Defense Media Network

The Great Tokyo Firebomb Mission

An excerpt from the book Mission to Tokyo, being published in spring 2012 by Zenith Press


Fire and Fury

For two hours, the roar of Superfortresses filled the night sky over the Japanese capital. Approaching bomber crews could see the burning city from 150 miles away.

Robert F. Dorr MTB

Before writing Mission to Tokyo, author Dorr covered B-17 Flying Fortress crews in the war in Europe in his current book, Mission to Berlin, which is excerpted on Defense Media Network. Robert F. Dorr

Carter jotted in his notes: “No guns or ammo on board so could carry more bombs. Struck by lightning prior to reaching coast. Got lost. Almost hit mountains. Finally saw Tokyo fires about 100 miles away. Decided to go ahead and bomb Tokyo instead of secondary target knowing that by burning up extra fuel we would have to land on Iwo Jima instead of returning to Tinian. When we approached Tokyo a bomb falling from a higher B-29 missed hitting our wing by only about ten feet.”

The bombers’ primary target was the industrial district where factories, docks and the homes of the workers who supplied the manpower for Japan’s war industry were located. The district hugged Tokyo Bay and was densely packed with wooden homes. All the ingredients were here for the perfect firestorm.

The horror on the ground was unspeakable. The wildfire sweeping the Japanese capital sucked the oxygen out of the air. Many Japanese suffocated before they could burn to death. People who sought refuge by diving into canals were boiled alive. Fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives.

The raid leveled 16 square miles of the city. 84,000 people died. A million were made homeless. John Pimlott of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, author of a book on the B-29, called the raid a “bludgeon.” U.S. literature released a few months later after the raid (and with knowledge of the subsequent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) claimed that Tokyo incendiary raid ignited the hottest fires ever to burn on the Earth.


Remarkable Results

LeMay’s decision to go low turned out not to be suicide. The fears felt by Fling, Carter and other crewmembers turned out to be misplaced. LeMay himself didn’t know that until the mission was over: he spent the early hours of March 10 sharing a Coca-Cola with McKelway, who’d become his confidante, and wondering how many bombers would make it home.

That night, just 14 B-29s were lost, including five that ditched and three that flew into the same mountainside. Five more recovered safely at Iwo Jima, the island still being contested by the Japanese a month after the invasion. Low on fuel after being temporarily lost, God’s Will touched down on the strip at Iwo Jima while bullets were still flying as Marines battled Japanese nearby.

Losses on the mission were painful to those affected, but in a broad sense the price was small. For all their fighters and flak, the Japanese had no weapons to defend against B-29s at the altitudes LeMay had chosen.

The Tokyo raid turned out to be a success that altered U.S. tactics and led to a subsequent firebombing “blitz” of Japanese cities. Over the weeks that followed, several other firebomb missions were mixed in with other bombing missions that used conventional weapons. More than 500 Superfortresses flew one subsequent raid.

Much of Japan’s industry and many of its cities had been razed by Aug. 6, 1945, when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This was the secret weapon LeMay had been briefed on. On Aug. 9, a second atomic attack was launched against Kokura, but ended up striking its secondary target, Nagasaki. Neither of the atomic bomb raids inflicted as much damage as the March 9, 1945 firebomb mission to Tokyo, but the combined power of the Superfortress campaign led to Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15.

During the Sept. 2, 1945 surrender ceremony aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) in Tokyo Bay, the victorious allies staged a flyover that was the largest aircraft formation ever assembled – about 2,400 planes. Carter was aboard one of the B-29s that day, looking down. He went on to a long and successful career as an accountant in Atlanta.

Four hundred and two B-29s were lost bombing Japan – 147 of them to Japanese flak and fighters and 255 to engine fires, mechanical failures and takeoff crashes.

Defense Media Network Senior Writer Robert F. Dorr has written scores of books covering aircraft, air warfare, and the military in general. His most recent publication, Mission to Berlin, is excerpted on this site, as is Hell Hawks, written with Tom Jones, which details the operations of a P-47 Thunderbolt squadron fighting against Germany in World War II.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28228">
    Michael Enright

    There are two “straw man” arguments emerging in these excerpts: that of the Norden bombsight / higher altitude matter and that of the concentration on military targets. As much as such arguments seem desirable to many, they fail to reflect the realities of the air war in Europe and over Japan. That reality was that precision bombing was a flawed concept and only possible in exceptional circumstances not readily available to Eighth, Fifteenth or RAF Bomber Command forces. There may have ben a military aiming point, but hopes of precision eventually gave ground to facts of accuracy: include the taret in a broader area and you achieve, by default, the desired precision with the necessary ‘accuracy’ of an area approach. I will not be buying this book. “Mission to Berlin’ was disappointingly vague and hagiographic. The late Jeffrey Ethell’s ‘Target Berlin” is a much more informative and critically executed read. Based on the excerpt, the hagiography continues in this treatment of another theatre of war.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28258">

    Robert F. Dorr can certainly reply to your comment better than I, but I frankly think your criticisms are at cross purposes to the books. While the excerpts by necessity have the background material necessary for the short sections published here to make sense to a reader, the books are, in my opinion, not about the precision of Norden bombsights, the effect of high-altitude winds on bombs, strategic bombing in general, or what went into target folders in particular. They are about the people who had no voice in those issues, and who went up and risked their lives day after day. There are plenty of opinions on the issues you mention. There are likely to be more as the years pass and we can comfortably criticize the decisions made at the time from a six-decade remove. But what is important to me, after reading the “big picture” histories, is the stories of those who were there. In a time when everything is politics, I enjoy reading the ground truth from the perspective of those who experienced the actual events that today we refer to as history.

