Survivors described 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.
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 fire bombings, 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 Tokyo raid 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 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 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 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 firebombing] 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.”
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.
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 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, 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 bombing 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.
Later that spring LeMay had a meeting at the Pentagon with Major General Leslie R. Groves, the army general who oversaw the Manhattan Project. Groves explained the workings of the two different bombs that were expected in Tinian sometime in the summer. He told LeMay how the enriched uranium bomb differed from the plutonium bomb, and the power they were expected to generate. This was almost one month before the first test that would take place in New Mexico on July 16, so it was still all just theory. Groves and LeMay talked about the requirements of the crews and the B-29s that were going to drop the bombs. Groves explained that the bombs would arrive within weeks of each other, and it was expected that they would be used unless Japan surrendered. They discussed the best way to deliver the bomb. LeMay said that rather than put a fleet of B-29s around the delivery vehicle, he thought that one lone bomber by itself would be safer, since there were constantly single weather planes and photo observers flying unchallenged over Japan. LeMay thought his second meeting was more successful than the first.
The U.S. occupied the island of Tinian and used it as a central staging point for attacks on Japan and hopefully bomb it into submission before an invasion was necessary. Here they prepared to drop the atomic bomb. While the 509th, the special unit designated to drop the atomic bombs, was setting up its program and running practice missions to Iwo Jima to drop what they called “pumpkins”—large practice bombs—Curtis LeMay was not letting up on Japan. He had created a sort of race, not only to see if he could bomb Japan into surrendering before the November invasion, but even before an atomic bomb could be used.
Four days after the atomic test in New Mexico, the Psychological Warfare Branch under Nimitz requested that the B-29s under LeMay drop leaflets on the cities before they were bombed (which LeMay referenced in his July 30 letter to Helen). There was a debate over notifying the enemy of their intentions and telling them the destination of the planes. Understandably, this made some of the crews nervous. On the other hand, one American report observed that the very act of leafleting would have its own psychological impact: “Naming one’s targets or objective in the face of opposition was a grand gesture and displayed great strength and self-confidence.” The leaflets were written by language and psychological experts.
But even here, LeMay, ever the tinkerer, changed the copy of the messages that were to be dropped. What he first saw from the Navy, he described as the “same old propaganda stuff.” He sat down with his staff in a hurry, because it had to go back to Hawaii to be translated and printed. The final outcome read as follows: “Civilians! Evacuate at once!” in large red and black letters. Then on the reverse side it read:
These leaflets are being dropped to notify you that your city has been listed for destruction by our powerful air force. The bombing will begin within 72 hours.
This advance notice will give your military authorities ample time to take necessary defensive measures to protect you from our inevitable attack. Watch and see how powerless they are to protect you.
Systematic destruction of city after city will continue as long as you blindly follow your military leaders whose blunders have placed you on the very brink of oblivion. It is your responsibility to overthrow the military government now and save what is left of your beautiful country.
In the meanwhile, we urge all civilians to evacuate at once.
On July 26, six B-29s dropped 660,000 of these leaflets. “At first, they thought we were bluffing apparently,” wrote LeMay. “There wasn’t any mass exodus until we knocked the hell out of the first three towns on the list. Then the rest were practically depopulated in nothing flat.”
LeMay’s letters home to Helen concerned mundane events— which old friends he ran into, how tired he was, and if he was fighting off a cold. He rarely mentioned details of what he was doing, except that he was always very busy, apologizing for not writing more. An exception to this rule was on July 10, 1945, when he wrote, “We are certainly giving the Japs a going over. . . in the last two missions we have burned down 8 towns of over 100,000 each without losing a man. Over 1200 sorties without a loss. If they don’t give up soon they are dumber than I think they are. Love, Curt.”
