Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Rain of Fire

B-29 "Superfortress"

On November 1, 1944, a mammoth silver plane appeared high in the sky above Tokyo. Emblazoned in large red letters on the fuselage was the name “Tokyo Rose.” The newest addition to the Allied war arsenal the B-29 "Superfortress" cruised majestically over the Japanese landscape. Four 2,200-horsepower Wright Double Cyclone engines powered the 100 foot long aircraft. It’s airspeed of 350 miles per hour outpaced any other plane in the sky, including the deadly Japanese Zero. The B-29’s ability to fly up to 30,000 feet kept it out of range of surface anti-aircraft fire. Protected by four turrets, each equipped with two fifty-caliber machine guns, and a 20,000-pound bomb load the B-29 "Superfortress" was invulnerable.  The first over-flight by the “Tokyo Rose” on November 1 was a reconnaissance; the following flights were lethal. On November 24, 1944, sixty B-29's destroyed the Nakajima airplane works at Kichijoji. The next attack obliterated the Yokohama-Tokyo industrial area. From that point on, Tokyo was subjected to the most destructive siege in the history of warfare. On November 29 alone, 15,000 bombs rained down on the defenseless city. The raid reduced twenty-five hundred homes to rubble.

Despite the success of the B-29 raids, Army Air Force General Curtis Lemay was dissatisfied. Precision bombing was difficult from an altitude of 30,000 feet.  He decided to change tactics from high to low-altitude attacks. Additionally he ordered the five-hundred-pound bombs to be replaced with M-69 gasoline-jelly incendiary bombs. In order to inflict optimal devastation, the incendiary attacks required dry air and a good wind. With the proper conditions the M-69s, dubbed “Molotov fire baskets” by American flyers, created a firestorm. Upon impact the M-69s released 100-foot streams of fire accompanied by gale force winds. Walls of fire sucked the oxygen out of the air.

The evenings of March 9 and 10 provided ideal conditions for a "Superfortress" assault. In two nights, 300 B-29s dropped half a million M-69s on Tokyo. The main target was a patchwork of industrial buildings and workers’ homes adjacent to the harbor. Fragile wooden buildings provided kindling, and the Tokyo harbor area was set ablaze. Robert Guillain, a French reporter, described the scene he witnessed the evening of March 9:
"They set to work at once sowing the sky with fire. Bursts of light
flashed everywhere in the darkness like Christmas trees lifting their decorations of flame high into the night, then fell back to earth in whistling bouquets of jagged flame. Barely a quarter of an hour after the raid started, the fire ,whipped by the wind, began to scythe its way through the density of that wooden city." 

Like tornadoes, fire spouts jumped from one neighborhood to another. The most severe destruction took place in the Asakusa-Ku residential section of Tokyo. The densely populated area of 140,000 ldisappeared in a rain of fire. Some victims suffocated. Others died from seared lungs and smoke inhalation.  Many were instantly incinerated.  In all, sixteen square miles of Tokyo was leveled. Over 100,000 men, women, and children perished. More people died during the March 8th and 9th American B-29 raids over Tokyo than those immediately killed in the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima.

The firebombs did not leave behind the rubble typical of bomb-blasted European cities. Rather, the city resembled the aftermath of a massive forest fire. Like giant sequoias, industrial buildings stood intact on the outside, but inside only charred refuse remained. Residential areas were burned to the ground.  Chimneys, like forlorn sentinels, stood alone among the rubble. All animal life—dogs, cats, squirrels, and even birds—disappeared. Residents steeled themselves for the inevitable Allied invasion. Women and children fashioned bamboo spears to defend their homes.

Fearful of being buried alive in a bomb shelter, Toguri sat out the attacks in her small boarding house room. During each attack she prayed the fragile building would be spared. The bomb blasts cascaded around her like the footfalls of a malevolent giant. Peering out her small window it looked as if the world was on fire.

www.eyewitness to, retrieved 11/2/10

To be continued