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By Senan James Fox

Fire from the sky

Sixty years ago, Tokyo endured the worst air raid in history

Senan James Fox is a freelance writer with a Masters degree in Modern History from the University
of Oxford

Thursday will mark the 60th anniversary of one of the most tragic, yet least remembered, episodes of the World War II. On March 10, 1945, as Tokyo’s 4.3 million citizens bid farewell to the day and settled into their beds on a cold and gusty night, nothing prepared them for the firestorm that would, by morning, engulf nearly half of their city and leave over 100,000 men, women and children dead.

Tokyoites were accustomed to both air raids and the dull drone that emanated from the US B-29 Superfortress planes, which the Japanese nicknamed “B-san,” “Bikko,” “Lord B,”
“Okyakusama” (visitors), and even “Regular Mail.” Initial Allied raids focused largely on precision bombing of Japan’s industrial and military targets from a high altitude, often in unfavorable weather conditions. US Bomber Command concluded that this tactic was achieving little and calculated that only 10 percent of the bombs hit their designated targets. On the orders of the newly appointed Major General Curtis LeMay, the aerial campaign shifted to the more controversial tactic of area bombing. LeMay believed that the firebombing of Japanese cities, especially Tokyo, would destroy hundreds of factories and their smaller feeder workshops, which were usually located in the densely populated shitamachi (downtown) areas. This decision was based not strictly on strictly military principles, however, but on the belief that reducing Japan’s epicenter to ashes would destroy the economic and social fabric of Tokyo, shatter the Japanese public’s faith in their government, and force the country’s intransigent and aggressive leaders to “bear the unbearable” and surrender.

Putting aside the historical arguments, no one can deny the sheer magnitude of the death and destruction that the firebombing wrought upon Tokyo. With the passing of midnight came the arrival of 334 B-29s flying at a height of 2,000m and dropping some 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs on a metropolis largely made of wood and paper. The firestorm left over 100,000 people dead—more than were killed in Nagasaki—and destroyed 41 square kilometers of Tokyo. Over one million residents were left homeless, and it took nearly 25 days to remove all the bodies. In terms of civilian casualties, it was the worst air raid of World War II. Following the war, the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that “probably more people lost their lives by fire in Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.”

To understand why the human cost was so high, we must first appreciate the nature of the bombing. Some half a million incendiary devices—which ignited into flames on contact—were dropped on the city. The futile attempts of Tokyoites to fight the inferno added to the mayhem. The city’s sparse and under-equipped fire brigades were hopelessly unprepared for an attack of such ferocity. As historian Richard B. Frank notes, there were simply too many fires, as each of the 334 B-29s’ bomb loads covered an area 450-600m long and 90m wide. Unlike cities targeted in Europe, where fleeing civilians could seek refuge in subways or bomb shelters, Tokyo had only 18 suitable concrete facilities with a total capacity of 5,000 people, little more than one space for every 1,000 citizens.

In fact, most Tokyoites sought refuge from previous air raids in self-made bokugo—small, flimsily covered, one-to two-meter holes. They provided no haven for the trapped victims, who, by the tens of thousands, were consumed by the unforgiving maelstrom of fire and smoke. The desperate crammed into school swimming pools, the boiling Sumida River and even sewer pipes.

At 2:37am, the all-clear was sounded; the firebombing of Tokyo was over. The survivors soon became aware of the scale of the disaster. In the blink of an eye they had lost their loved ones, their homes and their innocence. The tragedy of war came to them like a ghost in the darkness, and helped to shape the country’s post-war mentality: that war, for whatever reason, is always cruel, and that in the end it is the innocent on both sides who suffer most.

The tragedy today is that the anniversary of March 10 passes largely forgotten. We are mostly indifferent to, or at best ignorant of, the terrible horrors of that night. An Irish scholar of old once wrote, “Our greatest sin against our fellow creatures is not hatred towards them but indifference towards them. Indifference is the essence of inhumanity.” On the 60th anniversary of the last year of World War II, we should not remain indifferent to the suffering of the innocent and the horrors of human conflict. We at least owe this to the human beings who have suffered in the past, and to those of us who long for a better world.

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