According to historian Richard B. Frank:
The series of attacks on August 1, posted a horrifying record. The 58th Wing reduced 80 percent of the city of Hachioji, a major rail terminus twenty-three miles west of Tokyo, to ashes. Superfortresses of the 313th Wing burned out 65.5 percent of the rail center of Nagaoka (population 67,000). Sixty miles northeast of Tokyo, the 314th Wing destroyed 65 percent of Mito, another rail center. Toyama, the “third largest city on the west coast of Honshu,” drew attention for its ball-bearing and machine-tool industries, and the largest aluminum company in Japan. The attack by 182 Superfortresses of the 73rd Wing set an appalling mark for the entire strategic-bombing campaign. The 1,466 tons of bombs and incendiaries dropped in the raid destroyed an astounding 99.5 percent of the city. Of the 127,860 citizens of Toyama, 2,149 died— undoubtedly severe in absolute numbers, but remarkably low for the near-total annihilation of an urban area. On the Allied side, one 58th Wing crew of twelve men went missing.
On August 5, 1945, the day before the Hiroshima mission, fifteen B-29 groups headed for Nishinomiya-Mikage, Saga on Kyushu, Maebashi, and Imabari on Shikoku. Just under 2,000 Japanese died in these raids. But only one American airman was injured.
The next day, August 6, 1945, only one bomber left on a mission: the Enola Gay. Piloted by its commander, Paul Tibbets, the B-29 dropped the enriched uranium bomb called “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima. Eighty thousand people were killed instantly (fewer than the Tokyo raid on March 9, 1945), and an estimated 60,000 died later of radiation poisoning. Sixty-eight percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Twenty years later, LeMay wrote: “I did not and do not decry the use of the bomb. Anything which will achieve the desired results should be employed. If those bombs shortened the war only by days, they rendered an inestimable service, and so did the men who were responsible for their construction and delivery.”
Although LeMay was surprised by the extent of the blast, he still thought that his B-29s would have brought about the surrender before the proposed November 1 invasion. The following day, August 7, 1945, the Soviets declared war on Japan.
Back in the States, the latest issue of Time magazine—August 13, 1945—displayed the grouchy face of Curtis Emerson LeMay on its cover, cigar in mouth, as the contrails of B-29s filled the sky above him. Underneath the picture, the caption read: “LeMay of the B-29s” with the subheading: “Can Japan stand twice the bombing that Germany got?” America was introduced to the tough, pragmatic, and demanding general who ran perhaps the most powerful military force in the history of man. Forgotten was the fact that only seven months earlier, the B-29 program had been an ineffective and costly failure.
Still there was no response from the directives sent to Tokyo. LeMay kept up the B-29 firebombing as the second atomic device was made ready. On August 8, the day before Nagasaki, B-29 bombers attacked Yawata, destroying 21 percent of the town, and another wing gutted almost 75 percent of Fukyama. Nagasaki was bombed on August 9 with the second atomic bomb. An estimated 39,000 people died in the initial blast, with another 34,000 killed afterwards from radiation disease. The next several days saw a flurry of communication between Washington and Tokyo, all through intermediaries, but still the surrender terms were not accepted. On August 14, the B-29s loaded up the bomb racks and flew to Kumagaya, where 45 percent of the town was destroyed, and Isezaki, where 17 percent of the city was burned. This would be the last bombing raid of the war. When the crews returned to the Marianas from the Isezaki raid, they were told that Japan had surrendered.
General MacArthur, who up until that moment had been designated the commander of the November 1 invasion, was now put in charge of the surrender and occupation of Japan. MacArthur spoke to the Japanese first by radio to set up the rules and parameters of what was to come next. A Japanese delegation was to fly to Manila in an airplane painted white. There they would be instructed on the complete arrangements for the surrender. The first U.S. planes were to land at a field south of Yokohama. The Japanese were to furnish quarters and transportation for the first delegation. The official surrender would take place on September 2 onboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Harbor.
Standing on the deck of the Missouri in line with the other senior officers, 38-year-old Curtis LeMay joined the ranks of the top generals who led the war in the Pacific. He fought two wars in the span of four and a half years. From those early days racing around the country with thirty-five crews and three B-17s, to the hellish days over Germany and then over Japan with the mighty and monstrous B-29, LeMay had experienced more of the war than many of the senior officers standing with him. But he had experienced the fight from a great distance. None of it was personal.
Now, for the first time in almost five years of nonstop work and extraordinary stress that he would acknowledge only to his wife, LeMay had one overpowering feeling.
“Like many other folks, probably, I stood there and felt pretty tired.”