Setting the Paper Cities of Japan Aflame – 75 Years Later, the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945 Remains the Deadliest Six Hours in History

While the 1945 U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs justifiably loom large in histories of the previous century, the firebombing of Tokyo five months earlier was so brutally efficient a killer of human beings that the commander of the operation, General Curtis E. LeMay, could exclaim with pride that “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” When it came to killing the enemies of the United States, LeMay never minded sharing a few words of graphic bloodlust. Unfortunately in this case his chosen verbs were not a grotesque exaggeration. 

One lesson I’ve learned over better than half a century on the planet is that when Dan Ellsberg has something to share, I typically want to know about it. Yes, thank you, Robert McNamara, for ordering the production of a comprehensive history of our post-World War 2 misadventure in Vietnam, but really we have to thank Ellsberg and friends for making the damned thing (the Pentagon Papers) public, so we could learn that the administrations of five United States presidents in succession lied repeatedly about every aspect of the U.S. involvement in Indochina. It appears to me that Ellsberg has been tirelessly attempting to understand war and peace, and create the latter ever since that time, with the methods applied perpetually evolving with the changing times.

When, in June of 2018, during one of his occasional visits to Petaluma, the former defense analyst and legendary whistleblower spoke with interviewer Peter Coyote about the overwhelmingly deadly and destructive nature of the Great Tokyo Air Raid, and the subsequent firebombing campaign leading up to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later, I was horrified. Though I’d heard of something about the Tokyo firebombing at some point or another, this was not information with which I was at all familiar. Some of us are blessed or cursed with the need to carefully examine the most gruesome details of things which others might prefer to skip. Thus I couldn’t shake the thought of B-29 Superfortress crewmembers flying a mile above the flames, compelled to wear their oxygen masks to avoid vomiting from the sweet, sickening smell of burning flesh below.

Ellsberg was in town that day to speak of his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which contained a chapter titled Burning Cities I’ve excerpted below at length, as he wrote in considerable detail about what the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey suggested, after the war, was the deadliest six hours of warfare in recorded history, that burned 16 square miles of Tokyo to the ground and killed over 100,000 people.

For other questions which arose, such as what it was like avoiding hundred foot high walls of flame swirling about at twenty-eight miles an hour, boiling canals, and temperatures reaching 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in Tokyo on the night of March 10, 1945, I had to turn to the people who lived there at the time. Thankfully I stumbled upon That Unforgettable Day – The Great Tokyo Air Raid Through Drawings, a remarkable collection of haunting images and accompanying stories by eleven artists who were among the survivors of that terrifying night. It is reproduced in its entirety below, as it first appeared in the Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus in January of 2011.

I publish the following in the hope that it will inform and illuminate, as well as in the belief that we must end war. Now. I should also give CNN credit for recently covering the Tokyo bombing’s 75th anniversary, an exceedingly rare mention in the U.S. press. – RR





That Unforgettable Day–The Great Tokyo Air Raid through Drawings  あの日を忘れない・描かれた東京大空襲

Sumida Local Culture Resource Center (墨田郷土文化資料館)

Translation by Bret Fisk

The following paintings depicting the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945 were featured in a special exhibit hosted by the Sumida Local Culture Resource Center (墨田郷土文化資料館) in 2004. The Center staff originally settled on the idea of collecting amateur and professional artwork as a unique way of contributing to the preservation of the public memory regarding the March 10 incendiary air raid. Each painting is accompanied by a short explanatory text written by the artist. As well as giving insight into the particular scene depicted in the painting, these explanations generally touch on the artist’s overall air raid experience. We appreciate the permission provided by the Sumida Local Culture Resource Center to feature the paintings here. The paintings were published as part of a greater collection in 2005 as That Unforgettable Day—The Great Tokyo Air Raid Through Drawings (Japanese title: あの日を忘れない・描かれた東京大空襲). Head Editor: Kimura Toshiko. Editors: Tanaka Yoshiaki, Sueki Yoriko, Aoki Toshiro, Ogawa Shigenori, Yoshikawa Katsuyo, Takahashi Toshie, Tsuchiya Naotsugu

Watching Tokyo on March 10 from our Evacuation Home in Ibaraki Prefecture
Artist: Hashimoto Kimisuke
Location: Yoshinuma (Tsukubane City), Ibaraki Prefecture
Age at time of raid: 7

