With the drawing up of bombing campaigns against Japan in early 1945, the United States Army Air Force was faced with a strategic and ethical dilemma. Should it carry out targeted bombings of military sites or carpet bombings of large cities? The former would be considered more humane and save resources. But if it prolonged the war against a relacitrant enemy—and Japan was feared for its willingness to send its men, women, and children to their deaths as human weapons—then it might not be so humane after all. An American amphibious assault on the Japanese mainland could mean a half a million more lives that the U.S. lost, to say nothing of Japanese death tolls.
In the strange mathematics of war, and with the hindsight of more than half a century, it turns out that the planners in Washington were correct. The more humane tactics of Gen. Haywood S. Hansell— trying to hit only military targets—may not have been all that humane in the end, and probably would have prolonged the conflict. That would have led to the invasion beginning in November 1945 with a second wave to back it up in March 1946. The Japanese military leaders were beginning the massive training of the civilian population for total war known as “Ketsu-Go.” The plan called for every able-bodied Japanese citizen—women and youngsters included—to form suicide squads and swarm the Americans. By ending the conflict without an invasion of Japan, not only would a vast number of American lives be saved, but many more Japanese lives would be spared as well.
Years later, Robert McNamara summed up the focus of Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay. “He cared about only two things,” McNamara remembered, “hitting the target and saving the lives of his men.”
“Here’s another great big bear for you,” LeMay wrote about this reassignment as head of the Twenty-First Air Force in the Marianas. “Come and grab it by the tail.” Again he was handed an impossible task with a high risk of failure and losing more young American lives and was expected to accomplish it with a troubleprone airplane that had yet to perform.
Hansell wisely declined Arnold’s offer to stay in the Marianas: “Not because of any friction with General LeMay,” Hansell wrote later, “but I knew him well enough to know he did not need any ‘assistant commander’ and I knew myself well enough to know that I would not be content to stay completely in the background. It is not a good thing to leave an ex-commander in the same outfit that he commanded.”
LeMay remembered reading in National Geographic magazine as a boy that most Japanese cities were constructed of wood and paper—98 percent of Tokyo’s factory district, as it turned out.
On February 13–15, 1945, British and American bombers using incendiary bombs created a firestorm in the center of Dresden, Germany, gutting over thirteen square miles of the city. Estimates of civilian dead range from 24,000 to 40,000. Earlier in the war, on July 24, 1943, British bombers dropped incendiaries on Hamburg, Germany, killing as many as 40,000 people. In both cases, the Allies claimed the cities were legitimate military targets. Hamburg was a crucial industrial center with important harbor facilities. Dresden was considered a communications hub and transit center. But the debate over military legitimacy and outright terror bombing has intensified in the years since. Considered an Allied atrocity by some today, the public reaction at the time was largely supportive. It was considered a legitimate option by LeMay.
Another factor was the problem of B-29 bombing innacurray at high altitude over Japan. The B-29 had been created to fly higher than any other plane. But that technique had produced no results. As he considered abandoning the entire reason the B-29 had been developed in the first place, other possibilities began to emerge. If he used Thomas Power’s idea (his friend and strict commander of the 314th Wing) and flew his planes in very low—at, say, 5,000 or 6,000 feet, instead of 30,000 feet where the jet stream was so fierce, the planes would burn up far less fuel. Though the large planes would be perfectly visible then, even at night, the Japanese would be caught off guard. They would never expect them that low. He took out his slide rule and began to calculate the change in weight from the enormous savings in fuel, which would allow the planes to carry more bombs. Everything started to click, and he extended his calculations into another unprecedented thought.
He determined from intelligence reports and his own personal experiences in China that the Japanese had almost no night fighter capability. If that were the case, the B-29s would not need their defense guns and their ammunition and their gunners, saving even more weight. That meant room for even more bombs. Now the slide rule was working at double time. The calculations poured onto the paper, and each one reinforced his conclusions. He knew the men would howl about it all, but he thought he could persuade them with this reasoning: the Japanese anti-aircraft guns—set at higher altitudes—would be ineffective at 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The planes should be safe. The Japanese would quickly compensate for this, but he thought he could get in a few missions before they figured it out. And in the short span of time, he hoped to be able to knock them so hard and so fast that they might just consider surrendering.
