At just after 1:00am on March 10th, each container opened at 2,000 feet above ground, spilling its M-69 bomblets over an area measuring 500 by 2,500 feet. Thousands upon thousands of small fires flared up, quickly overwhelming any and all efforts to put them out. The windy conditions of the day served to fan the flames that night, and very quickly, small fires began to merge into much larger fires. Many of the homes and buildings, made of wood, became easy kindling for the growing conflagration.
The deadly combination of fire, wind, and wood served to create a maelstrom of unbelievable proportions. Heat rises, and the updrafts were so powerful that they tossed the B-29’s around like toys. The glow from the fires could be seen 150 miles away, and many crews reported that this night mission had the aura of a daytime mission.
On the ground, temperatures reached 1800 degrees…hot enough to melt asphalt. The fire consumed so much oxygen that those not killed by the flames and heat were simply suffocated. The vortex was so powerful that many trying to escape were actually sucked back into the flames. The appalling conditions prompted Curtis LeMay himself to write, “…it was as though Tokyo had dropped through the floor of the world and into the mouth of Hell.”
In the end, sixteen square miles of Tokyo were, for all practical purposes, obliterated. More than a quarter million buildings, homes, and factories were destroyed. The actual death toll will never be known, but estimates range from 85,000 to 100,000. Another 100,000 were injured. And this was not the last time massed bombers would visit Tokyo.
Recommended Reading: Superfortress: The B-29 and American Air Power – LeMay’s own words. I have a 1st edition, and the link connects you to an updated edition with some additional material and a slight change in title. I have not read it, but my edition was good.