4. The bombing of Japan

There was another way to go, not in distinction but in addition to a tightened blockade and possible Soviet entry. Since early in the war— indeed, since before the United States went to war and well before the American Air Force began bombing civilians in Germany—American military planners had envisioned attacking the Japanese from the air, without discriminating between soldiers and noncombatants. In mid-November 1941 Army Chief of Staff George Marshall had proposed (secretly) to the American press that, in the event of war, American planes would ‘be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire . . . There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians,’ Marshall asserted. ‘It will be all-out.’ White American racism, and the contempt it fostered for the Japanese, enabled Marshall and others to contemplate attacks on Japanese cities without reservation or fleeting second thoughts; if incinerating Germans troubled them temporarily and slightly, no similar scruples kept them from imagining Japanese cities put to the torch. ‘Perhaps the best way to offset this initial defeat is to burn Tokyo and Osaka,’ mused a military official two days after Pearl Harbor. At that point the United States did not have the capability of attacking Japanese cities—a one-off raid on Tokyo led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle in April

1942    raised American morale but did little damage—but, as US forces pushed toward Japan in early 1945, such attacks became possible. For a time, strategists maintained that the targets of bombing, as in Germany, were military and industrial, and the persistence of this claim allowed for considerable self-delusion along the way. In fact, throughout 1943 air-force analysts built careful models of Japanese (and German) cities in the Utah desert, then experimented with various combinations of incendiaries to determine how best to burn them down. The mock Japanese houses were even stocked with tatami mats taken from Japanese-American homes in Hawaii.18

The attacks on Japan, aided by the availability of new B-29 Superfortress bombers for China and the Marianas, began in earnest in mid-1944, with a raid on a Kyushu coke and steel plant. The attack failed, and heralded a series of failures resulting from Japanese defenses, logistical problems at Chinese airfields, bad weather, and defects in the B-29s, in ascending order of importance. The final two problems also plagued the bomber campaign launched from the Marianas. As American pilots had found in Germany, it was hard to hit a single target, even one as large as a steel or munitions plant. Recognizing this, officials in Washington raised the priority of what they called blandly ‘urban industrial areas’ to second on the targets list, still behind ‘the aircraft industry’ but now ahead of steel plants, oil refineries, and everything else. When the commander of the Marianas-based XXI Bomber Group, Haywood (‘Possum’) Hansell Jr., proved reluctant to implement the new policy, he was replaced in early January by General Curtis LeMay, who had recently achieved some success against long odds with China-based B-29s and had never exhibited compunction about unleashing incendiaries against civilians. LeMay was a man of few words, pugnacious looking with what seemed a perpetual glower and a cigar clamped in his teeth. He had been impressed with the results of an 18 December raid on the Japanese base at Hankow, China, in which his planes had dropped over 500 tons of incendiaries and burned the city lavishly. ‘To worry about the morality of what we were doing—Nuts,’ declared LeMay after the war. ‘A soldier has to fight. We fought. If we accomplished the job in any given battle, without exterminating too many of our own folks, we considered that we’d had a pretty good day.’ LeMay tried, like his predecessor, to hit industrial targets, but the memory of Hankow burning stayed with him, and a successful incendiary raid on Tokyo on 25 February—a pretty good day—persuaded him to change his tactics. He would target not factories but urban neighborhoods. He would replace many of his planes’ high-explosive payloads with incendiaries. And, given the evident weakness of Japanese defenses, he would remove all guns and gunners from the B-29s and order his pilots to fly at lower altitudes over their targets, thereby improving bombing accuracy, saving fuel (and preserving weight for payloads), and reducing the chances that his planes might be hit by enemy or fratricidal gunfire.19

The target was to be Tokyo. LeMay selected as a site for the incendiaries an area of roughly 12 square miles in eastern Tokyo encompassing the Asakusa ward. It had a population density of 103,000 per square mile. (Deliberately excluded from the target zone was the Imperial Palace; the sight and smell of nearby burning would be enough to send a message to its leading resident, the Emperor Hirohito.) On the evening of 9 March, B-29S took off from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, rendezvoused, and headed west, 334 in all. Each bomber carried up to 6 tons of napalm, phosphorous, and oil-based incendiaries. Japanese radar detected the force and sounded an early warning at 10.30, but inaccurately reported that the attackers had headed off over the sea. The first of the incendiaries—napalm, so as to illuminate the target for the second wave of bombers—came down just after midnight, followed by M-69 magnesium cluster bombs that burst just above the ground. Japanese air defense broadcast an attack warning belatedly at 12.15. The fires spread rapidly, enveloping the target area and an additional 4 square miles besides. Back on Guam, LeMay was uncharacteristically nervous. ‘I’m sweating this one out myself,’ he told his public information officer. ‘A lot could go wrong. I can’t sleep. I usually can, but not tonight.’ He was worried about his crews. There were flak and some interceptors over the city, but the biggest danger the Americans faced was from turbulence, the result of the powerful updrafts caused by the fires below them. Crew members donned oxygen masks to block the stench of napalm and burned flesh. Nearly all the B-29s returned safely to their bases. (One B-29 crew claimed they had monitored Radio Tokyo during the attack, and insisted they had heard the American songs ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘My Old Flame’.)20

