"Night of the Black Snow:" American Warplanes Firebomb Tokyo; 100,000 Die

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"Night of the Black Snow:" American Warplanes Firebomb Tokyo; 100,000 Die

Industrial district of Tokyo, Japan, after the firebombing of March 9-10, 1945
Image courtesy of http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0310-08.htm
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 9-10, 1945

On the night of March 9, 1945, flights of U.S. warplanes flew over the Japanese capital of Tokyo. Their main mission was to destroy small industrial sites in the city; but their secondary objective was to break the morale of the Japanese people and shorten the Second World War.


After the unprovoked Japanese attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the American military began preparations to take the war back to the Japanese mainland. The first attack was the Doolittle Raid of April, 1942. Sixteen B-25B medium bombers were launched from deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8). Their stated objective was to bomb military targets in and around Tokyo.

B-25B bomber taking off from USS Hornet, April 18, 1942 on its way to Tokyo; Photograph courtesy of National Archive and Records Administration
B-25B bomber taking off from USS Hornet, April 18, 1942 on its way to Tokyo
Photograph courtesy of National Archive and Records Administration

Damage from the attack was negligible, and 15 of the 16 bombers crashed (one plane landed in Vladivostok, Russia and the crew was interned for a year). The greater victory from this attack was the morale of the Japanese public  took a hit, as they began to doubt the ability of the Japanese military to guard their homeland.

U.S. military planners began developing long-term strategies to attack the Japanese home islands. The experience of Doolittle Raiders demonstrated that large planes would be needed to make a dent in the industrial production of the Japanese. Also, it would be necessary to establish airbases closer to the Japanese mainland to allow the bomber crews to fly their missions and have a better-than-average chance to survive and return to their bases.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress

The U.S. Army Air Forces (predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) realized that their current bombers – including the B-17, B-24, B-25, and B-26 – were not up to the task of providing long-range, large payload raids on Japan. Beginning in 1938, the Boeing company began preliminary research into a heavy bomber for the U.S.A.A.F. When the Air Force made a formal request for a new bomber, Boeing was already on the job.

After nearly four years of design, construction, and testing, the first B-29s were delivered to the Air Forces in 1943. Further modifications to the planes delayed their first use in the war in the Pacific to June of 1944. B-29s attacked Japanese railroads in Bangkok, Thailand at that time. Ten days after the Bangkok attacks, mainland Japan received the attention of the B-29s, as 47 B-29s bombed the Imperial Iron & Steel Works at Yahata, Japan.

B-29B Superfortress Pacusan Dreamboat of the USAAF 16th Bombardment Group
B-29B Superfortress Pacusan Dreamboat of the USAAF 16th Bombardment Group

However, problems became apparent as the bombing campaign against Japan continued. The initial raids were flown from bases in China and India, and the long flight times were grueling, to men and machines.

The American island-hopping strategy allowed the Allies to capture large portions of the Pacific islands that the Japanese had occupied both before and after the Pearl Harbor attack. By mid-1944, the islands of Saipan and Tinian in the Northern Marianas were captured, and the construction of airfields which could handle large U.S. bombers was soon underway. [The Marianas Islands are only about 1300 miles from mainland Japan.]

The B-29 was capable of flight at altitudes up to 31,850 feet, at speeds of up to 350 mph (true airspeed). This was its best defense, because Japanese fighters could barely reach that altitude, and few could catch the B-29 even if they did attain that altitude. Only the heaviest of anti-aircraft weapons could reach it, and since the Axis forces did not have proximity fuses, hitting or damaging the aircraft from the ground in combat proved difficult.

The B-29 was the first American bomber to have pressurized forward and aft compartments. While the bomb bays were not pressurized, a tunnel connected the two compartments to allow access to either while the plane was in flight.

Prelude to the Attack

The high altitude bombing attacks using general purpose bombs were observed to be ineffective by USAAF leaders due to high winds – later discovered to be the jet stream -- which carried the bombs off target. Changing tactics to increase the damage, Gen. Curtis LeMay – who was given command of the overall bombing campaign against Japan -- then ordered the bombers to drop incendiary bombs to burn Japan's vulnerable wood-and-paper buildings. The first such raid was against Kobe on February 4, 1945. Tokyo was hit by incendiaries on February 25, 1945 when 174 B-29s flew a high altitude raid during daylight hours and destroyed around 643 acres of the snow-covered city, using 453.7 tons of mostly incendiaries with some fragmentation bombs.