LeMay’s only way to stop these types of letters from coming was to end the war. He rationalized the potentially significant loss of Japanese life on the ground with the following logic: Marines were suffering horrendous casualties on Iwo Jima in slow, agonizing fighting, evidence that the Japanese were becoming even more ferocious the closer Americans came to the home islands. And unlike the U.S. or German industry, which was factory centered, Japanese manufacturing was greatly decentralized—individual parts for airplanes, tanks, and bombs were produced in homes and in backyards. “No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians. Thousands and thousands. But if you don’t destroy Japan’s capacity to wage war, we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion of Japan? Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. Some say a million. We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan,” LeMay later wrote. For LeMay, the debate over civilian deaths came down to one blunt question: “Do you want to kill Japanese or would you rather have Americans killed?” His logic left little room for nuance.
How to successfully bomb Japan with the B-29 was the question that tormented him as he lay on his cot throughout those muggy nights on Guam during late February. The worry of not producing results and having Americans killed in an invasion overrode any other concerns, especially killing Japanese civilians. He decided using the incendiary was worth a try.
His decision made, LeMay worked on the problem with Tom Power who would lead such a mission. From that point on, it became a matter of engineering and mathematics. Together they came up with a plan to go in at lower altitudes in a series of massive lightning raids that would occur on consecutive nights, catching the Japanese off guard. They decided to abandon formation flying altogether. Each plane would fly individually, in three staggered lines between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. The first planes to take off would fly at slower speeds in order for the later planes to catch up. It would be unlike anything seen yet in the War: three long lines of bombers coming in at a very low altitude. The bombardier’s job would be greatly simplified, because a small group of planes coming from a different direction would drop incendiaries in the front and back of the target zone before the lines of bombers arrived, similar to lighting up both ends of a football field at night. The planes coming after them from another direction would see the fires that the lead bombers had set and then bomb the area in between. The plan was brilliant in its simplicity. The human cost would be determined later.
The two men, along with their armaments officer and chief engineer, worked out the ordnance questions. LeMay decided to drop E-46 clusters that would explode at 2,000 feet above the ground. Each cluster would release thirty-eight incendiary bombs of napalm and phosphorus, creating a rain of fire over the city. In all, 8,519 clusters would be dropped, releasing 496,000 individual cylinders weighing 6.2 pounds each, resulting in 1,665 tons of incendiaries to be dropped on Tokyo that night.
Near the end of the briefing, an intelligence officer asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Aren’t firebomb attacks on cities the type of terror bombing used by the RAF that our air force has been trying to avoid?”
There was one part of the operation LeMay was not looking forward to. When the crews came into the main hall, Tom Power, who gave the briefing as mission commander, explained that no defensive guns and gunners would be flying on this mission. Only the rear gunner would fly, and he would be there only to observe. There were some murmurs, and some of the officers protested the idea of breaking up the crews. Power told them that they had given this a great deal of thought and explained the reasons they thought it would be okay. One person said “5,000 feet, you’ve got to be kidding.” And another voice called it a suicide mission. LeMay was there and said nothing. But Power answered these men, saying he would not lead the mission if he thought that was the case, and General LeMay, who had the most bomber experience in the whole Air Force against the Germans and the Japanese, would not send them on a mission he did not think would work.
The first planes took off on March 9, 1945, starting at 4:36 in the afternoon, with the final bombers lifting off the runway three hours later. 325 B-29s in total took off from three separate groups. In bomb tonnage, it was equivalent to over 1,000 B-17s. LeMay watched each plane take off at the flight line. He stayed down at the field until the last one was gone.
