Bombing of Tokyo

Bombing of Tokyo

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Tokyo is the capital of Japan and was therefore a major target of the United States Air Force during the Second World War. The first raids began in late 1944 when the new B-29 Stratafortress heavy bombers began operating from bases in the Mariana Islands.

After the US Army captured Iwo Jima the USAF was able to use the island to increase its bombing attacks on Japan. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city.

Even before the war, Japan had been under military rule, so our education didn't change that much. We did spend more time with patriotic material in history classes and were being taught how to march and how to shoot. We took it in stride without much questioning.

In the beginning, the war was still distant to us. We sent off our relatives and friends with cheery smiles and military songs. We didn't see any bombing yet, so we were not really aware of what war was like.

Doolittle's raids began in 1942 and 1943. When I saw a couple of American planes in the sky, I realized it was coming closer. After Doolittle's first attacks on Tokyo, nothing happened for a time. America started invading all those Pacific islands. When they took Saipan and built a huge airfield there, it really began. We saw these bombers high above Tokyo. They came in droves early in 1944.

In 1944, all the high schools were closed so the students could work in the factories. Everybody was mobilized for the war effort. My classmates and I were sent to a metal factory, where they were building airplane parts. I was seventeen then.

The younger kids were all evacuated from Tokyo and sent to the countryside. The air raids were now getting worse and quite heavy. I was awakened by air-raid sirens and could see the western sky lighted up by fire bombs. It looked like a big display of fireworks.

Fortunately, the residential area where I lived was not hit. We were very lucky, because in Tokyo it was hard to distinguish factory areas from dwelling places.

Downtown Tokyo was completely destroyed. The Ginza area was pretty well wiped out. I saw people fleeing, their faces covered with soot, their clothing torn off. It was happening almost every night.

The Deadliest Air Raid in History

“If war with the Japanese does come, we’ll fight mercilessly,” General George C. Marshall told news reporters in an off-the-record briefing on November 15, 1941, three weeks before Pearl Harbor. “Flying Fortresses will be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire. There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians—it will be all-out.”  More than three years of brutal global warfare would pass before Marshall’s prediction came true, but come true it did on the night of March 9-10, 1945.

An aerial armada of 334 B-29 bombers took off from newly established bases in the Mariana Islands, bound for Tokyo. In the space of a few hours, they dropped 1,667 tons of napalm-filled incendiary bombs on the Japanese capital, killing more than 100,000 people in a single strike, and injuring several times that number. It was the highest death toll of any air raid during the war, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By comparison, the bombing of Dresden a month earlier had resulted in around 25,000 deaths.

The March 9 raid, code-named “Operation Meetinghouse,” marked a shift in American bombing strategy. It wasn’t B-17 Flying Fortresses that did the job, as Marshall had predicted, but the new long-distance B-29s based in Saipan and Tinian. General Curtis LeMay, newly appointed as the head of B-29 operations, called for a change in tactics. The high-flying bombers had shown themselves on their first missions to be horribly inaccurate in hitting their targets. At a time when the jet stream was still poorly understood, B-29 crews watched as the high winds at 30,000 feet scattered their bombs as soon as they dropped. That, and the frequent cloud cover over Japan, had led to B-29s hitting their targets, on average, less than 10 percent of the time.

For the March 9 raid on Tokyo, LeMay made some key changes. The B-29s would overfly the city’s most densely populated areas at 7,000 feet instead of 30,000 feet, in single file rather than in formation. To reduce the risk from Japanese fighters, they would raid at night (in fact the American bombers met with little resistance). And the B-29s would be stripped of nonessentials, including guns and gunners, to make room for more bombs. “By changing tactics and doubling the bombload per plane,” wrote historian Thomas Searle, LeMay created “a force capable of starting enormous firestorms.”

Map prepared by U.S. Army engineers in 1942. (National Archives/ Courtesy Cary Karacas, Japan Air


Pre-war USAAF doctrine emphasized the precision bombing of key industrial facilities over area bombing of cities. Early American strategic bombing attacks on Germany used precision tactics, with the bomber crews seeking to visually identify their targets. This proved difficult to achieve in practice. During the last 20 months of the war in Europe, non-visual attacks accounted for about half of the American strategic bombing campaign against Germany. These included major area bombing raids on Berlin and Dresden, as well as attacks on several towns and cities conducted as part of Operation Clarion. [2] The American attacks on Germany mainly used high-explosive bombs, with incendiary bombs accounting for only 14 percent of those dropped by the Eighth Air Force. [3] The British Bomber Command focused on destroying German cities from early 1942 until the end of the war, and incendiaries represented 21 percent of the tonnage of bombs its aircraft dropped. [4] Area bombing of German cities by Allied forces resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and massive firestorm in cities such as Hamburg and Dresden. [5]

Japanese forces conducted area bombing attacks on Chinese cities throughout the war. [6] Few attempts were made to target industrial facilities, with the goal of the campaign being to terrorize civilians and cut the Chinese forces off from their sources of supplies. Chongqing, China's provisional capital, was frequently attacked by aircraft using incendiary and high explosive bombs. These raids destroyed most of the city. [7]

The American Doolittle Raid on 18 April 1942 was the first air attack on Tokyo, but inflicted little damage on the city. [8] In June 1944 the USAAF's XX Bomber Command began a campaign against Japan using B-29 Superfortress bombers flying from airfields in China. Tokyo was beyond the range of Superfortresses operating from China, and was not attacked. [9] This changed in October 1944, when the B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command began moving into airfields in the Mariana Islands. These islands were close enough to Japan for the B-29s to conduct a sustained bombing campaign against Tokyo and most other Japanese cities. [9] The first Superfortress flight over Tokyo took place on 1 November, when a reconnaissance aircraft photographed industrial facilities and urban areas in the western districts of the city. [10] [11] The remainder of Tokyo was photographed in subsequent reconnaissance flights, and these images were used to plan the 10 March raid and other attacks on urban areas. [12]

The overall plan for the strategic bombing campaign against Japan specified that it would commence with precision bombing raids against key industrial facilities, and later include firebombing attacks on cities. [13] The first target directive issued to the XXI Bomber Command by its parent unit, the Twentieth Air Force, on 11 November, 1944 specified that the main target was Japanese aircraft and aviation engine factories. These targets were to be attacked by precision bombing. Japanese cities were specified as the secondary target, with area bombing being authorized for use against them. The directive also indicated that firebombing raids were likely to be ordered against cities to test the effectiveness of this tactic. [14] The Twentieth Air Force had an unusual command structure, as it was personally headed by General Henry H. Arnold, the commanding officer of the USAAF. [15]

B-29 raids on Tokyo commenced on 24 November. The first raid targeted an aircraft engine factory on the city's outskirts, and caused little damage. [9] XXI Bomber Command's subsequent raids on Tokyo and other cities mainly used precision bombing tactics and high explosive bombs, and were largely unsuccessful due to adverse weather conditions and a range of mechanical problems which affected the B-29s. [9] These failures led to the head of the Command being relieved in January 1945. Major General Curtis LeMay, the commander of XX Bomber Command, replaced him. [9] Arnold and the Twentieth Air Force's headquarters regarded the campaign against Japan up to that time as unsuccessful, and LeMay understood that he would also be relieved if he failed to deliver results. LeMay believed that changing the emphasis from precision bombing to area bombing was the most promising option to turn the XXI Bomber Command's performance around. [16]

Early incendiary raids on Japan Edit

USAAF planners began assessing the feasibility of a firebombing campaign against Japanese cities in 1943. Japan's main industrial facilities were vulnerable to such attacks as they were concentrated in several large cities, and a high proportion of production took place in homes and small factories in urban areas. The planners estimated that incendiary bomb attacks on Japan's six largest cities could cause physical damage to almost 40 percent of industrial facilities and result in the loss of 7.6 million man-months of labor. It was also estimated that these attacks would kill over 500,000 people, render about 7.75 million homeless and force almost 3.5 million to be evacuated. [17] [18] The plans for the strategic bombing offensive against Japan developed in 1943 specified that it would transition from a focus on the precision bombing of industrial targets to area bombing from around halfway in the campaign, which was forecast to be in March 1945. [19]

Preparations for firebombing raids against Japan began well before March 1945. In 1943 the USAAF tested the effectiveness of incendiary bombs on adjoining German and Japanese-style domestic building complexes at the Dugway Proving Ground. [20] [21] These trials demonstrated that M69 incendiaries were particularly effective at starting uncontrollable fires. These weapons were dropped from B-29s in clusters, and used napalm as their incendiary filler. After the bomb struck the ground, a fuse ignited a charge which first sprayed napalm from the weapon, and then ignited it. [22] Prior to March 1945, stockpiles of incendiary bombs were built up in the Mariana Islands. These were accumulated on the basis of XXI Bomber Command plans which specified that the B-29s would each carry 4 short tons (3.6 t) of the weapons on 40 percent of their monthly sorties. [23] Arnold and the Air Staff wanted to wait to use the incendiaries until a large-scale program of firebombing could be mounted, to overwhelm the Japanese city defenses. [24]

Several raids were conducted to test the effectiveness of firebombing against Japanese cities. A small incendiary attack was made against Tokyo on the night of 29/30 November 1944, but caused little damage. Incendiaries were also used as part of several other raids. [25] On 18 December 84 XX Bomber Command B-29s conducted an incendiary raid on the Chinese city of Hankou which caused extensive damage. [26] That day, the Twentieth Air Force directed XXI Bomber Command to dispatch 100 B-29s on a firebombing raid against Nagoya. An initial attack took place on 22 December which was directed at an aircraft factory and involved 78 bombers using precision bombing tactics. Few of the incendiaries landed in the target area. [25] On 3 January, 97 Superfortresses were dispatched to firebomb Nagoya. This attack started some fires, which were soon brought under control by firefighters. The success in countering the raid led the Japanese authorities to become over-confident about their ability to protect cities against incendiary attacks. [27] The next firebombing raid was directed against Kobe on 4 February, and bombs dropped from 69 B-29s started fires which destroyed or damaged 1,039 buildings. [28]

On 19 February the Twentieth Air Force issued a new targeting directive for XXI Bomber Command. While the Japanese aviation industry remained the primary target, the directive placed a stronger emphasis on firebombing raids against Japanese cities. [29] The directive also called for a large-scale trial incendiary raid as soon as possible. [30] This attack was made against Tokyo on 25 February. A total of 231 B-29s were dispatched, of which 172 arrived over the city this was XXI Bomber Command's largest raid up to that time. The attack was conducted in daylight, with the bombers flying in formation at high altitudes. It caused extensive damage, with almost 28,000 buildings being destroyed. This was the most destructive raid to have been conducted against Japan, and LeMay and the Twentieth Air Force judged that it demonstrated that large-scale firebombing was an effective tactic. [31] [32]

