Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo’

My grandmother celebrates her 98th birthday today.  So a bunch of us gathered yesterday at the assisted living care facility where she lives.  After taking her out to lunch, we had a little party with cake and ice cream.  I think she really enjoyed it, even though all the attention and all the movement probably wore her out.  She was also quick to remind us that Sunday (the 11th) was her birthday, not Saturday.

I’ve mentioned it before, but grandma has lived through a mammoth amount of change.  Yesterday she looked in wonder at a smartphone.  She probably began her life in a home without any phone at all, and lived most of it with a corded phone hooked to the wall.  And that’s just one thing…there are countless other examples.

Grandma is finally beginning to forget things.  I’m not complaining, because it’s taken her nearly a century of living to reach that point.  But I’m really grateful for our ability to write stuff down.  As we age, our brains lose their capacity to process and remember information.  So fifty years from now, if I’m still around and these pages still exist, I might not remember going to visit grandma on her 98th birthday, but at least I’ll be able to read about such an event…if I can still see.

Today we remember the one-year anniversary of the terrible earthquake-driven tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan.  In the days of instant video and those smartphones that grandma just discovered, the events of that day are compressed to a series of ones and zeroes and stored on a hard drive, just waiting for a mouse click or finger tap to be brought back to the surface of YouTube as a sobering reminder.

Had smartphones and YouTube been around in Japan on March 11, 1945, they would have recorded the earth shaking.  They would have brought images of fire and destruction to your video screen.  Terror and death might have been your vista.  But it wasn’t an earthquake and it wasn’t a tsunami.

Grandma’s 31st birthday was the day the U.S. Air Force paid a visit to Nagoya, Japan.  It was not the first time.  Indeed, bombs had fallen on the city several times, beginning in December of the following year.  There was a Mitsubishi factory located there that supplied the dwindling Japanese war effort, and it was the first target.  But this was the first time Nagoya had been hit using new tactics.

Taking a page from the European theater, General Curtis LeMay had recently decided to mass large groups of bombers as a single force when attacking Japan.  Previous attempts using small packages was proving ineffective.  The first real test, a couple of days before against Tokyo, had been (from the perspective of the U.S. military) a resounding success.

So while Tokyo was still smouldering, LeMay’s massed Superfortresses hit Nagoya.  And while the damage may not have been as bad as the Tokyo raid (sixteen square miles turned to dust and nearly 200,000 killed and wounded), it was extensive.

With this result, General LeMay and the U.S. Air Force believed they had found a weapon that would finally end the war against Japan.

Recommended Reading: Superfortress: The B-29 and American Air Power

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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.

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On the evening of March 9, 1945, it was rather breezy as the residents of Tokyo slept in their beds.  An American air raid was coming, but they were becoming accustomed to air raids.  They were used to the scream of air-raid sirens, the drone of aircraft overhead, and the popping of anti-aircraft guns.  They were probably even familiar with silhouette of the oversize bombers and the sight of bombs being dropped from high in the sky.  But tonight would be different.

Having taken over the Twenty-First Bomber Command in late January, Gen. Curtis LeMay was disappointed with how the bombing campaign against Japan was progressing.  B-29’s were the best of the heavy bombers with the most advanced equipment, but still they struggled to take out important industrial, manufacturing, and military targets.  There was a potential invasion of the Japanese islands with which to contend, and the more (and better) equipment the enemy had, the more lives that would be lost.

Something had to be done…a change in tactics was required.  The change began on this day in 1945.

Rather than send a few dozen bombers against Tokyo, XXI Bomber Command gathered 325 B-29’s.  And rather than pack the bombers with standard iron bombs, they were loaded with M-69’s.  These were small, six-and-a-half pound cylindrical bomblets filled with napalm.  Thirty-eight of the bomblets went into a container, and a single B-29 generally carried thirty-seven containers.  The containers would open above ground (much like modern-day cluster munitions) and scatter the M-69’s over a wide area.  The bomblets exploded on contact, splling out (and igniting) the napalm, which was extremely flammable and burned with incredible heat.

And instead of dropping their payloads from 30,000 feet, altitudes were reduced to less than 8,000 feet.  It sounded suicidal, but LeMay contended that the drastic change would throw off Japanese anti-aircraft batteries, whose crews were used to firing at planes at high-altitude.  Furthermore, Japanese fighter resistance was waning.

So one-by-one, and flight-by-flight, and squadron-by-squadron, the B-29’s lifted off into the fading daylight.  At just after 1:00am on March 10th,…well, that’s tomorrow, so…

To be continued…

Recommended Reading: Code-name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb – a great book explaining why American leadership in 1945 felt the atomic solution in Japan was the right one. It’s very enlightening.

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