A couple of years before the United States entered the Second World War, there was a meeting at Harvard University. The president of Harvard was there.
The president of M.I.T., a Nobel Prize winner, the president of the Standard Oil Development Company, and two professors, Louis Fazer from Harvard and the chair, Hoyt Huttle from M.I.T. come.
Thirty nine. A lot of people up or something. Wait the end sooner or later. And our state of preparedness, schorsch or. Hoddle was slender, high for head, generous eyebrows. A giant in his field. He'd been tapped by the National Defense Research Committee. The end, D.R.C., the top secret government group charged with developing new weapons for the American military. The most famous effort of the NDIC was, of course, the Manhattan Project, the multi-billion dollar operation out of Los Alamos to develop the first atomic bomb.
Huddle's group was a more obscure subcommittee. They weren't physicists. They were chemists. And their focus wasn't on finding better ways to blow things up. It was on finding better ways to burn things down.
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This is part two of a four part series about Curtis LeMay and the events of March 1945.
Part one, which you should listen to first, if you have not already, was about the rise of an insurgent group of pilots known as the bomber mafia. They believed that wars could be won entirely from the air, but bombers need bombs. And this episode is about the scientists who attempted the bomber mafia with one of the most seductive and the most deadly weapons of the modern era.
It is important not to confuse the kemmis civil war, too, with the physicists, they belong to different ecosystems.
Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the Manhattan Project, was the archetypal physicist, brilliant, handsome, charismatic, moody.
Oppenheimer grew up in luxury in Manhattan in an apartment with paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh. He fell in love with beautiful communists in the world of science. Oppenheimer was an aristocrat. He had no difficulty persuading the government to build him a massive, secluded research facility at Los Alamos near his ranch in Santa Fe, where Oppenheimer and his fellow physicists could pursue the holy grail of the atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Project costs two billion. In 1940s dollars, the people who worked on it were quite literally the smartest people in the world. The operation was infiltrated by spies. Everyone was having affairs. Los Alamos was like a high IQ reality show.
That was physics in the 1940s. The province of glamour and intrigue.
The Kemmis were not like that. Hoyt Huttle and his obscure subcommittee weren't trying to split the atom or glimpse some distant scientific horizon. They were interested in the oldest and most basic of all weapons of war fire.
They talked about it, obsessed about it, dreamt about it. On the day of my arrival, I was scheduled. To talk before the Zoroastrians, Sally. This is Hoddle in an interview near the end of his life with the Science History Institute, talking about meeting his counterparts in England in the middle of the war, Zoroastrian society was an informal group of military men, professors in math petitions. They named themselves for an ancient Persian religion, which had special rituals based on fire and Zoroastrian society.
Talk about how better to put out fires or do this or the other passed on the quality of bombs. This was Huddle's kind of crowd. His personal specialty was flame throwers. And I thought it would be a good thing to get General Motors and tank mounded flame thrower with intermittent ejection intermittency permitted. You use a very much larger diameter nozzle if you mounted a flamethrower on a tank.
Well, that really grabbed his imagination. But the end, D.R.C. needed the country's scientists to think bigger. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour and controlled much of East Asia. The Germans were in command of Europe. America needed new weapons fast. Physicists were dispatched to de Mexico to split the atom and the chemists were asked to reexamine the lethal qualities of thermal combustion.
We needed to know more about incendiary bombs.
So Hoddle gathered his elite circle. University presidents, Nobel Prize winners, Ivy League professors, all of them specialists in the particular consequences of combining oxygen, fuel and heat. And he proposed a competition, a bake off, if you will.
Let us see who among us can build the finest weapon for burning things down as the best firebomb wins.
Hoyt Huddle's Peikoff would eventually involve some of the biggest industrial companies in the country.
But there was one dark horse, Louis Fiza repeated Abberation show the way in which my student visa was born in Ohio in 1899.
He majored in chemistry at Williams College, got his P H.T. from Harvard, postdocs at Oxford in Frankfurt. Fees are probably should have won a Nobel Prize for his work on vitamin K, but the war got in the way. His research assistant was his wife. The equally brilliant Mary Fazer women didn't get hired as chemistry professors in those days. But together, the couple wrote one of the definitive chemistry textbooks, co-authors Pfizer and Pfizer. Louis was largely bowled, a little heavyset mustache, always with a cigarette.
