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 Eighth Air Forces’ hor­rific air cam­paign over Nazi Germany, filled each of his new silver-skinned, 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, 297 B‑29s of the XXI Bomber Com­mand, a unit of the Twen­tieth Air Force, flying at only 230 mph and at staggered alti­tudes between 4,900 and 9,200 ft, fire­bombed Tokyo late on this date, March 9, 1945, and into the early morning hours of March 10 in an opera­tion called “Meeting­house,” code for the urban area of the Japa­nese capital. The largest B‑29 for­ma­tion to date, it was so big that it took 3 hours for all the warbirds to become airborne.

Weather conditions over Tokyo were good that night, and the low-flying B‑29 path­finders had no dif­fi­culty marking their tar­gets with napalm-filled bombs designed to cause fires to attract the atten­tion of Japa­nese fire­fighters. The lead for­ma­tions dropped their bombs at 100‑ft inter­vals, but the main force, delivering M‑69 incen­di­aries, dropped their pay­loads at half the dis­tance for better con­cen­tra­tion. An increasing wind fanned the flames of the fires caused by the napalm and incen­di­aries, pro­ducing an expanding fire­storm. As the fires spread, bom­bar­diers dropped their bombs on the fiery edges, thus increasing the size of the con­fla­gra­tion. The fires that spread through­out the capital were only hampered by wide fire­breaks, par­tic­u­larly along rivers and canals. Although thou­sands of peo­ple managed to save them­selves by jumping into city water­ways, the heat was so intense that water in some of the shallower canals literally boiled them to death.

The Dante-esque raids on a densely popu­lated area of 16 sq. miles proved the single-most destruc­tive bombing raid in his­tory, over­whelming the city’s fire-fighting and other emer­gency ser­vices inside two hours: 267,000 buildings and homes (many built of wood and paper) were destroyed and an esti­mated 100,000 Tokyo residents were killed in the target area. Given that the death toll may be under­stated, Oper­a­tion Meeting­house cer­tainly inflicted the highest loss of life of any aerial bom­bard­ment of the war, including victims of Ham­burg (42,600) (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah), Berlin (20,000–50,000), Dresden (25,000), Hiro­shima (70,000–80,000), or Naga­saki (40,000–75,000). Japan’s air­craft manu­fac­turing cen­ter, Nagoya, 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 B‑29 campaign as “Bomb and burn ’em until they quit.” (LeMay’s prede­ces­sor at XXI Bomber Com­mand, Brig. Gen. Hay­wood S. Han­sell, Jr., balked at dropping incen­di­aries on Japan, which he viewed as both morally repug­nant and mili­tarily unnec­es­sary.) Along with ineffec­tive Japa­nese inter­cept air­craft, LeMay’s cam­paign drama­tically limited Japan’s options to avoid mur­der­ous 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

Operation Meetinghouse: Charred remains of Japanese civiliansOperation Meetinghouse: Virtually 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. Radio Tokyo called the attack “slaughter bombing.” The majority of the bombs were 500‑pound cluster bombs packed with napalm-carrying incen­diary bomb­lets. The intent of LeMay’s Oper­a­tion Meeting­house had been to pro­duce “the greatest psycho­logical effect” on Japa­nese civil­ians and leaders, and one leader in par­tic­ul­ar. Emperor Hiro­hito’s tour of the destroyed areas of his capi­tal on March 18 is often thought to have been the begin­ning of his personal involvement in the peace-making process.

Right: A virtually destroyed Tokyo residen­tial section following satu­ra­tion bombing. With war­time peak levels as high as 135,000 per­sons per square mile, Tokyo had the highest den­sity of any indus­trial city in the world. 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 des­per­ate air combat of the Pacific War occurred on August 18, when two Consoli­dated B‑32 Domi­nators on a “routine” photo­recon­nais­sance mission in the vicinity of Tokyo were attacked by 17 rene­gade Japa­nese fighter planes. The photo recon mission proved that some Japa­nese air­craft were non­com­pliant with cease­fire terms that required Japa­nese air­craft to remain on the ground. Sgt. Anthony Marchione, a 21-year-old gunner/photo­grapher’s assis­tant, on board Hobo Queen II, one of the B‑32s (a four-engine heavy bomber, 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)