During the early part of 1944, I went with my family to live with my mother’s relatives in Yoshinuma. My father and his younger sisters stayed in Tokyo. I was a first grader in elementary school at the time of the raid. I painted this picture because I’ve never been able to forget the sight of the B-29s illuminated by the red skies above Tokyo. There are about fifty kilometers between Tokyo and Yoshinuma, but we could clearly see the light reflected off the airplanes as the fires burned the night sky. My mother worried about my father’s safety—as well as that of her younger brother who was fighting in New Guinea. My older sister, brother and I worried too. My one-year-old brother didn’t understand what was happening, but he was there too. So were our neighbors. All we could do was stand there and watch. Fortunately, my father and aunts were safe, but my mother’s brother never did come home from the war. My mother waited for him, but we found out that he’d died in November of 1944. My mother lived to be 95. She passed away in 2003.


The Mukojima area in Flames
Artist: Katsumi Hidesaburo
Location: Yotsugi Station
Age at time of raid: 16

I lived in Katsushika Ward, Hondenshibue-cho at the time. We heard the sound of anti-aircraft guns early in the morning of March 10. We could see the B-29s flying low overhead and the Kameido area was already engulfed in flames. I went to Yotsugi Station to the west of my house and this is what I could see on the opposite shore. The B-29s were already leaving and the entire opposite side of the river was burning. I think the building in the center is the Shiseido chemical factory. I watched it explode. On the right, you can see the Kanebo factory in Kanagafuchi burning as well.


A Scorched Baby Blown to my Feet
Artist: Yamashita Seiko
Location: Between Kameido and Kinshicho
Age at time of raid: 21

I was a teacher at the Girls’ Commercial School in front of Kameido Station in those days. I was staying at the school on the night of March ninth and tenth. We heard a warning from the air raid siren and suddenly we were surrounded by a sea of flames.

I put on my gaiters, boots and an overcoat. I also wrapped a blanket around my head before running out into the flames carrying some of the school’s important documents. The wind outside was fierce. In the midst of all the flames, an infant covered with burns and looking like a rubber doll came tumbling by and hit me in the foot. It then kept tumbling on to the rear.

A wooden telephone pole had fallen over and was on fire. Because it blocked my path, I headed for the area in front of Kinshicho Station instead and found room in a bomb shelter on the way. There was an elderly couple inside the shelter. Eventually, the sound of the bomber engines died away and I got out of the shelter. When I glanced at the couple, I saw that they had died in each other’s arms.


My Family—Trying to Escape the Flames
Artist: Miyairi Keijiro
Location: Shibazaki-cho, Asakusa Ward
Age at time of raid: 8

Our family lived in Asakusa (Shibazaki 1-3) at the time of the March 10 raid. We initially took shelter in a dugout under our floor, but as the fires grew closer we decided to escape to an area where all the buildings had been removed to create a firebreak.

I painted this from memories of my family searching for safety among the flames that night. On the far right is my little brother. He was three at the time. My mother is holding his hand and she is also carrying my youngest brother—he was one year old and had the measles that night. My mother was carrying him rather than strapping him to her back for fear that he would catch on fire without her knowing it. I’m on the left and the woman holding my hand was a woman from the neighborhood. I clearly remember the sight of someone’s corpse burning at my feet.

Even now, I can’t remember this night without offering a prayer.


The Flames of Kototoi Bridge—Memories of Losing my Family

The Flames of Kototoi Bridge—Memories of Losing my Family
Artist: Kano Teruo
Location: Sumida River, Kototoi Bridge (Asakusa side)
Age at time of raid: 14

On March 10, we fled from our home in Asakusa Ward’s Senzoku-cho to Sumida Park near the Kototoi Bridge. The park was a chaotic crowd of jostling people, and I got separated from my family. I jumped into the river because the sparks flying through the air made it so hot that I was having trouble breathing. I was able to wedge myself between the stones of one of the bridge’s supporting pillars. From there I could look up at the flames on the bridge above me and see people stuck on the railing. Every now and again red hot sheets of corrugated tinplate would fly off into the river.

With dawn, those of us who had survived under the bridge gathered. There were about twenty of us left. Everyone else had either burned to death or drowned.

I lost six family members that night, but my troubles were only beginning. I was discriminated against for decades as a war orphan and was forced to live at the lowest levels of society. I don’t even know who to blame for it. I just pray that those who haven’t experienced war will never have to go through that hell themselves.