So one of the lavatory. Don't forget to photograph Louis, Fiza was a man of imagination and whimsy. His scientific memoir, published in 1964, begins with his wartime work, but then quickly turns to detailed descriptions of things like a pocket firebomb. He calls it an inspired bit of brand awareness. The Harvard Kandal, a chapter on attaching incendiaries to Patts, an extended riff on how to ignite a 1000 gallon oil slick. And the Cool Grah, a chapter on his Siamese cats in Chi Poo and his concept for a squirrel proof bird feeder freezer wasn't a physicist thinking big thoughts under the big skies of New Mexico.
He didn't have security guards monitoring his every move, like the physicists at Los Alamos or review boards monitoring his progress, or anxious military men checking in every day. He just went to his basement laboratory and made stuff. We don't have many recordings of Fiza, but in the Science History Archives, there is an extended interview with a colleague of his, someone named William von Eggers during who taught chemistry for years at Yale and Harvard.
It gives you a sense of this world of scientists with a license to be just a little mad at the compound.
We were after it. Oh, yes, China. And so in 92, the interview goes on for hours and it's weirdly riveting.
Probably just wanted to run the whole thing since it's so. Well, you're here.
Let me just play for you the part where Von Eggers starts reminiscing about working in physics laboratory at the very beginning of the war.
Do you remember those heavy karius, too? So you put in about 20 or 30 grams of TNT. You pour a little access, bromine, no shielding them to put a bomb with a wire after you. The faster you put the heating to in that little space than if it blew up the ground for this little part of the morning and half the truth blew up. Understand that Von Eggers was one of the great chemists of his generation.
He published his first scientific paper in 1939, at his last in 2008. Eight decades of work in every picture I've ever seen of him, he's wearing a poker dotted bow tie. His great uncle was president of the Rice Bank in Germany. I may one day devote an entire revisionist history episode to him. How can you not love this guy?
Oh, no. You. He's like a 13 year old kid with a chemistry set.
Got it. The time the Germans have a word to describe certain personages cherish air, which means having an animal like seriousness about them. And I must say that there was very little.
Which is when Louis Caesar came down to Vanegas lab with his ever present cigarettes, the grad students would play pranks on him.
Well, I want to talk as people would invariably throw his cigarettes show and burn and the. And so the game was trying to guess when it was coming down.
And therefore, easier to catch fire in the hopes that it would catch fire.
These were the scientists the government gathered during the war for the second obscure subcommittee of the NDIC, the base McKennis. They kept on meeting around the country, planning, scheming, tinkering, and one day, May twenty eighth, nineteen forty one at a National Defense Research Committee meeting in Chicago. These are here's about a curious incident that just happened at a Dupont chemical plant. A group in one of Dupont paint factories had been working with something called dye vinyl, acetylene.
It's a hydrocarbon, an oil byproduct. And if you mix it with a pigment, the paint will dry into a tough, thick adhesive film. But the film kept bursting into flame. That was obviously bad news for someone to make a better paint, but not for people thinking about how to make a better firebomb.
It's time for me to discuss one of my personal obsessions. Coming clean, I have a home office in a little cottage, maybe one hundred yards to my house, and there lots of times when I disappear there.
I said, everybody else, I have to go do some work. Of course, I'm not working.
I'm obsessively watching old track and field videos. You want the 1974 Commonwealth Games? Fifteen hundred metres. I've watched it now. I don't really want the world to know. That's what I'm doing. I like the image of Malcolm. The tireless workaholic sort of hide my tracks whenever I go online. I use Express VPN. Now, I know most of you are probably thinking, why don't I just use incognito mode?
Well, let me tell you something.
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All you have to do is tap one button, protect your online activity today with a VPN rated number one by PSINet and Wired. Visit my exclusive link Express VPN dot com slash Gladwell and you can get an extra three months free on a one year package. That's Eeks PR, ESX, V.P. and dot com slash Gladwell Express VPN dot com slash Gladwell. To learn more. Hello, hello, everyone. Malcolm Gladwell here. I'm here to say a few words about Ray Khan, wireless earbuds.
