Tokyo firestorm – deadliest bombing raid ever

B-29A-30-BN (42-94106) on a long-range mission in 1945.

B-29A-30-BN (42-94106) on a long-range mission in 1945.

In November 1944 the USAAF’ largest bomber, the B-29 Superfortress, had become operational from airfields on the Marianna islands and were now within range of Tokyo. Previously they had operated from bases in China which were not within range of the Japanese capital. At first the bombers used conventional high explosive bombs from high altitude. By March 1945 they had switched to a larger mix of napalm incendiary bombs, released from a lower altitude at night, a tactic designed to overcome the weak Japanese air defences.

On the night of the 9-10th March in the largest raid yet, 279 Superfortresses dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo, the bulk of them the 500lb M-69 Cluster Bomb, nicknamed the ‘Tokyo Calling Cards’:

The raid was centered on a residential area of Tokyo where, it was argued, there were a large number of small workshops which contributed to the Japanese war effort. The bombs had a devastating impact on the predominantly wooden housing in the residential areas of Tokyo, with a gusting wind adding to their effect, soon turning the huge conflagration into an out of control firestorm. A vast area of the city was set alight and the fire fighting capabilities of the city were completely overwhelmed.

Funato Kazuto was a schoolgirl living with her family in Tokyo:

There was a preliminary alert — three or four planes – but immediately, the warning was canceled. Just reconnaissance, they must have thought. Then the full force of the raid hit. When Mother woke me, all was in a terrible uproar, great loud noises everywhere. Father had to dash to his duty station at the school with his iron helmet and his haversack, because he was on the medical detail of the Vigilance Corps.

At that time we always slept in monpe[trousers], so I awoke Hiroko while my mother put the baby on her back, and we went into the shelter dug under the shop. My three brothers had gone out to extinguish small fires from incendiary bombs. Suddenly Koichi rushed in and told us to run in the direction of the school before our escape route was cut off. “We’ll come later,” he said.

When we went out, we could see that to the west, in the direction of Fukagawa, everything was bright red. The north wind was incredibly strong. The drone of the planes was an overwhelming roar, shaking earth and sky. Everywhere, incendiary bombs were falling.

The baby on Momma’s back howled. I had Hiroko by the hand. Teruko was staying at Grandmothers house. Minoru went there to get them. When he arrived, incendiary bombs were falling heavily and nobody was around, so feeling himself in great danger, he turned back.

Mother, the baby, Hiroko, and I were by then in the shelters behind the school. They were uncovered and were more like lines of trenches. This was where we were supposed to assemble if anything happened.

Incendiaries began hitting near the school and the line of fire was coming closer. People panicked. Running, screaming. “We’re all going to die! The fire’s coming!” The sound of incendiary bombs falling, “Whizzz,” the deafening reverberations of the planes, and the great roar of fire and wind overwhelmed us. “If we stay here we’ll die! Let’s run!”

Everybody danced to this theme. My mother and I, too. Many people who stayed there survived, but almost as if we were compelled to heed those voices calling, “Women and children, follow us. Why are you hesitating?” we jumped out. Somebody was shouting, “If you go toward Sunamachi you’ll be safe!” Sunamachi was south of our house.

Large bombs had fallen in that area weeks before and many parts of Sunamachi were nothing but vacant lots. Sunamachi was downwind and it was an ironclad rule to go upwind in a fire, but we couldn’t go any further in the other direction. A firestorm lay that way. You’d have to go through it, and so many people were running madly away from the fire.

“Make for Sunamachi!” We left the shelter and crossed the wooden bridge over the drainage ditch in front of the school. Then we ran into our three brothers. My father, too. The Vigilance Corps had given up. I felt, “At last we’re safe.”

We got to the foot of the small Oshima Bridge they wouldn’t let us enter the park. It was already full of people coming from the Fukagawa direc- tion. We had to backtrack through that firestorm. Even two or three minutes was a terrible loss of time.

“Hold on tight, don’t be separated,” Minoru told me as he took my hand. Koichi put Hiroko on his back. We ran in the direction of Sunamachi. There are many rivers and bridges in that direction. We reached Shinkai Bridge. Sunamachi lay beyond, but that’s where we were all scattered.

The wind and flames became terrific. We were in Hell. All the houses were burning, debris raining down on us. It was horrible. Sparks flew everywhere. Electric wires sparked and toppled.

Mother, with my little brother on her back, had her feet swept out from under her by the wind and she rolled away. Father jumped after her. “Are you all right?” he screamed. Yoshiaki shouted, “Dad!”

The charred body of a woman who was carrying a child on her back

The charred body of a woman who was carrying a child on her back

I don’t know if his intention was to rescue Father or to stay with him, but they all disappeared instantly into the flames and black smoke. Everything was buming. In front of us were factories, red flames belching from windows. Koichi, Minoru, Hiroko, and I, the four of us, were the only ones left.

There was thick shrubbery and a slight dip at the foot of the bridge, and we huddled together there. Koichi shouted that we couldn’t go further, and we really couldn’t go back. Many people jumped into Onagigawa, twenty meters wide.

We could just barely see a roadside shelter from where we were. Ditches had been dug along many roadsides in case of air raids. Koichi took Hiroko’s hand and I clung to Minoru. We dashed across the road through the flames.

Hiroko’s headgear caught fire. It was stuffed with cotton. The four of us tumbled into the shelter. We tried to remove the burning cover from her head, but it was tied tight so as not to be blown away by the wind. Hiroko tried to pull it off herself, so both her hands were burned. Her hair burned, too.

We were finally able to tear it off and smothered the fire with our legs. We lay flat on our stomachs, thinking that we would be all right if the fire was gone by morning, but the fire kept pelting down on us.

Minoru suddenly let out a horrible scream and leapt out of the shelter, flames shooting out of his back. Koichi stood up calling, “Minoru!” and instantly, he too, was blown away. Only Hiroko and I remained.

This is part of a longer account that appears in Haruko Taya Cook (ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

The raid was far more lethal than earlier raids on Dresden and Hamburg and even the later atomic bombs would not kill as many people. The US Strategic Bombing Survey later estimated that nearly 88,000 people died, with 41,000 injured, while the Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. Subsequent research, based on known population densities in the areas affected, has suggested that both of these are underestimates. Around a million people were made homeless.

This Tokyo residential section was virtually destroyed.

This Tokyo residential section was virtually destroyed.

Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945.

Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945.

Apost raid analysis of the damage done to Tokyo.

A post raid analysis of the damage done to Tokyo.

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sylvester wilcy June 19, 2017 at 3:53 am

I was B29 pilot that flew 17 fire bombing missions over Japan. I remember that I like the other B29 crews didn’t pay much attention to the fires below us, all our attention was getting the bombs dropped so we could start our turn to return to Saipan. After the first 5 missions that were flown within two weeks the flight surgeon stopped all missions so the air crews could get some rest. Our Missions to Japan were 14 hours long.

Even though our losses were heavy we continued fire bombing all the cities in Japan. Our main concern was getting our missions to 35 so we could go home.

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