Gen. Curtis LeMay (1906-1990); Photograph likely taken in 1960s (note 4 stars)
Gen. Curtis LeMay (1906-1990)
Photograph likely taken in 1960s (note 4 stars)

A second major attack against Tokyo was ordered. LeMay ordered the defensive guns -- except the tail guns – removed from 325 B-29s, so that the aircraft would be lighter and use less fuel. Each plane was loaded with incendiary clusters, magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm. He further ordered the bombers to fly in streams at 5,000 to 9,000 feet over Tokyo, because Japan's anti-aircraft artillery defenses were weakest in this altitude range, and the fighter defenses were ineffective at night. LeMay told his bomber crews, "You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen."

The Firebombing of Tokyo: "Operation Meetinghouse"

The first pathfinder airplanes arrived over Tokyo just after midnight on March 10 and marked the target area with a flaming "X". The initial target of the attack was the Tokyo suburb of Shitamachi, a town composed of roughly 750,000 people living in cramped quarters in wooden-frame buildings. Setting ablaze this "paper city" was a kind of experiment in the effects of firebombing; it would also destroy the light industries, called "shadow factories," that produced prefabricated war materials destined for Japanese aircraft factories.

Three hundred and twenty-five bombers, flying at a mere 500 feet, dropped their loads, creating a giant firestorm fanned by 30-knot winds that helped raze Shitamachi and spread the flames throughout Tokyo. Masses of panicked and terrified Japanese civilians scrambled to escape the inferno, most unsuccessfully. Temperatures around the city raged between 600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. In some areas, the fires melted asphalt.

In a three-hour period, the main bombing force dropped 1665 tons of incendiary bombs, killing tens of thousands of civilians, destroying 250,000 buildings, and incinerating 16 square miles of the city. The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mists and stench of burning flesh that wafted up sickened the bomber pilots, forcing them to grab oxygen masks to keep from vomiting. The winds also whipped up the ashes of the burned buildings and the thousands of burned bodies, thus it became the "Night of the Black Snow."

Sirens sounded the all-clear around 5 A.M. – those still working in the half of the city that had not been attacked; the other half burned for twelve hours more. An eyewitness who inspected the scene on March 11 said, "What was most awful was having to get off my bicycle every couple of feet to pass over the countless bodies strewn through the streets. There was still a light wind blowing and some of the bodies, reduced to ashes, were simply scattering like sand. In many sectors, passage was blocked by whole incinerated crowds."

Tokyo after the firebombing of March 9-10, 1945
Tokyo after the firebombing of March 9-10, 1945

One eyewitness, a doctor at the scene, reported, "In the black Sumida River, countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all black as charcoal." In some places, the Sumida River had been evaporated by the intense heat.


Civilian casualties were estimated at 80,000 to 130,000. The majority of these deaths were women, children, and the elderly – all the men of military age were in the field. In addition, an estimated million people were maimed, and another million were rendered homeless.

Footnote #1: The B-29 Superfortress was originally conceived for use against Germany, flying from bases in Egypt. However, with the success of the Allied bombing campaign against German military and industrial targets, the B-29 was delegated to the war against Japan.

Footnote #2: General LeMay acknowledged, if he had been on the losing side at the end of the war, he would likely have been charged as a war criminal. But, since the Allies won the war…as in the past, the victors get to write the history.

Footnote #3: Deep in the vaults of a memorial in central Tokyo, large urns contain the ashes of more than 100,000 civilians, victims of the "Night of the Black Snow."

Footnote #4: The firebombing of Tokyo occurred less than a month after the bombing of the city of Dresden, Germany. In that incident, nearly 1200 American and British bombers dropped more than 3900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary devices. Up to 1600 acres of the city was destroyed, and nearly 25,000 civilians died.

Footnote #5: If any readers are truly interested, there are numerous photographs online showing bodies of the victims of the Tokyo firebombing. I chose not to show them for this post. I leave that to the truly curious to take the next step.

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While loss of civillians in war is never wanted, sometimes it is needed. The japanese attacked us first, so whatever is needed after that to end the conflict is justified. I lived in japan, and my youngest son was born there, I love the japanese people of today, and can sympathise with their losses, but that was war, and this is peace.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.