Firebombing of Tokyo 10th March 1945

Firebombing of Tokyo 10th March 1945

Bombing of Tokyo in 1945. is given far less attention than some objectively less deadly attacks (London Blitz, attack on Pearl Harbor, or bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki). Yet it is important to understand why it happened, how it was so deadly, and why the memory of the attack is so negligible.

While conventional bombardment of Japan is given far less attention than the atomic bombs that succeeded it, it was overall far more deadly. Just in Tokyo, some 100 000 people were killed.


US involvement into the Second World War began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. Until then, United States had maintained official neutrality as outlined by the US President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1937 “Quarantene Speech”, though by 1941. this neutrality was a dead letter on paper. In 1939., president Roosevelt sharply criticized the bombardment of civilians carried out in Europe, declaring that:

The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.

If resort is had to this form of inhuman barbarism during the period of the tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have now broken out, will lose their lives. I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every Government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply.

US began pushing Japan back following victories in battles of Coral Sea and Midway. Part of the US strategy was so-called “island hopping”, where US forces would attack and seize only those islands that had or could support an acceptable air strip. Nevertheless, the fighting was heavy on both the sea and the land.

As early as November 1941., US authorities were discussing the possibility of firebombing the Japanese cities. In February 1945., Western Allies wiped out the city of Dresden in Germany. Few days later, British Air Commodore C.M. Grierson stated at press meeting that some objectives that targeted the civilians were inhumane. USAAF leadership was rather annoyed by the statement, and one USAAF general described Grierson’s statement as an “absolute stupidity by an incompetent officer”. Nevertheless, USAAF did develop an aircraft designed for precision strikes – B-29 Superfortress, whose development budget was 3 billion USD (55 billion USD in today’s money, though inflation for military hardware is higher than general inflation). For comparison, Manhattan project “only” cost some 1.9 billion USD.

Early attacks on Japan had as a primary target industrial and military installations, but US planners were well aware of Japanese cities’ vulnerability to fire. This became an important consideration. Raymond H. Ewell, a chemical engineer, wrote in a report in April 1943:

Anyone familiar with the M-69 (Napalm) and with the construction and layout of Japanese cities can make a few calculations and soon reach a tentative conclusion that even as small amounts as 10 tons of M-69´s would have the possibility of wiping out significant portions of any of the large Japanese cities. (Karacas, 2006)

In March 1943., General H.H. Arnold asked the Committee of Operations Analysis to make a list of potential targets in Japan. Report concluded that:

Japanese war production is peculiarly vulnerable to incendiary attack on urban areas because of the widespread practice of subcontracting to small handicraft and domestic establishments. Many small houses in Japan are not merely places of residence, but workshops contributing to the production of war materials. (Searle, 2002)

General Arnold himself held firm to precision bombing doctrine, resisting other officers’ requests for incendiary raids against Japan. But on 10th October 1944., the COA submitted a revised report, calling for attacking 1) aircraft industry, 2) urban industrial areas in Tokyo and 3) shipping routes. Only the aircraft industry required precision bombing, while attack against Tokyo could be prosecuted using incendiary weapons.

Commander William M. McGovern also stated that fire was one thing the Japanese tend to be terrified above any other, and proposed that Tokyo should be destroyed. Arnold himself never dismissed radical ideas, such as starving the population by the aerial attack of fishing lanes and poisoning the crops. And as precision bombing showed no results, decision was made to switch to urban incendiary bombing. Politics played as much if not more role in the decision than military concerns: if USAAF could play a decisive role in defeating Japan, Arnold’s wish for independent Air Force would be within reach. Japan was USAAF’s last and best opportunity to prove it deserved independence.

Arnold pushed hard for this goal. He basically risked his career to see the B-29 bomber through. And in early 1944., he constructed his 20th Air Force to be located as far away from other branches as possible. While Curtis LeMay operated XX Bomber Command out of China, General Arnold placed Brigadier General Haywood Hansell in charge of XXI Bomber Command. Arnold wanted results, and quickly, yet results were not coming. First target was Nakajima aircraft plant at Musashino. After a week of weather-induced delay, the mission was finally carried out on 23rd November. A total of 111 B-29s went onto the mission. Of those, only 24 planes found and bombed the primary target. Some 1% of the plant was damaged, and next two attacks were also failures. LeMay performed better: his bombers managed to drop 41% of bombs within 1000 feet of target, while Hansell’s only managed 14%. Arnold thus decided to pull LeMay out of China.