The failure of a precision bombing attack on an aircraft factory in Tokyo on 4 March marked the end of the period in which XXI Bomber Command primarily conducted such raids. [33] Civilian casualties during these operations had been relatively low for instance, all the raids against Tokyo prior to 10 March caused 1,292 deaths in the city. [34] [35]

Preparations to attack Tokyo Edit

In early March, LeMay judged that further precision bombing of Japanese industrial targets was unlikely to be successful due to the prevailing weather conditions over the country. There were on average only seven days of clear skies each month, and an intense jet stream made it difficult to aim bombs from high altitudes. Due to these constraints, LeMay decided to focus XXI Bomber Command's attacks on Japanese cities. [36] While he made this decision on his own initiative, the general directions issued to LeMay permitted such operations. [37] On 5 March XXI Bomber Command's personnel were advised that no further major attacks would be scheduled until 9 March. During this period LeMay's staff finalized plans for the attack on Tokyo. [38] At a meeting on 7 March, LeMay agreed to conduct an intense series of raids against targets on the island of Honshu between 9 and 22 March as part of the preparations for the invasion of Okinawa on 1 April. [39]

LeMay decided to adopt radically different tactics for this campaign. Analysis by XXI Bomber Command staff of the 25 February raid concluded that the incendiary bombs had been dropped from too high an altitude, and attacking at lower levels would both improve accuracy and enable the B-29s to carry more bombs. [Note 1] This would also expose them to the Japanese air defenses, but LeMay judged that poor Japanese fire control tactics meant that the additional risk was moderate. [41] As weather conditions over Japan tended to be more favorable at night and the LORAN systems the B-29s used to navigate were more effective after dusk, it was also decided to conduct the attack at night. [42] This led to a decision to direct the aircraft to attack individually rather than in formations as it was not possible for the B-29s to keep station at night. Flying individually would also lead to reductions in fuel consumption as the pilots would not need to constantly adjust their engines to remain in formation. These fuel savings allowed the Superfortresses to carry twice their usual bomb load. [43] USAAF intelligence had determined that the Japanese had only two night fighter units, and these were believed to pose little threat. As a result, LeMay decided to remove all of the B-29s' guns other than those at the rear of the aircraft to reduce the weight of the aircraft and further boost the weight of bombs they could carry. [42] [44] [45] While LeMay made the ultimate decision to adopt the new tactics, he acknowledged that his plan combined ideas put forward by many officers. [46] On 7 March, some of the B-29 crews flew training missions in which they practiced using radar to navigate and attack a target from low altitude. The airmen were not told the purpose of this training. [47]

The officers who commanded XXI Bomber Command's three flying wings agreed with the new tactics, but there were fears that they could result in heavy casualties. [42] These concerns were shared by some of LeMay's staff. XXI Bomber Command's intelligence officers predicted that 70 percent of the bombers could be destroyed. [48] LeMay consulted Arnold's chief of staff Brigadier General Lauris Norstad about the new tactics, but did not formally seek approval to adopt them. He later justified this action on the grounds that he had wanted to protect Arnold from blame had the attack been a failure. [44] LeMay notified the Twentieth Air Force headquarters of his intended tactics on 8 March, a day he knew Arnold and Norstad would be absent. There is no evidence that LeMay expected that the Twentieth Air Force would object to firebombing civilian areas, but he may have been concerned that it would have judged that the new tactics were too risky. [49]

Japanese defenses Edit

The Japanese military anticipated that the USAAF would make major night attacks on the Tokyo region. After several small night raids were conducted on the region during December 1944 and January 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force's 10th Air Division, which was responsible for intercepting attacks on the Kantō region, placed a greater emphasis on training its pilots to operate at night. One of the division's flying regiments (the 53rd Air Regiment) was also converted to a specialized night fighter unit. [50] On the night of 3/4 March, the Japanese military intercepted American radio signals which indicated that the XXI Bomber Command was conducting a major night flying exercise. This was interpreted to mean that the force was preparing to start large-scale night raids on Japan. [51] However, the Japanese did not expect the Americans to change to low altitude bombing tactics. [52]

The military forces assigned to protect Tokyo were insufficient to stop a major raid. The Eastern District Army's Kanto Air Defense Sector was responsible for the air defense of the Tokyo region, and was accorded the highest priority for aircraft and antiaircraft guns. [53] [Note 2] The 1st Antiaircraft Division controlled the antiaircraft guns stationed in the central region of Honshu, including Tokyo. It was made up of eight regiments with a total of 780 antiaircraft guns, as well as a regiment equipped with searchlights. [55] American military intelligence estimated that 331 heavy and 307 light antiaircraft guns were allocated to Tokyo's defenses at the time of the raid. [56] A network of picket boats, radar stations and lookout posts was responsible for detecting incoming raids. [57] Due to shortages of radar and other fire control equipment, Japanese antiaircraft gunners found it difficult to target aircraft operating at night. [58] The radar stations had a short range and fire control equipment for the antiaircraft batteries was unsophisticated. [59] As of March 1945, most of the 10th Air Division's 210 combat aircraft were day fighters, with the 53rd Air Regiment operating 25 or 26 night fighters. [60] The regiment was experiencing difficulties converting to the night fighter role, which included an overly intensive training program that exhausted its pilots. [61]

Tokyo's civil defenses were also lacking. The city's fire department comprised around 8,000 firemen spread between 287 fire stations, but they had little modern firefighting equipment. [62] The firefighting tactics used by the fire department were ineffective against incendiary bombs. [63] Civilians had been organized into more than 140,000 neighborhood firefighting associations with a nominal strength of 2.75 million people, but these were also ill-equipped. [64] The basic equipment issued to the firefighting associations was incapable of extinguishing fires started by M69s. [63] Few air raid shelters had been constructed, though most households dug crude foxholes to shelter in near their homes. [65] Firebreaks had been created across the city in an attempt to stop the spread of fire over 200,000 houses were destroyed as part of this effort. Rubble was often not cleared from the firebreaks, which provided a source of fuel. The Japanese Government also encouraged children and civilians with non-essential jobs to evacuate Tokyo, and 1.7 million had departed by March 1945. [66] However, many other civilians had moved into Tokyo from impoverished rural areas over the same period. [67]

Departure Edit

On 8 March, LeMay issued orders for a major firebombing attack on Tokyo the next night. [68] The raid was to target a rectangular area in northeastern Tokyo designated Zone I by the USAAF which measured approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) by 3 miles (4.8 km). This area was divided by the Sumida River, and included most of Asakusa, Honjo and Fukagawa Wards. [69] These wards formed part of the informally defined Shitamachi district of Tokyo, which was mainly populated by working-class people and artisans. [70] With a population of around 1.1 million, it was one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. [71] Zone I contained few militarily significant industrial facilities, though there were a large number of small factories which supplied Japan's war industries. The area was highly vulnerable to firebombing, as most buildings were constructed from wood and bamboo and were closely spaced. [52] Due to this vulnerability, it had suffered extensive damage and heavy casualties from fires caused by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. The United States' intelligence services were aware of how vulnerable the region remained to fire, with the Office of Strategic Services rating it as containing the most combustible districts in Tokyo. [72]

The orders for the raid issued to the B-29 crews stated that the main purpose of the attack was to destroy the many small factories located within the target area, but also noted that it was intended to cause civilian casualties as a means of disrupting production at major industrial facilities. [73] Each of XXI Bomber Command's three wings was allocated a different altitude to bomb from, in bands between 5,000 feet (1,500 m) and 7,000 feet (2,100 m). These altitudes were calculated to be too high for the light Japanese antiaircraft guns to reach, and below the effective range of the heavy antiaircraft guns. [56]

LeMay was unable to lead the raid in person as he had been prohibited from placing himself in a situation where he could be captured after being briefed on the development of atomic bombs. [44] Instead, the attack was led by the 314th Bombardment Wing's commanding officer, Brigadier General Thomas S. Power. [74] LeMay considered Power to be the best of the wing commanding officers. [75] The new tactics which were to be used in the operation were not well received by many airmen, who believed that it was safer to bomb from high altitudes and preferred to retain their defensive guns. [45] Leaving behind the unneeded gunners also troubled many of the airmen, as bomber crews typically had a very close relationship. [76]

In preparation for the attack, XXI Bomber Command's maintenance staff worked intensively over a 36-hour period to ready as many aircraft as possible. This effort proved successful, and 83 percent of the B-29s were available for action compared to the average serviceability rate of 60 percent. Other ground crew loaded the aircraft with bombs and fuel. [77] A total of 346 B-29s were readied. The 73rd Bombardment Wing contributed 169 B-29s and the 313th Bombardment Wing 121 both units were based on Saipan. At the time of the raid the 314th Bombardment Wing was arriving at Guam in the Marianas, and able to provide only 56 B-29s. [44] The B-29s in the squadrons which were scheduled to arrive over Tokyo first were armed with M47 bombs these weapons used napalm and were capable of starting fires which required mechanized firefighting equipment to control. The bombers in the other units were loaded with clusters of M69s. [68] The 73rd and 313th Bomb Wings' Superfortresses were each loaded with 7 short tons (6.4 t) of bombs. As the 314th Bombardment Wing's B-29s would have to fly a greater distance, they each carried 5 short tons (4.5 t) of bombs. [56]

The attack force began departing its bases at 5:35 pm local time on 9 March. It took two and three quarter hours for all of the 325 B-29s which were dispatched to take off. [52] [56] Turbulence was encountered on the flight to Japan, but the weather over Tokyo was good. There was little cloud cover, and visibility was good for the first bomber crews to arrive over Tokyo they were able to see clearly for 10 miles (16 km). [52] Conditions on the ground were cold and windy, with the city experiencing gusts of between 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) and 67 miles per hour (108 km/h) blowing from the southeast. [78] [79]

The first B-29s over Tokyo were four aircraft tasked with guiding the others in. These Superfortresses arrived over the city shortly before midnight on 9 March. They carried extra fuel, additional radios and XXI Bomber Command's best radio operators instead of bombs, and circled Tokyo at an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 m) throughout the raid. This tactic proved unsuccessful, and was later judged to have been unnecessary. [80]

Over Tokyo Edit

The attack on Tokyo commenced at 12:08 am local time on 10 March. [81] Pathfinder bombers simultaneously approached the target area at right angles to each other. These bombers were manned by the 73d and 313th Bombardment Wings' best crews. [3] Their M47 bombs rapidly started fires in an X shape, which was used to direct the attacks for the remainder of the force. Each of XXI Bomber Command's wings and their subordinate groups had been briefed to attack different areas within the X shape to ensure that the raid caused widespread damage. [82] As the fires expanded, the American bombers spread out to attack unaffected parts of the target area. [52] Power's B-29 circled Tokyo for 90 minutes, with a team of cartographers who were assigned to him mapping the spread of the fires. [83]