The Umaya Bridge on the Night of March 10
Artist: Fukushima Yasusuke
Location: Umaya Bridge
Age at time of raid: 6

I lived in the Kikuyabashi area of Asakusa. During the raid of March 10, my grandmother and I ran around in the flames like rats. Each time I would almost lose consciousness from the intense heat of the wind, my grandmother would call out my name as loud as she could. I remember looking up and seeing a train on fire.

The painting is like a scene from hell and shows people being lifted up with the explosion of an incendiary cluster that failed to separate until impact. My grandmother and I huddled at the base of the railing to the Umaya Bridge and survived by patting out the sparks that landed on us. I can still remember the maniacal scream of a mother who realized she had lost sight of her child and disappeared in a dash back into the flames.

The next day, I led my grandmother through the piles of charcoal corpses and burning rubbish because her eyes were so sore from the heat. We eventually made it to the house of some relatives in Mejiro. It was three days before we were reunited with my father, who had been working the nightshift, and my mother, who had escaped to Ueno after staying behind and attempting to fight the flames.


The City Burned Long Ago—As If We Were Vermin
Artist: Kawai Mitsuru
Location: Honjo Ward
Age at time of raid: 12

We were a family of six living at Higashi Ryogoku 3-40, Honjo Ward.

During the early hours of the night, my father led us through streets with flames bursting out of the windows of the buildings on both sides. We got as far as the Chitose Bridge. We were pushed back against the railing by crowds of people as a hail of sparks assailed us.

Soon after this, we took shelter near one end of the bridge—a single step up on the sidewalk. The hot winds blew over the bridge and upset my mother’s hair. Sparks would ignite into flames each time they landed on us children. My mother knelt there and beat them out for us. By morning, my mother had lost her eyesight, my sister’s leg was burnt, and the hand I had been using to cover my face was covered with blisters.

After leaving us there on the sidewalk, my father had gone back into the flames to search for an acquaintance. We never saw him again. There had been forty or fifty people on the bridge, but in the morning most of them were dead. Only a handful had survived like us.


My Child
Artist: Miyamoto Kenzo
Location: Ohisa-cho, Arakawa Ward
Age at time of raid: 12

It was an ocean of fire. My mother held my hand as we entered the chaotic stream of refugees and headed for the Arakawa embankment. This painting is of something I saw on the way and have never been able to forget. A pregnant woman was standing there like a ghost; at her feet was a child of perhaps three or four years. The child wasn’t moving at all. The way they were lit up by the flames around them—it was a sight I saw at twelve that was so horrifying I’ll never be able to forget it.


Near Kameido Station—Corpses of Those Who Died Trying to Climb the Embankment
Artist: Tsuchida Hiroshi
Location: Kameido (March 12, 1945)
Age at time of raid: 13

We lived at Azuma-cho Nishi 4-53, Mukojima (now: Kyojima, Sumida Ward). Two days after the March 10 raid, I walked around looking at the damage. The painting shows what I saw on the embankment near the junction of the Sobu and Onagigawa freight lines. It was a mountain made of several hundred burned corpses. I never want to see such a sight again.

“Why do ordinary citizens have to suffer like this? Are we really going to win the war?” That’s what went through my mind as a child.

I think these people had been unable to completely escape the flames that engulfed them as they tried to run up the embankment. They probably died in an instant.


Kotobashi Bridge—The Horrors at Dawn

Kotobashi Bridge—The Horrors at Dawn
Artist: Habe Gonshiro
Location: Honjo Ward, Kotobashi
Age at time of raid: 13

My family lived in Kamezawa, Honjo Ward. During the early hours of March 10, my father and I headed for the Kotobashi Bridge east of our house. However, the bridge was covered with refugees. After passing over it we continued to the junior high school on the other side (now Ryogoku High School). We spent the rest of the night there in the schoolyard.

This is what I saw the next morning at about six o’clock when we tried to get back to our house. The bridge that we had so recently been on was covered with what must have been hundreds of bodies. Blackened corpses, half-burnt bodies that looked like clay figures…. Among the lumber floating in the river below there were even more corpses that had drowned without burning. Looking underneath the ends of the bridge, I could see other mountains of bodies. There was white and black smoke rising all around us. It was like the sun was shining through cloudy glass. I passed over the bridge in shock.

There was nothing left standing in the spot where we should have found our house.