Arnold made it clear to LeMay that he wanted the proof that USAAF could do more advanced bombing with B-29 that was possible ever before. Arnold requested both LeMay and Hansell to provide him with pictures of effects of B-29 raids. When Hansell failed to deliver, Arnold replaced him with LeMay.

Arnold had his fourth serious heart attack on 17th January 1945. His temporary replacement, General Lauris Norstad, granted LeMay increased authority so as to enable him to deliver results. LeMay was under enormous pressure to win the real war US Army Air Force was waging – the war against the Army and for the Air Force independence. Le May ordered eight missions, of which six precision raids and two fire bombing attacks. All attacks achieved worse results than attacks under Hansell. And to add insult to injury, Navy’s air raid using carrier-borne dive bombers heavily damaged the Nakajima aircraft factory – success far greater than all attacks with heavy bombers so far launched by the US Army Air Force.

LeMay did not need Arnold to breathe down his neck. Two days after the Navy attack he ordered 150 heavy bombers against the Nakajima plant. Much like previous USAAF attacks, this attack used far more resources than Naval Air raids, yet produced substantially inferior results. In fact, not a single bomb hit the factory. LeMay had achieved perfect failure score – seven attacks, and all seven failed.

He had to do something, he had to do it fast and he had to do it big. Answer seemed to lie in a large-scale incendiary raid against Tokyo. City was a target far bigger than a factory, and would be hard to miss. And with Tokyo being built mostly of wood to resist earthquakes, setting it ablaze would be easy. To make the attack even more likely to succeed, LeMay suggested significantly lowering the bombing altitude. This would allow bombers to fly below the clouds, carrying a significantly heavier bomb load, and also being able to hit the ground more accurately. Attack would be carried out at night, and LeMay ordered the bombers to be stripped of their guns, ammunition and gunners – allowing each bomber to carry additional 2700 pounds (1225 kg) of bombs.

Japanese preparations

Japanese government had started to prepare a national air defense policy as early as 1931., spurred by the Imperial Japanese Army attack on the Chinese city of Chinchou in September 1931. Next year the Tokyo City created the Tokyo Defense Brigade that would carry out firefighting, air alert and poison gas attack readiness drills. Popular writers wrote stories which imagined Tokyo under air assault. In 1932., the year Tokyo Defense Brigade was created, writer Unno Juza wrote first of his many air defense novels, the Air Raid Requiem. It was published over the five-month period in the Asahi magazine. Uno uniquely did not believe citizens of Tokyo at all ready for such an attack, and had them all flee in panic instead of carrying out duties assigned by the Tokyo Defense Brigade.

In another novel, Uno warned of the danger of fire bombing. While all his stories ended in Japanese victory, the fact that he kept writing them unsettled some military officers. In 1938. a debate erupted over the question of air defense, and Uno was summoned and forbidden from writing new air defense novels – explanation being that “Not one enemy plane will fly over the Imperial capital”.

Nevertheless, the next year Tokyo’s Civil Defense Department and Planning Department concluded that Tokyo was uniquely vulnerable to fire bombing. They called upon the government to “fire-proof” Tokyo by fire-proofing the buildings, dividing the city into blocks bounded by wide streets and strengthening water delivery systems. To make it a less desireable target, it was decided to move factories and important institutions to other cities. In 1940., the Tokyo municipal government urged citizens to be prepared for daily air defenses, using the 1923. earthquake as a motivation. But this went unheeded, and the areas that had been designated by fire breaks were filled with 200 000 temporary wooden barracks.

The first air raid on Japan was on 18th April 1942. On that day, 16 B-25 bombers led by Colonel James Doolittle took off from a carrier in the Pacific and attacked Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe with ease. In Tokyo itself only 39 died and a few houses were damaged, but the response itself was uncoordinated, confused and insufficient. Airplanes were not intercepted, and the air raid sirens sounded only 25 minutes after the attack had begun. Instead of seeking cover, many citizens ran out into streets to see enemy aircraft. The raid changed little in Japanese air defense measures, though it did compel the government to consider the need for evacuating population and industry away from major cities.

