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.