    And yes, they are heroes in my opinion, if for no other reason than overcoming their fear and continuing to fly missions. Hagiography? Not in my opinion. The use of that word with respect to what I’ve read is hyperbolic at best.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28278">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Criticism is welcome. But, in reference to my current “Mission to Berlin,” excerpted elsewhere on this site, I wonder if the critic read the book I wrote. If he wants a book about bombing accuracy and morality, I’d recommend “Fire and Fury” by Randall Hansen. But I didn’t write a book about “the Norden bombsight/higher altitude matter and that of the concentration on military targets.” I wrote about men who were cold, thirsty, tired, homesick subjected to noise, vibrations, temperature changes, and terrified of mid-air collision—who flew into German flak and fighters.

    Considering how hard I worked to avoid the “greatest generation” pastiche—although these men meet the definition, you will not find the word “hero” anywhere in my work—I wonder which part the critic thought was hagiographic. Should I have written only about men he would be inclined to dislike?

    Jeffrey L. Ethell lived 45 minutes down the road from me and I helped a little with his work on “Target Berlin,” a very good book that is entirely different from my own. Jeff would first to say that he is not alone in deserving credit for an excellent work. “Target Berlin” was an equal partnership with Alfred Price. Jeff, Alfred and I talked about a subsequent book, “One Day In A Long War,” which was inspired by something I wrote, while together in the room where I’m now sitting.

    Criticism is welcome, as I said, but this is the first time I’ve seen a comment on a book that has not been published yet. If the critic will send me a roster of his one hundred or so top published writings, I’ll be glad to offer constructive criticism in exchange for his comment about mine—but I’ll read it before I comment on it. I hope the critic will reconsider about investing in a copy of “Mission to Tokyo” because it includes material never published elsewhere. And, as always, I invite comments, criticism and correspondence at

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28333">
    Frank R. Vondra

    Without any equivocation, I will certainly buy Mission To Tokyo when it is released. I live in Omaha, Nebraska and a few miles from Offutt Air Force Base where during World War II, Martin Aircraft Company manufactured the B-26 Marauder and the B-29 Superfortress. I’m sure most historians know that 44-86292 or more commonly known as “Enola Gay” was built here. While growing up, I remember talking to neighbors who worked in the plant during the war and they mentioning the fire hazards associated with the Wright R-3350 engines during final assembly, so this book is spot on with that. Mr. Dorr, the only problem I have with your books is being able to put them down once I’ve opened the front cover. I’m currently halfway through Hell Hawks and starting Chapter Ten: Thunderbolts Over The Bulge. I’ve found that Mission To Berlin is extremely well written, easy to read, and very well articulated. Your historical research references and footnotes are scholarly throughout, factual and well documented. As an 8th Air Force B-17 enthusiast since 1965, I found this book extraordinarily interesting and with an abundance of information that I had not read before. It is a must-read for every air war historian regardless of age or era. Thank you, for your gift of reading enjoyment to thousands who are able to visualize air combat through your literary work.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28371">

    Thank you for posting that terrific excerpt from Robert F. Dorr’s forthcoming book MISSION TO TOKYO. I greatly enjoyed Mr. Dorr’s most recent books, HELL HAWKS (co-authored with former U.S. astronaut Thomas D. Jones) and MISSION TO BERLIN, and I’m looking forward to reading his new one. Dorr is not only an acknowledged authority on military aviation history. He’s also a damn good writer who really brings history to life. As a history buff and the son of a World War II veteran, I particularly like the way he tells the stories and fates of individual American pilots and crew members. His well-researched, well-written books have helped me understand both the history of World War II and how incredibly scary it was to go on fighter and bomber missions back then. I strongly disagree with the comment one person posted here calling that “hagiography” or hero worship. Is it “hagiography” to shed light on what WWII pilots and crew members endured and the bravery they often demonstrated? I don’t think so. It’s a part of history and it’s a way of telling history that’s eye opening and awe inspiring. I for one can’t wait to read MISSION TO TOKYO, especially after reading the excerpt. It looks like it will be as good as Dorr’s other recent books.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28401">
    Jim Escalle

    I have read several books about bombing campaigns that are written academically and focus on the big picture. Some are good, while others will put you to sleep very fast. Endless arguments can be made on the strategies used, proper altitudes, bombing accuracy and such. Mission to Tokyo, however, focuses on the real history as it’s being made on the front lines of aerial combat, where the young men and boys flying these missions over open water never knew what would happen next. I have learned more about what actually took place over the skies of Europe by reading Mission to Berlin. I look forward to reading the first-hand accounts of B-29 crews in Mission to Tokyo.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28466">
    Doug Carter

