The Bombings

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The road to "Manhattan"

The U.S. had been at war with Japan since the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the day Japan also bombed Manila and took control of the Philippines. By mid-1942, Japanese forces had gained control of all East Asia, most of Southeast Asia, and half the Pacific area—altogether, approximately 1/6 of the earth’s surface.


*Pacific War area map (M. Borthwick, (Pacific Century, p. 222) — click image for enlarged view.

Thus, no offensive bombing of Japan proper could be launched until Japanese island bases in the Pacific could be taken and airfields built to accommodate the large B-29s. Except for a daring raid from China on western Japan in April 1942, Japan’s skies remained free of U.S. bombers until June 1944. And Japan’s major cities—Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, etc.—were still out of range from the Pacific-based bombers.

Meanwhile, from 1942 the U.S. pursued a radically new wartime course: development of a bomb using radioactive materials with explosive force and long-term effects far beyond anything yet known or experienced. The overall effort was named the Manhattan Project.

This project for developing the world’s first atomic weapons began on a $2 million budget, with a twin project to build 2,000 of the B-29 superfortress bombers at an eventual cost of $3 billion—at the time, the largest-ever U.S. military budgets.

By early 1945, however, a major U.S. naval victory at Midway Island opened the way to U.S. control of the Marianna Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, only 1,300 miles from Tokyo—that is, close enough for the B-29s to reach Japan proper and return. Soon the largest-ever military airfields were constructed on these islands.

The B-29 was first used for day-time, high-altitude precision bombing of Germany’s munitions industries. But for Japan, Gen. Curtis Le May changed from daytime, high-altitude precision raids with high-explosive bombs to low-altitude, nighttime, carpet-bombing with thousands of incendiary (fire) bombs.

Opening round: Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe

Throughout the night of March 9-10, 1945, flying in streams 400-miles long, a fleet of 334 B-29s fire-bombed central Tokyo for nearly three hours. Within 30 minutes of the first bomb, fires were burning out of control, embroiling the city’s center in a firestorm with temperatures reaching 1,000° C (1,899° F), hot enough to cause water to boil in canals and fire-safety cisterns. Over 100,000 people—men, women, and children—perished and a million were injured, 41,000 seriously. Another million were made homeless in the scorched capital wasteland.


*B-29s dropping firebombs on Hiroshima


*Fire-bombed Tokyo

The Tokyo raid was followed by similar bombings of Nagoya (March 11), Osaka (March 13), and Kobe (March 16). Thus, in eight days, with 1,600 sorties, LeMay’s air force burned out 32 square miles of the centers of Japan four largest cities, killing at least 150,000 people, though probably tens of thousands more. In April, LeMay wrote privately to his commanding general, “I consider that for the first time, strategic air bombardment (shows) that destruction of Japan’s ability to wage war lies within the capability of this command.” LeMay had found, says historian Richard Rhodes, a method “whereby the Air Force might end the Pacific War without (an) invasion.”

These four raids initiated a five-month bombing of Japan’s main islands. Waves of B-29s destroyed over half the total area of 66 urban centers, reducing 178 square miles to ashes. This March-July fire-bombing campaign is estimated to have taken more civilian lives than the half-million killed during five years of Allied bombing of Germany.

U.S. map of Japan, indicating these cities (Smithsonian)

*U.S. map of Japan, indicating the 66 cities (Smithsonian) — click image for enlarged view.
This map of Japan shows the principal industrial cities that were burned out by incendiary attacks. Figures indicate what percent of a city was destroyed. For comparison, each city is paired with a U.S. city of comparable population size. Yokohama (57.6%) and Kobe (55.7%) appear to have been the most devastated.

Meantime, by spring of 1945, U.S. submarines had destroyed Japan’s merchant marine, and isolated the country by mining its harbors and coastal waters. Thus, by early summer, virtually all shipping, manufacturing, transportation, and food distribution had ground to a halt.

In such dire circumstances, one faction of Japan’s central war council pushed for surrender, while a “fight to the finish” faction resisted. Meantime, the U.S. was readying a knockout punch with a new weapon of unprecedented power. Just one such bomb would surpass all the incendiary bombing of Tokyo.

TIMETABLE: Fire-bombing of Japan, March 9-10 and July 1 to August 14, 1945

Date B-29s (no.) Cities bombed (I = incendiaries; HE = high explosives; M = mines)
March 9-10 (midnight) 325 Tokyo 4,500,000 lbs of incendiaries; 267,171 buildings destroyed; over 100,000 killed; a million injured and made homeless; highest single-day death toll of WWII
July 1 554 Ube, Kure, Shomonoseki, Kumamoto (I, M)
July 3 586 Kochi, Himeji, Takamatsu, Tokushima (I, M)
July 6 576 Chiba, Akashi, Shimizu/Kofu, Osaka (I, HE)
July 9 567 Sendai, Sakai, Gifu, Wakayama, Yokkaichi (I, HE, M)
July 12 506 Kawasaki, Utsunomiya, Ichinomiya, Tsuruga, Uwajima (I, HE)
July 16 466 Numazu, Oita, Kuwana, Hiratsuka (I)
July 19 580 Fukui, Hitachi, Choshi, Okazaki, Amagasaki (I. HE, M)
July24 570 Handa, Nagoya (I)
July 26 350 Matsuyama, Tokuyama, Omuta (I)
July 28 471 Tsu, Aomori, Ichinomiya, Ujiyamada, Uwajima, Shimotsu (I, HE)
Aug. 1 784 Hachioji, Totama, Nagaoka, Mito (I)
Aug. 5 597 Saga, Maebashi, Imabari, Nishinomiya, Mikage, Ube (I)
Aug. 14 95 Hikari, Osaka, Marifu, Kumagaya, Isezaki, Tzuchizaki-minato (I)
Aug. 14 7 Koromo, Nagoya

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