Firebombing of Japanese Cities during World War II

One of the areas that almost everyone knows about concerning World War II is the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One of the areas that is not as well known, but should be, is the firebombing of Japanese cities which, overall, wrecked more death and destruction than the atomic bombs. Anyone who has seen the Miyazaki film Grave of the Fireflies, though, already has an idea just how horrible this process was.

From the book Before the Bomb: How America Approached the End of the Pacific War, 1997: "Dissatisfaction with the damage results of high-altitude bombing with conventional explosives helped renew interest in incendiary bombing, a tactic espoused by Army Air Forces personnel as early as the 1920's."

(For those not familiar with history, the Air Force was not always a separate branch of the military. For a long time it was the Army Air Force, falling under the guidance and control of the Army.)

During the first year of bombing things did not go particularly well. Although the B-29s dropped 1,550 tons of explosives in seven missions only one bomb in 50 hit within 1,000 feet of where it was supposed to hit.

"Shortly after he assumed control of the bomber groups based in the Marianas in January 1945, Gen. Curtis LeMay prepared for night-time firebombing of Japanese cities. "

Things did not immediately improve, though. The damage the bombers did was considered to be too little, and the losses to high. In February of 1945 he changed tactics. Instead of the planes simply carrying bombs, they started to carry a mix of incendiaries and fragmentation bombs.

The first test of this was Kobe, a major shipyard city. 159 tons of firebombs and 13 tons of high explosives were dropped, resulting in the destruction of 1,000 buildings and severely damaging two of the shipyards. The next attack was a complete failure, though, as the Nakajima plant in Ota was bombed with 47 of the 97 bombs dropped being duds.

So it was time to change tactics again. This time they decided to give the bomber crews intensive training and napalm was picked as a substance to be used during the bombings. A test of this was an early bombing of Tokyo, and the results were about a square mile of the city being destroyed. LeMay decided to have the planes carry heavier bombs and fly at a lower altitude.

The testing of the new tactics began with the bombing of Tokyo on March 9. 334 B-29s took part flying far lower than ever before on a bomb run. Pathfinder planes dropped napalm bombs every 100 feet to make an "X" on the ground, a target for the rest of the planes to attack. The attack itself took over three hours.

The Japanese later listed over 83,000 dead in the attack; over 40,000 wounded and a total of 15.8 square miles of the city were burned to ashes with the destruction of 265,171 buildings. The intensity of the fire was so much that the water in the rivers reached the boiling point.

The bombing was continued and within ten days 32 square miles of Japanese cities basically ceased to exist. Bomber losses decreased during the process. By the end of April, 11 more square miles of cities had been destroyed. One and a half square miles of Yokohama, three and a half square miles of Kawasaki joined the areas destroyed.

While this was going on there was simultaneously Operation Starvation, which was the mining of Japanese harbors. 36 of 47 supply routes for the Japanese were closed down due to the process.

In May Nagoya became a target with the loss of four square miles of the city. Tokyo lost seventeen more square miles. Nine square miles of Yokohama were wiped out towards the end of May. Osaka faired no better with the loss of over 136,000 homes, 4,200 factories and almost 4,000 casualties.

Smaller targets were also hit. Toyama, a small urban area of 128,000, was 100% destroyed. From May to August , U.S. planes firebombed fifty-eight Japanese cities. Four cities, though, were kept off the firebombing list; those included Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Niigata and Kokura.

"...Reports about bombing seldom mentioned civilian casualties, even when describing a Japanese city as a flaming cauldron.' By 1945 most people accepted the bombing of urban areas, especially Japanese cities. The lack of reference to civilian losses also reflected the pervasive notion that incinerating civilians, however regrettable, was justifiable if it ultimately saved American lives." Before the Bomb

A really good example of this was the title of an article in the Atlantic Constitution: "Keep Em Frying."

The firebombing went so well, in fact, that the military was actually running out of reasonable targets to firebomb and an estimate by General LeMay said they would run out of targets by Christmas of 1945.

From the June 4, 1945 issue of Newsweek, a report on the firebombing:

"Six weeks ago Tokyo had a population of nearly 7,000,000. Last week the Japs cried that Tokyo no longer existed as a city. Using new techniques and new bombs, the largest fleets of B-29s ever to take the air and turned most of the Japanese capital into ashes in two great strikes on May 24 and 26....For 105 minutes the Superfortresses filed over and dropped 700,000 incendiary bombs. ... Two nights later a force of more than 500 B-29s struck the Marunouchi district, the business heart of the Japanese Empire. ... On a target area of approximately 9 square miles the B-29s dropped 4,000 tons in one hour. The wind did the rest."

From the June 11, 1945 issue of Newsweek, another summary of results:

"On the morning of May 28, more than 450 B-29s, escorted by about 150 P-51s from Iwo Jima, roared in on he familiar trail over Tokyo Bay. Reconnaissance photos showed that 51.3 square miles of Tokyo had been burned out. ... the B-29's smothered Yokohama with 3,200 tons of incendiaries."

In July of 1945 the U.S. dropped leaflets on some Japanese cities, warning them that they could end up being firebombed. The next day six of the cities were. This was repeated. The general effect, of course, is to try and demoralize the enemy population by showing the Japanese just how totally helpless they were, and that their own military could not prevent Japanese cities from being attacked directly and bombed, something that had not happened on any scale ever in the entire history of Japan.

( 1853: Admiral Perry sailed into a Japanese harbor and used the threat of force to make Japan open itself to trade with other nations. This was about as close to a direct invasion as Japan had experienced for well over a hundred years.)

What is astonishing is that, despite the incredible losses and the fact that there was virtually nothing Japan could do to stop the bombing, the country kept fighting. No matter how many square miles were destroyed, no matter how many civilians died, the military wanted to keep fighting.

It is interesting to speculate on what would have been done with the firebombing if a physical invasion of the islands had actually taken place. Firebombing would not have reached any deep bunker defenses, so some of the army would still have been able to fight. On the other hand, firebombing a swath of land maybe fifty or sixty miles wide coupled with firebombing all the farm areas could possibly have cleared an area enough that the U.S. military could have gotten a beachhold without horrible casualties.

Still, though, that beachhold would have eventually have had to been extended further and further. Perhaps intense firebombing of adjacent areas and all crops could possibly have allowed the U.S. military to eventually conquer Japan, but the loss in civilian lives would have been almost unimaginable. It might have prevented the need for using the atomic bomb, and on the other hand it might not have. It's one of those historical questions that can never really be answered.

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