Monday, March 10, 2008

March 10

On the night of March 9-10, 1945, roughly 300 American B-29 bombers lifted off from air bases in Saipan, Guam, and Tinian and flew at a low altitude toward Tokyo. This would not be the first time the city bore the weight of an air assault, but these raids would be unique and prophetic; each plane carried 1700 petroleum bombs which, unlike conventional explosives, were designed to set their targets on fire.

A densely populated city stuffed with wooden buildings -- the better for residents to survive an earthquake -- Tokyo was an immense pile of fuel, especially in the flatlands of the city where the city’s working class lived and labored in small shops. When the bombers swept over the city that night, 16 square miles of the city were reduced to cinders, as a tornado of fire took between 80-100,000 lives, nearly all of them civilians.

For the residents of Tokyo, there was almost literally no escape from the flames and heat. Bomb shelters -- safe places of refuge during previous attacks -- were useless in the midst of an incendiary attack. People asphyxiated as the fires vacuumed oxygen from underground bunkers, which quickly turned into 1800-degree ovens and rendered their inhabitants into simmering mounds of fat and bone.

At street level, fleeing civilians lit up like matchsticks as the city roiled with flame. Tornados sucked cars, enormous clots of wood and people into the air; the turbulence was so great around the city that even several bombers were flipped on their backs as they left the city’s airspace. Saotome Katsumoto, a novelist and political activist who survived the attack, recalled the horrific night.
Actually it was a cold night, as it turned out it was the coldest March night for forty years. Many people who tried to escape by jumping into the water — into the canals — either died from drowning or suffered heart attacks caused by the intense shock of the freezing water. People carried all their belongings with them, as much as they could. Many women were carrying babes in arms and most people were wearing heavy clothing against the cold, lots carried their bedding, futon, bedding on their backs, or over their heads. A lot of it caught fire and burned them to death.
American participants in the raid reacted with a mixture of pride and horror. General Curtis LeMay, who headed the 21st Bomber Command and directed the raids, bragged that the people of Tokyo had been “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” Chester Marshall, one of the Superfortress pilots, was somewhat less enthusiastic, explaining decades later to an Australian reporter that “I couldn't eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said 'What is that I smell?' And it's a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, 'Well that's flesh burning, had to be.'"

The firebombings of Tokyo and more than sixty other urban targets from March through July were intended to terrorize the Japanese, destroy the nation’s social and economic fabric, and shorten the war. The United States accomplished the first two of these; the third goal would not be met until the atomic attacks of early August. By that point, 56 square miles of Toko were gone, and at least a million people had been displaced.

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