The raid lasted for approximately two hours and forty minutes. [84] Visibility over Tokyo decreased over the course of the raid due to the extensive smoke over the city. This led some American aircraft to bomb parts of Tokyo well outside the target area. The heat from the fires also resulted in the final waves of aircraft experiencing heavy turbulence. [56] Some American airmen also needed to use oxygen masks when the odor of burning flesh entered their aircraft. [85] A total of 279 B-29s attacked Tokyo, dropping 1,665 short tons (1,510 t) of bombs. Another 19 Superfortresses which were unable to reach Tokyo struck targets of opportunity or targets of last resort. [86] These aircraft turned back early due to mechanical problems or pilots deciding to abort the main mission because they were afraid of being killed. [87]

Tokyo's defenders were expecting an attack, but did not detect the American force until it arrived over the city. The air defense units in the Kanto Plain area had been placed on alert, but the night fighter units were instructed not to sortie any aircraft until an incoming raid was detected. [88] While picket boats spotted the attack force, poor radio reception meant that most of their reports were not received. Due to disorganization in the defense commands, little action was taken on the scattered reports which came in from the boats. [78] At around midnight on 9 March a small number of B-29s were detected near Katsuura, but were thought to be conducting reconnaissance flights. Subsequent sightings of B-29s flying at low levels were not taken seriously, and the Japanese radar stations focused on searching for American aircraft operating at their usual high altitudes. [89] The first alarm that a raid was in progress was issued at 12:15 am, just after the B-29s began dropping bombs on Tokyo. [81] The 10th Air Division sortied all of its available night interceptors, and the 1st Antiaircraft Division's searchlight and antiaircraft units went into action. [89]

As expected by LeMay, the defense of Tokyo was not effective. Many American units encountered considerable antiaircraft fire, but it was generally aimed at altitudes either above or below the bombers and reduced in intensity over time as gun positions were overwhelmed by fires. [90] Nevertheless, the Japanese gunners shot down 12 B-29s. A further 42 were damaged, of which two had to be written off. [91] The Japanese fighters were ineffective their pilots received no guidance from radar stations and the efforts of the antiaircraft gunners and fighter units were not coordinated. [92] No B-29s were shot down by fighters, and the American airmen reported only 76 sightings of Japanese fighters and 40 attacks by them over the course of the raid. [90] Several Japanese pilots were killed when their aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed. [93] Five of the downed B-29s managed to ditch in the sea, and their crews were rescued by United States Navy submarines. [90] American casualties were 96 airmen killed or missing, and 6 wounded or injured. [94]

The surviving B-29s arrived back at their bases in the Mariana Islands between 6:10 and 11:27 am local time on 10 March. [86] Many of the bombers were streaked with ashes from the fires their crews had caused. [85]

On the ground Edit

Widespread fires rapidly developed across northeastern Tokyo. Within 30 minutes of the start of the raid the situation was beyond the fire department's control. [95] An hour into the raid the fire department abandoned its efforts to stop the conflagration. [62] Instead, the firemen focused on guiding people to safety and rescuing those trapped in burning buildings. [96] Over 125 firemen and 500 civil guards who had been assigned to help them were killed, and 96 fire engines destroyed. [62]

Driven by the strong wind, the large numbers of small fires started by the American incendiaries rapidly merged into major blazes. These formed firestorms which quickly advanced in a northwesterly direction and destroyed or damaged almost all the buildings in their path. [97] [98] The only buildings which survived the fire were constructed of stone. [99] By an hour after the start of the attack most of eastern Tokyo either had been destroyed or was being affected by fires. [100]

Civilians who stayed at their homes or attempted to fight the fire had virtually no chance of survival. Historian Richard B. Frank has written that "the key to survival was to grasp quickly that the situation was hopeless and flee". [97] Soon after the start of the raid news broadcasts began advising civilians to evacuate as quickly as possible, but not all did so immediately. [101] The foxholes which had been dug near most homes offered no protection against the firestorm, and civilians who sheltered in them were burned to death or died from suffocation. [63]

Thousands of the evacuating civilians were killed. Families often sought to remain with their local neighborhood associations, but it was easy to become separated in the conditions. [102] Few families managed to stay together throughout the night. [103] Escape frequently proved impossible, as smoke reduced visibility to just a few feet and roads were rapidly cut by the fires. [99] [102] Crowds of civilians often panicked as they rushed towards the perceived safety of canals, with those who fell being crushed to death. [104] The majority of those killed in the raid died while trying to evacuate. [105] In many cases entire families were killed. [97] One of the most deadly incidents occurred when the full bomb load of a B-29 landed in a crowd of civilians crossing the Kototoi Bridge over the Sumida River causing hundreds of people to be burned to death. [106]

Few places in the targeted area provided safety. Many of those who attempted to evacuate to the large parks which had been created as refuges against fires following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake were killed when the conflagration moved across these open spaces. [107] Similarly, thousands of people who gathered in the grounds of the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa died. [108] Others sheltered in solid buildings, such as schools or theatres, and in canals. [107] These were not proof against the firestorm, with smoke inhalation and heat killing large numbers of people in schools. [109] Many of the people who attempted to shelter in canals were killed by smoke or when the passing firestorm sucked oxygen out of the area. [84] However, these bodies of water provided safety to thousands of others. [95] The fire finally burned itself out during mid-morning on 10 March, and came to a stop when it reached large open areas or the Nakagawa Canal. [90] [110] Thousands of people injured in the raid died over the following days. [111]

After the raid, civilians across Tokyo offered assistance to the refugees. [34] Firemen, police officers and soldiers also tried to rescue survivors trapped under collapsed buildings. [112] Many refugees who had previously lived in slums were accommodated in prosperous parts of the city. Some of these refugees resented the differences in living conditions, prompting riots and looting. [113] Refugee centers were also established in parks and other open areas. [114] Over a million people left the city in the following weeks, with more than 90 percent being accommodated in nearby prefectures. [34] Due to the extent of the damage and the exodus from Tokyo, no attempt was made to restore services to large sections of the city. [105]


President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a meeting at the White House on 21 December 1941 and said that Japan should be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale after Pearl Harbor. [7] Doolittle recounted in his autobiography that the raid was intended to bolster American morale and to cause the Japanese to begin doubting their leadership: "An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders. . Americans badly needed a morale boost." [8]

The concept for the attack came from Navy Captain Francis S. Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for antisubmarine warfare. He reported to Admiral Ernest J. King on 10 January 1942 that he thought that twin-engined Army bombers could be launched from an aircraft carrier, after observing several at Naval Station Norfolk Chambers Field in Norfolk, Virginia, where the runway was painted with the outline of a carrier deck for landing practice. [9]

Doolittle, a famous military test pilot, civilian aviator, and aeronautical engineer before the war, was assigned to Army Air Forces Headquarters to plan the raid. The aircraft to be used would need a cruising range of 2,400 nautical miles (4,400 km) with a 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb load, so Doolittle selected the B-25B Mitchell to carry out the mission. The range of the Mitchell was about 1,300 miles, so the bombers had to be modified to hold nearly twice the normal fuel reserves. Doolittle also considered the Martin B-26 Marauder, Douglas B-18 Bolo, and Douglas B-23 Dragon, [10] but the B-26 had questionable takeoff characteristics from a carrier deck and the B-23's wingspan was nearly 50-percent greater than the B-25's, reducing the number that could be taken aboard a carrier and posing risks to the ship's superstructure. The B-18 was one of the final two types that Doolittle considered, and he rejected it for the same reason. [11] The B-25 had yet to see combat, [note 1] [12] but tests indicated that it could fulfill the mission's requirements.

Doolittle's first report on the plan suggested that the bombers might land in Vladivostok, shortening the flight by 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) on the basis of turning over the B-25s as Lend-Lease. [13] Negotiations with the Soviet Union were fruitless for permission to land because it had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941. [14] China's Chiang Kai-shek agreed to the landing sites in China despite the concern of Japanese reprisals. Five possible airfields were selected. These sites would serve as refueling stops, allowing the crews to fly to Chungking. [15] Bombers attacking defended targets often relied on a fighter escort to defend them from enemy fighters, but accompanying fighters were not possible.

When planning indicated that the B-25 was the aircraft that best met all of the requirements of the mission, two were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at Norfolk, Virginia, and were flown off the deck without difficulty on 3 February 1942. [16] The raid was immediately approved and the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium) was chosen to provide the pool of crews from which volunteers would be recruited. The 17th BG had been the first group to receive B-25s, with all four of its squadrons equipped with the bomber by September 1941. The 17th not only was the first medium bomb group of the Army Air Corps, but in early 1942, also had the most experienced B-25 crews. Its first assignment following the entry of the United States into the war was to the U.S. Eighth Air Force. [17]

The 17th BG, then flying antisubmarine patrols from Pendleton, Oregon, was immediately moved cross-country to Columbia Army Air Base at West Columbia, South Carolina, ostensibly to fly similar patrols off the east coast of the United States, but in actuality to prepare for the mission against Japan. The group officially transferred effective 9 February 1942 to Columbia, where its combat crews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an "extremely hazardous", but unspecified mission. On 19 February, the group was detached from the Eighth Air Force and officially assigned to III Bomber Command. [18]

Initial planning called for 20 aircraft to fly the mission, [19] and 24 of the group's B-25B Mitchell bombers were diverted to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With support provided by two senior airline managers, Wold-Chamberlain Field's maintenance hangar was the first modification center to become operational. From nearby Fort Snelling, the 710th Military Police Battalion provided tight security around this hangar. B-25B aircraft modifications included the following:

  • Removal of the lower gun turret.
  • Installation of de-icers and anti-icers.
  • Mounting of steel blast plates on the fuselage around the upper turret.
  • Removal of the liaison radio set to save weight.
  • Installation of a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank, fixed to the top of the bomb bay, and installation of support mounts for additional fuel cells in the bomb bay, crawlway, and lower turret area, to increase fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 U.S. gallons (538 to 950 imperial gallons, or 2,445 to 4,319 L).
  • Installation of mock gun barrels in the tail cone.
  • Replacement of the Norden bombsight with a makeshift aiming sight devised by pilot Capt. C. Ross Greening that was dubbed the "Mark Twain". The materials for this bombsight cost only 20 cents. [17]

Two bombers also had cameras mounted to record the results of the bombing. [14]