Temporary Internment of Corpses at Hara Park
Artist: Tsuchida Hiroshi
Location: Hara Park (in present day Kyojima, Sumida Ward)
Age at time of raid: 13

It was a few days after the March 10 raid. At the small park near my house a simple fence had been erected to help conceal what was happening inside—the internment of bodies brought from all over the area. The fence was so full of holes that you could see everything taking place anyway. There was a horrible smell everywhere. Our house was about fifty meters away, but the smell was so strong that we couldn’t even eat.

Trucks would carry the bodies in and they would be placed in a large pit that had been roughly dug for that purpose. There was another smaller pit that had been dug in the sandbox. Some of the bodies were burnt. Some were unscathed. There were adults and children. I later checked the records and learned that 364 people were temporarily interned in the park. All of them had been inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhoods.

After the war, the bodies were exhumed and cremated. The ashes were transferred to urns and housed inside Memorial Hall at Yokoami Park.



Visit the Japan Air Raids website for much more information about this episode in our history. Most of the imagery found accompanying Dan Ellsberg’s passage below was found there. I am grateful for the efforts of site’s creators, David Fedman, Cary Karacas, Bret Fisk, and Eri Tsuji. None of the imagery below appears in The Doomsday Machine and is included here solely in an effort to further illuminate the subject at hand. – RR



The Doomsday Machine

Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

by Daniel Ellsberg

p. 252 of Chapter 15 Burning Cities


Enter Curtis E. LeMay into history. About the same time that Dresden was being hit by the Americans and British, Air Force Chief of Staff Hap Arnold and Vice Chief Lauris Norstad were reconsidering the bombing strategy in Japan. They suspected firebombing, as in Dresden, was the way to go, and they believed that LeMay was their man.

This was not a new idea in the USAAF for Japan. Just the opposite. The effects of the Great Kanto earthquake and resulting fires in Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923 had attracted the attention of American airpower theorists as to what bombing could do in Japan. Just a year later, in 1924, having examined these effects, General Billy Mitchell reported that an American aerial offensive would be “decisive” because Japan’s cities were “congested” and built from “paper and wood or other inflammable structures.” In the 1930s, Mitchell said that “these towns . . . form the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen . . . Incendiary projectiles would burn the cities to the ground in short order.” 

Studies at the Tactical Air Warfare School in the thirties of possible air campaigns against Japan were different from prospective strategies of “precision bombing” in Europe. Japan was not then an enemy nation. But those studies were reflected when, on November 15, 1941 – three weeks before Pearl Harbor – General George Marshall held an “off the record” briefing for seven senior journalists in Washington, including Robert Sherrod and Ernest K. Lindley. Their record of the briefing paraphrased Marshall as promising that if the war with the Japanese did come, “we’ll fight mercilessly. Flying Fortresses [B-17s] 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.” 

Model German & Japanese Villages constructed at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah for training purposes with incendiary weapons. 1947 image.

Historian John Dower recounts, “On November 19th, four days later, Marshall instructed his staff, again in graphic language, to investigate plans for ‘general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities.’”

Despite this long-term vision of producing the man-made equivalent of the 1923 earthquake and firestorm in Japan, by the time the XXI Bomber Command – based on the Marianas in October 1944 – was at last in range of the paper-and-wood housing in Japan, it still pursued “precision attacks” against Japanese industrial targets, particularly the aircraft industry. Its commander, Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell, was a major architect of the Air Force doctrine of daytime high-altitude precision bombing. Hansell opposed firebombing as morally repugnant and militarily unnecessary. But his replacement on the Air Staff in Washington, Major General Norstad, came to prefer massive destruction of Japanese cities by firebombing to precision bombing. On January 6, 1945, Norstad visited Hansell’s headquarters in Guam and abruptly relieved him of command, replacing him with LeMay. 

General LeMay was a very brave man physically. He was an outstanding commander who enforced strict discipline and earned great loyalty. Among other things, he initiated the tactics of forcing the people flying under his European command to fly in tight formation with no evasive action in the face of flak. Anyone who dropped out and returned to base would be court-martialed. He himself would fly the lead plane (as he did in the costly Regensburg raid, when he lost 24 B-17s out of 146). Everybody following was to drop their bombs in a pattern when he dropped his. The idea was to fly straight through the flak without any evasive action and thereby do the job, destroy the target, without having to return and run the risks again. He became known, he said, as “Iron Pants” (elsewhere, “Iron Ass”) for his own willingness and ability to fly a straight course through heavy antiaircraft fire. Fewer repeat missions did become necessary, overall losses went down, and “no evasive action” became the rule in the whole Eighth Air Force.

