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At sunset on March 9, 1945, Major General Curtis E. LeMay watched the first of more than 300 bombers lift off from Guam’s crushed coral runway for a midnight strike on Tokyo some 1,500 miles to the north. The 38-year-old LeMay, who had endured a hardscrabble childhood as the son of an itinerant worker, understood the incredible stakes of the night’s mission. The burly general had landed his job as the head of the XXI Bomber Command after his predecessor was fired for his inability to destroy Japan’s aircraft factories. In the nearly two months since he had taken over, however, LeMay had suffered the same dismal results. But far more was at risk than just his career. If LeMay’s bombers could not force the Japanese to surrender, hundreds of thousands of troops would have no choice but to storm the beaches of the enemy’s homeland in what promised to be a bloody invasion.

But tonight, LeMay gambled, everything would change. 

America’s longstanding policy of daylight precision bombing—designed to minimize civilian casualties—had failed. LeMay determined that to successfully attack the enemy’s home islands required a radical rethinking of American strategy, one so unorthodox, perilous, and morally fraught that he refused to tell his superiors. He would go it alone. LeMay planned to change more than just his tactics, but also his type of target. Gone was the pinpoint focus on the enemy’s industry. Instead, he planned to unleash his bombers armed with napalm incendiaries on downtown Tokyo’s crowded neighborhoods. One of the world’s most congested cities, the capital counted more than 100,000 men, women, and children per square mile, an area LeMay hoped to incinerate by dawn. This was no ordinary mission—and LeMay knew it. This was murder. 

“If we lose,” the general confided in an aide, “we’ll be tried as war criminals.” 

The mission that March night would prove the single-most destructive raid of World War II—and a significant moral turning point for the United States, where doctrine had long forbidden the intentional killing of civilians. When the sun rose over Tokyo six hours after the first bombs fell, it revealed an apocalyptic wasteland. A firestorm sparked by the bombing had devoured 16 square miles of homes, businesses, and factories and killed 105,000 men, women, and children. That sum was more than four times those killed in the fire raid on Dresden, and more even than those who initially died in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lack of public outcry in the United States by either the press or lawmakers served as a green light for LeMay, whose firebombing campaign in the last five months of the war torched hundreds of square miles in scores of Japanese cities and concluded with the atomic bombings. “Tokyo,” as one Army Air Forces report wryly noted, “got the superdeluxe treatment.”

LeMay’s decision to burn Japan’s cities did not arise in a vacuum. The United States had entered World War II committed to a strategy of high-altitude daylight precision bombing, a concept developed in the 1930s at the Air Corps Tactical School at Alabama’s Maxwell Field. In the school’s white stucco classrooms, young officers—often dubbed the “Bomber Mafia”—preached the idea of pinpoint strikes on an enemy’s critical industries. Such a strategy, the Mafiosi believed, promised to collapse a nation’s modern economy, much like a house of cards. This would, in theory, bring about a faster end to the war and spare unnecessary civilian deaths. Bomber advocate Haywood Hansell, who helped develop America’s air strategy in the lead-up to the war, saw precision strikes as far more humane than burning cities. “The idea,” Hansell once wrote, “of killing thousands of men, women and children was basically repugnant to American mores.” 

The air war against Germany, however, exposed the strategy’s many blind spots. Enemy fighters not only shredded Allied bombers, but the German economy proved far more resilient than war planners anticipated. The high losses prompted the British in 1942 to abandon precision strikes in favor of firebombing German cities at night. Bomber Command leader Sir Arthur Harris, known by the colorful nickname “Bomber Harris,” would become the face of England’s city-burning campaign. “He believed there were no shortcuts to victory,” wrote British historian Max Hastings. “It was necessary to concentrate all available forces for the progressive, systematic destruction of the urban areas of the Reich, city block by city block, factory by factory, until the enemy became a nation of troglodytes, scratching in the ruins.” 

