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THE GREAT TOKYO AIR RAID

'Scorched and boiled and baked to death'

by Masaru Fujimoto

Kayo-chan was in the fifth grade when the Great Tokyo Air Raid took the lives of her parents, her grandparents and two of her brothers — along with some 100,000 other people — as World War II was drawing to its end.

She escaped one of the fiercest firebombings in history because she had been evacuated from the city to her aunt’s house in the fishing town of Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Now, with the 60th anniversary of the March 10, 1945, raid upon us, Kayo-chan’s story is being retold in an animated film that was completed last week and is currently slated for general release in June.

‘Tears will not dry’

Titled “Ashita Genki ni Nare (Tomorrow Will Be a Brighter Day),” the film directed by Shinichi Nakata portrays the schoolgirl who becomes a war orphan overnight and then struggles to survive while growing up amid the charred debris that was downtown Tokyo.

The film, however, is far from being a maudlin account of Kayo-chan’s plight, instead focusing on the peppy girl’s optimistic outlook.

Moreover, it’s a true story based on a book of the same name by Kayoko Ebina, 71, an essayist and the widow of the late rakugo master Hayashiya Sanpei, with whom she had four children, including the popular rakugo-ka Hayashiya Kobuhei.

The film premiered at a gathering last week held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Tokyo bombing. Ebina, who appeared at the event and addressed hundreds of participants at the Hibiya Kokaido Hall in Chiyoda Ward, said then: “Even though 60 years have passed, my tears still will not dry. I must keep telling people what happened on March 10.”

So what did happen on that Saturday 60 years ago?

At 10:30 p.m. on March 9, 1945, warning sirens sounded around Tokyo as two U.S. reconnaissance planes were spotted high in the sky. The alert was lifted as soon as the aircraft appeared to have vanished eastward into the darkness toward the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture.

But then, shortly after midnight, wave after wave — a total of 344 B-29s — suddenly roared over blacked-out downtown Tokyo. Loaded with more than 6 tons of incendiary devices each, some of the Superfortress bombers in group formations attacked from as low as 150 meters, while others dropped their loads from 2,000 meters.

After scattering tons of aluminum “chaff” to completely cloud the Japanese radars and dazzle the gunners on the ground who were sweeping the skies with their searchlights, the attackers began to drop 1 million bombs amounting to 2,000 tons of 2.7-kg incendiaries mainly on the city’s Taito, Koto and Sumida wards.

For 2 1/2 hours they kept on coming, raining death in the shape of 60-cm-long by 8-cm-diameter bombs on the cramped warrens of wooden houses, shops, small factories and workshops in that poor part of the capital and rendering more than 1 million residents homeless as well as the more than 100,000 dead.

The firebombing “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” was how Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the mastermind of the indiscriminate aerial attack, later phrased it.

Masses of panicked and terrified civilians scrambled to escape the inferno, most unsuccessfully, because what happened that night was not just an awful, huge conflagration — but a firestorm in which superhot air rose upward so fast that it sucked in air from all sides in ferocious winds that blew countless thousands into the flames.

The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mist and stench of burning flesh carried high into the sky sickened the bomber crews, forcing them to use oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.

“In the black Sumida River, countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all black as charcoal. It was unreal,” was how one doctor at the scene described it.

Stripped of guns

According to “War Without Mercy” by John Dower, the heat from the bombing was so intense that in some places canals boiled, metal melted, and buildings and human beings burst spontaneously into flames. It took 25 days to remove all the dead from the gutted rubble. With the exception of the fires that raged through Tokyo and Yokohama at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, this was the largest urban conflagration in recorded history, Dower says.

The day before the attack, U.S. Air Force crews had been mustered on Tinian and Saipan in the Marianas Islands for a briefing on a low-level bombing attack on Tokyo to begin that evening. To the surprise of many, the crews were told that their planes would be stripped of all guns except for the tail turret. Lighter weight would boost the bombers’ speed and also increase their bomb-load capacity by 65 percent.

There, LeMay told his men: “You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.”

The Tokyo bombing — which cost the lives of 243 American airmen and destroyed more than 40 sq. km of the city — was not the first aerial assault on Japan’s mainland. U.S. air raids had already started on April 18, 1942, only a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, and they became more frequent after November 1944.

Those Allied raids, though, largely involved precision, high-altitude attacks on industrial and military targets, often carried out in difficult weather conditions and through cloud cover.

But when reconnaissance photographs consistently showed that only about 10 percent of the bombs dropped in those raids were hitting their targets, it was concluded that the tactic was achieving little.

As a result, LeMay finally shifted the aerial campaign to more effective, but much more indiscriminate, area bombing, saying that the firebombing of Japanese cities like Tokyo would terminate assembly lines and their smaller feeder workshops, which were often mingled in among the densely packed housing of downtown areas.

Wave upon wave of attacks

For the Allied forces, the effectiveness of area bombing, which plunged the enemy’s morale into despair, had been proven just a month earlier in Germany. In Dresden, more than 1,200 Allied heavy bombers dropped some 3,300 tons of incendiaries that caused firestorms and killed between 35,000 and 10,000 people, mostly civilians.

After flattening central Tokyo in the March 10 attack, in the weeks and months that followed, the Allied forces launched wave upon wave of aircraft in large-scale area-bombing attacks on other areas of Tokyo, as well as Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya and almost every city throughout the country. Altogether, in such raids, more than 300,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Then, finally, when the most devastating weapons of mass destruction in history were used against Hiroshima on Aug. 6 that year, and Nagasaki three days later, another 140,000 and 70,000 people are thought to have perished in those cities respectively.

Since the war’s end, Ebina has visited Yokoamicho Park in Sumida Ward every year on March 10. The park was originally built in 1930 to commemorate victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Now, the remains of more than 105,000 people killed in the firebombing and other raids on the capital, as well as 58,000 others who perished in the earthquake, are stored in a charnel house there.

This year, on March 9, Ebina was present when a monument to commemorate the bombing victims at the gate of Kanfeiji Temple in Ueno Park was finally unveiled. In launching her plan for that monument several years ago, Ebina had delivered a message that was as somber as it is simple and filled with hope: “I never want children in the future to go though the sorrow I had.”