Soon after taking over XXI Bomber Command, LeMay discovered for himself, as his bosses had suspected earlier, that Hansell’s precision bombing of steelworks and bridges with B-29s, which LeMay continued for some weeks, was not working. He initiated trial runs with incendiaries, which his superiors had been calling for, and got impressive fires started. Without being directly ordered to do so, he decided to go all out to burn Tokyo.

As he prepared for a fire raid over Tokyo scheduled for the night of March 9-10, 1945, he wanted very much to fly the lead plane, but reluctantly he had to send his subordinate General Thomas Power in his place. LeMay couldn’t subject himself to possible capture because he knew, almost alone in his theater, of an upcoming operation with the military codename Firecracker – the dropping of atomic bombs, whatever they were. (In early July, four cities were taken off the list of cities scheduled for bombing, so as to provide undamaged targets that would allow a full demonstration of the lethality of the atom bombs.)

His memoir, Mission with LeMay, was written with the novelist MacKinlay Kantor, apparently on the basis of endless tapes. The book runs to six hundred pages, all in the first person in LeMay’s voice in the form of a stream of consciousness. Nothing better illustrates how far we had come by 1945 from FDR’s denunciations of city-bombing as cruel, inhumane, barbaric, and savage, just six years earlier. 

LeMay speaks at some length on the tactical considerations that went into what made his reputation for “courage” – the most daring gamble by an American air commander during the war. He had concluded that the Japanese did not have as much antiaircraft capability at low altitude as the Germans had, so that by going in low, he could achieve a number of benefits and perhaps not lose a lot of planes. If he were wrong – if they turned out to have antiaircraft capabilities that had not yet been spotted – he was afraid he could lose a lot of planes and it would go down in history as LeMay’s great blunder. 

The instructions he briefed to the crews just before the raid were unique in the history of bombing up until that time. The enormous B-29s were designed to fly at very high altitude, very fast, and in a tight bomber stream to deal with fighters with their coordinated guns. The tactics he prescribed that night were ones the crews had never heard of before. They were not to convoy. They were not to go up to high altitude. They were not to circle around, using up fuel, until others got in place for an enormous stream that was to go high over the city. Instead they would crisscross the city from their bases by the most direct route. Therefore they would save a great weight of fuel, which would go into extra bombload. 

Most dramatically, they were to strip the planes of guns and ammunition, thus saving another ton and a half of weight for bombs. By these tactics, he counted on increasing the bombload of his 334 planes by over 50 percent. They could each go in with six to eight tons of bombs, mostly incendiaries. 

LeMay determined that he wouldn’t inform General Arnold of his plans – thus protecting his superior from blame if the mission were unsuccessful. The development of the B-29s was Hap Arnold’s pet project; he considered them the key to the future of the Air Force. But their development and production had cost more than the Manhattan Project, and they’d had technical problems that had kept them out of the war in Europe. Partly due to the weather over Japan – almost constant overcast, and a jet stream at high altitude of two hundred miles an hour that made accurate bombing impossible coming or going – they hadn’t shown much for their money.

LeMay’s superiors in Washington desired above all to prove that the B-29s could do a big job and keep strategic bombing in the war in the

Pacific, which would make the case for getting an independent air force and keeping strategic bombing after the war. What LeMay was sparing his bosses from knowing was not the deliberate firebombing of civilians; he knew that was what they wanted, really what they had sent him there for. What he chose to conceal from them until the last moment was the radical tactics he was going to employ, potentially dangerous to costly aircraft and crews though possibly essential to the “results” they wanted. He planned to take personal responsibility for the tactics and their possible failure. 

In the Kantor-transcribed staccato flow of words (ellipses below as well as italics are from the original text), LeMay reflects:

. . . . Plenty of strategic targets right in the primary area I’m considering. All the people living around that Hattori factory where they make shell fuses. That’s the way they disperse their industry: little kids helping out, working all day, little bits of kids. I wonder if they still wear kimonos, like the girls used to do in Columbus in those Epworth League entertainments, when they pretended to be Geisha girls, with knitting needles and their grandmother’s old combs stuck in their hair. 

     . . . Ninety percent of the structures made of wood. By golly, I believe Intelligence Reports said ninety-five! And what do they call that other kind of cardboard stuff they use? Shoji. That’s it.