The 25 February attack and others ostensibly on industrial targets meant that the people of Tokyo were no strangers to the B-29s—indeed, one of the nicknames given them was ‘regular mail’. But they were unprepared for the waves of bombers that set fire to the city after midnight on 10 March. What anti-aircraft batteries they had were deployed near major factories and were aimed not by radar but by searchlights. Tokyo had trenches and some tunnels, but citizens who managed to reach these found them no protection from the oxygen-sucking heat of the incendiary fires. Houses were made of wood and paper and tightly packed together; efforts to cut fire lanes between them had foundered on labor shortages that had left in place the wooden remnants of structures that had been demolished. Police, firefighters, and hospital workers were unable to cope with the scope of the disaster they faced. ‘To fight ultramodern incendiary bombs’, wrote Robert Guillain, a French journalist who was in Tokyo during the attack, ‘the populace’s basic weapons were straw mats soaked in water, little paper sacks of sand and, in quantity, water buckets that had to be filled from the cisterns at each house’. Families had been told that, in case of an attack, they were to protect their homes and avoid panic.21

Mostly, people ran. They wrapped themselves in hooded air-raid cloaks, thickly padded with cotton, gathered together what family they could, and ran, hoping to find a way out of the flames, certain that they would not survive if they stood still. Whipped by a strong wind, the akakaze or ‘red wind’ off the Tokyo plain, the flames ignited the cloaks and trapped their wearers. Water was their hope. Firefighters tried to douse running people with water, hoping it would protect them from the blaze, or people threw themselves into barrels of water that the parsimonious had placed by their houses to fight fires. People ran to fetid canals and immersed themselves, with only their mouths and noses above the water line. But many of them died anyway, gulping at the deoxygenated air, trampled by others frantically seeking relief from the fires, or boiled by the superheated shallow water in which they stood. Others made it to the Sumida River, only to be swept away by the swift current or drowned as the tide rose: fire or water, they chose their fate. Some ran up rises toward bridges, only to find that the bridge they sought had collapsed, and only then to be crushed or pushed into the water by the crowd that had followed them up the fruitless approach. Or they made it onto an undamaged steel bridge, placed their hands in relief on its railing—and twisted off in agony as they were burned by the scorching metal. The Buddhist temple to Kwan-yin, survivor of the great earthquake and fire of 1923, burned with its monks and refugees and its famous tall gingko trees. In the red light district of Yoshiwara men died with their prostitutes; residents of Nihombashi, funneled by police to the imposing Meiji Theater, tried to protect themselves from the flames by lowering the great steel stage curtain, only to suffocate when toxic fumes penetrated the curtain, which had stuck in place.

As the dawn came in Tokyo, survivors of the bombing were caught in a paralysis of wonder, shock, and nausea. The city stank with the ‘sickeningly sweet odor’ of melted, rotting flesh. A reporter found ‘long lines of ragged, ash-covered people struggling] along, dazed and silent, like columns of ants’. Nearly everyone remarked on the astonishing quiet of the eastern part of the city, the silence broken only by the sound of people coughing or calling out to loved ones. Dedicated as they were, policemen, doctors, and civic officials quailed at the task of collecting the dead. ‘In the black Sumida River countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all as black as charcoal. It was unreal,’ recounted Dr Kuboto Shigenori. ‘These were all dead people, but you couldn’t tell whether they were men or women. You couldn’t even tell if the objects floating by were arms and legs or pieces of burnt wood.’ A police official explained that he was told to report on the situation in the city. ‘Most of us’, he said, ‘were unable to do this because of horrifying conditions beyond imagination ...I was supposed to investigate, but I didn’t go because I did not like to see the terrible sights.’ (His interviewer noted that at this he laughed, uncomfortably.) Many of those who survived the attack felt guilty and apologetic, no matter how badly wounded they were or how much they had lost. Michael Sherry has noted that Tokyoites did not give any indication of hating Americans after the raids, though he adds, shrewdly, that hatred may have been ‘cancelled out by other emotions’. Not entirely. Robert Guillain, though French, felt unprecedented hostility from people in Tokyo in the days after the bombing. And after another firebomb attack on 23-24 May burned to the ground Tokyo’s military prison, investigators found that, while every one of the 400 Japanese inmates had survived, all 62 American aviators imprisoned there had died. (Occupation authorities would convict the prison’s commandant of war crimes.)22

‘Hell could be no hotter,’ concluded Guillain. No one knew, or knows, how many died that March night. Some bodies were no doubt uncounted because they were consumed by fire; others were quickly buried in mass graves so as to eliminate stench and prevent an epidemic; still others who might have been registered as dead may have left the city prior to the bombing, unbeknownst to relatives or (more likely) the only survivors in their families. Gordon Daniels quotes estimates made by officials in Tokyo of between 76,000 and 83,000 killed, though his own guess is closer to 90,000. That roughly 40,000 were injured by the bombing— that is, about half the number killed—suggests something of the fire’s intensity.23

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