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Hosted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum curator Dik Daso, “History in HD: The Last Bomb” offers a unique look inside the tactical planning of one of the fist long-distance air raids launched by U.S air forces. The title of this World War II-era Technicolor film may seem to be misleading at first—it does not cover the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, but the bombing raids carried out during the spring and summer of 1945. During that time, huge fleets of B-29 bombers, escorted by P-51 Mustang fighters, executed an intensive firebombing campaign of Japanese cities. Launched from hard-won south pacific island’s, these 3,000 mile missions were considered one of the most dangerous of World War II. Thousands of miles of open ocean navigation, enemy aircraft, and engine failure were just a few of the threats the men faced as they flew into enemy territory.
The raids were under command of General Curtis LeMay from bases on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the 21st Bomber Command became, in the words of this film, “a well-oiled machine of destruction,” carrying out “the LeMay treatment.” The film is compelling in its details: the way flights were tracked using colored strands of yarn stretched across maps; the strafing runs the P-51 fighters carried out after each bombing mission was complete, and the victory rolls they did on their return—one roll for each Japanese plane downed. Damaged bombers barely make it back to their landing fields after 3,000 mile runs; some are forced to ditch in the ocean and others crash, killing all on board.
The Last Bomb makes much of how punishing these conventional weapons raids were, declaring: “By the end of July, our B-29s had all but obliterated the enemy’s ability to make war…Thousand-plane missions were going to hit Japan with twice the monthly tonnage that ever fell on Germany…..The question was, how much longer would a beaten Japan hold out?” Eventually, however, the film comes to the new weapons that made these bombing runs unnecessary: the atomic bombs that, as the narrator puts it, “…hastened the surrender of Japan and saved untold numbers of American lives…The mission of our air forces, begun over four years ago, was accomplished.”
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