     . . . Each type of weapon has some good points as well as some bad points; but if I now had my choice, and had available an overwhelming quantity of any type of firebomb which would be employed, I wouldn’t stick to one particular type. No. Of course magnesium makes the hottest fire, and it’ll get things going where probably the napalm might not. But the napalm will splatter farther, cover a great area. We’ve got to mix it up. We’re not only to run against inflammable wooden structures. We’re going to run against masonry too. That’s where the magnesium comes in handy. 

     . . . 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 the Japanese industry, 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. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?

     . . . Crank her up. Let’s go.

1945 U.S. cartoon celebrating the growing bombing opportunities over Tokyo.

LeMay’s recollections in 1965 that civilian casualties were a regrettable, unavoidable side effect of attacks intended to destroy “home factories” were as disingenuous as the RAF euphemisms about housing and industry being the objective when German cities were blanketed with incendiaries. (Moreover, in reality, the home-factory system had been abandoned by the Japanese in late 1944.) Many years later, Roger Fisher, a long-term Harvard professor – who had been a close friend and consultant to my boss John T. McNaughton when I was working on Vietnam in the Pentagon – mentioned to me that he had been General LeMay’s “weather officer” in Guam at the time of the Tokyo raid. That got my attention, and I asked him what he remembered of that night. He told me, “I briefed that day, as usual, on the weather to be expected over the target, and he asked me a question I’d never heard before. He asked, “How strong are the winds going to be at ground level?” I started to tell him we could predict the winds at high altitudes, with reconnaissance flights, and even at intermediate altitudes if we dropped balloons, but we had no way of knowing what the ground winds would be. But he broke in and asked me, ‘How strong does the wind have to be so that people can’t get away from the flames? Will the wind be strong enough for that?’”

“What did you tell him?”

“I didn’t know what to say. I stammered something about how I didn’t know the answer to that, and I left and went to my quarters. I didn’t go near him again that night. I had my deputy deal with him. It was the first time it had entered my head that the purpose of our operation was to kill as many people as possible.”

LeMay’s instructions were very frightening to the bomber pilots when they heard them at the briefing. Incredible. Going in at low altitude, almost naked of guns; they had never heard anything like this. He hated to send them in by themselves, he said, without him in the lead. But they went. 

Again, LeMay from Mission with LeMay:

[Up]drafts from the Tokyo fires bounced our airplanes into the sky like ping pong balls. A B-29 coming in after the flames were really on the tear would get caught in one of those searing updrafts. The bombers were staggered all the way from five to nine thousand feet, to begin with. But when the fires sent them soaring, they got knocked up to twelve and fifteen thousand feet.

According to the Tokyo fire chief the situation was out of control within thirty minutes. It was like an explosive forest fire in dry pine woods. The racing flames quickly engulfed ninety-five fire engines and killed a hundred and twenty-five firemen.

The airmen found the glow of the flames lighting the sky. The clouds, they said, looked like cotton wool dipped in blood from a hundred and fifty miles away. It was a false dawn over Japan. 

The Tokyo fire was not, by definition, a classic firestorm (though it’s usually described as such), drawing winds into a defined area from all directions. There was a ground wind blowing. If Fisher had been able to predict it, LeMay would have found the answer to his question very reassuring. The effects of the wind went far beyond his requirement. The Japanese called it a red wind, akakaze, whose speed got to be quite high, twenty-eight miles an hour. This meant that the blaze moved ahead of the wind, and developed a kind of mass fire – akin to a firestorm – known as a sweep conflagration, a tidal wave of flame which planners had hoped to get before, but the wind conditions had to be exactly right. And on this night they were.

This moving wall of flame rose hundreds of feet in the air. It projected radiant heat, invisible infrared rays, ahead of it that would knock people down and burn them before the flames even reached them. It had all the effects of the firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden, but winds acting as a bellows produced temperatures even more intense than in those conflagrations, eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. People fleeing suffocation in the shelters took to the streets to escape and became blazing torches unable to move in the melting asphalt. Tokyo, like Venice, was covered with canals, to which mothers raced with their children to get away from the heat. The smaller canals began to boil, and families boiled to death by the thousands. 

Between eighty thousand and a hundred and twenty thousand people were killed that night. Many of the crews of the bombers had to put on their oxygen masks, at five thousand feet, a mile above the flames, to keep from vomiting from the sweet, sickening smell of burning flesh.