Major General Curtis E. LeMay was the architect of the firebombing campaign. He noted, “If we lose the war, we’ll be tried as war criminals.” ((National Archives))

Despite the British abandonment of what Harris disdainfully described as “panacea” targets, America remained committed to the strategy of precision bombing, even as the air war shifted from Europe to the Pacific. The battle against Japan, however, proved far more challenging. American air bases in the battered Mariana Islands were primitive compared to the ones troops had enjoyed in England. Aircrews likewise were forced to fly much greater distances across an unforgiving ocean, all in a sophisticated new bomber, though one still plagued by mechanical challenges. The job of making it work fell to Brigadier General Hansell, a genteel commander who wrote poems, recited Shakespeare, and adored Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Hansell’s first strike on Tokyo on November 24, 1944, was largely a bust. 

So, too, was his second. And the third, fourth, and fifth.

Japan’s horrendous weather added to Hansell’s troubles. Clouds often blanketed the island nation, limiting visual bombing some months to as few as three days. Furthermore, violent jet streams raged over Japan at speeds of up to 230 miles per hour, rivaling the gales that battered Mount Everest. “The weather was just too damn bad,” he complained. “It whipped us.”

Hansell’s refusal to adapt his tactics led Army Air Forces Commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold to fire him after only nine missions and just 44 days after his crews flew the first strike on Tokyo. LeMay landed on Guam in January 1945 as his replacement. With a head full of ink-black hair and hazel eyes, LeMay was everything Hansell was not. He lacked the social grace and polish of his poetic predecessor, having labored on the graveyard shift in a Columbus steel mill just to put himself through college at Ohio State. Nicknamed “Iron Ass” by his men, LeMay suffered Bell’s palsy early in the war. He hid the residual effects of the facial paralysis behind a pipe or cigar. The general’s reserved demeanor, however, camouflaged a tireless work ethic that had propelled him to become one of the top air commanders in Europe, as evidenced by his efficiency reports. “This officer,” famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle gushed in one, “is unusually gifted as an airman and as a combat leader.” 

Despite his previous successes, LeMay harbored no illusions over the challenge of his job in the Pacific. Beyond battling the winds, weather, and the Japanese, he likewise felt tremendous pressure from Arnold, who was the father of the B-29 Superfortress. At $3.7 billion, the bomber ranked as the single-most expensive weapons system of the war, costing American taxpayers more than even the atomic bomb. Arnold not only felt pressure to justify his pricey gamble on the Superfortress, but he also was the leading advocate of making the air force a separate service from the army. To do so, he had to prove that his airmen played an equal role alongside the army and navy in the defeat of Japan. A stressed-out Arnold, who suffered his fourth heart attack of the war in January 1945, pinned those hopes on the B-29 and LeMay. “If you don’t get results,” one of Arnold’s aides warned LeMay, “you’ll be fired.” 

LeMay initially adopted Hansell’s tactics of daylight precision bombing only to suffer the same disastrous outcome. The Nakajima Aircraft Company’s factory in the Tokyo suburb of Musashino, just 10 miles west of the Imperial Palace, stood as a symbol of America’s failure. Bombers had attacked the plant on the first Tokyo strike on November 24 and had repeatedly returned without success. The factory functioned at 96 percent despite the fact that the 835 B-29s had targeted it with 2,327 tons of bombs. After almost four months of strikes, in fact, America had yet to destroy a single priority target via precision bombing. Hansell had clung to his principles like a bucking bull, and watched in the end as his career was trampled. 

LeMay didn’t have that luxury. He had learned growing up as the son of a derelict father that if he didn’t work, he didn’t eat. The same had applied in college, where he had paid handsomely for his education with long nights in the sweltering steel mill. Those lessons had made LeMay a pragmatist. If he wanted to win the war—and save hundreds of thousands of American lives as well as his own job—he had to do what was necessary, even if it was morally grotesque. 

