Kobe – Readers might be forgiven if they thought the last U.S. aerial bombardment of Japan during World War II was that on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Most historical writings end with that tragic event and then skip ahead to the final heated debate within the Japanese government in the presence of Emperor Hirohito leading to his decision to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. However, during that last week there continued to be a number of aerial attacks.
The use of the second atomic weapon on Nagasaki, following that on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan on Aug. 8, were, in retrospect, the final blows to Japan. However, the Japanese military leadership was unwilling to easily admit it, and the United States expected that Japan would continue to fight. Indeed, landings were planned in Kyushu in September (Operation Olympic) and Kanto in March (Operation Coronet) as part of Operation Downfall, the larger plan to invade the home islands. As such, the U.S. military continued to launch aerial attacks on the country.
Between Aug. 10 and 15, there were several aerial attacks. The biggest one, in terms of the number of airplanes employed, tonnage of weapons dropped, and damage done, was that on Osaka on Aug. 14. Nearly 360 people died, just hours before the war ended.
This was not the first time Osaka was struck. As I introduced earlier this year in these pages, there were many cities bombed, both indiscriminately and through precision-strikes. Osaka, in fact, was struck 51 times in total, with eight of them being considered large-scale aerial bombardments (daikushu).
The first large-scale attack began late on March 13 and continued into the early morning of the March 14, followed by weekly large bombardments in June (1, 7, 15, 26), twice in July (10 and 24), with the last one in mid-August. In total, 15,000 people died.
The worst of the attacks were the first three. Nearly 4,000 died the first night, more than 3,000 the second time, and almost 3,000 in the third bombing. The numbers of victims declined somewhat during the next four attacks — 477 in the fourth attack, 681 in the fifth, 1,394 in the sixth, and 214 in the seventh.
There was not only a significant loss of life, but also destruction of property due to the use of incendiary bombs, which caused massive fires. In 1941, the city of Osaka had more than 612,000 dwellings, but after the attacks, the number was reduced to less than half, or 290,000.
Even in brick buildings that survived, such as the famous Nihon Mengyo Club in Bingomachi in the city’s Chuo Ward, the windows and metal frames melted in the extreme heat (the damage is still visible today).
Some of the dwellings were preemptively removed to prevent fire spreading and to allow fire trucks to access areas more quickly to fight the fires. Almost 73,000 structures were identified in Osaka city alone for removal toward the end of the war, but most were damaged before they could be taken down.
During the last attack on Aug. 14, some 145 B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers and other smaller planes were used. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but there were 274 B-29s used in the March 13-14 attacks, 458 (not including P-51 Mustangs) in the June 1 attacks, and 409 (plus 138 P-51s) in the June 7 strikes.
During a smaller raid on July 26, a prototype of “Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki, was dropped, perhaps to test it or maybe as a warning. Filled with gunpowder instead of plutonium, it killed seven and injured 73. Moreover, 486 houses were burned or collapsed because of it. In all, this “pumpkin bomb,” as it was called, was tested on each city in Japan.
In addition to the Aug. 14 attack on Osaka, there were also missions against other areas too. Tokyo, the capital, was struck repeatedly during that week.
For example, on Aug. 10, Itabashi, Oji, Takinogawa and Adachi wards were struck, as were the then-villages of Kasumi and Tasai in Nishi Tama County, killing 195 people. Next, on Aug. 13, Kyobashi, Kamata, Omori, Shinagawa, Ebara, Shiba, and Shitaya wards were hit, resulting in the deaths of 29 people.
Finally, the last air raid occurred on Aug. 15 on the then-town of Ome. It is unclear if anyone died in that attack, as people had become increasingly aware of the need to find shelter during the air raids. Unfortunately, so much had been destroyed that there were few places to hide.
Ome, incidentally, is the site where a B-29 crashed in an earlier raid on April 2. Of the 11 crew members, six parachuted to safety and were captured. Five of the remaining crew died in the crash. Of the six who initially survived, one died from burns, and another later died in a fire while in captivity. The other four eventually were repatriated after the war. Those who died in the crash were buried at a nearby temple, Sokuseiji, and in the year 2000, local community leaders built a memorial to the young pilots and crew members.
Another memorial can be found next to Kyobashi Station in Osaka, dedicated to those who died in the attacks there. It was built, by a private citizen as well, on Aug. 14, 1947 — two years to the day of the last attack.
I visited that memorial this week to pay my respects. Sadly, few, if any, of the passersby hurrying in one direction or another seemed to know what the monument is for. This is ironic, as it was the average citizens who paid the highest price for the war.
Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University and is the translator and editor of “Fighting Spirit: The Memoirs of Major Yoshitaka Horie and the Battle of Iwo Jima” (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2011) among many dozens of other works.
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