The 24 crews were selected and picked up the modified bombers in Minneapolis and flew them to Eglin Field, Florida, beginning 1 March 1942. There, the crews received concentrated training for three weeks in simulated carrier deck takeoffs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing, and over-water navigation, operating primarily out of Eglin Auxiliary Field #1, a more secluded site. Lieutenant Henry L. Miller, a U.S. Navy flight instructor from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola, supervised their takeoff training and accompanied the crews to the launch. For his efforts, Miller is considered an honorary member of the Raider group. [20]

Doolittle stated in his after-action report that the crews reached a "safely operational" level of training, despite several days when flying was not possible because of rain and fog. One aircraft was written off in a landing accident on 10 March [21] [22] and another was heavily damaged in a takeoff accident on 23 March, [21] [22] while a third was removed from the mission because of a nose wheel shimmy that could not be repaired in time. [14]

On 25 March 1942, the remaining 22 B-25s took off from Eglin for McClellan Field, California. They arrived two days later at the Sacramento Air Depot for inspection and final modifications. A total of 16 B-25s were flown to NAS Alameda, California on 31 March. Fifteen made up the mission force and the 16th, by last-minute agreement with the Navy, was loaded so that it could be launched shortly after departure from San Francisco to demonstrate to the Army pilots that there was sufficient deck space for a safe takeoff. Instead, that bomber was made part of the mission force. [note 2] [24]

A B-25 Mitchell taking off from USS Hornet for the raid

B-25 Mitchells aboard USS Hornet

Aft flight deck of USS Hornet

B-25 piloted by Capt. York after emergency landing in the Soviet Union

In order of launching, the 16 aircraft were: [20]

AAF serial # Nickname Sqdn Target Pilot Disposition
40-2344 Tokyo Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle crashed N Quzhou, China
40-2292 37th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Travis Hoover crashed Ningbo, China
40-2270 Whiskey Pete 95th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Robert M. Gray crashed SE Quzhou, China
40-2282 95th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Everett W. Holstrom crashed SE Shangrao, China
40-2283 95th BS Tokyo Capt. David M. Jones crashed SW Quzhou, China
40-2298 The Green Hornet 95th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Dean E. Hallmark ditched at sea Wenzhou, China
40-2261 The Ruptured Duck 95th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Ted W. Lawson ditched at sea Changshu, China
40-2242 95th BS Tokyo Capt. Edward J. York [note 3] interned Primorsky Krai, USSR
40-2303 Whirling Dervish 34th BS Tokyo 1st Lt. Harold F. Watson crashed S Nanchang, China
40-2250 89th RS Tokyo 1st Lt. Richard O. Joyce crashed NE Quzhou, China
40-2249 Hari Kari-er 89th RS Yokohama Capt. C. Ross Greening crashed NE Quzhou, China
40-2278 Fickle Finger of Fate 37th BS Yokohama 1st Lt. William M. Bower crashed NE Quzhou, China
40-2247 The Avenger 37th BS Yokosuka 1st Lt. Edgar E. McElroy crashed N Nanchang, China
40-2297 89th RS Nagoya Maj. John A. Hilger crashed SE Shangrao, China
40-2267 TNT 89th RS Kobe 1st Lt. Donald G. Smith ditched at sea Changshu, China
40-2268 Bat Out of Hell 34th BS Nagoya 1st Lt. William G. Farrow crashed S Ningbo, China

On 1 April 1942, the 16 modified bombers, their five-man crews, and Army maintenance personnel, totaling 71 officers and 130 enlisted men, [note 4] [19] [25] were loaded onto Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda. Each aircraft carried four specially constructed 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of these were high-explosive munitions and one was a bundle of incendiaries. The incendiaries were long tubes, wrapped together to be carried in the bomb bay, but designed to separate and scatter over a wide area after release. Five bombs had Japanese "friendship" medals wired to them—medals awarded by the Japanese government to U.S. servicemen before the war. [27]

The bombers' armament was reduced to increase range by decreasing weight. Each bomber launched with two .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns in an upper turret and a .30-caliber (7.62 mm) machine gun in the nose. The aircraft were clustered closely and tied down on Hornet ' s flight deck in the order of launch.

Hornet and Task Force 18 got underway from San Francisco Bay at 08:48 on 2 April with the 16 bombers in clear view. [28] At noon the next day, parts to complete modifications that had not been finished at McClellan were lowered to the forward deck of Hornet by Navy blimp L-8. [29] A few days later, the carrier met with Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.—the carrier USS Enterprise and her escort of cruisers and destroyers in the mid-Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. Enterprise ' s fighters and scout planes provided protection for the entire task force in the event of a Japanese air attack, since Hornet ' s fighters were stowed below decks to allow the B-25s to use the flight deck.

The combined force was two carriers (Hornet and Enterprise), three heavy cruisers (Salt Lake City, Northampton, Vincennes), one light cruiser (Nashville), eight destroyers (Balch, Fanning, Benham, Ellet, Gwin, Meredith, Grayson, Monssen), and two fleet oilers (Cimarron and Sabine). The ships proceeded in radio silence. On the afternoon of 17 April, the slow oilers refueled the task force, then withdrew with the destroyers to the east while the carriers and cruisers dashed west at 20 knots (37 km/h 23 mph) toward their intended launch point in enemy-controlled waters east of Japan. [30]

At 07:38 on the morning of 18 April, while the task force was still about 650 nautical miles (1,200 km 750 mi) from Japan (around 35°N 154°E  /  35°N 154°E  / 35 154 ), it was sighted by the Japanese picket boat No. 23 Nittō Maru, a 70-ton patrol craft, which radioed an attack warning to Japan. [31] The boat was sunk by gunfire from USS Nashville. [note 5] The chief petty officer who captained the boat killed himself rather than be captured, but five of the 11 crew were picked up by Nashville. [33]

Doolittle and Hornet skipper Captain Marc Mitscher decided to launch the B-25s immediately—10 hours early and 170 nautical miles (310 km 200 mi) farther from Japan than planned. [note 6] After respotting to allow for engine start and runups, Doolittle's aircraft had 467 feet (142 m) of takeoff distance. [34] Although none of the B-25 pilots, including Doolittle, had ever taken off from a carrier before, all 16 aircraft launched safely between 08:20 and 09:19. The B-25s then flew toward Japan, most in groups of two to four aircraft, before flying singly at wave-top level to avoid detection. [35]

The aircraft began arriving over Japan about noon Tokyo time, six hours after launch, climbed to 1,500 feet (460 m) and bombed 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama, and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. Although some B-25s encountered light antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters (made up of Ki-45s and prototype Ki-61s, the latter being mistaken for Bf 109s) over Japan, no bomber was shot down. Only the B-25 of 1st Lt. Richard O. Joyce received any battle damage, minor hits from antiaircraft fire. [34] B-25 No. 4, piloted by 1st Lt. Everett W. Holstrom, jettisoned its bombs before reaching its target when it came under attack by fighters after its gun turret malfunctioned. [36]

The Americans claimed to have shot down three Japanese fighters – one by the gunners of the Whirling Dervish, piloted by 1st Lt. Harold Watson, and two by the gunners of the Hari Kari-er, piloted by 1st Lt. Ross Greening. Many targets were strafed by the bombers' nose gunners. The subterfuge of the simulated gun barrels mounted in the tail cones was described afterwards by Doolittle as effective, in that no airplane was attacked directly from behind. [14]

Fifteen of the 16 aircraft then proceeded southwest off the southeastern coast of Japan and across the East China Sea toward eastern China. One B-25, piloted by Captain Edward J. York, was extremely low on fuel, and headed instead for the Soviet Union rather than be forced to ditch in the middle of the East China Sea. Several fields in Zhejiang province were supposed to be ready to guide them in using homing beacons, then recover and refuel them for continuing on to Chongqing, the wartime Kuomintang capital. [19] The primary base was at Zhuzhou, toward which all the aircraft navigated, but Halsey never sent the planned signal to alert them, apparently because of a possible threat to the task force. [note 7] [37]

The raiders faced several unforeseen challenges during their flight to China: night was approaching, the aircraft were running low on fuel, and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. None would have reached China if not for a tail wind as they came off the target, which increased their ground speed by 25 kn (46 km/h 29 mph) for seven hours. [38] The crews realized they would probably not be able to reach their intended bases in China, leaving them the option of either bailing out over eastern China or crash-landing along the Chinese coast. [note 8] [14]

All 15 aircraft reached the Chinese coast after 13 hours of flight and crash-landed or the crews bailed out. One crewman, 20-year-old Corporal Leland D. Faktor, flight engineer/gunner with 1st Lt. Robert M. Gray, was killed during his bailout attempt over China, the only man in that crew to be lost. Two crews (10 men) were missing. The 16th aircraft, commanded by Capt. Edward York (eighth off—AC #40-2242) flew to the Soviet Union and landed 40 miles (64 km) beyond Vladivostok at Vozdvizhenka, where their B-25 was confiscated and the crew interned.

Although York and his crew were treated well, diplomatic attempts to return them to the United States ultimately failed, as the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan and therefore obligated under international law to intern any combatants found on its soil. Eventually, they were relocated to Ashkhabad, 20 miles (32 km) from the Iranian border, and York managed to "bribe" a smuggler, who helped them cross the border into Iran, which at the time was under British-Soviet occupation. From there, the Americans were able to reach a nearby British consulate on 11 May 1943. [4] [5] The smuggling was actually staged by the NKVD, according to declassified Soviet archives, because the Soviet government was unable to repatriate them legally in the face of the neutrality pact with Japan [39] and unwilling to openly flout its treaty obligations with Japan in light of the fact that Vladivostok and the rest of the Soviet Far East were essentially defenseless in the face of any potential Japanese retaliation.

Doolittle and his crew, after parachuting into China, received assistance from Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as John Birch, an American missionary in China. As did the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to bail out, but he landed in a heap of dung (saving a previously injured ankle from breaking) in a paddy in China near Quzhou. The mission was the longest ever flown in combat by the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, averaging about 2,250 nautical miles (4,170 km).

Fate of the missing crewmen Edit

Following the Doolittle Raid, most of the B-25 crews who had reached China eventually achieved safety with the help of Chinese civilians and soldiers. Of the 16 planes and 80 airmen who participated in the raid, all either crash-landed, were ditched, or crashed after their crews bailed out, with the single exception of Capt. York and his crew, who landed in the Soviet Union. Despite the loss of these 15 aircraft, 69 airmen escaped capture or death, with only three killed in action. When the Chinese helped the Americans escape, the grateful Americans, in turn, gave them whatever they had on hand. The people who helped them paid dearly for sheltering the Americans. Eight Raiders were captured, but their fate was not fully known until 1946. [40] [41] [42] Some of the men who crashed were aided by Irish Bishop of Nancheng, Patrick Cleary. The Japanese troops retaliated by burning down the city. [43]

The crews of two aircraft (10 men in total) were unaccounted for: those of 1st Lt. Dean E. Hallmark (sixth off) and 1st Lt. William G. Farrow (last off). On 15 August 1942, the United States learned from the Swiss Consulate General in Shanghai that eight of the missing crew members were prisoners of the Japanese at the city's police headquarters. Two crewmen drowned after crash-landing in the ocean. On 19 October 1942, the Japanese announced that they had tried the eight prisoners and sentenced them all to death, but said several had received commutation of their sentences to life imprisonment. No names or details were given.

