Commentary / Japan

The March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo and the immorality of war

by Robert D. Eldridge

In the early hours of March 10, 1945, 279 U.S. B-29s dropped 1,665 tons of bombs, mostly 500-pound E-46 napalm-carrying M-69 incendiary bombs, killing approximately 100,000 civilians in a single night. Almost 270,000 buildings were destroyed, and more than 1 million residents were rendered homeless.

It was the single most destructive bombing raid in history — even more than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the victims were civilians, and most of them were women, children, and elderly, in light of the fact that the able-bodied menfolk were off to war and the full scale evacuation of these vulnerable groups from urban areas had not begun in earnest yet.

The first city bombed from the air is usually considered to be Antwerp, Belgium, in an attack conducted by a German Zeppelin LZ 25 in late August 1914, but in fact, there were uses of such aerial bombings prior to that during the Italo-Turkish War in an attack near Tripoli in 1911, the First Balkan War in 1912, and the Mexican Revolution in 1914. This makes sense as aircraft and airships were being developed and employed operationally at this time. The Japanese military used air attacks in Japan’s second war with China in the 1930s, as did Germany against England and others.

However, attacks from the sky have an earlier history. During the Song Dynasty, Chinese used incendiary kites for the first time in warfare, a practice later repeated in Europe and Thailand (Siam) and the 14th and 17th centuries respectively.

The scale and targets of the aerial bombings dramatically changed with the Tokyo firebombings. Specifically, an unprecedented level of destruction befell Tokyo in mid-March 1945 and would continue through the bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, Nagasaki on Aug. 9 and Osaka on Aug. 14, the day before Japan announced its surrender.

The March 10 attacks on Tokyo were not the first on the city. The April 1942 Doolittle Raid, in which 16 B-25 Mitchells were launched from the USS Hornet, is well known but the damage from the retaliatory raid was limited although the propaganda effects were large.

It was the introduction of the U.S. B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers that raised the parameters on the level of destruction. But it would take constant training and finetuning of tactics before they were fully of use in their deadly missions.

The first operational B-29s in the Asia-Pacific landed in India in April 1944, attacking targets in Southeast Asia with limited effect. In early July, B-29s began operating from western Chinese airfields, hitting targets in Kyushu and Manchuria. However, the effectiveness was low and the attrition rate high as they could not easily protect themselves against Japanese fighter planes. The greater the distance the more fuel was required, reducing machine guns and other forms of protection.

With the seizure of the Marianas in the summer of 1944, and the development of runways there, B-29s could reach most of the main islands of Japan but they were still vulnerable to ground fire and attacks from fighters. As a result, the attacks on airplane and related parts factories, munitions, etc., in mainland Japan, which began in late November that year, were not that effective.

Other reasons for their ineffectiveness included weather cover, the lack of adequate training of pilots and crews, and the inability to find the right combination of bombs to expand the level of destruction. Altitude was another problem — to avoid ground fire and aerial attacks, it was necessary to fly at 9,100 meters, but winds pushed the dropped bombs off target. Fires were quickly put out by fire departments and damage control parties.

In the meantime, Japanese pilots and defenders became more proficient in their techniques against the B-29s, which included ramming in suicide-like attacks. Damage to B-29s, which cost at the time $750,000 per plane, was relatively high. The loss of aircraft and limited effectiveness were worrying U.S. Adm. Chester Nimitz, who was in charge of the larger war effort.

As the war in Europe neared its end, the U.S. military could turn its full attention to the war against Japan, transferring personnel and equipment, including the Superfortresses, but the execution of the war was not going as desired.

While in Chengdu, China, as the recently arrived commanding general of the XX Bomber Command, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay thought it necessary to include civilian targets in its attacks to bring Japan to its knees, and experimented with this approach in a raid against a dock area at Hankow on December 18. Moving again to Guam in the new year to head the XXI Bomber Command, LeMay continued to advocate for “strategic bombing,” a view that gained greater ascendency as the ineffective campaign and high losses against Japan continued.

Specifically, LeMay wanted to use low-level (1,500 to 2,400 meters) incendiary attacks on Japanese cities, knowing the houses tended to be made of wood, were along narrow, crowded streets, and were often involved in making components for military industries.

An attack on Dresden in Germany in mid-February had killed an estimated 60,000 people in one night when incendiary bombs created a firestorm that subsumed the residential area of the city. It was believed the effect would be greater in Japanese cities.

Of course, this went against civilized warfare, but the arguments were used that its success would shorten the war. Ironically, in most cases it had the opposite effect, causing many Japanese to recommit themselves to the war effort against all hope. Indeed, the more LeMay’s forces fine-tuned its bombing campaigns, the more the Japanese side adapted.

The Battle of Iwo Jima in February-March 1945 was another key factor in bringing LeMay’s doctrine to fruition because the capture of the island denied Japan a place from which to launch fighters to disrupt these bomber flights and report on them via radar and provided an airfield for the U.S. to recover damaged aircraft.

It was a mere 20 days after the battle had started when the launch on March 9 of Operation Meetinghouse, in which 334 B-29s took off, eventually destroying much of downtown (Shitamachi) Tokyo.

Unfortunately, this was not the only attack during the war. In total, Tokyo would be struck 106 times, and dozens of other cities all around Japan were attacked repeatedly, basically indiscriminately, as well. These attacks beg the question as to their legality, and many on both sides of the Pacific believe that the attacks went against international law. They certainly were immoral, which many acts during war are.

Today, a museum and reference center, whose director was a child at the time of the attacks on his quiet neighborhood, honors the memory of the victims with numerous, highly informative displays, and a small library in Koto Ward, Tokyo, ground zero for the attacks. It reinforces the reality that it usually is the civilians who suffer the most from the horrors of war.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and the author of numerous works including “Iwo Jima and the Bonin Islands in U.S.-Japan Relations.”

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