    When I read “Mission to Berlin” and “Hell Hawks” I had the same problem as Mr.Vondra with these books; once I started reading them they were difficult to put down. When I read Mr. Dorr’s works I am able to visualize what is happening; the people come alive. As a result of providing Mr. Dorr with information about the experiences of my father, William J. Carter, who is featured in this article and in “Mission to Tokyo”, I know that Mr. Dorr strives to be unbiased, thorough and accurate.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28501">
    Travis Aldous

    just finished Mission to Berlin, a fantastic well done book. really brings home the cost involved of the Berlin mission and all Air Force missions. .The book gives you great insightas well as up close and personal with how these men lived flew, &fought. Another great book as was Hell Hawks,makes you feel as you are on the missions with these men

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28566">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Robert Dorr’s strength is his ability to pull you into the scene, make you feel as if you’re right beside the individuals he’s writing about, and cause you to feel the same emotions they do. I also admire the quality of his research. Based on my experiences doing research for my own books, I appreciate his effort to nail down tiny details and at the same time exercise restraint in their use. Clearly Robert admires and respects the people he writes about, but he’s not reluctant to write about their negative traits. I got the impression from reading Michael Enright’s comments that he was expecting something different than what he found. The point about precision bombing being a flawed strategy was only fully revealed to the Allies after Germany was defeated and teams were able to visit targeted sites and interview various people, particularly Albert Speer. Robert’s book has a point of view of the war as it was unfolding and experienced by the men who followed orders and carried out their missions. The aircrews wouldn’t–and couldn’t–know anything more than what they were told at the time. Given the after the fact knowledge that we possess, it puts into perspective what those young men did, and cannot but help to inspire awe.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28676">
    Vincent Cooper

    As well as gripping, Robert’s books become more and more relevant the further and further we get from the culture that brought us “the thousand kids”, Curtis LeMay, and the Manhattan Project. This isn’t lugubrious schmaltz — the concept that civilian populations formed legitimate targets is properly seen, now, as dubious — it’s a statement of fact. Mr. Dorr tells a riveting tale, and an instructive one. When my sons read this historical work, I hope they gain the same kind of dedication, sense of self and commitment to serve that many in our generation got from the fictionalized accounts in “Twelve O’Clock High”. Thanks for writing it.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28708">

    If this book is even half as good as Mission to Berlin I’m pre-ordering it (and I know it will be). Robert F. Dorr is one of the very few writers working today who has the knack of combining history with raw personality without any of the pulp magazine hokiness…he’s just a damn good writer who treats his subjects AND readers with respect.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28727">

    I only recently became acquainted with the work of Robert F. Dorr, and although I’m not an Aviator, I did serve a 21-year career in the Army, and those of us who’ve served in the military, regardless of which branch all know too well about authenticity, experience, leadership and an astute ability for us to see through what many writers attempt to present as factual, credible or even in some cases readable.
    Robert F. Dorr’s character and writing skill is strongly complemented by his personal experience and ability to visually write and present us with a sense of being where the action is. Mission to Tokyo, as well as his many other books like Mission to Berlin not only tell a story, but manage to give history lessons and educate us while taking the reader on a journey back to the time of un-parallel aviation heroism. Robert F. Dorr’s work is not an imitation; his works are filled with well researched facts, experience, and emotion that give you an education in what it was like to be there.

    During the past year I’ve become an avid reader or Robert F. Dorr’s books and articles he writes for defensemedianetwork, and have to admit I learn something with every reading.

    If you know nothing about aviation or World War II history, you’ll definitely learn about it and experience it. If you do know something about Aviation and World War II history, you’ll learn even more and won’t be disappointed. Robert F. Dorr’s body of works has created a standard of anticipation for each of his projects, and should go without saying that you’ll want to read “Mission to Tokyo” and all of his work.

    Warren Martin, author – Forgotten Soldiers: What Happened to Jacob Walden

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28894">

    Yes, Bob Dorr, through his detailed interviews, brings the gritty reality of war to life. I thoroughly enjoyed Hell Hawks and learned a lot about WWII that I never knew. Although my father served in the European theatre as an Army physician, including the Battle of the Bulge, he never spoke about it.
    Now comes the fire-bombing of Tokyo and another cadre of courageous pilots. I look forward to reading this one. If I have any quibble with the author it is the suggestion that the devastating incendiary attacks on Tokyo precipitated the surrender of the Japanese on August 15th, 1945. It is the concensus of historians, I believe, that it was the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on the 9th that brought the war to an abrupt end.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-29149">
    Roy L Miller LTC (Ret)

    I spent ’66 briefing/debriefing F-4C crews as an intel officer at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base. When civilians & veterans talk with me about my experiences, they were primarily about the tragedies of war-the heat, the cold, the witness to dying, etc. When I tell people about “Mission To Berlin” I relate the story of the B-17 crewman who fell 4 miles through the glass roof of the St Nazairre railway station & survived!! This is what these stories by Dorr captured- the human element.