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This Day In History: The United States Began Firebombing Tokyo

March 09, 2017

This day in history, March 9, 1945, U.S. warplanes launched a new bombing offensive against Japan, dropping 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo over the course of the next 48 hours. Almost 16 square miles in and around the Japanese capital were incinerated, and between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the worst single firestorm in recorded history.

On March 9, Air Force crews planned a low-level bombing attack on Tokyo that would begin that evening. Their planes would be stripped of all guns except for the tail turret to increase the speed of each Superfortress bomb. It would increase its bomb load capacity by 65 percent, making each plane able to carry more than seven tons. The crews were warned that if they were shot down, they should try to make it to water, increasing their chances of being picked up by American rescue crews.

“You’re going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen,” U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay said.

The cluster bombing of the downtown Tokyo suburb of Shitamachi was approved just a few hours before the operation began. Shitamachi was composed of roughly 750,000 people living in cramped quarters in wooden-frame buildings, making it the perfect experiment in the effects of firebombing.

Shitamachi’s fire brigades were hopelessly undermanned, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. At 5:34 p.m., Superfortress B-29 bombers took off from Saipan and Tinian, reaching their target at 12:15 a.m. on March 10. Three hundred and thirty-four bombers, flying at a mere 500 feet, dropped their loads, creating a giant bonfire fanned by 30-knot winds that helped raze Shitamachi and spread the flames throughout Tokyo.  The devastation was so great that the blood-red mists and stench of burning flesh that wafted up sickened the bomber pilots, forcing them to grab oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.

In the three hour long raid, 243 American airmen were lost.