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Howard Liebman, of Hicksville, Air Force radar operator

World War II veteran Howard Liebman at the

World War II veteran Howard Liebman at the Hicksville VFW on March 25, 2015. Liebman, who was a radar operator with the Army?s 20th Air Force, said his unit's mission was to cripple Japan?s ability to fight a war by bombing its cities, where factories large and small were producing aircraft parts and other munitions. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In 1945, Howard Liebman was a radar operator with the Army's 20th Air Force.

His unit's mission was as simple as it was deadly -- to cripple Japan's ability to fight a war by bombing its cities, where factories large and small were producing aircraft parts and other munitions.

"It sounds not nice, but people make wars," said Liebman, of Hicksville, a past commander of Hicksville's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3211. "A man who makes ammunition in a factory is more deadly than a guy with a rifle."

"They were all part of a team," said Liebman, 92, who after the war helped develop naval radar countermeasure systems as a Grumman employee. "We knew we had to demoralize them and kill them."

The United States had begun large-scale bombing of the Japanese mainland in 1944, while Liebman had been flying bombing runs from Army airfields in India and western China.

But U.S. military planners were disappointed with these early raids. With payloads reduced by the long flight, and because they delivered their bomb payloads from more than six miles high to evade Japan's air defenses - most of the strikes missed their targets and did little damage.

That changed dramatically in early 1945 with the introduction of two key changes.

U.S. forces were able to launch their raids from much closer, when the 20th Air Force began flying from the captured island of Tinian -- a coral and limestone speck 1,500 miles south of Tokyo.

And in a grim switch from tactics that had prevailed in Europe, U.S. bombers flying raids against Japan began carrying a devastating weapon rarely used against large civilian populations -- firebombs. The 500-pound devices were designed to scatter smaller bomblets over a wide area, each of which would squirt flaming jets of gelled gasoline once they hit the ground.

During more than one raid, Liebman said, his view from the cockpit of the incineration raging below left him stunned.

"There had never been fires like the ones we started," he remembered.

Fires burned so hotly they created thermal winds that spread flames far beyond where the bombs had fallen. He said the heat created such sudden updrafts that planes flying 8,000 feet high would suddenly flip.

"We didn't know how effective firebombs would be, but because of the winds they created, the fires spread like mad. The destruction was more than we anticipated. It was something new that we had to learn."

The architect of the bombing campaign was Gen. Curtis LeMay, a hard-nosed tactician who years later famously called for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam while serving as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's running mate during Wallace's failed 1968 presidential campaign.

Unless Japan could be forced to surrender, LeMay and other military leaders believed, a land invasion of Japan would be required, one they calculated could result in more than 100,000 additional U.S. casualties.

"If you're going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force," LeMay has been quoted as saying. "Use too much and deliberately use too much ... you'll save lives, not only your own but the enemy's, too."

During one nighttime raid on Tokyo known as "Meetinghouse" that began on March 9, 1944, more than 300 B-29s dropped upward of 1,600 tons of incendiary bombs in what remains the single most deadly military attack in history.

The firebombs, some which were designed to punch through roofs before releasing their burning contents inside, ignited a firestorm that incinerated an area roughly the size of Manhattan south of 96th Street. The Shitamachi suburb of Tokyo, where small munitions factories were sprinkled among densely packed paper-and-wood homes of about 750,000 civilians, was a principal target.

By the time the windswept fires were quelled, about 100,000 civilians were dead and 1 million were homeless.

Liebman, who was 22 at the time, was a crew member aboard B-29s during several of these bombing raids in 1945. B-29s were the most advanced heavy bombers in the American airfleet, capable of flying the equivalent of New York to Honolulu without refueling, and carrying twice the payload of bombers that had flown against Germany.

A Manhattan native who enlisted in 1942 after a night of beer and pizza, Liebman used newly developed radar equipment to see through cloud cover that regularly obscured Japan's cities, and spot landmarks that marked where to drop the bombs.

He recalled the firebombs' devastation, which targeted nearly 70 Japanese cities and claimed as many as a half million civilian deaths.

He said he is at peace with his involvement in the air attacks because it helped end the war before countless others were killed.

"By us not having to invade, we figured we saved more than a million lives," said Liebman, who retired from the Air Force as a reserve lieutenant colonel.

"Because on every island, we knew how they fought," Liebman said. "It would have been brutal."


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