But for LeMay, it was about more than just principles. Similar to Bomber Harris, LeMay had lost faith in the strategy that had defined American bombing policy. He had flown missions deep into the heart of Germany, pressing on through black clouds of bursting flak and battling fighters. Such operations, with their staggering losses over time, had eroded his confidence in daylight precision bombing. Pinpoint targets that could crash the enemy’s economy and easily win the war were an illusion. “That’s just about like searching for the Fountain of Youth,” he once said. “There is no such thing; never was.” 

In LeMay’s mind, there was no shortcut to victory. “You’ve got to kill people,” he said, “and when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.”

Japan needed to learn that lesson. To do so required LeMay to abandon America’s established strategy of high-altitude precision bombing. LeMay instead planned to drop his bombers as low as 5,000 feet, bringing them in under the cloud cover and roaring jet streams. The lower altitude would expose them to Tokyo’s antiaircraft guns and fighters, turning the raid into a potential turkey shoot. To counter this, LeMay planned to abandon formation flying and push his attacks from day to night, providing his airmen the cover of darkness. In a move that would spark terror in his aircrews, LeMay ordered bombers stripped of guns. Without weapons there was no need to carry ammunition or even gunners, freeing up weight for more bombs. Previous missions typically counted about 100 bombers. For the March 9 mission, LeMay planned to send every plane in his arsenal. More than 300 would lift off from runways on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam and rendezvous in the skies over Tokyo in a mission dubbed “Operation Meetinghouse.”

Tactics, however, were not the only change. LeMay planned to swap demolition bombs for napalm-filled incendiaries. He likewise shifted his aim from factories to neighborhoods, putting the reticle on the kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms of Japan’s workers. Many such homes doubled as small factories, a vital cottage industry that fed parts to Japan’s ravenous war machine. The general hoped that the combination of low altitude, heavy incendiaries, and Tokyo’s dense wooden construction would conjure a firestorm, like what had ravaged Dresden. Men and women. Boys and girls. Toddlers and infants. Incendiaries did not discriminate. The fires would consume everything and everyone in their frightful path, from factory and armaments workers to artists, teachers, and housewives. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town,” LeMay later said. “Had to be done.”

The general’s greatest concern centered on the fate of his airmen, the pilots and bombardiers, navigators and radarmen. He would send them barely a mile above the earth into the heart of Tokyo, a city guarded by some 300 fighters, ranging from the Kawasaki Ki-45 to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and more than 600 antiaircraft guns. LeMay’s antiaircraft experts warned him he could lose as many as 70 percent of his bombers. That would mean more than 200 airplanes and 2,000 souls. LeMay had studied the target photos and was persuaded that Japan lacked low-level guns. He also knew the enemy had only two units of night fighters. Months of consistent high-altitude daytime attacks meant that a low-level midnight strike would catch the Japanese off-guard, like an aerial sucker punch. “You don’t gamble the lives of your people,” he reasoned. “You take calculated risks.”

A crewman checks fuses in a B-29’s bomb bay before an incendiary strike. The bombs’ magnesium flares broke apart at low altitudes, setting fires that raged through the densely packed wooden structures of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. ((National Archives))

In sultry Quonset huts on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, bomb group leaders and intelligence officers prepared to brief the gathered aircrews about the mission. 

“Tonight,” one commander announced, “we have a new plan.”

The pilots, navigators, and bombardiers, tasked to zoom low into a hornet’s nest without fighter protection or guns, were stunned, even horrified. “This is stupid,” someone hollered. “It’s suicide.” 

These concerns weighed on LeMay at sunset on March 9 as he climbed into the control tower on Guam. One by one the lumbering bombers rolled out of the hardstands, falling in line for the march to the runway, a parade of mechanical monsters. LeMay’s strike force totaled 325 bombers, representing 84 percent of his entire arsenal. Even at 50-second intervals, it would still take two hours and 34 minutes to put all the bombers in the skies. All eyes focused on the first bomber as the pilot released the brakes, starting down the runway. Five hundred feet turned to a thousand and then two thousand. The 135,000-pound Superfortress, its four massive propellers clawing at the air, increased speed and charged down the strip, its nose slowly rising in the muggy March sky. At 5:36 p.m. the bomber left the earth, passed over the beach, and headed out to sea, bound for Tokyo. LeMay’s great gamble had begun.