LeMay would not hear anything from the planes until sometime after midnight (March 10) Guam time when the bombs were released. He spent those hours with Lieutenant Colonel McKelway. Out of nervousness, LeMay opened up in an uncharacteristic fashion. Without being asked, LeMay offered some insight into a surprising piece of his personality—his lack of confidence. “I never think anything is going to work,” he told McKelway, “until I’ve seen the pictures after the raid. But if this one works, we will shorten this damned war out here.”
Over a thousand miles to the north, all the elements to create a monumental disaster unprecedented in human history were falling into place. Before the planes arrived, winds started gusting at over forty miles an hour. It was a cold, dry wind, typical of early spring in that region. As midnight approached, the coastal watchers were the first to hear the long hums of the B-29s. But because there was no formation, there was some confusion and the alarms were not sounded until 12:15, a full seven minutes after the bombs began to fall. It would not have mattered anyway. In their hubris, Japanese officials had never built adequate shelters for the civilian population. They did not believe the Americans were capable of bombing from these great distances.
Across Tokyo, residents looked up in amazement. They had never seen the “B-sans” so low, nor had they ever seen so many at once. But more than the numbers and the strange, long line of planes, it was the unusual flowers of light that fell from the night sky that mesmerized an entire population. The fire falling from the sky reminded a German Catholic priest, Father Gustav Bitter, of the tinsel hung on a Christmas tree back home, “and where these silver streamers would touch the earth, red fires would spring up. Father Bitter also recorded, in an almost poetic fashion, the effect of the light and shadows on the planes above: “The red and yellow flames reflected from below on the silvery undersides [of the planes] so that they were like giant dragon flies with jeweled wings against the upper darkness.”
Then, in a sudden fury, everything changed as the incendiaries hit home. People ran in panic. Not just rooftops and houses caught on fire, but the clothes and hair of the people running were also ignited. People who ran to a nearby river for relief found that the water was boiling. One young woman described a school where people sought refuge:
The entire building had become a huge oven three stories high. Every human being inside the school was literally baked or boiled alive in the heat. Dead bodies were everywhere in grisly heaps. None of them appeared to be badly charred. They looked like mannequins, some of them with a pinkish complexion.
French journalist Robert Guillain wrote: “A B-29 flew by with an odd rhythmic buzzing that filled the night. A Danish diplomat, Lars Tillitse, described how searchlights illuminated the huge undersides of the B-29s, which quickly became targets. But the planes flew on seemingly immune to the ground fire. Finally, a cheer went up from a panicked crowd as one B-29 was hit. “The whole body glowed red, but the plane continued its flight until, like lightning, white flames burst from the sides. Enveloped in fire, the Superfortress plummeted to the ground.”
On the ground, something extraordinary was happening. The incendiaries had created tornadoes of fire, sucking the oxygen from the entire area. A majority of the victims died of asphyxiation. Estimates put the number of people who died in Tokyo that night at 100,000, but the actual number can never be known. Over sixteen square miles of Tokyo—among the most densely populated sixteen square miles in the world—were destroyed. More than a million people were left homeless. Another two million people left Tokyo, not to return until after the war. The Air Force history of the war records that “the physical destruction and loss of life at Tokyo exceeded that at Rome . . . or that of any of the great conflagrations of the western world—London, 1666. . . Moscow, 1812. . . Chicago, 1871. . . San Francisco, 1906. No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property.”
The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey was more direct: “Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any [equivalent period of] time in the history of man.”
The Japanese calculated that though they could no longer win the war, Americans might grow weary and allow the Japanese to exact better terms if the price of victory was costly enough. As historian Edward Drea aptly phrased it, “Undergirding all Japanese strategy was a dismissive view that Americans [were] products of liberalism and individualism and incapable of fighting a protracted war.” The War Journal of the Japanese Imperial Headquarters backed this up in July 1944: “We can no longer direct the war with any hope of success. The only course left is for Japan’s one hundred million people (the real count was closer to 72 million) to sacrifice their lives by charging the enemy to make them lose the will to fight.”