A Brief History
On March 9, 1945, 324 B-29 bombers of the United States Army Air Force inflicted the deadliest and most destructive single bombing raid in history.
Digging deeper, we find Japan reeling from numerous defeats, with American forces having taken island bases within range of Japan for their giant B-29 bombers, the largest and most technically advanced American bombers of World War II.
Previous bombing missions against mainland Japan from high altitude with conventional bombs had produced disappointing results. General Curtis LeMay ordered that the massive bombers be stripped of most of their heavy defensive armament and fly at low altitude, both factors which saved fuel and allowed more tons of bombs to be carried. Raids would be mounted at night to make interception difficult, and although that would necessarily hurt visibility for the bomber crews, accuracy would be enhanced by the low level flight.
The other critical decision was to equip the bombers with mostly incendiary bombs, hundreds of small firebombs instead of a few large conventional explosives. The construction of Japanese cities was largely of wood with many interior walls made of a type of paper, and those highly flammable cities became the targets of American bombers instead of individual factories or other pinpoint targets. World War II bombers found it far easier to carpet bomb entire cities instead of trying in vain to hit a much smaller target.
These techniques proved fiendishly successful, and in the first such raid a square mile of the capital city of Tokyo was burned to the ground. On the night of March 9-10, 1945 the massive number of planes combined with dry and windy conditions spelled disaster for Tokyo.
The most densely populated modern city in the world, Tokyo had a population density of over 100,000 per square mile. Note the word “had!” Sixteen square miles of Tokyo were completely burned to the ground that night, and something over 100,000 people died, most of them horribly. Many more people were injured, and another million were made homeless. The incredible carnage and damage set the model for further bombing raids on Japan until the dropping of the first 2 atom bombs ended the war.
This great Tokyo firebombing raid killed more Japanese outright than either atomic bomb, making it the deadliest single air raid of the war, and for that matter all of history. After the war the question of the legality and morality of conducting such a raid was fiercely debated, with American war planners accused of war crimes by Japanese and many other people around the world, including in the US!
Probably the most cracked aspect to this historical event was that many families of victims later sued the government of Japan in 2007 for failing to end the war earlier and failing to protect and care for them after the bombing! The suit was dismissed and the plaintiffs lost again on appeal.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is bombing civilians and causing massive loss of civilian life and property moral? Should it be allowed, or should it be considered a war crime? Tell us your opinion in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Edoin, Hoito. The Night Tokyo Burned. St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Inferno: The Fire Bombing of Japan, March 9 – August 15, 1945. Madison Books, 2000.
The featured image in this article, a road passing through a part of Tokyo which was destroyed in the 10 March 1945 air raid, is in the public domain in Japan because its copyright has expired according to Article 23 of the 1899 Copyright Act of Japan (English translation) and Article 2 of Supplemental Provisions of Copyright Act of 1970. This is when the photograph meets one of the following conditions:
- It was published before January 1, 1957.
- It was photographed before January 1, 1947.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.