Throughout the bombers, crews checked and rechecked instruments. One hour soon turned to two. Then three and four. In his operations center back on Guam, LeMay brooded, refusing to go to bed, even though it would be hours before the first strike reports arrived. The general finally returned to his quarters, grabbed a Coke, and then sat in his car, facing the edge of the jungle. The mission’s gravity hung over LeMay, who had staked the lives of more than 3,000 American airmen, the reputation and morals of the United States, and the fate of an entire city. This night, one way or another, would define LeMay for the rest of his life. “I’m sweating this one out,” he confided in an aide. “A lot could go wrong.” 

As the first planes closed in on Tokyo, air-men slipped on bulky flak jackets and steel helmets to guard against antiaircraft shrapnel. At 12:07 a.m. the first bombs of what would prove a catastrophic new phase of the war plummeted down toward the crowded capital. 

It was a cold night in Tokyo. Snow, which had fallen a few days earlier, blanketed the narrow streets and few parks. Like many in the capital, 12-year-old Katsumoto Saotome was in bed as the first bombers zoomed over the capital. From a poor working-class family in downtown’s Mukojima ward, the junior high school student had been conscripted for the war effort, laboring at Kubota Iron Works. He was asleep when his father shouted for him to get up. The roar of bombers greeted Katsumoto when he opened his eyes. Despite the blackout curtains, light flooded the windows, so bright he could read the characters on a wall calendar. “In every direction I looked,” he recalled, “it was a sea of flaming red fire.” 

The family hustled to load a few necessary belongings onto a handcart to escape, leaving behind the pet cat, Tomi. “My, how beautiful,” Katsumoto’s older sister said of the fires. 

French journalist Robert Guillain, who was based in Tokyo during the war, likewise charged outside his home to find the horizon glowing red. “Barely a quarter of an hour after the raid started, the fire, whipped by the wind, began to scythe its way through the density of that wooden city,” the reporter wrote. “The air was filled with live sparks, then with burning bits of wood and paper until soon it was raining fire. Hell could be no hotter.”

Bookstores, noodle shops, and fish markets erupted in flames along with warehouses and apartments. Minute by minute, the fires grew, feeding on the timber shops and munitions factories, gasoline tanks and stockpiles of coal. In Joto ward, five fires merged to create a single blaze that spanned the entire district. The same occurred in Asakusa ward, where four fires morphed into one. The flames from Fukagawa ward collided with the blazes in neighboring Honjo and Joto wards, creating a massive inferno that covered three city districts. The winds at the blaze’s perimeter topped out at 55 miles per hour while gusts inside the inferno blew at more than 70. Tokyo’s firemen rushed to extinguish the blazes, but within half an hour they realized it was hopeless. “The chief characteristic of the conflagration,” observed the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, “was the presence of a fire front, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward, preceded by a mass of pre-heated, turbid, burning vapors.” In other words, a tidal wave of fire. 

In the skies overhead an aerial freight train of terror rumbled. Nearly 10 tons of bombs fell on average during each minute of the attack. Inbound pilots could see the haunting glow of Tokyo on the horizon from 50 miles away, a distance that soon doubled to 100 miles and then 200. Smoke from the fires wafted up through the bomb bay doors and circulated through the Superfortresses. Airmen long shielded from such carnage by miles of clouds and sky inhaled the acrid aroma of the dying city, the scent of roasted bank ledgers, machine lathes, bedding, and wardrobes. Mixed among the incinerated wood and paper, however, was the sickening stench of burnt flesh, from dogs and horses to mothers and fathers. “It was,” as pilot Captain Charles Phillips would later recall, “the smell of death.”