Japanese government published a guide called A Companion to Air Defense in 1943. Pamphlet that outlined what government expected of citizens during the air raids was frightful and reminiscent of Unno’s stories. It warned that even before the siren is first heard the enemy planes may be showering the neighborhood with large amounts of incendiaries. People were to prepare by storing water in bathtubs, rainwater tubs and other containers, and having sand, dirt, straw mats and long sticks to battle the flames. When air siren was heard, people were to change into the air raid clothing, check water containers and other equipment, and place all flammables into a safe location. But it was only in June 1943. that the Home Ministry ordered local governments to begin building public air raid shelters and have people who own homes to build their own. Adults were expected to battle fire first and foremost, while children were sent to the shelters.

Only in September 1943. did the government acknowledge that the evacuation of Japan’s largest cities might be required. Plans were made in December 1943., but these only suggested that the children and elderly leave to ther relatives in the countryside – which many did not have. But USA had basically won the war with the capture of Philippines, and capture of Marianas in summer of 1944. put every Japanese city within the range of the US B-29 bombers. In response to this, on 30 June 1944., the government called for the mandatory evacuation of 4th through 6th-grade elementary school students. Over 400 000 children, of whom 225 000 came from Tokyo, were evacuated to the countryside. In December, they encouraged pregnant women, mothers with infants, all remaining primary school children and people over 65 years of age to evacuate from urban areas.

At the end of November 1944., USA began a series of air raids on Tokyo from the Marianas islands. General Arnold decided to prioritize the factories and docks for beginning, but with an eye toward destroying the entire city later on. But because the bombers constantly missed targets, citizens became so used to attacks that they would not even use the air raid shelters. But an attack on Ginza-Yurakucho district on 27th January 1945. killed hundreds. It was but a preview of what was to come.

Air Raid of 10th March

For the raid of the fateful day, Curtis LeMay targeted Tokyo’s most populated district. It was a twelve square mile area housing 1 300 000 people. Raid was to be carried out by the 29th Bomb Group, most of whose planes had only recently arrived at their base at island of Guam. Crews had picked up their brand new B-29s straight from the assembly line at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas, in early February 1945. From there they took bombers to nearby Herington Kansas Army Base for eleven days of processing and training. From there, they flew to Mather Field at Sacramento in California.

In few days at Mather, they picked up their Norden bombsights and navigation sextants, were briefed on their overseas route, and then took off for their first leg of the journey to the Hickam Field in Hawaii. After a brief rest there, the formation proceeded to combat-shredded island of Kwajalein, and then to North Field Guam. While there, bombers practiced bombing on some unfortunate Japanese soldiers at nearby island of Rota.

Then, on 9th March 1945., crews were called for a mission briefing at 1300 hours. All through the previous night airplanes were being fueled and loaded with bombs. Group Commander, Col. Carl Storrie, delivered the briefing. Colonel Storrie revealed that General LeMay had enough airplanes, bombs, and gasoline and had decided that it was time to finish the Japanese. There would be no more laughable attempts at “precision” bombing. This night they would be going in in-trail at 5 000 to 9 000 feet with incendiary bombs. Goal was to burn down the industrial and working class parts of the city. Such a raid would disrupt industry, displace workers and drive the seat of Japanese government into hiding.

This went entirely against the established doctrine and training. Crew were trained to “precision” bomb from 30 000 feet in broad daylight in massed defensive formation. Instead, here they would swarm at night over heavily defended city at mere 5 000 feet. At such low altitude, Japanese could throw everything they had at the bombers, kitchen sink included.

First B-29s arrived just after midnight on 10th of March, releasing bombs on four corners of the target area in order to create “pathfinder” fires. Japanese attempts to extinguish the fires proved impossible despite efforts by both the neighborhood association defense units and the Metropolitan Police Department’s firefighters.

The growing fires caused the heated air to rapidly rise, allowing the cooler air in its place. This happened with enough intensity to create hurricane-like winds that sucked people in and prevented their escape. Women and children fleeing to evacuation sites were consumed by the flames, and air raid shelters proved useless, people in them killed by heat or asphyxiation. The raid ended two and half hours after it had begun. The B-29s had showered the target area with 541 000 incendiary bombs, a total bomb weight of 2 660 tons. Flames resulting from the attack had affected 26 of Tokyo’s 35 wards, and Fukugawa, Honjo, and Asakusa wards had around 95 percent burned down.

