This Day in History: An unprecedented air raid on Tokyo

On this day in 1945, the United States Army Air Forces launches an unprecedented air raid on Tokyo, Japan. To date, it remains the single deadliest bombing raid in history—worse even than the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government still refused to surrender.

The U.S. 20th Air Force faced serious challenges in the early part of 1945. They’d been conducting high-level, precision bombing attacks over Japan, but nothing was going right. Bombers were coming in high, at 30,000 feet, then watching as their bombs got torn off course by high winds. Jet streams were not understood as they are today—and the frequent cloud cover in Japan simply made things worse.

The accuracy rate of American bombers was sitting at an abysmal 10 percent.

Something had to be done, and Major General Curtis LeMay knew it. He would no longer try (and fail) to take out high value targets with precision bombing. Instead, he would simply burn the city around them.

The first of LeMay’s incendiary raids began on the night of March 9–10 when more than 300 B-29 bombers took off toward Tokyo. They’d been stripped of non-essentials to make room for more bombs. The B-29s would fly in at 7,000 feet, dropping as many bombs as they could.

The scene was set for a firestorm, although the intensity of that firestorm surely surprised everyone.

As the American aircraft approached, sirens blared in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the Japanese were desensitized to them: There’d simply been too many false alarms. Radio reports were also inaccurate, creating a false sense of safety.

American planes came in, mostly unopposed. “Night incendiary at 5,000 ft,” one navigator described. “Caught in lights for a short time. All kinds of flak, mostly inaccurate. No hits but this one had us scared!”

Many of the buildings in Tokyo were wooden. Thus, the rash of bombs, combined with high winds, soon set downtown Tokyo ablaze. “Barely 15 minutes after the beginning of the attack,” one French journalist would write, “the fire whipped up by the wind starts to rake through the depths of the wooden city.”

This was no ordinary fire. It developed into a firestorm, with portions of the city reaching up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. “[C]anals boiled, metal melted and buildings and human beings burst spontaneously into flames,” historian John Dower explains. Liquid glass flew through the air. Some people tried jumping into swimming pools to escape the flames, but they were boiled alive.

The American bombers were also having trouble dealing with the updrafts and wind shears, created by the terrible fire below. One pilot later noted that his plane was “like a cork on water in a hurricane.” Some pilots reported that they could smell burning flesh.

Meanwhile, Emperor Hirohito and Empress Kojun sat out the attack in their underground bunker.

The firebombing had completely destroyed 15 square miles of Tokyo. That area included many Japanese industries, which had been producing for the war effort. As many as 100,000 people were killed.

“The effect of incendiary bombing on the capital’s organization and the disposition of factories of Japan was very great,” one Japanese Army officer later said, “and, accompanying this, the main productive power was stopped. It [also] decreased the will of the people to continue the war.”

Nevertheless, the Japanese government still would not surrender. Instead, the war would continue for five more months until the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally convinced the Emperor to give in.

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