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In his memoirs, he writes, I volunteered chiefly because I had available in my Peace Time research group. A man ideally qualified to experiment with and evaluate a hazardous chemical.
Dr. Eby Hershberg, do you know how he got hooked up with Fazer? Yes. Nurses from Boston area. That's Robert Hershberg.
His father, E.B. Hirschberg, was FISAs research fellow.
I think the very quick and short answer was there were limited places for employment for Jews and fees. You couldn't care less about religion. So that's the levy wound up in.
Ibby Hershberg was in Louis FISAs words, a masterful experimentalist in organic chemistry and also versed in engineering and mechanical drawing, in carpentry and in photography. Are goes on.
He was experienced in the handling of military explosives, fuses, poison gases, smoke pots and grenades, and had invented a long list of devices, including the hershberg stir, the hershberg stirring motor and the hershberg melting point apparatus in our basement.
We had defused bombs and things of that nature and pictures of explosions that occurred and some of the incendiary devices were. In the desk drawers. So what were there? Well, these were just the devices that he and Visa had been experimenting with during the 40s.
They invented them. That lab and there were other people. But there things like notebooks that had incendiary devices in them that if you were captured, then you wrote a pull up. Pull the pen out. You had half an hour to write everything down in which you want to. And get out of there before I blew up and burn down the building.
That's Ibby Hershberg. So he and Louis Fazer go to Wilmington, Delaware, to investigate the Dupont compound that makes paint catch on fire.
Dynel Acetylene. Then they come back to Harvard and start cooking up batches of it. They would put the batches in pens and placed them in the window.
Well, appeasers basement lab. They noticed how the substance gradually changed from a liquid to thick discus gel. They poked the gel with sticks. Then they set fire to it and noticed, and I'm quoting here from Peter's book, because this was the crucial insight when a discus gel burns. It does not become fluid, but retains its Becka's sticky consistency. The experience suggested the idea of a bomb that would scatter large burning globs of sticky gel and quote. He dropped the bomb and the gel scatters, and it doesn't just burn itself out.
Big globs of gel fly in every direction. And those globs stick to whatever surface they land on and keep burning and keep burning and keep burning. Hershberg and fees are now had to find a way to test this new concept of incendiary gels. So they built a little two foot tall wooden structure in the lab and compared how well different gel formulations did in burning it down. Diversional acetylene was good, but a gel made of rubber and benzene was better and gasoline was even better than Benzi.
They tried to amber colored smoke sheet rubber, pale, crape, rubber, rubber, latex vulcanized rubber. They made a prototype and took it with them in a suitcase on the train to Washington, giving it to the porter, to Kerry, who said it feels heavy enough to be a bomb. Next, they tried aluminum napped. Tonight, a sticky black tar made by a chemical company out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. The tar didn't mix well with gasoline, but they solved the problem by mixing in something else called aluminum palmitate.
Gasoline mixed with aluminum naps and eight plus aluminum palmitate napalmed. So if you want ineffective, incendiary, something that is sticky is much more effective than something that is not sticky because it actually adheres to whatever it is transferring its radiation energy into. And that's why napalm is so effective.
That's Robert Nir, author of Napalm An American Biography.
If the gelled material is too soft or too weak, then it won't actually deliver a very large amount of radiation to whatever it's sticking to. You can think of a Molotov cocktail that's filled up with gasoline exploding and delivering gasoline. It can burn somebody or something quite terribly, but the fire will go out relatively quickly, whereas by contrast, if napalm is thrown on something, it will stick to it. A gel that was too loose would produce what they described dismissively as apple sauce.
In other words, it wasn't thick enough or solid enough in its globules to adhere to something and something that was just right would form quite large sized chunks. So it had to be a balance in between too thick and too thin and just right. And that's what they ultimately hit upon with napalm.
I met Robert near at Harvard and asked him to take me on what he calls his napalm tour of the campus.
Is this the soccer field? Yeah, this is. Oh. Here he feels it's named after one of the greatest Harvard soccer players ever. And it's the soccer field now. And it also was used as a soccer field in the 1940s.
The Harvard soccer field right behind the business school is across the river from the main campus. E.B. Hershberg had figured out a plan to turn their new gel into a bomb.
