Survivors described the Bombing of Tokyo as a moonscape of twisted reddish-black iron, roasted sheet metal and rubble scattered across sixteen square miles of what two days earlier was one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Not a single man-made structure still stood within the fire zone. Perhaps the worst part was what Captain Funato Kazuyo described as
[the] forest of corpses packed so tightly they could have been touching as they died: the entire river surface was black as far as the eye could see, black with burned corpses, logs and who knew what else, but uniformly black from the immense heat that had seared its way through the area as the fire dragon passed. It was impossible to tell the bodies from the logs at a distance. The bodies were all nude, the clothes had been burned away, and there was a dreadful sameness about them, no telling men from women or even children. All that remained were pieces of charred meat. Bodies and parts of bodies were carbonized and absolutely black.
The dead were the lucky ones. Those who survived walked around like ghosts saying nothing; those who could not walk and were in great pain were just left to die. There was no medicine or food or even drinking water for them. In truth, no amount of preparedness would have been adequate for the scope of devastation caused by the firebombing. Many of the bodies just crumbled when they were lifted, like the remnants of a charcoal fire. On the riverbanks, the tide became the villain, disgorging masses of bodies onto the shore as it pushed forward and then receded. The grisly retrieval of bodies took weeks.
RUN-UP TO THE BOMBING OF TOKYO
Before this raid, slightly fewer than 1,300 people total had died in air raids on Tokyo. Now, in one night, nearly a hundred times that number were killed—many lying in piles at the end of every block. The actual numbers varied. Just as the Japanese were incapable of a concerted rescue effort, their statistical data was ineffective for an accurate counting of the dead. Ultimately, a number of 100,000 has been considered closest to correct, but because it was impossible to identify the bodies, and because entire families and neighborhoods were wiped out, the real number will never be known. At least 70,000 people were buried in mass pits.
Against the advice of his counselors, Emperor Hirohito drove through the stricken area on March 18. Automobiles were an unusual sight at that point in the war because of the extreme shortage of gasoline. A military aide recalled the event: “The victims, who had been digging through the rubble with empty expressions on their faces, watched the imperial motorcade pass by with reproachful expressions. Were they grudgeful to the emperor because they had lost relatives, their houses and belongings? Or were they in a state of utter exhaustion and bewilderment?”
Although there was criticism after the Dresden fire bombings in February 1945, the Air Force sought to limit any negative response to the Tokyo raid. Norstad sent a memo to Air Force General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the Bombing of Tokyo, suggesting he emphasize this was the only way to target dispersed industries. It seemed to work, since there were no public protests over the massive number of deaths. General Arnold, recuperating from his fourth major heart attack in a Florida hospital, gave no indication that there was any debate over civilian casualties. “Congratulations,” he cabled LeMay, giving him the green light to proceed. “This mission shows your crews have the guts for anything.” Ten days later, he wrote a longer, even more complimentary letter to LeMay reminding him that by July 1, 1945, he would have 1,000 B-29s under his command, which “leads one to conclusions which are impressive even to old hands at bombardment operations. Under reasonably favorable conditions you should then have the ability to destroy whole industrial cities, should that be required.” It was Arnold who had gambled with a $3 billion project that had not worked up until March 9, 1945. If he felt anything, it was probably relief.
The Bombing of Tokyo had an electric effect on U.S. troops throughout the theater. Jim Pattillo was a B-29 pilot in China. He had lost his brother two months after Pearl Harbor and had trained for four years to drop bombs on the enemy. Like everyone else in the China-Burma-India Theater, he was mightily frustrated. “After a year of losing people and equipment with little to show for it, on the night of March 9–10, 1945, it was the first thing of strategic importance accomplished by the B-29 airplane. And we in India were spectators!” But Pattillo recalls the impact that the fire raid had on everyone around him. “You could have heard us cheering from India if you had just gone outside and listened. What the 73rd had accomplished raised not only their morale, but ours too.”
The debate over the bombing of Tokyo and killing civilians in World War II has increased in the sixty-plus years since the war ended. Three generations later, the Allied victory over Japan may seem like a preordained conclusion, but the facts at the time do not bear this up. A few turns of fortune could have produced a very different outcome altogether. As in all wars, there were certain crucial moments that turned events in the favor of the Allies. The bombing of Tokyo was one of those moments.
Many Americans in the twenty-first century are shocked by the B-29s’ destruction of Japan and the bombing of Tokyo and view it in very negative terms, which is understandable given the horrific numbers of dead civilians. But there was no debate in America on March 10, 1945. There was pride, relief, and even gladness. Part of this came from residual anger over Pearl Harbor and the news reports about the Japanese treatment of practically any non-Japanese they encountered.
And part came from a wish to end the war and the bloodletting as quickly as possible. After the war, Ralph Nutter became a respected judge in California, and his legally trained mind found an explanation for the firebombing of Japan and the Bombing of Tokyo in an obscure opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who wrote, “The language of the picket line is very different from the language of the drawing room.”
“I would say the problems facing a combat commander are very different from those of scholars and philosophers in the comfort of a library,” Nutter explains. “[The Bombing of Tokyo] was a good faith decision on LeMay’s part when faced with one million American casualties.”