The story of the missing crews was revealed in February 1946 during a war crimes trial held in Shanghai to try four Japanese officers charged with mistreating the eight captured crewmen. Two of the missing crewmen, bombardier S/Sgt. William J. Dieter and flight engineer Sgt. Donald E. Fitzmaurice of Hallmark's crew, were found to have drowned when their B-25 crashed into the sea. Both of their remains were recovered after the war and were buried with military honors at Golden Gate National Cemetery.

The other eight were captured: 1st Lt. Dean E. Hallmark, 1st Lt. William G. Farrow, 1st Lt. Robert J. Meder, 1st Lt. Chase Nielsen, 1st Lt. Robert L. Hite, 2nd Lt. George Barr, Cpl. Harold A. Spatz, and Cpl. Jacob DeShazer. On 28 August 1942, Hallmark, Farrow, and gunner Spatz faced a war crimes trial by a Japanese court alleging they strafed and murdered Japanese civilians. At 16:30 on 15 October 1942, they were taken by truck to Public Cemetery Number 1 and executed by firing squad.

The other captured airmen remained in military confinement on a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. In April 1943, they were moved to Nanking, where Meder died on 1 December 1943. The remaining men—Nielsen, Hite, Barr and DeShazer—eventually began receiving slightly better treatment and were given a copy of the Bible and a few other books. They were freed by American troops in August 1945. Four Japanese officers were tried for war crimes against the captured Doolittle Raiders, found guilty, and sentenced to hard labor, three for five years and one for nine years. Barr had been near death when liberated and remained behind in China recuperating until October, by which time he had begun to experience severe emotional problems. Untreated after transfer to Letterman Army Hospital and a military hospital in Clinton, Iowa, Barr became suicidal and was held virtually incommunicado until November, when Doolittle's personal intervention resulted in treatment that led to his recovery. [44] DeShazer graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 1948 and returned to Japan as a missionary, where he served for over 30 years. [45]

When their remains were recovered after the war, Farrow, Hallmark, and Meder were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Spatz was buried with military honors at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Total crew casualties: 3 KIA: 2 off the coast of China, 1 in China 8 POW: 3 executed, 1 died in captivity, 4 repatriated. [40] [41] [42] In addition, seven crew members (including all five members of Lawson's crew) received injuries serious enough to require medical treatment. Of the surviving prisoners, Barr died of heart failure in 1967, Nielsen in 2007, DeShazer on 15 March 2008, and the last, Hite, died 29 March 2015.

Service of the returning crewmen Edit

Immediately following the raid, Doolittle told his crew that he believed the loss of all 16 aircraft, coupled with the relatively minor damage to targets, had rendered the attack a failure, and that he expected a court-martial upon his return to the United States. [46] Instead, the raid bolstered American morale. Doolittle was promoted two grades to brigadier general on 28 April while still in China, skipping the rank of colonel, and was presented with the Medal of Honor by Roosevelt upon his return to the United States in June. When General Doolittle toured the growing Eglin Field facility in July 1942 with commanding officer Col. Grandison Gardner, the local paper of record (the Okaloosa News-Journal, Crestview, Florida), while reporting his presence, made no mention of his still-secret recent training at Eglin. He went on to command the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean, and the Eighth Air Force in England during the next three years.

All 80 Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and those who were killed or wounded during the raid were awarded the Purple Heart. Every Doolittle Raider was also decorated by the Chinese government. In addition, Corporal David J. Thatcher (a flight engineer/gunner on Lawson's crew) and 1st Lt. Thomas R. White (flight surgeon/gunner with Smith) were awarded the Silver Star for helping the wounded crew members of Lt. Lawson's crew to evade Japanese troops in China. Finally, as Doolittle noted in his autobiography, he successfully insisted that all of the Raiders receive a promotion. [ full citation needed ]

Twenty-eight of the crewmen remained in the China Burma India theater, including the entire crews of planes 4, 10, and 13, flying missions, most for more than a year five were killed in action. [note 9] [47] Nineteen crew members flew combat missions in the Mediterranean theater after returning to the United States, four of whom were killed in action and four becoming prisoners of war. [note 10] Nine crew members served in the European Theater of Operations one was killed in action, and one, David M. "Davy" Jones, was shot down and became a POW in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, where he played a part in The Great Escape. [48] Altogether, 12 of the survivors died in air crashes within 15 months of the raid. Two survivors were separated from the USAAF in 1944 due to the severity of their injuries. [4]

The 17th Bomb Group, from which the Doolittle Raiders had been recruited, received replacement crews and transferred to Barksdale Army Air Field in June 1942, where it converted to Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In November 1942, it deployed overseas to North Africa, where it operated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations with the Twelfth Air Force for the remainder of the war.

Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign Edit

After the raid, the Japanese Imperial Army began the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign (also known as Operation Sei-go) to prevent these eastern coastal provinces of China from being used again for an attack on Japan and to take revenge on the Chinese people. An area of some 20,000 sq mi (50,000 km 2 ) was laid waste. "Like a swarm of locusts, they left behind nothing but destruction and chaos," eyewitness Father Wendelin Dunker wrote. [2] The Japanese killed an estimated 10,000 Chinese civilians during their search for Doolittle's men. [49] People who aided the airmen were tortured before they were killed. Father Dunker wrote of the destruction of the town of Ihwang: "They shot any man, woman, child, cow, hog, or just about anything that moved, They raped any woman from the ages of 10–65, and before burning the town they thoroughly looted it . None of the humans shot were buried either . " [2] The Japanese entered Nancheng, population 50,000 on June 11, "beginning a reign of terror so horrendous that missionaries would later dub it 'the Rape of Nancheng.' " evoking memories of the infamous Rape of Nanjing five years before. Less than a month later, the Japanese forces put what remained of the city to the torch. "This planned burning was carried on for three days," one Chinese newspaper reported, "and the city of Nancheng became charred earth." [2]

When Japanese troops moved out of the Zhejiang and Jiangxi areas in mid-August, they left behind a trail of devastation. Chinese estimates put the civilian death toll at 250,000. The Imperial Japanese Army had also spread cholera, typhoid, plague infected fleas and dysentery pathogens. The Japanese biological warfare Unit 731 brought almost 300 pounds of paratyphoid and anthrax to be left in contaminated food and contaminated wells with the withdrawal of the army from areas around Yushan, Kinhwa and Futsin. Around 1,700 Japanese troops died out of a total 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell ill with disease when their biological weapons attack rebounded on their own forces. [50] [ circular reference ]

Shunroku Hata, the commander of Japanese forces involved of the massacre of the 250,000 Chinese civilians, was sentenced in 1948 in part due to his "failure to prevent atrocities". He was given a life sentence but was paroled in 1954. [50] [ circular reference ]

Additional perspectives Edit

Doolittle recounted in his autobiography that at the time he thought the mission was a failure.

This mission showed that a B-25 takeoff from a carrier was easier than previously thought, and night operations could be possible in the future. The shuttle bombing run was a better carrier task force tactic since there was no need to wait for the returning aircraft.

If Claire Lee Chennault had been informed of the mission specifics, the outcome might have been very much better for the Americans. Chennault had built an effective air surveillance net in China that would have been extremely helpful in bringing the planes in for safe landings. The lack of visible beacons in the dark forced them to bail out. [51]

Chinese airfield crews recounted that due to the unexpectedly early arrivals of the B-25s, homing beacon and runway torch lights were not on for fear of possible Japanese airstrikes as happened before. Chiang Kai-Shek awarded the raiders China's highest military decorations, [52] and stated in his diary that Japan would alter its goal and strategy for the disgrace. [note 11]

The raid shook staff at Japanese Imperial General Headquarters. [53] Japan attacked territories in China to prevent similar shuttle bombing runs. High command withdrew substantial air force resources from supporting offensive operations in order to defend the home islands two carriers were diverted to the Alaskan island invasion to prevent them from being used as bomber bases and could not be used in the Midway operations. Thus, the raid's most significant strategic accomplishment was that it compelled the Japanese high command into ordering a very inefficient disposition of their forces, and poor decision-making due to fear of attack, for the rest of the war.

Compared with the future devastating Boeing B-29 Superfortress attacks against Japan, the Doolittle raid did little material damage, and all of it was easily repaired. Preliminary reports stated 12 were killed and more than 100 were wounded. [54] Eight primary and five secondary targets were struck. In Tokyo, the targets included an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and several power plants. In Yokosuka, at least one bomb from the B-25 piloted by 1st Lt. Edgar E. McElroy struck the nearly completed light carrier Ryūhō, [34] delaying her launch until November. Six schools and an army hospital were also hit. Japanese officials reported the two aircraft whose crews were captured had struck their targets. [55]

Allied ambassadors and staff in Tokyo were still interned until agreement was reached about their repatriation via the neutral port of Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa in June–July 1942. When Joseph Grew (US) realized the low-flying planes overhead were American (not Japanese planes on maneuvers) he thought they may have flown from the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese press claimed that nine had been shot down, but there were no pictures of crashed planes. Embassy staff were "very happy and proud" and the British said that they "drank toasts all day to the American flyers". [56] Sir Robert Craigie, GCMG, the interned British Ambassador to Japan who was under house arrest in Tokyo at the time, said that Japanese staff had been amused at the embassy's air raid precautions as the idea of an attack on Tokyo was "laughable" with the Allies in retreat, but the guards now showed "considerable excitement and perturbation." Several false alarms followed, and in poorer districts people rushed into the streets shouting and gesticulating, losing their normal "iron control" over their emotions and showing a "tendency to panic". The police guards on Allied and neutral missions were doubled to foil xenophobic attacks and the guard on the German mission was tripled. [57]

Despite the minimal damage inflicted, American morale, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan's subsequent territorial gains, soared when news of the raid was released. [58] The Japanese press was told to describe the attack as a cruel, indiscriminate bombing against civilians, including women and children. After the war, the casualty count was 87 dead, 151 serious injuries, and more than 311 minor injuries children were among those killed, and newspapers asked their parents to share their opinion on how the captured raiders should be treated. [54]