He suggested inserting a stick of TNT with a layer of white phosphorus wrapped around it in the middle of a canister of napalm. Phosphorus burns at a very high temperature. So the TNT would go off driving the burning phosphorus into the napalm gel, igniting it and sending globs of it in every direction for a bomb case. They used a shell that had originally been designed to hold mustard gas.
Hershberger and and freezer come to test here.
When you're a gym member, 40 to 43, it was on Independence Day 1942. So they finalized the formulation for the jellied incendiary on Valentine's Day, February 14th of 1942. And then they figured out the white phosphorus burster ignition system and got the bomb shells from the military and built their prototypes. And as I had mentioned, Doug, this lagoon into the field in the middle of this field day big. How big was the lagoon? The lagoon was, I believe, about 100 feet in diameter.
It was quite a substantial lagoon because they didn't want anybody to get hurt and they had this pretty large napalm bomb in a canister that they were going to explode in the center. So they put the bomb right in the center of this lagoon, which had been filled up with water by some trucks from the Cambridge Fire Department.
The birth of napalm baptized in eight inches of water in the middle of Harvard's soccer pitch when he was doing his research. Robert near spotted a little detail in the photos from that day.
So in the initial pictures of the test, there are people dressed in whites playing on the tennis courts, which are still right over there. You can see the tennis courts. And then after the bomb goes off, you see that the tennis courts are abandoned. So maybe they told everybody that they were about to test this. They found bomb, or maybe they just let them keep playing tennis and then tested and everybody ran away. I don't know. But I mean, nobody was injured in these tests after the bomb was exploded.
They made a very careful catalogue of the distribution and size of the extinguished globules of napalm because that was part of determining the most effective consistency of the gel. And how does the gel explode past the. No, it's all contained within. Oh, I see. There's no disaster. Did they know in other words, they have some idea about how far the gel is going to fall. These are genius engineers and incredibly skilled people. And so they know how far things will fly based on the amount of explosive that they've put inside the device.
And they're right.
This was the firebomb. The freezer and hershberg entered in the National Defense Research Committee. Peikoff up against some of the biggest chemical companies of the day. Standard Oil had a sodium so nicknamed applesauce. Kodak had a prototype made out of ground up newsprint visa and Hershberg had napalm and Hawthorne showed up.
Dupont had a home of. But Joe Hoyt, Hoddle organized it all. The Army sent generals to monitor the proceedings.
The bake off testers slammed the explosives with something hard.
They tested the explosives in the attics of houses. They flew them at high altitudes in the bombing base of planes resting in beds of dry ice, test after test.
How well did the ingredients disperse? How hot did they burn? And what? One after months and months of this napalm created. At Harvard University, perfected in the soccer fields along the meandering Charles River. Hello, Tim Harford here with news cautionary tales has returned with a special mini season as the world has found itself turned upside down. I've been searching for insight from the great crimes, catastrophes and fiascos of the past and the hope that they will teach us something about the challenges we face today.
As always, there is tragedy, heroism and lessons to learn as I weave together history and the latest social science to witness the scramble to evacuate.
As great waves wash away, whole cities sit in a crowded cabaret as flames creep closer and closer to the auditorium and visit the plague hit town where people calmly await death so their neighbors will live. And behind it all, a question.
Should we have seen the pandemic coming?
Subscribe to cautionary tales in Apple podcasts or wherever you listen from Pushkin Industries. Hi there, I'm Michael Lewis, host of Against the Rules. And we're back for our second season. We're talking about coaches. It wasn't that long ago that we only had coaches in sports, but now there are life coaches and death coaches. You can even hire a coach to improve your online dating performance and your charisma. But coaching has become an odd source of unfairness. Who has access to these coaches and who doesn't find against the rules wherever you listened.
Brought to you by Pushkin Industries. The philosophy taught at the Air Corps Tactical School was based on precision and elegance fly high, use some kind of sophisticated aiming device to perfectly line up the target, disable a city by surgically destroying its water supply or its power plants or its bridges. With one beautifully choreographed attack.
When Curtis LeMay arrived in Europe, he made his flight crews spend their spare time studying the targets they were supposed to bomb. No one had done that before. Most commanders just gave their flight crews their orders and let them go. But to the bomber mafia, that was crazy. How could you hit something precisely that you'd never seen before?