The target area had average population density of 103 000 people per square mile. Bombs of jellied gasoline rained down for three hours, and by 3 AM a firestorm was enveloping the city, leaping effortlessly over the firebreaks. Even people in shelters were killed by the heat or inhaling the heated air. Flames and debris were climbing several thousand feet, and cloud of smoke reached height of 20 000 feet. Odor of burning flesh and debris was nauseating even for the pilots in the bombers themselves.

Even according to USAAF official history, deaths and destruction in Tokyo exceeded any other attack in the Second World War. USAAF estimated that between 72 000 and 97 000 had perished, but the real number of people killed in the attack on Tokyo is certainly over 100 000. Many of the 60 000 students who had just returned to Tokyo from the countryside to attend their graduation ceremonies bombings had either been killed or orphaned. Some 180 000 homes had been destroyed and 370 000 families displaced.

In the Marianas, the mood was completely different. The attack was seen as an accomplishment by LeMay, Norstad and Arnold. Akakuze, the red wind of fire swept with hurricane force and propelled firestorms with unprecedented speed and intensity. It was thus clear that large-scale firebombing raids could work.


The firebombing likely caused some loss of confidence in the government – though what confidence could have remained after already losing the war is questionable. LeMay, his success with raids of 9th and 10th of March being larger than expected, believed that during the next ten nights he could destroy all of Japan’s major industrial cities. Even after having basically flattened Tokyo, B-29s bombed the city again in April and May, delivering four massive assaults.

Assaults were extremely effective. In only 5 missions, USAAF had inflicted destruction equal to 41% of destruction of Germany with only 1% of the total bomb tonnage delivered. USAAF Command was rather enthusiastic, as reflected in the letter sent on by Norstad to LeMay on 3rd April:

The success of our operations in March was nothing short of wonderful … I think you and your XXI Bomber Command have demonstrated courage, skill and adaptability that will have a critical influence on the war against Japan. The next three months will certainly be Japan´s hour of decision.

Norstad was pleased by destruction achieved by LeMay, as it brought USAAF’s goal – winning the war against the US Army – much closer to realization, as it meant that defeat of Japan might be accomplished without the land invasion.

In total, Tokyo had suffered 120 air raids. Just the six large attacks destroyed 56,3 square miles or about half the city. In numbers, it had destroyed 45 percent of all factories, over half of Tokyo´s hospitals and 75 percent of its clinics. Exodus of civilians due to attacks also meant that by early June 1945., Tokyo had lost 62% of its Feburary 1944 population of 6,6 million.

Overall, the attacks hit 67 major Japanese cities – which was directly contrary to COA recommendation which called for bombing only six major cities. This was done mostly for reasons of internal politics, as Arnold wanted the USAAF to achieve independence, but it is questionable whether it contributed at all to quicker end of the war. Arnold and LeMay used the impact of death and destruction caused by the attacks to push forward their ultimate goal of the Air Force autonomy.

By May 1945, 69 000 families among 732 000 households lived in air raid shelters. A month later, 235 400 people, out of the two and a half million still in the capital, lived in some form of air raid shelters. The government promoted underground housing. Bodies of the dead were dumped into mass graves. Japanese 1944. estimates, based on the German experiences, expected that 10 000 civilian deaths over a one-year period would occur in Tokyo once the air attacks began. But differences in building materials made a mockery of these predictions.

In early September 1945, 462 B-29´s, the largest amassing of the bombers to date, made another trip to Tokyo. They overflew the USS Missouri while representatives of the Japanese government signed the instruments of surrender, serving as a reminder of devastation.

Yet despite the high death toll, the bombing of Tokyo left few traces in collective memories of either Japanese or the Americans, being overshadowed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another reason is the strict censorship USA occupational administration placed on anything related to bombing, especially the atomic bombing. This meant a ban of publication of photographic and artistic images or any criticism of the bombings. Any data – even the news – of the attacks were withheld from the Japanese public by the US authorities. All writing on the attack was also prohibited by the occupational authority. Even after the San Francisco Treaty of 1952. the Japanese government enforced restrictions on anything that might portray the United States in negative light. Thus even after the end of the Occupation, hardly anyone wrote about the air raids, and what was written failed to incite much interest.

This attitude however was also partly self-serving. Japanese authorities emphasized atomic bombings over the firebombings in part because Japanese themselves had bombed the Chinese cities during the Japanese invasion of China.

In the end, it was only in the late 1960s, during the uproar over the Vietnam war, that discussion of the firebombing stopped being taboo. Still, research on the Great Tokyo Air Raid only began in the 1970s.



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