Chengtu, China · June 15, 1944

On this date in 1944 67 B-29 Super­for­tresses took off from their base in Chengtu, main­land China, to release 221 tons of bombs on the Impe­rial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata on the southernmost Japa­nese home island of Kyū­shū. This was the first attack on the Japa­nese home­land since Col. James Doo­little and his Raiders famously launched them­selves off the carrier deck of the USS Hornet more than two years earlier.

The June 15 attack inflicted marginal damage on Yawata—only one bomb struck the steel­works. But more than that, the Yawata raid demon­stra­ted to U.S. Army Air Forces Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the XX Bomber Com­mand in China, that Chinese bases, which had to be supplied with fuel flown over “The Hump” (the Hima­layan “Alumi­num Trail,” named for the num­ber of planes lost), could not deliver the knock­out blows to Hon­shū, the main island north of Kyū­shū, where Tokyo, the nation’s capi­tal, lay. Raids from Chin­ese air­fields against indus­trial targets con­tinued at rela­tively low intensity through early January 1945.

The first wave of B-29s attacked Tokyo from their new base in the Mari­anas in the Cen­tral Pacific on Novem­ber 24, 1944, when 111 B‑29s hit an air­craft fac­tory on the edge of the city. More B‑29 raids con­tinued through the end of the month, when LeMay gave his bomber team a respite. In mid-Febru­ary Tokyo’s air­craft works were badly hit by carrier-based air­craft. The second of these carrier-based raids was accompanied by nearly 230 B‑29s.

At month’s end the B-29s took over the show. On the night of March 9/10, in a fiery dis­play called Oper­a­tion Meeting­house (Meeting­house being code for Tokyo), 334 B‑29s dropped incen­di­aries that destroyed 267,000 buildings, roughly 25 per­cent of the city (nearly 16 sq. miles), killed close to 84,000 re­si­dents while wounding over 41,000, and cut the city’s indus­trial capa­city in half. The Japa­nese Impe­rial Palace was heav­ily damaged in the fire­storm. Emperor Hiro­hito’s tour of his fire­bombed capital is often cited as the beginning of his per­sonal involve­ment in the peace pro­cess, cul­mi­nating in Japan’s sur­render six months later. Tokyo con­tinued to be bombed through August 15, when the Japa­nese govern­ment announced its accep­tance of the Allies’ July 26 Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion and its willing­ness to capitulate provided the emperor’s sovereignty was maintained.

Noriko Kawamura’s Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War provides a convinc­ing reapprai­sal of Japan’s Hiro­hito few Westerners would recog­nize when­ever they are reminded of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific con­flict. This owes largely to Kawa­mura drawing on a huge number of pri­mary and secondary Japanese-lan­guage sources—some of them only recently avail­able to scholars. Mining them Kawa­mura draws a por­trait of an emperor person­ally against waging war with the West, all the while offi­cially sanc­tioning (as required by the Japanese con­sti­tu­tion) state decisions that led to the events of Decem­ber 7, 1941. Once Japan’s leaders launched their nation’s high-risk cam­paign to seize Western colo­nial interests, Hiro­hito assumed the mantle of supreme com­mander in chief (daigensui) of all Japa­nese armed forces, again as required under the consti­tu­tion. Kawa­mura por­trays Hiro­hito growing ever more skep­ti­cal of a favor­able mili­tary out­come as Japa­nese vic­tories over the enemy proved more elu­sive by the month. Terri­fied by the pro­spect of “Japan’s anni­hi­la­tion,” as Hiro­hito him­self put it, the emperor at last flexed his moral muscles in a set of imperial prerog­a­tives (sei­dans), inter­vening on the side of the “peace faction” to end the con­flict he never wanted. To his dying days in January 1989 the Hiro­hito of Kawa­mura’s account privately agonized over his not nipping in the bud the cala­mity that the fire-breathers in his mili­tary were poised to inflict both on his loyal sub­jects and on tens of millions more who would suffer, be injured or maimed, or lose their lives in the Pacific War.—Norm Haskett

The Bombing of Japan, 1944–1945

Four-engine B-29 Superfortresses at Chengtu, China, airbaseFirebombing campaign against Japan: Tokyo burns under a B-29 firebomb assault

Left: B-29 Super­for­tresses photo­graphed at Chengtu, China, shortly before they par­ti­ci­pated in the bombing of Yawata, Japan, on June 15, 1944. Boeing built 3,970 of these four-engine, pro­peller-driven heavy bombers between 1943 and 1946. B‑29s carried out around 33,000 sorties in World War II mainly against Japan. 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. Former Japanese Prime Minister Fumi­maro Konoe, who left office seven weeks before his country’s surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, said: “The determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing” by U.S. warplanes.

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.

Firebombing campaign against Japan: Charred remains of Japanese civilians, Tokyo, March 1945Firebombing campaign against Japan: Virtually destroyed Tokyo residential section, 1945

Left: The charred remains of Japanese civilians after the almost unimagin­able car­nage and destruc­tion wrought by Oper­a­tion Meeting­house, the March 9–10, 1945, fire­bombing of Tokyo. Oper­a­tion Meeting­house was the deadliest firebombing of World War II.

Right: A virtually destroyed Tokyo residen­tial section. Over 50 per­cent of Tokyo, or 97 sq. miles of the city, was reduced to ashes by the end of the war. In all, an esti­mated 40 per­cent of Japan’s built-up cities were destroyed in U.S. air attacks in 1944–1945.

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

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