Northern Mariana Islands · October 12, 1944

The Pacific Theater was the largest theater of World War II. Because of its watery expanse, Army avi­a­tion engi­neers and Sea­bees had to build more than 100 air­fields on islands that dotted the Pacific, from New Guinea in the south, up through Guam, the Mari­anas, Iwo Jima, to Oki­nawa. On this date in 1944 on Sai­pan in the Mari­anas, an is­land chain seized from the Japa­nese only that summer, XXI Bomber Com­mand wel­comed its first long-range, heavy-bomber B‑29 Super­for­tress, though no bomber fields were yet fully opera­tional. Later in the month photo-recon­nais­sance versions of the B‑29 began arriving on the island. On Octo­ber 27 eighteen bombers launched a warm-up mis­sion to a Japanese submarine base on Truk Atoll, 600 miles away.

The first 15‑hour, 3,000‑mile roundtrip to the Japa­nese capital of Tokyo occurred on Novem­ber 7, 1944—a B‑29 (F‑13) recon­nais­sance intruder at 32,000 feet, the first Amer­ican air­craft over Tokyo since the Doo­little Raid thirty-one months before. On Novem­ber 24 XXI Bomber Com­mand, led by Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, sent the real thing: 111 B‑29s from Guam, which tar­geted an air­craft fac­tory, port facili­ties, and urban-indus­trial areas. Damage was minor but the primary B‑29 mis­sion had begun: destroy Japan’s indus­trial capa­city to con­tinue the war. Only later, following a large-scale test of an in­cen­diary bombing raid on Tokyo on Febru­ary 25, 1945, did the mission shift to destroying Japa­nese popu­la­tion centers. By war’s end, 50 per­cent of Tokyo’s urban area had been destroyed by fire and over three million residents left homeless.

Other Japanese cities suffered to a greater degree: Toyama, a center for alumi­num, ball-bearing, and special steel pro­duc­tion, was 99.5 per­cent destroyed on the night of August 1/2, 1945, when 173 B‑29s dropped in­cen­diary bombs on the city; Kofu, was 77 per­cent destroyed; Hitachi, 72 per­cent; Oka­yama, Nara, and Tsu, 69 per­cent; Shizuoka, 66 per­cent; Kago­shima, 63 per­cent; Yoko­hama, 58 per­cent; and Kobe, 55 per­cent. The attack on these and 57 other major Japa­nese cities caused as many as a half-million deaths, while dis­placing as many as five mil­lion people. LeMay’s air force dropped mil­lions of leaf­lets over Japan warning its citizens “in accor­dance with Amer­ica’s humani­tarian policies” to evacuate their homes and businesses and save their lives.

My 103-year-old father-in-law Capt. Benja­min A. Nicks of Shawnee, Kansas, recently passed away. He was priv­i­leged to serve with Maj. Gen. Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay, head of the XXI Bomber Com­mand, out of Tinian Island in the Mari­ana Islands chain between Febru­ary 1, 1945, and August 10, 1945. Ben was a B‑29 air­craft com­man­der who flew 35 mis­sions, his last being on August 6, 1945. Capt. Nicks wrote per­sonal mission reports for each of his missions. His 21st report described his crew’s mission to Kobe on June 5, 1945, a round trip flight of nearly 15 hours. His B‑29 was loaded with thirty-two 500 lb incen­diary cluster bombs: “This high-altitude day­light forma­tion incen­diary mission was a depar­ture from ones we had been flying. We had parti­ci­pated in low-altitude night­time indi­vid­ual incen­di­ary mis­sions. And we met intense oppo­si­tion from flak and fighters. Fortu­nately, we made it through all right. Kobe-Osaka on the inland sea was a highly deve­loped and popu­lated manu­fac­turing and port area, and the Japa­nese took effort to defend it. This was the only time I saw an enemy. When the Jap Zero met us head-on, foolishly attacking a for­ma­tion of some 30 B‑29s armed with more than 300 50‑caliber machine guns, he was asking for it, and got it. When the Zero flashed by in less than a second off our port wing I looked at him and he looked back at me—in that flash we may have seen each other. He had on an avia­tion hel­met and goggles. As he flashed by I saw a burst of flame shoot out from the Zero’s cowling—then gone and from the rear the crew began shouting: ‘He turned over and is spinning in.’ To this day I think of him occasionally.”—Submitted by C. M. “Mike” Adams

Bombing of Tokyo, 1944–1945

Charred remains of Japanese civiliansVirtually destroyed Tokyo residential section

Left: Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the March 9–10, 1945, fire­bombing of Tokyo (Opera­tion Meeting­house). Around 1,700 tons of bombs were dropped by 279 B‑29s and roughly 16 sq. miles of the city were destroyed. The U.S. Stra­te­gic Bombing Survey esti­mated that nearly 88,000 people died in this one air raid and resulting fire­storm, 41,000 were injured, and over a mil­lion resi­dents lost their homes. Another esti­mate is that the Japa­nese capi­tal suffered more imme­di­ate deaths than either Hiro­shima or Naga­saki, which were targets of atomic bombings in August 1945.

Right: A virtually destroyed Tokyo residential section. Because over 50 per­cent of Tokyo’s indus­try was spread out among resi­den­tial and com­mer­cial neighbor­hoods, the Tokyo fire­bombings cut the whole city’s output in half.

Four-engine B-29 SuperfortressTokyo burns under a B-29 firebomb assault

Left: Boeing built 3,970 of these four-engine, pro­pel­ler-driven B‑29 behe­moths between 1943 and 1946. Specially configured B‑29s, called Silverplate B‑29s, carried out the atomic bombings that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A total of 65 Silver­plate B‑29s were produced during and after World War II.

Right: Tokyo burns under a B‑29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945. B‑29 raids on Tokyo began on Novem­ber 17, 1944, and lasted until August 15, 1945, the day Japan capitu­lated. Inter­estingly, in the six days between dropping the second atten­tion-grabbing atomic bomb on August 9—this on Naga­saki—and the day of Japan’s capitu­la­tion, August 15, B‑29s carried out an addi­tional 1,000 indi­vid­ual sorties.

March 1945 “Blitz Week” Targets: Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe (Four Consecutive Videos)