Any crew can hit a target if he can see it. And had an opportunity. But a lot of different plane bombings, hurricanes in the desert and bombing northeast corner of a factory building in the midst of an industrial build up of industrial highways, bad weather and poor visibility.
And so poor lamé made his crews pore over maps, memorize plan.
At least they became familiar with the geography of prominent landmarks so that if they saw any flying through a hole in the clouds, they can immediately translated a map on where they were.
This is what the bomber mafia meant by precision bombing. It relied on skill and preparation. But there was another school, a bombing area bombing. It had the same goal break the morale of the enemy. But the area bombers said, why bother trying to hit an aqueduct from 30000 feet? Why not just bomb everything in sight? Carpet bomb. Much easier.
Can we turn to Dresden? What, 1944 45. Was it the bombing of drogue? Yeah. The great proponent of aerial bombing was the head of the Royal Air Force's bomber command, Arthur Harris, known as Bomber Harris, to the British press and Butcher Harris to his men.
Once the story goes, Paris was stopped for speeding during the war. The policeman said you could kill innocent people driving like that.
Harris replied, Young man, I killed thousands of people every night. Harris was interviewed by the British Forces Broadcasting Service in 1977.
Well, of course, people are apt to say, oh, poor Dresden, a lovely city, certainly engaged in producing beautiful little China. A separate issue is a matter of fact. It was the last viable governing center of Germany.
Dresden was one of the signature atrocities of the Second World War, an entire city reduced to rubble in one night by Harris's pilots.
How do you answer criticisms that you did bomb civilian populations and kill civilian populations rather than members of the armed forces? What we were doing, we weren't aiming particularly at the civilian population. We were aiming at the production of everything that made it possible for the German army to continue the war. That was our line near the bombing offensive. And I said destruction of facilities for building submarines and the armament industry throughout Germany and the people who worked there, all actors folder to my right and people who work in the production of munitions expect to be treated attractive soldiers.
Otherwise, when would draw the line that statement they were all active soldiers, to my mind, went to the heart of the difference between the precision bombers and the area bombers.
The precision bombers said you limit yourself to only the most critical targets, the aqueducts and the power plants and the bridges, because civilians should not be primary targets of any bombing campaign.
The area bombers said there is no such thing as a civilian in time of war, which meant the bomber could bomb whatever he wanted. Air Marshal Harris liked his pilots to fly in at night because they didn't particularly need to see their targets, did they? Plus, flying in at night was safer since it was harder for the enemy to shoot down your planes. And Harris loved incendiary bombs. To his mind, they made so much more sense to drop explosives on a factory.
And with luck, you blow up the factory. You drop incendiaries on the same factory. And with luck, the fire burns down the whole neighborhood.
Support for area bombing was strongest among the British, but right from the start of the war, it had its proponents on the U.S. side as well. People who didn't buy the elaborate theories of the bomber mafia, especially when it came to the question of how to fight Japan.
This is an example of the war supplies that are being sent to General MacArthur. Look at the bombs to be hurled upon the Japs. An Air Force, motorized equipment of every sort.
Let me read to you from an essay published in Harper's Magazine by two American analysts a few months after Pearl Harbor.
When it comes time to attack Japan, the authors argue there's a really easy way to do it. Fire Osaka is a case study look. They argue Osaka streets are really narrow. Narrow streets means that fire can jump easily from one side of the street to the other. Plus, Japanese cities aren't built a bricks and mortar like Western cities. Japanese houses were tinderboxes. The article goes on after some considerable calculation. We have determined that the combustible coverage in the 25 square mile area that is the central section of Osaka is 80 percent, as opposed to 15 percent.
For London, 80 percent. That's almost everything. They lay out the strategy over thousands of cold blooded words. And then at the very end, almost as an afterthought. Right.
The suffering in some areas would be terrible to contemplate. The bomber Maffia read that last line and said, that's the point. That's why area bombing is unthinkable. But the kemmis read everything else and thought, oh, what an opportunity, let's just burn it all down. Generals don't really believe what they think they can visualize. They all are Japanese.
