Low-level night bombing set much of Tokyo on fire in March 1945.
Although the first Boeing B-29 raid on the Japanese homeland produced less than outstanding results, it was a harbinger of the destruction yet to come. High-altitude daylight raids by American heavy bombers had been little more than a nuisance to Japanese industry. General Curtis LeMay, commander of the U.S. Twentieth Air Force, decided that low-level night bombing might be more effective.
On the night of March 9, 1945, nearly 300 B-29s took off from bases in the Mariana Islands and headed for Tokyo–the first test of LeMay’s new tactic. Laden with 70-pound canisters filled with oil and napalm, jellied gasoline that spewed flame in all directions, the B-29s rained destruction on a city constructed mainly of wood and paper. The raid’s pathfinders had marked the blue-collar area of the Shitamachi district with a flaming X, and the planes that followed dropped more than 2,000 tons of incendiaries on a concentrated area of about 12 square miles.
It was a breezy night in Tokyo, and the winds were already blowing at 28 mph when the first air raid warnings were sounded at 10:30 p.m. Around midnight, the first bombs began falling. In less than half an hour the flames were burning out of control, overwhelming the relatively primitive civil defense capabilities of the police and firefighters.
Many civilians tried to stay in their neighborhoods at first, frantically forming bucket brigades in an attempt to put out the flames. Soon, though, it was apparent that the fire was out of control. Intense heat consumed oxygen and seared lungs. The Sumida River, which ran through the city, boiled and steamed. Unfortunate civilians who sought refuge in its shallows literally cooked.
One survivor remembered: “As I ran, I kept my eyes on the sky. It was like a fireworks display as the incendiaries exploded. People were aflame, rolling and writhing in agony, screaming piteously for help, but beyond all mortal assistance.”
Thousands of feet above the conflagration, American bombers were bounced around by the thermal waves generated by the fires below. Crewmen on their homeward trek could see the city aglow from a distance of 150 miles.
Wind gusts exceeded 40 mph, and the flames eventually devastated 16 square miles of the city. Many of the fires were not extinguished for another four days. Approximately 1.8 million people were made homeless by the raid, and area hospitals could not cope with the catastrophic numbers of injured. Estimates of the casualties ran as high as 200,000. All the dead were finally gathered for burial 25 days after the raid.
LeMay, the architect of the destructive raid, had taken a calculated risk. He believed the Japanese possessed few, if any, night fighters. He therefore gambled that most of his bombers’ defensive machine guns would not be needed. Eventually, he would order that more than 300 B-29s be stripped of their guns so that they could carry more of the M-47 napalm canisters used with such devastating effect on Tokyo. To the consternation of his crews, he also ordered that his planes fly as low as 4,900 feet. At such altitudes they could conserve fuel by not having to struggle against the jet stream and, therefore, carry even more bombs.
Often seen with a pipe or cigar clenched between his teeth, LeMay earned the nicknames “Iron Ass” and “Iron Pants” from his fliers. Although his tactics were often unpopular, they were effective and have generated heated discussion among students of air power to this day.
To generate our own discussions, this issue of World War II Magazine introduces some editorial and design changes. Many of our readers have requested a letters to the editor column, and this issue marks the first appearance of such a department. We invite readers to share their opinions and information with one another through “Communiqués,” and look forward to lively and informative exchanges.
Also, the World War II “Almanac” makes its first appearance in this issue. The Almanac places particular emphasis on commemorating the anniversaries of significant events of the war years. It also helps readers to see the big picture of a truly global conflict. In addition, we have made design improvements throughout the publication, particularly in the presentation of our regular departments and our table of contents page.
We are confident that you will enjoy these enhancements. Thank you for your continued support of our magazine.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II