Here it comes, hell in the night

I saw this on my calendar yesterday and wanted to comment, but was pressed for time. Via Cut and Paste Aviation, though, comes a great write-up about March 9th in history:

1945 – Almost 16 square miles in and around the Japanese capital were incinerated, and between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the worst single firestorm in recorded history after B-29 fire-bombing raid on Tokyo.

Early on March 9, Air Force crews met on the Mariana Islands of Tinian and Saipan were briefed for a low-level bombing attack on Tokyo that would begin that evening. Their planes were stripped of all guns except for the tail turret. The decrease in weight increased the speed of each Superfortress bomber. Bomb load capacity was increased by 65 percent, making each plane able to carry more than seven tons.

The cluster bombing of the downtown Tokyo suburb of Shitamachi had been approved only a few hours earlier. Shitamachi was composed of roughly 750,000 people living in cramped quarters in wooden-frame buildings. Setting ablaze this “paper city” was an experiment in the effects of firebombing; it would also destroy the light industries, called “shadow factories,” that produced prefabricated war materials destined for Japanese aircraft factories.

At 5:34 p.m., Superfortress B-29 bombers took off from Saipan and Tinian, reaching their target at 12:15 a.m. on March 10. Three hundred and thirty-four bombers, flying at only 500 feet, dropped their loads, creating a giant bonfire fanned by 30-knot winds that helped raze Shitamachi and spread the flames throughout Tokyo. Masses of panicked and terrified Japanese civilians scrambled to escape the inferno, most unsuccessfully. The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mists and stench of burning flesh that wafted up sickened the bomber pilots, forcing them to grab oxygen masks to keep from vomiting. The raid lasted slightly longer than three hours. “In the black Sumida River, countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all black as charcoal. It was unreal,” recorded one doctor at the scene.

Only 243 American airmen were lost-considered acceptable losses.

“. . . was Curtis LeMay a war criminal who burned down the cities of Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians with his napalm-fed-infernos? Or, in effect, did he shorten the war and punish those in Tokyo’s household factories whose labor produced the planes, shells, and guns without which the Japanese imperial army could never have murdered thousands of innocent Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos and killed so many American servicemen?” A WAR LIKE NO OTHER by Vicor Davis Hanson.

See a diagram of the M-19 incendiary cluster bomb, which contained 38 M-69 napalm-filled bomblets.

Like with all such events, the death totals are nothing but rough estimates. But regardless of the actual number and the actual numbers at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, this particular raid on Tokyo stands as one of the most devastating and horrific air raids in human history.

Can you imagine what would be said if an attack in Iraq resulted in just 5% of these numbers today? That would be 12 US dead and 4,000 Iraqis. Even during the initial invasion, which would probably be a better comparison anyway, that would have been an unmitigated disaster on enough different levels to derail the entire campaign.


  1. War today, at least that waged by western powers, involves a lot less carnage and civilian casualties. It’s almost neat and tidy compared to just over 60 years ago. They used to level a city just to take out one factory. Now we can lob a bomb through a specific *window* from angels 30. War is still hell, it’s just a much better organized and less costly hell. Now if we can just get some people to understand that you occasionally need to break some eggs in order to make that omelet…

  2. My father-in-law was in recruit training at Paris Island in the Spring of 1945. He was going to part of the first wave of the land invasion of Japan later in the year. If Truman had not allowed LeMay to bomb Japan into submission, my wife would probably never have been born and Truman would have been impeached. The land invasion of Japan would have probably caused more civilian deaths than the fire and atomic bombings did, as well as hundreds of thousands of American casualties.