Well, age old age Hoyt Huddle needed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Fiza and Hershberger Napalm, the winner of his Bake Off, could burn down a Japanese city. He chose to do it at Dugway. The Army's 800000 acre test facility in the middle of the Utah desert. Huddle's team would build a Japanese city, a perfect replica and a German one, too.
For comparison purposes, it's amazing the enormity of the effort that went into building roads.
Things they brought in top level architects for the German village. Eric Mendelsohn, a brilliant German Jewish architect who designed some of the most beautiful art deco and are modern buildings of the 1920s and 30s for the Japanese village. Hoddle conscripted Enten and Raymond, who lived in Japan for years. And to this day is probably Japan's most celebrated Western architect.
We decided that the two inch thick rice straw man would characterize the Japanese home. The Karmi were important because they were a major resistance to the bomb crashing through one floor after another. So we had to have Takami.
They built 24 different Japanese residences, 12 complexes with two units, each with Shoghi Japanese sliding partition doors and perfect replicas of Japanese outdoor shutters.
And Raymond Ward and the cabinet work on making these things under his eye. In New Jersey here, we wanted to build a place, a new car. The world was in the Pacific. Cabinet work would be a New Jersey. And these are absurdities.
As for the architect Henton Raymond. He would say almost nothing about that time. In his autobiography, a gorgeous, massive coffee table sized book. There is just one line hinting at what it must have felt like to have devoted his career to creating Japanese buildings and then being asked by his country for help to burn them down. He wrote. It was not an easy task for me and my wife to be instrumental in devising means of defeating Japan.
But Hoddle and his project manager, Slim Myers, were perfectionists. Damn. Got to be absolutely right. These journals, you're not gonna stop us because we didn't have something that was really characteristic. We got to be right. In the summer of 1943, Huddle's model villages were ready for the Air Force bombers. One plane after another dropped their bombs and after each round, the teams on the ground rebuilt whatever was damaged. They compared British thermite bombs, which were the incendiaries favored by Bomber Harris in his night raids on Germany with hershberg and FISAs napalm, which now went by the name.
Sixty nine point Hoddle and his teams stood by keeping score. We early.
Decided that we couldn't wait for the fire truck. We had to rush out to take care of the fire. In fact, we had to rush out before all of a bomb had dropped. The whole point was to analyze the damage. There were three categories of destructiveness, a uncontrollable within six minutes, b, destructive if unattended, and C nondestructive napalm was the hands down winner, 68 percent success rate in Category A. on Japanese houses. In other words, it caused uncontrollable fires.
By contrast, British thermite ran a poor distant second with napalm.
The US had built itself a superweapon main component of the M sixty nine bomb Jesus Christ site containing specially processed gellin gasoline. What ignited the JALLAL selling becomes like clinging fiery mass, spreading more than a yard in diameter.
The lethal power of napalm was now an empirical fact. And the question of what to do about Japan was no longer in the realm of abstract argument, which presented the bomber mafia's ideology with the temptation of biblical proportions.
It burns at approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit for eight to 10 minutes.
Did the precision bombers stay true to the purity of their dogma, or did they succumb to the destructiveness of napalm before air drops?
The M sixty nine is assembled in groups of thirty eight. The twenty three adapter is used in forming 500 pound nameable clusters carried by planes equipped to handle this size bomb.
What did Satan say to Jesus during his 40 day ordeal in the wilderness? The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this. I will give you, he said, if you will bow down.
And worshipping clusters are given high and low altitude tests at Edgewood Arsenal with a B twenty five loading the 500 pounder. All the bomber mafia had to do was bow down and worship the chemists and all of Japan would be theirs, a cluster is released and opened and the individual bombs with guards, creamer's trailing dropped toward the target. In the next episode of Revisionist History, Part three of the Curtis Dumais story, Curtis, the May attacks Japan. Revisionist history is produced by Miller, Bell and Leming as to which Jacob Smith, Ellery's Linton.
And on a nine hour editor is Julia Barton, original scoring by Louis Scarer. Mastering by Flon Williams. Fact checking by Beth Johnson. Special thanks to the Pushkin crew. Had a faint Carly Migliore, Maya Karnig, Maggie Taylor, Jason Gambril and of course, Jacob Weisberg. I'm Malcolm Gladwell.