March 9th, 1945, wave after wave of US B-29 Super Fortress bombers lay down 2000 tons of incendiary ordinance on Tokyo over the next two days. Some 16 square miles in and around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Launching out of Saipan and Tinian Islands in the Marriannas, the B-29s would be stripped of their guns, except for the tail gunner. This allowed the B-29s to fly faster and carry more munitions. The mission itself was a single low level pass and egress over the ocean west of Japan.
The bombers launched on the 9th and reached their targets shortly after midnight on March 10. The target was the poor cramped wooden and paper neighborhood of Shitamachi. The French journalist Robert Guillane was trapped in Japan after the Pearl Harbor raid. He wrote a description of the inept and overwhelmed families and rescue crews who tried to quell the flames created by thousands of incendiaries raining down in the night sky.
The inhabitants stayed heroically put as the bombs dropped, faithfully obeying the order that each family defend its own home. But how could they fight the fires with that wind blowing and when a single house might be hit by ten or even more of the bombs, each weighing up to 6.6 pounds, that were raining down by the thousands? As they fell, cylinders scattered a kind of flaming dew that skittered along the roofs, setting fire to everything it splashed and spreading a wash of dancing flames everywhere – the first version of napalm, of dismal fame. The meager defenses of those thousands of amateur firemen – feeble jets of hand-pumped water, wet mats and sand to be thrown on the bombs when one could get close enough to their terrible heat were completely inadequate. Roofs collapsed under the bombs’ impact and within minutes the frail houses of wood and paper were aflame, lighted from the inside like paper lanterns. The hurricane-force wind puffed up great clots of flame and sent burning planks planing through the air to fell people and set fire to what they touched. Flames from a distant cluster of houses would suddenly spring up close at hand, traveling at the speed of a forest fire. Then screaming families abandoned their homes; sometimes the women had already left, carrying their babies and dragging crates or mattresses. Too late: the circle of fire had closed off their street. Sooner or later, everyone was surrounded by fire.
The police were there and so were detachments of helpless firemen who for a while tried to control the fleeing crowds, channeling them toward blackened holes where earlier fires had sometimes carved a passage. In the rare places where the fire hoses worked – water was short and the pressure was low in most of the mains – firemen drenched the racing crowds so that they could get through the barriers of flame. Elsewhere, people soaked themselves in the water barrels that stood in front of each house before setting off again. A litter of obstacles blocked their way; telegraph poles and the overhead trolley wires that formed a dense net around Tokyo fell in tangles across streets. In the dense smoke, where the wind was so hot it seared the lungs, people struggled, then burst into flames where they stood. The fiery air was blown down toward the ground and it was often the refugees’ feet that began burning first: the men’s puttees and the women’s trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing.
The fire spread so swiftly that windstorms twirled around swirling vortexes that sucked people, homes, debris into the flames. Flames spread so fast that even when there was a way to run where there was no fire, it was often too late. Clothes burst into flames and so did any packages people held. People who jumped into waterways often boiled alive. People on the bridges jumped into the water as the steel grew hot. Mostly the poor stuffed into insubstantial wooden shacks on the edges of Tokyo. It’s important to remember that death estimates range from 80,000 to 200,000 dead Japanese citizens, and most of them were innocent bystanders in the war effort. The raid resulted in 243 dead US aircrew.
Inferno: The Fire Bombing Of Japan March 9 to August 14, 1945, Ed Hoyt. 2000. Wikipedia