Multiple bombing attacks left Tokyo in ruins, reducing vast swaths of the Japanese capital to ashes and killing more than 100,000 people. ((National Archives))

On the ground, residents hustled toward the open grounds of the city’s temples, parks, and riverbanks. Many congregated inside schools, government offices, and train stations which doubled as communal shelters, hoping the modern concrete construction would prove impervious to fire. Men, women, and children choked on bitter black smoke, the byproduct of burning pine, bamboo, tar, and solvents. The smoke and the heat burned throats while eyes watered. Sparks rained down, singeing eyebrows and lashes. “I couldn’t breathe,” recalled 10-year-old Kakinuma Michi. “I couldn’t open my eyes.”

The fires produced a deafening roar, drowning out the cries of those trapped in the inferno. “The pain caused by the heat and smoke,” said 26-year-old Aoki Hiroshi, “was beyond imagination.” The violent winds hurled bags down the streets and ripped children from the grip of parents. The superheated air caused people’s clothes and even hair to ignite spon-taneously. Evacuees gasped, struggling to breathe. Sixteen-year-old Minoru Tsukiyama, a mobilized student in Fukagawa ward, watched a first grader struggle to remove his air raid hood, which had caught on fire. “As if suddenly soaked in gasoline,” Tsukiyama said, “his whole body burst into flames.”

The flames spared nothing. Bathhouses burned. So, too, did dental offices, barber shops, grocery stores, and florists. “The fire was like a living thing,” recalled Saotome. “It ran, just like a creature, chasing us.” Residents who sought shelter in home bunkers largely perished. “Most of them,” one report later noted, “were burned beyond recognition.” The flames likewise attacked concrete buildings with such ferocity so as to melt glass windows and doors, the weak spots in these otherwise solid fortresses. Sparks invaded, setting fire to baggage, furniture, and people. Corridors and stairwells functioned like chimneys, funneling scorching air and toxic gases throughout the schools. “I never thought,” one survivor said, “that the whole auditorium would become a big crematorium.”

this article first appeared in world war II magazine

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Dawn revealed miles of smoldering wreckage interrupted only by the occasional brick chimney of a torched bathhouse or factory. Beyond the rubble, there were the bodies, thousands of them. “There was still a light wind blowing,” recalled Guillain, “and some of the bodies, reduced to ashes, were scattering like sand.” 

The Japanese government estimated soon after that the raid killed 83,793 civilians and injured more than 40,918, a figure that has since been revised upward to 105,000 dead. But the human toll was only part of the equation. The raid torched 267,171 homes, stores, and businesses. Literally one out of every four buildings vanished. More than one million residents were left homeless. “More persons,” concluded the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, “lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” 

The mission’s results surprised even LeMay, as evidenced by the entry in his command diary. “The heart of this city is completely gutted by fire,” it stated. “It is the most devastating raid in the history of aerial warfare.” The Japanese accused the Americans of “slaughter bombing,” but such complaints carried no weight. “A dream come true,” Time magazine wrote. “Properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves.” 

Such cheerleading by the press served as an endorsement for LeMay, who launched a firebombing campaign over the next five months. City after city, town after town soon fell victim to American bombers, culminating in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the war’s end, American B-29s had pummeled 66 Japanese cities, torching 178 square miles. Tokyo suffered the worst. Over the course of multiple attacks, American airmen burned 56.3 square miles of the capital. All told, America’s bombing campaign against the Japanese homeland killed 330,000 people, injured nearly a half million more, and left eight and a half million homeless. 

Victory guaranteed that LeMay’s earlier fears of possible prosecution for war crimes never materialized. Even with the passage of time, the general’s views never softened, nor did he ever express remorse. “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of 9-10 March,” he said years later, “than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” Those who survived that inferno faced the arduous road of putting their lives back together, a sentiment best captured by Haruyo Nihei. “It was as if,” she later said, “the world had ended.” For so many, it had. American commanders, in contrast, saw reflected in the ruins of Tokyo the spared lives of hundreds of thousands of American troops, who, in the end, never had to charge ashore and fight inside the enemy’s cities. “What a miracle,” Brigadier General Bonner Fellers wrote to his wife. “Think what it would have cost to take Japan.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of World War II.