LeMay continues:

Contrary to supposition and cartoons and editorials of our enemies, I do not beam and gloat where human casualties are concerned.

     I’ll just quote AFWW II [Army Air Force World War II] volume V, page 627, and let it go at that. “The physical destruction and loss of life at Tokyo exceeded that at Rome . . . or that of any of the great conflagrations of the western world – London, 1666 . . . Moscow, 1812 . . . Chicago, 1872 . . . San Francisco, 1906 . . . Only Japan itself, with earthquake and fire of 1923 at Tokyo and Yokohama, had suffered so terrible a disaster. No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property.”

     The italics are my own. [LeMay’s]

     General Arnold wired me, “Congratulations. This mission shows your crews have got the guts for anything.” It was a nice telegram but I couldn’t sit around preening myself on that. I wanted to get going, just as fast as was humanly possible.

It would be possible, LeMay thought, “to knock out all of Japan’s major industrial cities during the next ten nights.” And he set out to burn the next most populous seventeen cities in succession. After that, the next fifty. 




The new campaign was not a secret from the American public. Time, in its issue dated March 19, 1945, (released March 12, two days after the Tokyo firebombing), had an accurate account of the tactics, the incendiary bombloads, and the operation’s intent. The lead, under the heading “Firebirds’ Flight”:

A dream came true last week for U.S. Army aviators: they got their chance to loose avalanches of fire bombs on Tokyo and Nagoya, and they proved that, properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves.

Giving LeMay’s estimate that fifteen square miles of the city had been totally destroyed, Time noted:

Never before had there been an incendiary attack of comparable scale. The Luftwaffe’s “great fire raid” on the City of London (Dec. 29, 1940), made with a maximum of 200 tons of incendiaries, burned not more than one square mile. Major General Curtis E. LeMay’s Marianas firebirds were in another league. 

No estimates of Japanese casualties appeared in this story, but not because of American sensitivities to the deaths of their enemy.

NYT graphic

Another story in the same issue, describing the success of American troops in the Pacific digging Japanese troops out of their holes and bunkers with napalm and flame-throwers, was titled “Rodent Exterminators.” 

After further raids on Tokyo in May, the New York Times was reporting casualty estimates for Tokyo civilians that were greatly exaggerated. Under a three-line headline claiming TOKYO ERASED, SAYS LEMAY was this headline on an independent article:

51 Square Miles Burned Out

In Six B-29 Attacks on Tokyo

LeMay Backs Figures With Photos of Havoc

-1,000,000 Japanese are Believed 

To Have Perished in Fires

John W. Dower notes that in the accompanying article, 

Only in the eleventh paragraph, on an inside page, did it get to the astonishing estimate of fatalities – and suggest that the subhead may in fact have been restrained. “It is possible,” the Times reported, “that 1,000,000, or maybe even twice that number of the Emperor’s subjects, perished.” The remainder of the article focused on the dates of the six raids and number of B-29s lost.

The fatality estimate for Tokyo was exaggerated by a factor of ten or twenty, but more suggestive in retrospect is how casually such a staggering number of projected Japanese civilian deaths could be reported, and tucked away, by this date. It did not even qualify as the lead story. 

When Truman later mentioned that neither the prospect nor the actual use of the atom bomb ever game him a moment’s hesitation or a night’s troubled sleep, that seemed odd to many Americans, including myself when I first read it. After all, he might have said that it was a difficult, in fact anguishing, moral problem, a grave decision, but that there was just no way around it. How could it not be a moral challenge?

But Truman sometimes went on to mention something that was scarcely clear to many Americans then, and still is not: that we had long been killing more people than that in the course of our non-nuclear fire-bombing attacks. And that was true – not only for Truman but also for FDR before him. For five solid months before August 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force had been deliberately killing as many Japanese civilians as it could.

The atomic bomb simply did it more efficiently, one bomb doing what it took three hundred bombers to do in March. But we had three hundred bombers, and more, and they had been doing the same job, night after night, city after city, some sixty-seven of them before Hiroshima. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey reported, shortly after the war, “It is probable that more persons were killed in one six-hour period . . . than in any other recorded attack of any kind.”