The Japanese Navy attempted to locate and pursue the American task force. The Second Fleet, its main striking force, was near Formosa, returning from the Indian Ocean Raid to refit and replace its air losses. Spearheaded by five aircraft carriers and its best naval aircraft and aircrews, the Second Fleet was immediately ordered to locate and destroy the U.S. carrier force, but failed to do so. [59] [60] Nagumo and his staff on Akagi heard that an American force was near Japan but expected an attack on the next day. Mitsuo Fuchida and Shigeyoshi Miwa considered the "one-way" raid "excellent strategy", with the bombers evading Army fighters by flying "much lower than anticipated". Kuroshima said the raid "passed like a shiver over Japan" and Miwa criticised the Army for claiming to have shot down nine aircraft rather than "not even one". [61]

The Imperial Japanese Navy also bore a special responsibility for allowing an American aircraft carrier force to approach the Japanese Home Islands in a manner similar to the IJN fleet to Hawaii in 1941, and permitting it to escape undamaged. [note 12] The fact that medium, normally land-based bombers carried out the attack confused the IJN's high command. This confusion and the knowledge that Japan was now vulnerable to air attack strengthened Yamamoto's resolve to destroy the American carrier fleet, which was not present in the Pearl Harbor Attack, resulting in a decisive Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway. [63]

"It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people." —General James H. Doolittle, 9 July 1942 [64]

After the raid the Americans were worried in April about the "still very badly undermanned west coast" and Chief of Staff George Marshall discussed a "possible attack by the Japanese upon our plants in San Diego and then a flight by those Japs down into Mexico after they have made their attack." So Secretary Stimson asked State to "touch base with their people south of the border", and Marshall flew to the West Coast on 22 May. [65]

An unusual consequence of the raid came after when—in the interests of secrecy—President Roosevelt answered a reporter's question by saying that the raid had been launched from "Shangri-La", [66] [67] the fictional faraway land of the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. The true details of the raid were revealed to the public one year later, in April 1943. [68] The Navy, in 1944, commissioned the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La, with Doolittle's wife Josephine as the sponsor.

During World War II, bombs dropped over Tokyo wreaked havoc on the city. One of these air raids, known as Operation Meetinghouse (1945), is considered to be the most destructive bombing raid in history. Along with countless civilian casualties, many priceless historical monuments, temples, and shrines were lost during this time.

After a shaky start, Japan emerged from the post-war era economically strong and ready to take their place on the world stage. Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics, the first Olympics Games to be held in Asia.

The Untold Story of the Vengeful Japanese Attack After the Doolittle Raid

At midday on April 18, 1942, 16 U.S. Army bombers, under the command of daredevil pilot Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, thundered into the skies over Tokyo and other key Japanese industrial cities in a surprise raid designed to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the 80 volunteer raiders, who lifted off that morning from the carrier Hornet, the mission was one-way. After attacking Japan, most of the aircrews flew on to Free China, where low on fuel, the men either bailed out or crash-landed along the coast and were rescued by local villagers, guerrillas and missionaries.

That generosity shown by the Chinese would trigger a horrific retaliation by the Japanese that claimed an estimated quarter-million lives and would prompt comparisons to the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking. American military authorities, cognizant that a raid on Tokyo would result in a vicious counterattack upon free China, saw the mission through regardless, even keeping the operation a secret from their Pacific theater allies. This chapter of the Doolittle Raid has largely gone unreported—until now.

Long-forgotten missionary records discovered in the archives of DePaul University for the first time shed important new light on the extent to which the Chinese suffered in the aftermath of the Doolittle raid.

In the moments after the attack on Tokyo, Japanese leaders fumed over the raid, which had revealed China’s coastal provinces as a dangerous blind spot in the defense of the homeland. American aircraft carriers not only could launch surprise attacks from the seas and land safely in China but could possibly even fly bombers directly from Chinese airfields to attack Japan. The Japanese military ordered an immediate campaign against strategically important airfields, issuing an operational plan in late April, just days after the Doolittle raid.

Survivor accounts point to an ulterior objective: to punish the Chinese allies of the United States forces, especially those towns where the American aviators had bailed out after the raid. At the time, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria as well as key coastal ports, railways and industrial and commercial centers in China.

Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor

The dramatic account of one of America’s most celebrated— and controversial—military campaigns: the Doolittle Raid.

The United States had neither boots on the ground nor faith that the Chinese military could repel any farther advances by occupying Japanese forces. Details of the destruction that would soon follow—just as officials in Washington and Chungking, the provisional capital of China, and even Doolittle, had long predicted—would come from the records of American missionaries, some of whom had helped the raiders. The missionaries knew of the potential wrath of the Japanese, having lived under a tenuous peace in this border region just south of occupied China. Stories of the atrocities at Nanking, where the river had turned red from blood, had circulated widely. When the Japanese came into a town, “the first thing that you see is a group of cavalrymen,” Herbert Vandenberg, an American priest, would recall. “The horses have on shiny black boots. The men wear boots and a helmet. They are carrying sub-machine guns.”

Wreckage of Major General Doolittle's plane somewhere in China after the raid on Tokyo. Doolittle is seated on wreckage to the right. (Corbis)

Vandenberg had heard the news broadcasts of the Tokyo raid in the mission compound in the town of Linchwan, home to about 50,000 people, as well as to the largest Catholic church in southern China, with a capacity to serve as many as a thousand. Days after the raid letters reached Vandenberg from nearby missions in Poyang and Ihwang, informing him that local priests cared for some of the fliers. “They came to us on foot,” Vandenberg wrote. “They were tired and hungry. Their clothing was tattered and torn from climbing down the mountains after bailing out. We gave them fried chicken. We dressed their wounds and washed their clothes. The nuns baked cakes for the fliers. We gave them our beds.”

By early June, the devastation had begun. Father Wendelin Dunker observed the result of a Japanese attack on the town of Ihwang:

“They shot any man, woman, child, cow, hog, or just about anything that moved, They raped any woman from the ages of 10 – 65, and before burning the town they thoroughly looted it.”

He continued, writing in his unpublished memoir, “None of the humans shot were buried either, but were left to lay on the ground to rot, along with the hogs and cows.”

The Japanese marched into the walled city of Nancheng at dawn on the morning of June 11, beginning a reign of terror so horrendous that missionaries would later dub it “the Rape of Nancheng.” Soldiers rounded up 800 women and herded them into a storehouse outside the east gate. “For one month the Japanese remained in Nancheng, roaming the rubble-filled streets in loin clothes much of the time, drunk a good part of the time and always on the lookout for women,” wrote the Reverend Frederick McGuire. “The women and children who did not escape from Nancheng will long remember the Japanese—the women and girls because they were raped time after time by Japan’s imperial troops and are now ravaged by venereal disease, the children because they mourn their fathers who were slain in cold blood for the sake of the ‘new order’ in East Asia.”

At the end of the occupation, Japanese forces systematically destroyed the city of 50,000 residents. Teams stripped Nancheng of all radios, while others looted the hospitals of drugs and surgical instruments. Engineers not only wrecked the electrical plant but pulled up the railroad lines, shipping the iron out. A special incendiary squad started its operation on July 7 in the city’s southern section. “This planned burning was carried on for three days,” one Chinese newspaper reported, “and the city of Nancheng became charred earth.”

Over the summer, the Japanese laid waste to some 20,000 square miles. They looted towns and villages, then stole honey and scattered beehives. Soldiers devoured, drove away, or simply slaughtered thousands of oxen, pigs, and other farm animals some wrecked vital irrigation systems and set crops on fire. They destroyed bridges, roads, and airfields.“Like a swarm of locusts, they left behind nothing but destruction and chaos,” Dunker wrote.

Four of the American fliers who raided Tokyo grin out from beneath Chinese umbrellas that they borrowed. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Those discovered to have helped the Doolittle raiders were tortured. In Nancheng, soldiers forced a group of men who had fed the airmen to eat feces before lining up ten of them for a “bullet contest” to see how many people a single bullet would pass through before it stopped. In Ihwang, Ma Eng-lin, who had welcomed injured pilot Harold Watson into his home, was wrapped in a blanket, tied to a chair and soaked in kerosene. Then soldiers forced his wife to torch him.

“Little did the Doolittle men realize,” the Reverend Charles Meeus later wrote, “that those same little gifts which they gave their rescuers in grateful acknowledgement of their hospitality— parachutes, gloves, nickels, dimes, cigarette packages—would, a few weeks later, become the telltale evidence of their presence and lead to the torture and death of their friends!”

A missionary with the United Church of Canada, the Reverend Bill Mitchell traveled in the region, organizing aid on behalf of the Church Committee on China Relief. Mitchell gathered statistics from local governments to provide a snapshot of the destruction. The Japanese flew 1,131 raids against Chuchow—Doolittle’s intended destination—killing 10,246 people and leaving another 27,456 destitute. They destroyed 62,146 homes, stole 7,620 head of cattle, and burned 30 percent of the crops.

“Out of twenty-eight market towns in that region,” the committee’s report noted, “only three escaped devastation.” The city of Yushan, with a population of 70,000 —many of whom had participated in a parade led by the mayor in honor of raiders Davy Jones and Hoss Wilder—saw 2,000 killed and 80 percent of the homes destroyed. “Yushan was once a large town filled with better-than-average houses. Now you can walk thru street after street seeing nothing but ruins,” Father Bill Stein wrote in a letter. “In some places you can go several miles without seeing a house that was not burnt.”

That August, Japan’s secret bacteriological warfare group, Unit 731, launched an operation to coincide with the withdrawal of Japanese troops from the region.

In what was known as land bacterial sabotage, troops would contaminate wells, rivers, and fields, hoping to sicken local villagers as well as the Chinese forces, which would no doubt move back in and reoccupy the border region as soon as the Japanese departed. Over the course of several meetings, Unit 731’s commanding officers debated the best bacteria to use, settling on plague, anthrax, cholera, typhoid, and paratyphoid, all of which would be spread via spray, fleas, and direct contamination of water sources. For the operation, almost 300 pounds of paratyphoid and anthrax germs were ordered.

Technicians filled peptone bottles with typhoid and paratyphoid bacteria, packaged them in boxes labeled “Water Supply,” and flew them to Nanking. Once in Nanking, workers transferred the bacteria to metal flasks—like those used for drinking water— and flew them into the target areas. Troops then tossed the flasks into wells, marshes, and homes. The Japanese also prepared 3,000 rolls, contaminated with typhoid and paratyphoid, and handed them to hungry Chinese prisoners of war, who were then released to go home and spread disease. Soldiers left another 400 biscuits infected with typhoid near fences, under trees, and around bivouac areas to make it appear as though retreating forces had left them behind, knowing hungry locals would devour them.

