Tokyo, Japan · March 9, 1945

Apart from Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s April 1942 raid on the Japa­nese capi­tal, Tokyo, early air raids on Japan focused on mili­tary and indus­trial tar­gets with dis­appointing results. So U.S. Army Air Forces Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, a vete­ran of the hor­rific air cam­paign over Nazi Ger­many, filled each of his new four-engine Boeing B‑29 Super­for­tresses with ten times the pay­load carried by Doo­little’s twin-engine B‑25 Mitchells. With highly effec­tive in­cen­di­ary bombs in their bomb bays, 334 B‑29s of the Twen­tieth Air Force, flying at the relat­ively low altitude of 7,000 ft, fire­bombed Tokyo late on this date and into the early morning hours of 1945 in an opera­tion called “Meeting­house,” which was a code term for the urban area of the Japanese capital.

The Dante-esque raids on a densely popu­lated area of 16 sq. miles proved the single-most destruc­tive bombing raid in his­tory: 267,000 buildings and homes (many built of wood and paper) were destroyed and an esti­mated 100,000 Tokyo residents were killed—the highest loss of life of any aerial bom­bard­ment of the war, including victims of Ham­burg (42,600), Berlin (20,000–50,000), Dresden (25,000), Hiro­shima (70,000–80,000), and Naga­saki (40,000–75,000). Nagoya, Japan’s air­craft manu­fac­turing cen­ter, suffered the night after the Tokyo raid and again a week later. In between it was Osaka’s and Kobe’s turn.

After “Blitz Week” (a total of 1,434 sor­ties on the main Japa­nese island of Honshū), Tokyo was again razed on May 23 and 25, leaving three million urban­ites now home­less, followed on May 29 by Yoko­hama’s busi­ness dis­trict and water­front (one-third of the city). In May alone one-seventh of Japan’s built-up urban area—a staggering 94 sq. miles—had been devas­tated, raising total urban destruction to over one-third.

LeMay described his policy as “Bomb and burn ’em until they quit.” Along with ineffec­tive Japa­nese inter­cept air­craft, LeMay’s B‑29 cam­paign drama­tically limited Japan’s options to avoid cer­tain anni­hi­lation. Because of the terri­fying attacks on Tokyo (over 50 per­cent of the city’s urban area had been reduced to ashes), the Japa­nese capital was spared further fire raids because it was no longer a vi­able target. One B‑29 flier quipped, “Tokyo just isn’t what it used to be.”

Saturation Bombing, Tokyo, 1944–1945

Charred remains of Japanese civiliansVirtually destroyed Tokyo residential section

Left: The charred remains of civilians after the car­nage and destruc­tion wrought by 1,665 tons of bombs falling on Tokyo the night of March 9/10, 1945. The majority of the bombs were 500‑pound cluster bombs packed with napalm-carrying incen­diary bomb­lets. Emperor Hiro­hito’s tour of the destroyed areas of his capi­tal that March is said to have been the begin­ning of his personal involvement in the peace-making process.

Right: A virtually destroyed Tokyo residen­tial section. An esti­mated 1.5 mil­lion people lived in the city wards devas­tated by Opera­tion Meeting­house. By the end of World War II over 50 per­cent of Tokyo had been reduced to ashes. In fact, an esti­mated 40 per­cent of Japan’s built-up cities were destroyed in U.S. air attacks in 1944–1945.

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

Left: Boeing built 3,970 of these four-engine, pro­peller-driven bombers between 1943 and 1946. Though designed as a high-altitude daytime bomber, in prac­tice B‑29s actually flew more low-alti­tude night­time incen­diary bombing mis­sions. B‑29s carried out the atomic bombings that de­stroyed Hiro­shima and Naga­saki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respec­tively. On August 14, 1945, the last day of com­bat in World War II, B‑29s targeted the Japa­nese naval arse­nal at Hikari on the southern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshū.

Right: Tokyo burns under a B‑29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945. B‑29 raids on Tokyo began on Novem­ber 24, 1944, and lasted until August 15, 1945, the day Japan capitu­lated. Twin-engine bombers and fighter-bombers carried out additional attacks on Tokyo. The last air combat of the Pacific War occurred on August 18, when two Consoli­dated B‑32 Domi­nators on a photo reconnais­sance mission to Tokyo were attacked by 17 Japa­nese fighter planes. Sergeant Anthony Marchione, a photo­grapher’s assistant, on board one of the B‑32s (a four-engine, less well-known rival to the B‑29), was the last American to die in air combat in World War II.

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