Robert Strugats, who lives a self-described sleepy life as a retiree on Shelter Island, says he does not regard his World War II service as particularly noteworthy.
But Japanese documentarians seeking firsthand accounts of the United States' 1945 air assault on Japan traveled halfway around the world to interview the former B-29 bombardier. Last week, they met at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale.
In a hangar filled with vintage WWII aircraft, the 95-year-old veteran recounted what it was like to fly with the airborne armada that finally brought Imperial Japan to its knees, four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The documentary filmmakers hope to capture perspectives on the five-month firebombing campaign, which incinerated some 60 cities and only ended with Japan’s surrender.
The attacks remain controversial to this day, regarded by many to have been an atrocity that savaged defenseless urban residents — an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 civilians perished in the firebombings — and by many others as an unavoidable step to end a war that already had resulted in the deaths of more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers.
The documentary, which will include footage shot during the flight of a B-29 from a Cincinnati airfield, is being made by the film crew during a weeklong trip to the United States.
Produced by RSK Sanyo Broadcasting Co., a television station based about 100 miles east of where history’s first atomic attack leveled Hiroshima, the documentary is to be aired in Japan to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the war’s end.
At noon Tokyo time on Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, saying, “The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable.”
Known as "the Jewel Voice Broadcast,” the radio address was the first time that a Japanese public that considered the emperor to be a living god had ever heard his voice.
“We want to hear about the experiences of soldiers who flew in the planes,” one of the filmmakers said through an interpreter. “We want to humanize these men.”
What was Strugats’ reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack? Had he wanted to join the military? How had loved ones felt when he went off to war? Had he been fearful as he flew toward his targets?
Strugats, a member of the Guam-based 315th Bomb Wing, 501st Bomb Group, said the missions he flew had industrial sites as their targets. But, he said, that did not spare him the knowledge that civilians might have perished in the attacks.
“We were sent to bomb their oil refineries, because without fuel, Japan would be finished,” the Bronx-born retired lawyer said, sweeping his arms in a gesture of finality. “The war would be over.”
“I felt terrible about killing people,” said Strugats. “But we were at war with a job to do. If you didn’t do your job, you would be court-martialed.”
Although much has been said and written about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Americans know little about the firebombing raids that savaged the Japanese mainland in the months prior.
On March 10, 1945, America’s military commanders, frustrated that raids against industrial facilities proved ineffective at forcing Japan’s capitulation, initiated a monthslong firebombing campaign against some 60 cities across Japan.
Less than a month earlier, American bombers had targeted Dresden, Germany, in an attack so unsettling that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill questioned whether firebombing cities “simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.”
In the assault on Japan, some 300 B-29 aircraft targeted Tokyo, dropping three million pounds of cluster bombs that sprayed newly invented napalm, a gasoline gel that burns at 1,500 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, sticks to skin and flows into hiding places.
"Fifteen square miles of Tokyo's most densely populated area were burned to the ground," read a passage in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, a 1987 Pentagon account.
The nighttime raid killed some 105,400 residents, many of them in Tokyo’s Shitamachi neighborhood of traditional wood and paper homes.
"I had friends on planes that carried firebombs over Tokyo," Strugats said. "I don't know how I would have felt."
In the decades following Japan’s surrender, relatively few survivors of the firebombings spoke about the carnage they witnessed.
“Our parents would just say, ‘That’s a different era,’ ” Japan resident Haruyo Nihei, who witnessed the Tokyo raid from a railroad embankment when she was 8 years old, told the Japan Times recently. “They wouldn’t talk about it."
With the dwindling number of eyewitnesses, now in their mid-70s or older, there is renewed interest in compiling oral histories of those who lived through the inferno.
“It was a blazing firestorm,” said Nihei, 78. “I saw a baby catch fire on its mother’s back, and she couldn’t put out the fire. I saw a horse being led by its owner. The horse balked and the cargo on its back caught fire, then its tail, and it burned alive, as the owner just stood there and burned with it.”
The television crew asked Strugats whether he believed humankind would ever abandon wars.
He responded with an emphatic “No.”
“There will always be wars and killings,” he said. “History dictates that.”