On March 9, 1945, American pilots of warplanes waited for the perfect weather conditions to drop bombs on unsuspecting citizens of Tokyo, Japan. Under the direction of U.S. General Curtis LeMay, Air Force crews met for a military briefing on the Mariana Islands of Tinian and Saipan. Over 330 B-29 airplanes loaded with 2,000 tons of napalm and white phosphorus flew at extremely low altitudes to drop bombs, which coupled with the dry, winds created a massive firestorm in the city of Tokyo at midnight on March 10.
General LeMay bragged to his men, “You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.” Japanese civilians, who were asleep at the time, did not stand a chance, especially those living in the downtown Tokyo suburb of Shitamachi, since it was composed of mainly wood-frame buildings and homes. The shadow factories that made prefabricated war materials quickly went up in flames. The gigantic bonfire sent over 750,000 Shitamachi residents scrambling to escape the firestorms, but most of them perished. The fire brigades could not offer much help because they were understaffed and not properly equipped. The violent firestorm caused the waters of Tokyo’s rivers and streams to boil, and it melted the glass and columns in the city’s buildings.
The smell of burning flesh filled the air, forcing the B-29 pilots to use oxygen masks to keep from getting sick from the stench. Badly burned naked and clothed bodies black as charcoal could be seen floating in the Sumida River. Over 100,000 innocent civilians were killed, hundreds of thousands were maimed, millions were left homeless, and 17 square miles of Tokyo were left in ashes.
General LeMay was noted saying, “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time. It was getting the war over that bothered me.”
The firebombing of Tokyo is one of the less talked about horrors of World War II.
Masahiko Yamabe, a chief researcher at the Tokyo Air Raid and War Damages Resource Center, said, “Even in Japan, most people are not aware of the extent of the devastation, but it’s important that people remember this. Seeing the actual photos helps people understand that most of the victims were ordinary citizens. Most were not involved in war industry at all - they were just regular people going about their lives.”