The invasion of Japan itself was scheduled to come in two waves. The first wave, code named “Olympic,” would consist of a large amphibious assault on the southernmost island of Kyushu on November 1, 1945. The second wave, operation “Coronet,” would land near Tokyo Bay on March 1, 1946. The landing zones were named after cars, like Beach Buick and Beach Chevrolet. But there were so many landing zones that there were not enough automobiles to fill them all, and planners had to resort to the different parts of cars such as Beach Chassis and Beach Axle. The draft callup of fresh 18-year-olds and men previously exempt increased in the first months of 1945 because the Pentagon was worried that it might not have enough men in uniform for a prolonged and bloody battle in Japan. There was good reason to worry. Intercepted messages showed that Japan anticipated exactly where the invasion would take place, and instead of the three divisions that Americans expected to face, six to eight divisions were lying in wait by the summer. There was also a real concern (later proved correct) that the Japanese had kept thousands of aircraft hidden, to be used as suicide bombs aimed at the invasion fleet.
One American who had lived in Japan before the war was imprisoned in the Philippines and watched as the Japanese prepared to die to the last man. “American fighting men back from the front have been trying to tell America this is a war of extermination. They have seen it from foxholes and barren strips of bulletstrafed sand. I have seen it from behind enemy lines. Our picture coincides. This is a war of extermination. The Japanese militarists have made it that way.”
LAUNCH THE BOMBING OF TOKYO
By April, LeMay had the incendiaries he needed and a massive fleet of B-29s, as more and more planes and crews were arriving from India and the States every day. To add to those growing numbers, B-17 crews from Europe, where the war was coming to an end, were being retrained on the B-29s and began showing up in Guam and Tinian as well. With the added crews, the Twenty-first Air Force in the Marianas would now be known as the Twentieth Air Force. He had what he needed to executive the bombing of Tokyo.
LeMay sent his growing arsenal of bombers back to Tokyo on April 13, 1945, and destroyed over eleven square miles north of the Imperial Palace; two days later, on April 15, another six square miles were gutted. After another interlude to help again with the effort on Okinawa, LeMay focused exclusively on his Bombing of Tokyo campaign through mid-May.
With a World Almanac in hand, LeMay went down the list of Japanese cities one by one by population. On May 14, 1945, LeMay sent 529 B-29s in a daylight incendiary raid over Nagoya, destroying the Mitsubishi engine plant and 3.6 square miles of the city around it. Two days later, 457 bombers went back to Nagoya and destroyed another 3.8 square miles. On May 23 and 25, there were two more raids against Tokyo to implement his bombing of Tokyo, destroying 5.3 and then 16.8 square miles. On May 29, it was 6.9 square miles of Yokohama, and on June 1, Osaka lost 3.1 miles of its industrial base. On June 5, 4.3 square miles of Kobe went up in flames.
Although the air war was certainly controlled by the Americans, the skies were still far from safe. On the May 23 raid, the bombers began to sustain much greater losses. Seventeen B-29s were lost, and in the following raid against Tokyo another twenty bombers went down. Almost all the losses were due to fighters, not flak. On the June 1 raid against Osaka, a squadron of P-51 escorts out of Iwo Jima ran into an unexpected typhoon over the Pacific, and twenty-seven were lost. The planes went on the bombing of Tokyo with an almost monotonous regularity, but the dangers were still quite real.
The possibility of becoming a prisoner of war of the Japanese was greatly feared by all airmen. It was a very different threat from fighting the Germans. Although the conditions in various stalag prison camps throughout Germany were extremely rough, the prisoners were, for the most part, treated along the lines of the Geneva Convention. This cannot be said about Japan, which treated prisoners abominably from the very start of the war. Of the 140,000 Caucasian prisoners of war captured in Bataan, a third of them died in captivity. The rest were subjected to such barbarous treatment that, in many cases, death was preferable. According to Richard B. Frank,
The record Japan created in her treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees still appalls. Prisoners were starved and brutalized systematically. They were murdered by deadly purpose or on momentary whim. They were beaten to death, beheaded, buried alive, burned to death, crucified, marched to death, shot, stabbed, strangled, and simply abandoned to die. Among U.S. Army personnel alone, the Japanese captured 24,992 of whom 8,634 (35 percent) died in captivity. By contrast, only 833 of 93,653 Army personnel held by Germany died in captivity, a rate of 0.9 percent.
The Japanese saved their greatest venom for the B-29 crews that parachuted from stricken planes. “Captured B-29 Airmen were shot, bayoneted, decapitated, burned alive or killed as boiling water was poured over them. Other aircrew members were beaten to death by civilians and shot with bows and arrows then decapitated.” Perhaps the most appalling episode, according to historian Richard Frank, took place when
the Western Japan military command gave some medical professors at Kyushu Imperial University eight B-29 crewmen. The professor cut them up alive, in a dirty room with a tin table where students dissected corpses. They drained blood and replaced it with sea water. They cut out lungs, livers, and stomachs. They stopped blood flow in an artery near the heart, to see how long death took. They dug holes in a skull and stuck a knife into the living brains to see what would happen.
There was a real fear that the Japanese would execute all prisoners if it looked like they were going to be liberated. To a man, Allied POWs believed the Japanese would kill them if the Homeland was invaded, and surviving written documentation supports this belief.
This article on the Bombing of Tokyo is from the book Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician © 2014 by Warren Kozak. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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