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When the Roof of Hell Opened Up and Tokyo Fell In

When they first heard of it, the men who had flown over St Nazaire and Brest, Schweinfurt and Munich, Ploesti and Wiener-Neustadt, Shanghai and Bangkok and lost a thousand friends in the high altitude combat boxes knew that it was a mistake.  The briefers misread it, they thought.  But no.  The B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command would bomb Tokyo at night, individually, in a continual stream of aircraft at altitudes from 6,000 to 12,000 feet.  There was no mistake.  Curtis Lemay, commanding the B-29s in the Marianas islands in early 1945, was in deadly earnest.

But there was a reason for it: many.  The air campaign against Japan had been disappointing.  The B-29 Superfortresses, the most advanced bombers in the world, the largest and the most powerful aircraft in the world, suffered from teething pains that included engine fires and electrical problems.  Some missions lost as many as 5% of their aircraft to these causes alone.  Added to this, weather over Japan was unexpectedly bad much of the time, even more unpredictable than northern Europe.  The discovery of the jet stream during the bombing missions of 1944 was a boon to the weathermen, but it wreaked havoc on bombing accuracy and on airplanes.

So the planners and the Boeing engineers added it all up and determined that the problem with the engines was uneven engine cooling; with the electrical system was instrument freezing; that with the weather was high-altitude flying.  The answer was to fly lower, which meant abandoning the box.  To accommodate that radical change, the missions would be flown at night, in part because the intelligence boys were saying that Japanese night fighter strength was negligible.

Then the issue became the nature of the target.  Japanese industry wasn’t concentrated in plants or even in small shops; while final assembly was centralized, the components were made in shops based in homes.  One in four Japanese homes had a machine tool or finishing station within the structure.  Many more had made piece-parts in outbuildings or in communal sheds.  Most Japanese cities were primarily made of paper and wood, especially the residential areas.  The insurance industry, performing studies of German and Japanese cities for the Army Air Force, reminded their audiences that massive fires were common in Japan.  In 1922 a fire had destroyed more than five square miles of Tokyo.

So the orders went out to the bases on Guam, Saipan and Tinian: the bombers would carry incendiary bombs only, would leave most of their defensive guns on the ground, and would attack individually from low altitude.  The bombers would launch at dusk on 9 March 1945: target, Tokyo.

Just after midnight the first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo, marking Incendiary Zone Number One, enclosing an area four by three miles with thermite and magnesium flares.  Then came the other bombers with their napalm and white phosphorus.  After fifteen minutes the water mains started to burst and after thirty minutes the electrical power went out. Two-thirds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department was destroyed in the first hour.

And still the bombers came.  George Seaton, flying a Superfort called Snatch Blatch, wrote “I could read a newspaper from the fires of Tokyo when we were still twenty minutes away.”  Jim Cornwell, who had flown over Hamburg in 1943 during an operation RAF Bomber Command called Gomorrah, recalled, “it looked like the roof of hell opened up, and Tokyo fell in.”

On the ground it seemed like the end of the world.  Fire destroyed neighborhoods in minutes, consumed blocks in seconds, houses in an eyeblink.  This was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the third largest city on earth, and its residential heart was being consumed by fires that could not be stopped.  There were no firestorms like Hamburg; not enough concentrated heat.  Instead this was what firefighters called a sweep conflagration that grew and moved and fed on its own accord, fanned by southerly winds.  High above, as much as 20,000 feet above the maelstrom of fire, aircrews in the controller aircraft could smell burning pine…and hair, and flesh.

The last of the B-29s dropped its load sometime after 2:00 AM on 10 March, leaving a little over fifteen square miles of Tokyo burning or burned out, the flames having stopped only two miles from the Imperial Palace.  At least 80,000 were dead; possibly as many as 150,000–no one knows to this day for certain.  Downtown Tokyo was a charnel house; power and water systems destroyed; transportation networks completely knocked out.  Tokyo had become an abattoir of frightened refugees scrabbling amid the rubble and ashes to find enough food and water to survive.  By May, two more fire raids would only add another six square miles to the devastation.

With his new strategy Lemay laid waste to every Japanese industrial city that wasn’t on a special list from Washington: one that had on it Kure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When he drove through Tokyo after the surrender, he saw thousands of tool posts standing stark amid the blowing ashes.  Japan may have already lost the war by March 1945, but at that time they didn’t know it.  After the fire raids, and Lemay ran out of targets to burn, the Showa emperor Hirohito certainly did.  After the Imperial War Council meeting of 10 August, he withdrew his support from the war.  He, like Tokyo, was done.

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