Aircraft Gun and Crew
America’s defenses were in pitiful shape in 1939. As Fletcher Pratt reported, the entire country east of the Rocky mountains was defended by just 24 anti-aircraft guns. The men in this postcard, who are being trained on the M3 antiaircraft gun, were part of the country’s hurried efforts to prepare for a possible air attack.

Yes, he admitted, a suicide squad could launch from an enemy aircraft carrier stationed along the U.S. coast. The bomber could travel far inland and inflict considerable damage on a major military site. But this was highly unlikely, he concluded. No air force would trade “a half-million-dollar airplane and a highly trained crew for the amount of damage the machine could do on a single flight … bombing airplanes do not carry enough explosives to do half a million dollars’ worth of damage, except by the most extraordinary good luck.”

Even if a general ordered suicide missions, Pratt reflected, men wouldn’t fly them. “There is a psychological factor ruling the whole business of such desperation raids. Men simply will not sacrifice their lives for the doubtful glory of having done some damage to the enemy. It has been proved time and again.” It was unlikely, he argued,“ that there will be any more suicidal spirits in the future than in the past. … The men who really would carry such a thing through bear a mark on their foreheads by which they can be recognized.” Pratt is referring to the Biblical mark of Cain, and implying that such suicide warriors are easily recognized as murderers and are, presumably, shunned by society.

It was a reasonable conclusion to draw in 1939, but the tide of fanaticism was rising. As the war progressed, Axis leaders began pushing their soldiers to greater acts of desperation. By 1944, Japanese aviators were flying explosive-laden planes into American naval vessels, disproving Pratt’s notions of the suicidal spirit.

Seventy years later, the fanaticism that glorifies mass murder is on the rise. Today, Americans take in the news about the latest death threats, then pick up their lunches, check for their cell phones, and head out the door to another day at work.

He Saw the War Coming

The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t a complete surprise to all Americans. Some had long anticipated a Japanese offensive against the U.S. and had foreseen, with surprising clarity, the general direction of the war. One of them was Fletcher Pratt, a writer of science fiction, a pioneer in war gaming, and “one of the outstanding lay military and naval authorities in the United States,” as the Post described him in its Keeping Posted column.

Just as the war in Europe began in 1939, Pratt completed a book on the world’s naval forces and strategy. An excerpt offering his opinion of the current U.S. Navy was published in the Post that year in its October 7 issue. (Read Pratt’s entire article “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” from the Post here.)

It didn’t sound good. “The battle line is the slowest in the world, which is to say that it cannot force an unwilling enemy to fight, nor escape from a disastrously superior one. Some of the battleships steer badly. The early heavy cruisers vibrate rackingly at high speeds, roll in a seaway and have weak features in their construction.”

American Battle Fleet
The American battle fleet executing a right turn in battle maneuver off the California coast
Official U.S. Navy Photographs-Courtesy U.S. Navy Recruiting Bureau

“Promotion in the American Navy is desperately slow and uncertain,” Pratt added. “Junior officers are constantly tempted to toady, and examining boards to give credit for correct routine rather than for original thought. Officers reach command rank late in life. … In no country does it take longer to sign a contract for a new ship; in none is the building process marked by so many petty squabbles.”

Yet he concluded, “No navy in existence, hardly any two together, can bear the weight of the United States fleet.” Its battleships were slow, he wrote, but they were well armed, and its aircraft carriers were the envy of the world. “The American naval air service is a model which other nations have despairingly been trying to equal for 15 years. No navy has so good a catapult; the bomb sight has for years been the object of affectionate curiosity on the part of half the spies in the world.”

Pratt compared the U.S. Navy with its most likely opponent — not Nazi Germany, who many Americans feared they’d soon be fighting — but Imperial Japan.

In general, Pratt didn’t think Japan’s navy was much of a threat. While “the whole American battle line is up to date today, most of the Japanese line well on the march toward the scrap heap.”

The Japanese fleet, Pratt said, “lacks gun power and armor to stand against the American giants. The operating range of the whole Japanese fleet is something under 2,500 miles. … A Japanese campaign against the United States [is] simply impossible as long as American warships float in Pearl Harbor.”

Over the years, I’ve read predictions by several journalists of the past. None of them got everything right. But some predictions stand out for being right about the important points. The important point of Pratt’s report is that, from two years away, he saw the challenges the Allies would face in 1941.

According to Pratt, the British navy was “very poorly fitted for South Sea work; it is composed of World War [I] battleships with the short ranges, good protection against cold and bad protection against heat.” The Japanese would pounce on a moment of British vulnerability to strike, very likely seizing “the Dutch East Indies — those vast storehouses of every raw material the island empire needs.”

Which is precisely what Japan did, just one day after their assault on Pearl Harbor.

Foreseeing an inevitable conflict between American and Japanese forces in the Pacific, Pratt predicted the Japanese offensive would focus on “direct conquest of American establishments west of Hawaii. Guam, Wake, Midway, the Philippines, all the small American outposts, would fall in the first rush.”

All these islands were attacked. All but Midway were taken by early 1942.

Contact with the enemy
Contact with the enemy. A fast fighter leaving the deck of the carrier Lexington during war games in the Caribbean.
Official U.S. Navy Photographs-Courtesy U.S. Navy Recruiting

America’s offensive against Japan, Pratt wrote, would have to come up from the southern Pacific. The northern route, down from Seattle or Alaska, was too long and wouldn’t affect any of Japan’s interest.

So the U.S. would have to start from Hawaii, Pratt wrote, and proceed to the Marshall and Caroline Islands to connect with Australian forces, then “roll up the Japanese lines from the south. Once that circuit were accomplished, once that blockade set up, Japan would be cut off; she must surrender or die — of a lack of food, oil, and iron, not to mention the many less essential materials she does not have in the islands. Japanese strategy and naval construction are accordingly directed toward the prevention of such a blockade.”

Overall, a fairly accurate synopsis of what took place in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945. True, the Caroline Islands weren’t part of the U.S. offensive. American troops advanced on Japan through the Marshall to the Mariana Islands, while a southern initiative led from the Solomons through New Guinea, all heading toward the Philippines.

Such differences are minor, considering that Pratt was a journalist. He was not a naval officer and had no access to the military’s intelligence reports. Just as remarkable, was his ability to perceive the future at a time when fears and resentments kept many Americans from clearly seeing the situation right before them.

Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean
Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean by Fletcher Pratt
October 7, 1939

Read the entire article, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” by Fletcher Pratt from The Saturday Evening Post, October 7, 1939.

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: