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.
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.
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.