Major General Doolittle's fliers in China after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo of April 18, 1942. (Corbis)

The region’s devastation made it difficult to tally who got sick and why, particularly since the Japanese had looted and burned hospitals and clinics. The thousands of rotting human and livestock carcasses that clogged wells and littered the rubble also contaminated the drinking water. Furthermore, the impoverished region, where villagers often defecated in holes outdoors, had been prone to such outbreaks before the invasion. Anecdotal evidence gathered from missionaries and journalists shows that many Chinese fell sick from malaria, dysentery, and cholera even before the Japanese reportedly began the operation.

Chinese journalist Yang Kang, who traveled the region for the Takung Pao newspaper, visited the village of Peipo in late July. “Those who returned to the village after the enemy had evacuated fell sick with no one spared,” she wrote. “This was the situation which took place not only in Peipo but everywhere.”

In December 1942, Tokyo radio reported massive outbreaks of cholera, and the following spring, the Chinese reported that a plague epidemic forced the government to quarantine the Chekiang town of Luangshuan. “The losses suffered by our people,” one later wrote, “were inestimable.” Some of Unit 731’s victims included Japanese soldiers. A lance corporal captured in 1944 told American interrogators that upward of 10,000 troops were infected during the Chekiang campaign.

“Diseases were particularly cholera, but also dysentery and pest,” an American intelligence report stated. “Victims were usually rushed to hospitals in rear, particularly the Hangchow Army Hospital, but cholera victims, usually being treated too late, mostly died.” The prisoner saw a report that listed 1,700 dead, most of cholera. Actual deaths likely were much higher, he said, “it being common practice to pare down unpleasant figures.”

The three-month campaign across Chekiang and Kiangsi Provinces infuriated many in the Chinese military, who understood it as a consequence of a U.S. raid designed to lift the spirits of Americans. Officials in Chungking and Washington had purposely withheld details of the U.S. raid from Chinese ruler Chiang Kai-shek, assuming the Japanese would retaliate.

“After they had been caught unawares by the falling of American bombs on Tokyo, Japanese troops attacked the coastal areas of China, where many of the American fliers had landed,” Chiang cabled to Washington. “These Japanese troops slaughtered every man, woman and child in those areas. Let me repeat—these Japanese troops slaughtered every man, woman and child in those areas.”

News trickled out in American media in the spring of 1943 as missionaries who witnessed the atrocities returned home. The New York Times editorialized, “The Japanese have chosen how they want to represent themselves to the world. We shall take them at their own valuation, on their own showing. We shall not forget, and we shall see that a penalty is paid.”

The Los Angeles Times was far more forceful:

To say that these slayings were motivated by cowardice as well as savagery is to say the obvious. The Nippon war lords have thus proved themselves to be made of the basest metal …

Those notices, however, did not get much traction, and the slaughter was soon forgotten. It was a tragedy best described by a Chinese journalist at the time. “The invaders made of a rich, flourishing country a human hell,” the reporter wrote, “a gruesome graveyard, where the only living thing we saw for miles was a skeleton-like dog, who fled in terror before our approach.” 

Excerpted from Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott. Copyright © 2015 by James M. Scott. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


I am grateful for critical responses to earlier drafts of this paper from John Gittings, Cary Karacas and Satoko Norimatsu.

A small number of works have problematized the good war narrative by drawing attention to US atrocities in the Asia-Pacific War, typically centering on the torture, killing and desecration of captured Japanese soldiers. These include Peter Schrijvers, The GI War Against Japan. American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2002) and John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986). Two recent works closely assess the bombing of noncombatants in both Japan and Germany, and the ravaging of nature and society as a result of strategic bombing that has been ignored in much of the literature. A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The history and moral legacy of the WW II bombing of civilians in Germany and Japan (New York: Walker & Company, 2006), provides a thoroughgoing assessment of US and British strategic bombing (including atomic bombing) through the lens of ethics and international law. See also Michael Bess, in Choices Under Fire. Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Knopf, 2006), pp. 88-110.

Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, pp. 90-91.

Michael Sherry, “The United States and Strategic Bombing: From Prophecy to Memory,” in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A twentieth century history (New York: The New Press, 2009), pp. 175-90 Cary Karacas, “Imagining Air Raids on Tokyo, 1930-1945,” paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, Boston, March 23, 2007. Sherry traces other prophecies of nuclear bombing back to H.G. Wells 1913 novel The World Set Free.

David Fedman and Cary Karacas. “A Cartographic Fade to Black: Mapping the Destruction of Urban Japan During World War II.” Journal of Historical Geography 36, no. 3 (2012), pp. 306–28.

Robert Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), pp. 596-97 Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Gate, The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki June 1944 to August 1945. Vol. 5, The Army Air Forces in World War II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953 1983 Office of Air Force History imprint) pp. 609-13 E. Bartlett Kerr, Flames Over Tokyo (New York: Fine, 1991), pp. 146-50 Barrett Tillman, Whirlwind. The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010) pp. 134-73 Kenneth P. Werrell, Blankets of Fire. U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996) pp. 150-93.

Sherry, Air Power, p. 276. A detailed photographic record, including images of scores of the dead, some burnt to a crisp and distorted beyond recognition, others apparently serene in death, and of acres of the city flattened as if by an immense tornado, is found in Ishikawa Koyo, Tokyo daikushu no zenkiroku (Complete Record of the Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo, 1992) Tokyo kushu o kiroku suru kai ed., Tokyo daikushu no kiroku (Record of the Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo: Sanseido, 1982), and Dokyumento: Tokyo daikushu (Document: The Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo: Yukeisha, 1968). See the special issue of the Asia-Pacific Journal edited by Bret Fisk and Cary Karacas, The Firebombing of Tokyo: Views from the Ground,The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 3 No 1, January 17, 2011.

Dokyumento. Toky o daikushu, pp. 168-73.

The Survey’s killed-to-injured ratio of better than two to one was far higher than most estimates for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where killed and wounded were approximately equal. If accurate, it is indicative of the immense difficulty in escaping for those near the center of the Tokyo firestorm on that windswept night. The Survey’s kill ratio has, however, been challenged by Japanese researchers who found much higher kill ratios at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, particularly when one includes those who died of bomb injuries months and years later. In my view, the SBS estimates both exaggerate the killed to injured ratio and understate the numbers killed in the Tokyo raid. The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombing (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 420-21 Cf. U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Field Report Covering Air Raid Protection and Allied Subjects Tokyo (n.p. 1946), pp. 3, 79. In contrast to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which for fifty years has been the subject of intense research by Japanese, Americans and others, the most significant records of the Tokyo attack are those compiled at the time by Japanese police and fire departments. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey study of Effects of Air Attack on Urban Complex Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama (n.p. 1947), p. 8, observes that Japanese police estimates make no mention of the numbers of people missing. In contrast to the monitoring of atomic bomb deaths over the subsequent six decades, the Tokyo casualty figures at best record deaths and injuries within days of the bombing at a time when the capacity of the Tokyo military and police to compile records had been overwhelmed. Many more who died in the following weeks and months go unrecorded.

Barrett Tillman, Whirlwind, pp. 144-45 documents the startling lack of preparedness of Japanese cities to cope with the bombing. “One survey noted, ‘The common portable fire extinguisher of the C2, carbon tetrachloride, foam, and water pump can types were not used by Japanese firemen.’ In one of the most urbanized nations on earth there were four aerial ladders: three in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. But in 1945 only one of Tokyo’s trucks was operational . . . Their 500-gpm pumps were therefore largely useless.”

Karacas, “Imagining Air Raids,” p. 22 Thomas R. Havens, Valley of Darkness. The Japanese People and World War II, (New York: WW Norton 1978), p. 163, puts the number of urban residents evacuated to the countryside overall at 10 million. He estimates that 350,000 students from national schools in grades three to six were evacuated in 1944 and 100,000 first and second graders in early 1945.

John W. Dower, “Sensational Rumors, Seditious Graffiti, and the Nightmares of the Thought Police,” in Japan in War and Peace (New York: The New Press, 1993), p. 117. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report, Vol I, pp. 16-20.

Sahr Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage, p. 1.

Bret Fisk and Cary Karacas, The Firebombing of Tokyo and Its Legacy: Introduction, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 3 No 1, January 17, 2011. Fisk and Karacas draw on Overall Report of Damage Sustained by the Nation During the Pacific War, Economic Stabilization Agency, Planning Department, Office of the Secretary General, 1949, which may be viewed here.

The numbers killed, specifically the numbers of noncombatants killed, in the Korean, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars were greater, but each of those wars extended over many years and bombing accounted for only a portion of deaths.

It may be tempting to consider whether the US willingness to kill such massive numbers of Japanese civilians can be understood in terms of racism, a suggestion sometimes applied to the atomic bomb. Such a view is, I believe, negated by US participation in area bombing attacks at Dresden in 1944. Cf. John Dower’s nuanced historical perspective on war and racism in American thought and praxis in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). In Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993) and many other works, Noam Chomsky emphasizes the continuities in Western ideologies that undergird practices leading to the annihilation of entire populations in the course of colonial and expansionist wars over half a millennium and more. Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima. The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Jones emphasizes factors of race, but not racism in the Pacific War, the atomic bombing (there is no mention of the firebombing) and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He considers US consideration of use of the atomic bomb in all of these, noting US plans to drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo when more bombs became available by the end of August, if Japan had not yet surrendered.

The master work on the world history of peace thought and activism is John Gittings, The Glorious Art of Peace. From the Iliad to Iraq (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapters 5-7.

Geoffrey Best, War and Law Since 1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) pp. 180-81. Could be interpreted . . . but at the Tokyo Trials, defense attempts to raise the issue of American firebombing and the atomic bombing were ruled out by the court. It was Japan that was on trial.

Bombing would also be extended from cities to the countryside, as in the Agent Orange defoliation attacks that destroyed the forest cover and poisoned residents of sprayed areas of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. See Fred A. Wilcox, Scorched Earth. Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011).

An insightful discussion of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific, locating the issues within a comparative context of atrocities committed by the US, Germany, and other powers, is Yuki Tanaka’s Hidden Horrors: Japanese Crimes in World War II. Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China and the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) examines the understanding of the Nanjing Massacre in each country.

Mark Selden, “String of Pearls: The Archipelago of Bases, Military Colonization, and the Making of the American Empire in the Pacific,” International Journal of Okinawan Studies, Vol 3 No 1, June 2012 (Special Issue on Islands) pp. 45-62.

