NEW YORK - Where do the number of B-29s in each sortie, the tonnage of incendiary bombs they dropped on each Japanese city, from the end of 1944 to August 1945, come from? So I wondered when Cary Karacas asked me to translate a second round of air raid poems. He teaches cultural geography at the College of Staten Island, with a stress on the civilian experience of aerial bombing during war.
In responding to his first request half a year ago, I was drawn to a teacher’s experience and a military officer who put up a legal fight in a postwar tribunal. (“Indiscriminate bombing and legal judgment,” Feb. 27, 2017). This time, Karacas made a selection of 15 poems from Katsumoto Saotome’s “Great Air Raids: 310 Poets” (2015).
Saotome, a survivor of the air raid on the night of March 9, 1945, as a 13-year-old boy, cited in his earlier book “The Great Tokyo Air Raid” (1971) a wide range of numbers of B-29s that created the biggest firestorm in history, which burned to death anywhere from 80,000 to nearly 100,000 people, from 130 (Imperial HQ), 279 (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey), to 334 (Len Giovannitti, Fred Freed).
In fact, I had vaguely assumed that the details about the air raids came from the bombing survey. But when I looked at it with some care this time, I found that its main report, filed on July 1, 1946, is a summary and that many reports related to the strategic bombing assembled in the Library of Congress and HathiTrust Digital Library are also summary assessments.
Then, I found what precisely gives the figures I wanted, and more: “tactical mission reports” that record the statistics, targets, etc., of each sortie. For example, No. 248 describes the biggest of the half a dozen air raids on Kochi that was executed in the early hours of July 4, 1945. To pick some salient points from it: “The 73rd Bombardment Wing under XXI Bomber Command carried out the bombing raid in 4 groups; target: Kochi urban area; bomb load: 3 groups to “carry clusters containing M69 bombs and one group was to carry M76 bombs.”
Report No. 248 comes with three other reports on air raids on July 3/4, 1945: 247 (Takamatsu), 249 (Himeji), and 250 (Tokushima). Thus, Kochi, along with Takamatsu and Himeji, was “typically highly built-up, densely populated, inflammable … highly vulnerable to an incendiary attack that would combine M47A2 bombs and E46 clusters. Because of the unavailability of M47A2 bombs, 1 Group was scheduled to carry the M76, 500-pound bombs.” The “average bomb load would be 17,000 pounds for the 73rd.” The mission that early morning consisted of 12 pathfinders and 117 aircraft. Of these, 125 “actually bombed”: E46, 500-pound incendiary cluster bombs, released on targets, 748 tons; AM-M76 500-pound incendiary bombs, released on targets, 312 tons, a total of 1,060 tons.
“Air opposition was expected to be negligible from the 10 to 15 fighters,” the report said. “The comparatively weak showing of Japanese fighters during recent operations was believed to be due to the commitment of many fighters to the anticipated invasion. Another controlling factor was believed to be the shortage of aviation gasoline.” (The direct reason that Japan went to war with the U.S., Britain and the Dutch East Indies was their embargo of oil in July 1941. As the war dragged on, the Japanese were forced even to try to extract oil from pine resin to make aviation gasoline.)
And “photographs of Kochi revealed only 2 heavy antiaircraft guns.” As a matter of fact, the Japanese military’s fight against the swarm of Superfortresses over Kochi proved “nil to negligible.”
The assessed damage to the targeted urban area was “0.92 sq. mi. or 40 percent of the built-up area of the city (1.9 sq. mi.).” The raid killed 400 people, wounded 300 and destroyed 11,800 houses.
That brings to mind another series called “target information sheets.” The one on Okayama warned: “A raid on Okayama should serve as an additional notice to the Japanese people that they will not go unnoticed or unharmed, even in the smaller urban industrial areas, if their city is at all important in the prosecution of the war. If the future looks grey to the people of other small cities, this might add the tint which makes it black.”
The biggest raid on Okayama was carried out in the early hours of June 29, 1945, by 140 B-29s that dropped 95,000 incendiary bombs (890 tons), burning down 73 percent of the city, destroying 12,700 houses, killing more than 1,700 people.
I should not overlook a point noted in a website of Japan’s Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to “commemorate” the victims of air raids on major cities. One on Fukui says: “Japan had already carried out urban bombings in Chongqing and other cities in China; but now Japanese citizens, nonmilitary or otherwise, witnessed the brutalities of modern warfare firsthand.”
The brutalities of these airstrikes — enabled by what Robert Fisk has called “the new age of ‘we-bomb-you-die’ technology” — continued with ever more ruthlessness: in the Korean War (Curtis LeMay: “we killed off 20 percent of the population”), in the Vietnam War (more bombs dropped than “the amount during the whole of WWII”), and has, since 2001, in the Middle East.
Using Pentagon information, Foreign Policy reported on Sept. 18: “U.S. Bombs Falling in Record Numbers In Three Countries” — Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. “American aircraft have dropped over 2,400 bombs in Afghanistan this year, far above the 1,337 dropped in 2016,” it said, and added, “In Iraq and Syria, U.S. planes dropped a total of 5,075 bombs in August,” more than in any month “since the campaign against the Islamic State kicked off in August 2014.”
Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.