Seventy-five years ago, the entire world was still at war.
In Europe, the Allied armies of American, British, Canadian and Free French forces were pushing Germany in the west while huge Soviet armies were driving east into Germany. Other Allied troops were pushing northward up through Italy, putting the Nazis into an ever-tighter circle. In the Pacific, a bloody island-hopping campaign had pushed the Allies to the outer rim of Japan itself. Less than three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese homeland was now being bombed.
But the precision bombing campaign that had been ongoing since the summer of 1944, was being put on a side burner while a new and terrible tactic was being tried — firebombing. On the night of March 9/10, the United States Army Air Forces launched a huge raid of 279 B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers that dropped incendiaries on eastern Tokyo. By eschewing military targets, and targeting the civilian population of Japan, the raid opened up the great debate over the morality of the U.S.’s actions.
During the raid, much of eastern Tokyo, which was constructed mainly of wood and paper, was completely destroyed. Japanese anti-aircraft defenses were inadequate as were their civil defense and firefighting units. The Tokyo Raid, known as “Operation Meetinghouse” was the most destructive raid of the war. Over 90,000 people were killed, with some estimates running as high as 100,000, and more than a million Japanese civilians were displaced. Firebombing became the standard for the U.S. bombing campaign against Japan until the end of the war.
Up until January 1945, the U.S. B-29 raids focused on precision-bombing and in targeting vital military facilities, such as aircraft factories, etc. These raids were largely ineffective, due to high winds at altitude, and problems with the bombers themselves. The previous commander of the bomber command was relieved and General Curtis LeMay was put in charge. LeMay had seen the damage that was done to Germany in the firebombing of both Dresden and Berlin and the massive devastation that these raids had caused.
LeMay had the B-29s fly at very low levels and drop M69 incendiary bomblets, which were extremely effective at starting uncontrollable fires. These were dropped in clusters and when they hit the ground, a fuze would spray napalm from the unit, which was then ignited.
LeMay decided to have the B-29s attack individually rather than in the standard formation and to do so at night. The fuel savings by going low (each of the wings would fly between 5,000 and 7,000 feet) and individually allowed the B-29s to be able to carry more ordnance.
His planners for the raid decided to target a rectangular area in northeastern Tokyo designated as Zone I which measured approximately four miles by three miles. The target area was divided by the Sumida River and included most of Asakusa, Honjo, and Fukagawa Wards. These wards formed part of the Shitamachi district of Tokyo. While there was little of military value in it, it was the most densely populated area of the city.
“You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen,” said LeMay. The B-29s began leaving their bases at 5:35 p.m. local time on March 9. It took two hours and 45 minutes for all of the 325 bombers to get airborne. Conditions over Tokyo were clear but there were high winds over the city with gusts ranging as high as 45 to 65 mph. These winds would prove to be a bigger thorn for the Japanese Civil Defense teams as the fire would spread even more rapidly.
The attack began at 12:08 a.m. on March 10. Pathfinder bombers armed with M-47 napalm bombs marked the target area in an “X” shape for the follow-on bombers to find their targets. The raid lasted two hours and forty minutes. The visibility, which had been so clear at the beginning of the raid, was poor due to the heavy smoke caused by the fires.
A total of 279 bombers reached the target and dropped their bombs, 19 hit secondary targets, and 27 B-29s turned back for a variety of issues. Japanese air defense of the city was poor. Anti-aircraft fire was mainly directed high above the bomber formations; night fighters were sortied but their defense was poorly coordinated with the ground and they shot down no bombers. Ground-based AAA shot down only 12 bombers but damaged 42 others. Two were so badly damaged that they were eventually scrapped.
However, the damage brought by the incendiaries was devastating. The heat from the fires below caused massive turbulence over the city for the later attacking formations. The smell of burning flesh was so great that some crews had to wear oxygen masks. Many of the bombers were streaked with ashes from the fires, thousands of feet below them.
On the ground, it was a hellish experience. Within 30 minutes of the start of the attack, the fires had raged out of control. The Japanese Civil Defense units and fire departments gave up trying to fight the massive fires and tried to get the civilian population out of the affected areas. But the strong winds whipped the blazes into a firestorm that consumed nearly the entire northeastern part of Tokyo. Over 600 first responders and 96 fire trucks were consumed in the blaze.
The sheer amount of ordnance dropped made it nigh impossible for civilians to escape.
Civilians who opted to remain in their homes stood no chance and were consumed. The radio broadcasts urged the population to flee, but for most, it was too late. One group consisting of hundreds of civilians was racing across a bridge towards safety when a bomber dropped an entire load of incendiaries right on top of them. They were instantly burned to death. Some people who made it to the canals died when the fires sucked the oxygen right out of the air and they suffocated.
The firestorm didn’t burn out until the next morning. Over a million people were displaced. The Japanese government didn’t even attempt to restore services to some parts of the city after the raid. More than 79,000 bodies were recovered and most were buried in mass graves. The Tokyo Fire Department gave the total number of casualties as 97,000 dead and 125,000 wounded, although historians 40 years later would argue that the death toll was probably twice that. The firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than the atomic bombs at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
A total of 267,171 buildings were destroyed, a quarter of all of the buildings in Tokyo. This raid and the others that quickly followed proved to be a big blow to the morale of the Japanese people, who realized that what the government was saying about the war and what was actually happening was vastly different.
The war would continue for another five months. And Japan wouldn’t surrender until the second atomic bomb was dropped. Thousands more, on both sides, would lose their lives before this happened.