Contrary to Stimson’s highly influential but totally misleading account in Harper’s in February 1947, “The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb” – written for Stimson by McGeorge Bundy while he was in the Society of Fellows, and a successful propaganda counter to the impact of John Hersey’s New Yorker report “Hiroshima” in August 1946 – there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman’s civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city. That moral threshold had been crossed long before. There was, in reality, no debate or even discussion whatever in official circles as to whether the bomb would or should be used, if it were ready in time before the war ended for other reasons. 

Mother & Daughter Tokyo March 10, 1945 Kōyō Ishikawa

One such foreseeable reason for Japanese surrender before the bomb was dropped would be the announcement at Potsdam in July of the scheduled Soviet entry into the war against Japan on August 8. The Soviets wished but were not permitted to sign the Potsdam Declaration, which would have announced the end of their neutrality with Japan (and unavailability of the Soviets as a mediator with the United States, which – we knew from intercepted communications – the Japanese were counting on to get better surrender terms.) Another possible ending might come – as recommended by the Combined Chiefs of Staff and by virtually all civilian advisors except Byrnes – from informing the Japanese (before the Soviets entered the war in August) that they would be permitted to keep the imperial institution and Hirohito as emperor, as the United States intended. Neither of these possibilities, both well known by high-level insiders, was mentioned in the Stimson article. 

Seventy years of public controversy about “the decision to drop the bomb” have been almost entirely misdirected. It has proceeded on the false supposition that there was or had to be any such decision. There was no new decision to be made in the spring of 1945 about burning a city’s worth of humans.

The atom bomb did not start a new era of targeting or strategy or war making in the world. Annihilation of an urban civilian population by fire had already become the American way of war from the air, as it had been the British way since late 1940.

Thus, there was an ironic undertone to the judgement on the atomic bombings by Admiral William D. Leahy, chief of staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, in his postwar memoir:

It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

     The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. 

Charred Corpses Tokyo March 10, 1945 by Kōyō Ishikawa

There is no record of Admiral Leahy – or anyone else in the U.S. government – having expressed such an opinion to his immediate boss FDR in the last month of the president’s life, nor to his next boss, Harry Truman, about the prior four months of destroying women and children in Japan. Those direct attacks on Japanese civilians had begun under Roosevelt, Stimson, and Leahy when, as their subordinate General LeMay put it, “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” 

LeMay himself was convinced that fire bombing had brought the Japanese to the point of surrender and that the atom bomb was in no way necessary. That last opinion was not at all confined to Air Force commanders, though Navy commanders, with reason, put more emphasis on the effects of the submarine blockade. The judgement that the bomb had not been necessary to victory – without invasion – was later expressed by Generals Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Arnold, as well as Admirals Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey. (Eisenhower and Halsey also shared Leahy’s view that its use was morally reprehensible.) In other words, seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert invasion (that is, all but General Marshall, chief of staff of the Army, who alone still believed in July that invasion might have been necessary.) Likewise, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey for the Pacific War concluded in July 1946 (in a report primarily drafted by Paul Nitze):

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

Whether that was true or not, the U.S. Army Air Force came out of the war convinced it had won the war in the Pacific by burning masses of civilians to death. Certainly that was the conclusion of Curtis LeMay. In contrast, his civilian superiors, Truman and Stimson, denied to the end of their lives that the commanders and forces under their authority had ever violated the code of jus in bello by deliberately targeting noncombatants. In LeMay’s eyes, that was something of a semantic question. In a lengthy interview with historian Michael Sherry, he said, “There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the innocent bystanders.” 

In the early sixties, my RAND colleague and friend Sam Cohen told me he had once been in a meeting at Air Force Systems Command when its commander, General Bernie Schriever (who pressed the development of our ICBM) asked LeMay, “What is your requirement for a large warhead?” That is, what’s the largest yield you need, what would be “large enough”? LeMay answered, “One bomb, for Russia.”

In the ensuing discussion, Sam told me he had argued for the development of smaller bombs, more usable in limited wars like Korea, that would cause fewer unintended victims. He was a physicist and bomb designer who liked to be known as the “father of the neutron bomb.” LeMay, who had a friendly, fatherly feeling toward Cohen, drew him into an adjoining empty room, just the two of them, put his arm around his shoulders and told him, “Sam, war is killing people. When you kill enough of them, the other guy quits.”

Whether or not they consciously shared it, General LeMay’s viewpoint was well known to the presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson – who placed him and kept him in charge of nuclear war plans and implementing forces that embodied that perspective for fifteen years, as commander of the Strategic Air Command and later chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. 

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