Jones, After Hiroshima, pp. 24-25. Peter Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative,”suggests that those who held that dropping atomic bombs on Japan was morally repugnant and/or militarily unnecessary in the immediate postwar period included Admiral William Leahy, General Dwight Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, General Curtis LeMay, General Henry Arnold, Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, Admiral Ernest King, General Carl Spaatz, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. The fact of the matter, however, is that, with the exception of a group of atomic scientists, these criticisms were raised only in the postwar.

Ian Buruma, “Expect to be Lied to in Japan,” New York Review of Books, November 8, 2012. See See also, Monica Braw, The Atomic Bomb Suppressed. American Censorship in Occupied Japan (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1991). See the extensive discussion of censorship in Takemae Eiji, Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Its Legacy (London: Continuum, 2002), espec. pp. 382-404, and John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, espec. pp. 405-40.

William R. Laurence, U.S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales: Tests on New Mexico Range Confirm that Blast, and not Radiation Took Toll, New York Times, September 12, 1945. Quoting Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the atom bomb project and the point man on radiation denial: "The Japanese claim that people died from radiation. If this is true, the number was very small."

Cary Karacas, “Place, Public Memory, and the Tokyo Air Raids.” Geographical Review 100, no. 4 (October 1, 2010), pp. 521–37.


Perspectives on the Bombing of Civilians From World War II to the Present


LeMay remembered reading in National Geographic magazine as a boy that most Japanese cities were constructed of wood and paper—98 percent of Tokyo’s factory district, as it turned out.

On February 13–15, 1945, British and American bombers using incendiary bombs created a firestorm in the center of Dresden, Germany, gutting over thirteen square miles of the city. Estimates of civilian dead range from 24,000 to 40,000. Earlier in the war, on July 24, 1943, British bombers dropped incendiaries on Hamburg, Germany, killing as many as 40,000 people. In both cases, the Allies claimed the cities were legitimate military targets. Hamburg was a crucial industrial center with important harbor facilities. Dresden was considered a communications hub and transit center. But the debate over military legitimacy and outright terror bombing has intensified in the years since. Considered an Allied atrocity by some today, the public reaction at the time was largely supportive. It was considered a legitimate option by LeMay.

Another factor in the firebombing of Tokyo was the problem of B-29 bombing inaccuracy at high altitude over Japan. The B-29 had been created to fly higher than any other plane. But that technique had produced no results. As he considered abandoning the entire reason the B-29 had been developed in the first place, other possibilities began to emerge. If he used Thomas Power’s idea (his friend and strict commander of the 314 th Wing) and flew his planes in very low—at, say, 5,000 or 6,000 feet, instead of 30,000 feet where the jet stream was so fierce, the planes would burn up far less fuel. Though the large planes would be perfectly visible then, even at night, the Japanese would be caught off guard. They would never expect them that low. He took out his slide rule and began to calculate the change in weight from the enormous savings in fuel, which would allow the planes to carry more bombs. Everything started to click, and he extended his calculations into another unprecedented thought.

He determined from intelligence reports and his own personal experiences in China that the Japanese had almost no night fighter capability. If that were the case, the B-29s would not need their defense guns and their ammunition and their gunners, saving even more weight. That meant room for even more bombs. Now the slide rule was working at double time. The calculations poured onto the paper, and each one reinforced his conclusions. He knew the men would howl about it all, but he thought he could persuade them with this reasoning: the Japanese anti-aircraft guns—set at higher altitudes—would be ineffective at 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The planes should be safe. The Japanese would quickly compensate for this, but he thought he could get in a few missions before they figured it out. And in the short span of time, he hoped to be able to knock them so hard and so fast that they might just consider surrendering.

LeMay’s only way to stop these types of letters from coming was to end the war. He rationalized the potentially significant loss of Japanese life on the ground with the following logic: Marines were suffering horrendous casualties on Iwo Jima in slow, agonizing fighting, evidence that the Japanese were becoming even more ferocious the closer Americans came to the home islands. And unlike the U.S. or German industry, which was factory centered, Japanese manufacturing was greatly decentralized—individual parts for airplanes, tanks, and bombs were produced in homes and in backyards. “No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians. Thousands and thousands. But if you don’t destroy Japan’s capacity to wage war, we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion of Japan? Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. Some say a million. We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan,” LeMay later wrote. For LeMay, the debate over civilian deaths came down to one blunt question: “Do you want to kill Japanese or would you rather have Americans killed?” His logic left little room for nuance.

How to successfully bomb Japan with the B-29 was the question that tormented him as he lay on his cot throughout those muggy nights on Guam during late February. The worry of not producing results and having Americans killed in an invasion overrode any other concerns, especially killing Japanese civilians. He decided using the incendiary in the firebombing of Tokyo was worth a try.

His decision made, LeMay worked on the problem with Tom Power who would lead such a mission. From that point on, it became a matter of engineering and mathematics. Together they came up with a plan to go in at lower altitudes in a series of massive lightning raids that would occur on consecutive nights, catching the Japanese off guard. They decided to abandon formation flying altogether. Each plane would fly individually, in three staggered lines between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. The first planes to take off would fly at slower speeds in order for the later planes to catch up. It would be unlike anything seen yet in the War: three long lines of bombers coming in at a very low altitude. The bombardier’s job would be greatly simplified, because a small group of planes coming from a different direction would drop incendiaries in the front and back of the target zone before the lines of bombers arrived, similar to lighting up both ends of a football field at night. The planes coming after them from another direction would see the fires that the lead bombers had set and then bomb the area in between. The plan was brilliant in its simplicity. The human cost would be determined later.

The two men, along with their armaments officer and chief engineer, worked out the ordnance questions of the firebombing of Tokyo. LeMay decided to drop E-46 clusters that would explode at 2,000 feet above the ground. Each cluster would release thirty-eight incendiary bombs of napalm and phosphorus, creating a rain of fire over the city. In all, 8,519 clusters would be dropped, releasing 496,000 individual cylinders weighing 6.2 pounds each, resulting in 1,665 tons of incendiaries to be dropped on Tokyo that night.

Near the end of the briefing, an intelligence officer asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Aren’t firebomb attacks on cities the type of terror bombing used by the RAF that our air force has been trying to avoid?”

There was one part of the operation of the firebombing of Tokyo LeMay was not looking forward to. When the crews came into the main hall, Tom Power, who gave the briefing as mission commander, explained that no defensive guns and gunners would be flying on this mission. Only the rear gunner would fly, and he would be there only to observe. There were some murmurs, and some of the officers protested the idea of breaking up the crews. Power told them that they had given this a great deal of thought and explained the reasons they thought it would be okay. One person said “5,000 feet, you’ve got to be kidding.” And another voice called it a suicide mission. LeMay was there and said nothing. But Power answered these men, saying he would not lead the mission if he thought that was the case, and General LeMay, who had the most bomber experience in the whole Air Force against the Germans and the Japanese, would not send them on a mission he did not think would work.

The first planes took off on March 9, 1945, starting at 4:36 in the afternoon, with the final bombers lifting off the runway three hours later. 325 B-29s in total took off from three separate groups. In bomb tonnage, it was equivalent to over 1,000 B-17s. LeMay watched each plane take off at the flight line. He stayed down at the field until the last one was gone.

LeMay would not hear anything from the planes until sometime after midnight (March 10) Guam time when the bombs were released. He spent those hours with Lieutenant Colonel McKelway. Out of nervousness, LeMay opened up in an uncharacteristic fashion. Without being asked, LeMay offered some insight into a surprising piece of his personality—his lack of confidence. “I never think anything is going to work,” he told McKelway, “until I’ve seen the pictures after the raid. But if this one works, we will shorten this damned war out here.”

The firebombing of Tokyo: Haunting Photos Show the Aftermath of Deadliest Bombing During WWII

On the night of 9–10 March 1945, the U.S. Air Forces conducted the deadliest air raid on Tokyo’s civilians. It was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. An estimated 100,000 civilians died, and millions were made homeless. This attack was codenamed Operation Meetinghouse by the USAAF and is known as the Great Tokyo Air Raid in Japan. The Japanese air forces failed to defend the city and its citizens only 14 American aircraft were destroyed.

The U.S. intelligence began assessing the firebombing campaign’s feasibility against Tokyo and other Japanese cities two years before Operation Meetinghouse. The preparations for firebombing raids began before March 1945. Several attacks were conducted to test the effectiveness of firebombing against Japanese cities. The U.S. Air Forces used Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which could fly at over 18,000 feet and drop bombs out of the range of anti-aircraft guns. The planes dropped 500,000 M-69 bombs in total. Clustered into groups of 38, each device weighed six pounds, and each deployed batch spread out during descent. The napalm within each casing spewed flaming liquid upon impact and ignited everything in range. The Tokyo bombing turned 15.8 square miles of the area into debris.

Here are some haunting photographs that show the bombing and aftermath of the attack.

6 Things You Should Know About Tokyo

1. Tokyo began life as a village known as Edo.
The city that would become one of the world’s largest metropolises started out as a small fishing village, first settled around 3,000 B.C. Known as Edo, or 𠇎stuary” it was first fortified in the 12th century and became home to Edo Castle (now the site of the Imperial Palace) in the 1450s. Edo’s influence and growing importance in Japanese society was due to its role as the base of power for the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled the country for more than 250 years until its overthrow in 1868. During this era, known as the Edo period, the city underwent unprecedented cultural and economic growth and by the 1720s the population had boomed to more than 1.1 million, making it one of the largest cities in the world. The city’s name was formally changed to Tokyo, meaning eastern capital, in 1868, when the nearly 700-year shogunate period came to an end, and the new emperor, Meiji, moved his residence there. Although Tokyo has remained the de facto capital ever since, there are no rules on the books making it Japan’s “official” capital, leaving some in the former imperial city of Kyoto to insist that it is the rightful owner of the title.

2. A massive earthquake destroyed nearly half of Tokyo in 1923.
Just before noon on September 1, 1923, a massive earthquake, measuring between 7.9 and 8.4 on the Richter scale, erupted just 30 miles south of Tokyo, unleashing a massive burst of energy that wreaked unprecedented damage on both Tokyo and the nearby city of Yokohama, Japan’s largest port. The Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed more than 45 percent of Tokyo and killed more than 140,000, making it the deadliest natural disaster in Japanese history and the country’s second most powerful earthquake, surpassed only by the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami in 2011. One of the largest losses of life occurred near the Sumida River, as more than 44,000 Tokyo residents took shelter there from encroaching flames. Late that afternoon, a 300-foot-tall ball of fire engulfed the area, killing all but 300 of those gathered. As authorities–hampered by the near total destruction of the city’s water mains–struggled to contain the fires, rumors spread throughout the city of widespread looting and vandalism by Korean immigrants, angered by Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea. The rumors were unfounded, but that did little to stop a massive wave of reprisal killings—upwards of 5,000 Koreans were massacred in the days following the earthquake.