The night of March 9-10 observes the anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo. Casting an eye today over the sprawling and bustling megacity of more than ten million people, it is hard to imagine the sheer scale of the fire and destruction that was visited upon the Japanese capital on that fateful night in the spring of 1945. In the terrible catalogue of tragedies suffered by civilian populations in wartime, few are as tragic and at the same time as forgotten as the night it rained fire over Tokyo. At that time, the city had the highest population density of any industrial city in the world. Following the aerial attack, one senior U.S. Air Force commander, General Thomas Power, described it as “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history.” To the Japanese, it was “the Raid of the Fire Wind” on account of the “akai-senpuu” or red wind that mercilessly swept across the great metropolis, fanning the flames initiated by the firebombs and forming an inescapable and insatiable carnivorous ring of fire that consumed all who encountered it.
The mission of the lead B-29 Superfortress planes over the city was to make “flaming Xs” as aiming points near which other bombers would unleash their deadly cargo. Subsequent waves of B-29s reported seeing the raging inferno from over 200 kilometers away. As stated by Professor Mark Selden, “the wind drove temperatures up to eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, creating superheated vapors that advanced ahead of the flames, killing or incapacitating their victims.” The nature of the tragedy has meant that no definite number can be given to the final death toll, but conservative estimates state a figure in the region of at least 100,000. Within a matter of hours, the firebombing claimed more lives than the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9 later that year and more than half the number of A-bomb fatalities in Hiroshima on August 6.
The blunt psychological trauma caused by the attack was all the more stupefying because the wartime city of some 4.3 million residents had previously suffered relatively light air-raid casualties – 1,292 deaths – since the first sixteen-plane “Doolittle Raid” of April 18, 1942 – some five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitherto, the Allies had adopted a high-altitude daylight precision bombing campaign over Japan that was more suited to a European theater of war. Unfavourable climatic conditions over Japan, however, meant that only about 10 percent of high altitude bombloads hit their industrial and military targets while low altitude daylight attacks would have made B-29 crews significantly more vulnerable to anti-aircraft attacks. These operational failings convinced U.S. Bomber Command, under the stolid and impassive Major General Curtis LeMay, who was appointed head of XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific in January 1945, to switch to the controversial practice of the massive area bombing, via low-flying night raids, of cities mostly made of wood and paper.
Each of the 334 B-29 Superfortresses that took part in the air assault had most of their guns removed to allow room for more bombs, with each bombload including M-47s (hundred pound oil gel bombs), M-69s (six pound gelled gasoline bombs), and high explosive blast bombs designed to obstruct the efforts of Tokyo’s firefighters. As more than 8500 clusters of these bombs fell from the sky, they broke up into close to half a million cylinders with attached tail streamers that flapped in the wind as they descended, ensuring each bomb’s fuze hit the ground first. Seconds after impact, the incendiary devices sprayed a burst of flaming gel-like liquid that stuck and set fire to combustible objects or surfaces.
The reasoning behind the change in tactics was that the area incendiary bombing of Japanese cities such as Tokyo would incinerate the hitherto largely untouched hundreds of factories and their smaller feeder workshops, which kept the Japanese war machine running. These were often found in the heavily populated downtown or shitamachi districts of the country’s urban centers, thus ensuring an unprecedented assault on human and economic life on the Japanese home islands. In its wake, the air raid left the charred, indistingushable corpses of more than 100,000 people. It laid waste to an area equivalent in size to nearly two-thirds of the borough of Manhattan. Over a million people were left homeless and a quarter of a million buildings were destroyed. A postwar report conducted by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire in Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man. People died from extreme heat, from oxygen deficiency, from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, from being trampled beneath the feet of stampeding crowds, and from drowning. The largest number of victims were the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly.”
Their fate was sealed not only by the curtain of fire that surrounded them, but also by the hopeless inadequacy of Tokyo’s over-stretched and under-equipped firefighters. Historian Richard B. Frank contends there were simply too many fires to tackle, and, in contrast to European cities at the time, Tokyoites had no subways in which to escape the carnage, and only eighteen bomb shelters with room for a mere five thousand people. The self-constructed holes one to two meter deep, known as or bokugo, which the city’s residents dug near their homes provided no protection against the advancing flames. Eyewitness accounts from survivors recall harrowing stories, including the sight of more than one thousand corpses of people who had desperately crammed into a large swimming pool, with every drop of water evaporated as a result of the intense heat. Some of those who managed to survive did so by jumping into the boiling and corpse-laden Sumida River and other waterways. Others squeezed into sewer pipes.
Reflecting on his own role in the firebombing strategy in the forthright 2003 documentary “The Fog of War,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled Curtis LeMay’s expressed opinion that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” He then concluded by stating “And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
Dr. Senan Fox is Associate Professor at the School of International Studies at Kanazawa University in Japan.