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The History of American Technology

Strategic Bombing Against Japan 1944 -1945


The real start of LeMay's campaign to destroy Japan occurred on March 9, 1945, when LeMay sent 334 of the B-29s against Tokyo. Pathfinding bombers marked the center of Tokyo with napalm (jellied gasoline) bombs that were dropped to make the shape of a huge X of fire across the center of the city. When the bomber stream arrived, it passed over the fiery X in flights of 3 planes each flying at altitudes ranging between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. These flights were spaced to put each one over the X with about 1 minute between flights, which means the bomber stream passed over Tokyo for about 2 hours with each of its planes dropping about 40 incendiary bombs that were 500 pounds each (the B-29 could carry 20,000 pounds of bombs). All the planes had to do was drop their bombs into or near the visible fires.

The wind was blowing at nearly 30 mph that night, and the converging fires set by the incendiary bombs quickly developed into a fire storm capable of sucking the air out of bomb shelters and setting asphalt streets on fire. The fire storm reached temperatures of 1,800 degrees, and it was so fierce that it scorched the bottoms of many of the planes as they passed over at 5,000 feet. The fire storm simply incinerated everything it passed over, and the stench of burning human flesh was so strong that the ground crews in the Marianas Islands could clearly smell it in the airplanes and on the clothing of the flight crews when they returned to their bases.

The fire storm raged for 4 days, and no one has ever determined how many civilians died. The official count of the known dead ran up to 83,793--on a par with the number killed outright by the Hiroshima bomb, twice the number killed outright by the Nagasaki bomb. There were over 40,000 civilians seriously injured. The fire destroyed nearly 16 square miles of the city (an area 4 miles wide by 4 miles deep), and it left very few buildings standing. 20% of Tokyo's industrial district was burnt out; 2/3 of the city's commercial center was gone; more than 1 million people lost their homes. Tokyo had had a population of 6.9 million in 1942; this raid started the killing of civilians and the destruction of housing that left it a city of 2.7 million in September, 1945. Effectively, LeMay's raids on Tokyo, of which the March 9 raid was just the first, destroyed the city as completely as the atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.