Tinian, Mariana Islands · December 3, 1944

On this date in 1944 eighty-six B‑29 Super­for­tresses belonging to XXI Bomber Com­mand, a unit of the U.S. Twen­tieth Air Force, left the north­western Pacific Mari­ana Islands base on Tini­an on their third Tokyo bombing mis­sion. Ten days earlier 111 of these heavy bombers had launched the first raid on Japan’s capital since Lt. Col. Jimmy Doo­little’s six­teen B‑25 medium bombers in­flicted minor damage thirty-one months earlier. Results of the Novem­ber 24 raid were dis­cour­aging for both sides: only 48 of the 240 bombs dropped on the Naka­jima Air­craft Com­pany’s engine plant at Musashino in Tokyo’s arsenal district struck their tar­get, and Japa­nese sui­cidal ram­ming air­craft, lacking guns and armor plate, failed to make a dent on the first B‑29 strike on their capital.

The Decem­ber 3 tar­get, today’s tar­get, was again the Musashino air­craft fac­tory. Though 85 per­cent of the Super­for­tresses attempted to hit their pri­mary target, just 2.5 per­cent did. A late-Decem­ber raid on the same com­plex pro­duced worse results: only six bombs landed with­in 1,000 feet of the target. Not until Janu­ary 19, 1945, when 38‑year‑old Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, a vete­ran of both the Ger­man and China-Burma-India thea­ters, assumed opera­tional com­mand did the bombing pro­gram begin pro­ducing drama­tic results—this the result of changing tactics from high-level (20,000‑plus feet), high-explo­sive day­time bombing runs over indus­trial tar­gets to low-level (5,000–6,000 feet) night­time incen­di­ary runs over urban-indus­trial areas. In just two of these night­time raids on Tokyo, on Febru­ary 24/25 and March 9/10, 1945, hun­dreds of B‑29s laid waste to more 300,000 build­ings and homes over a 17‑square‑mile area.

It was not all smooth flying, even when the first P‑51 Mus­tangs from the newly acquired air­fields on Iwo Jima began escorting B‑29s (April 7, 1945). As part of the first of two days of satu­ra­tion bombing on Japa­nese cities in mid-May, 472 B‑29s dropped 16,000 tons of napalm and oil bombs on Nagoya, the cen­ter of Japan’s air­craft in­dustry; 77 failed to return, or one out of six Super­for­tresses.

On August 1, 1945, in the big­gest air raid yet over Japan, 820 Super­for­tresses dropped 6,632 tons of high-explo­sive and in­cen­diary bombs on four cities, bringing the total num­ber of Japa­nese cities incin­er­ated to 56. The last B‑29 raid on Japan—this on Tokyo now more than 50 per­cent rubble and ruin—took place on August 10, 1945, one day after a single bomb from a single B‑29 had incinerated Nagasaki.

Bombing of Tokyo, 1944–1945

B-29 firebombing raids: Charred remains of Tokyo civiliansB-29 firebombing raids: Virtually 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 Dante-esque 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 (70,000–80,000) or Naga­saki (40,000–75,000), which were tar­gets of atomic bombings on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

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 city’s industrial output in half.

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

Left: Boeing built 3,970 of these propeller-driven B 29 behemoths between 1943 and 1946. The sleek fuse­lage, large bomb capa­city, impres­sive per­for­mance, four turbo-super­charged engines, and long-range capa­bility of the “Super­forts” epito­mized Amer­i­can air power in World War II. Two specially configured B 29s, one named Enola Gay and the other Bocks­car, carried out the atomic bombings that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

Right: Tokyo burns under a B-29 fire­bomb assault, May 26, 1945. B 29 raids on Tokyo began on Novem­ber 24, 1944, 10 1/2 weeks after the first B 29 arrived on Saipan Island in the Marianas, and they lasted until August 10, 1945, five days before Japan capitu­lated. Twin-engine bombers and fighter-bombers carried out addi­tional attacks on Tokyo. An August 15 raid that targeted air­fields in the Tokyo area was con­ducted by air­craft from Vice Adm. John McCain’s fast carrier squa­dron, which had not heard the announcement of the cessation of hostilities.

B-29 Strategic Bombing of Japanese Cities, 1944–1945