clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

LOW-LEVEL BOMBING RAIDS SET FIRE TO CITIES IN JAPAN

By 1945, American military commanders knew conventional high-altitude pinpoint bombing wasn't going to slow Japan's wartime production capabilities.

Small Japanese factories were spread throughout a number of cities, and putting them out of commission would require a dramatic change in tactics. The most radical approach would be to incinerate them and everything around them.The technology was available and had been tested in the Utah desert, where incendiary bombs made of a new compound of jellied gasoline called napalm had finally allowed bombers to destroy a mock Japanese village built of wood, paper and straw matting.

But it wasn't until a fluke of weather on Feb. 25, 1945, forced a B-29 mission to fly at 25,000 feet over Tokyo for a bombing run that military planners realized how much they could gain by dropping incendiary bombs from altitudes of 10,000 feet or less.

The tactic would be extremely dangerous. Some of the danger could be lessened by making the bombing runs at night, but the flight crews still would be closer than they had ever been to anti-aircraft weapons on the ground.

Finally, U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay made his decision, and on March 9, 1945, American B-29s flying from 4,900 to 9,200 feet above Tokyo incinerated the heart of the city.

Accounts of the raid say the temperature at the center of the firestorm reached 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, boiling water in canals and creating cyclonic updrafts. The Japanese estimated nearly 84,000 people killed in the three-hour raid and 41,000 wounded. More than 260,000 buildings were destroyed and a million people left homeless.

By Aug. 14, more than 600 major Japanese war factories or military installations had been destroyed. Nearly half the total area of 66 cities had been burned off the face of the Earth in what the Japanese called "slaughter bombing."

Bountiful resident John L. White was an Air Force pilot at the time, and while he understands Japanese outrage over the unprecedented wartime destruction, he said American fliers approved of the incendiary campaign.

The bombs, dropped in clusters over intervals of a few seconds, "set fire to things you wouldn't imagine would catch fire," White said. "Some of the smaller cities were almost completely destroyed.

"They were terrible raids. But the Japanese were the enemy. The tactics were accepted, and we felt they were reasonable for a war."

White was a member of the Utah National Guard's 222nd Field Artillery Medical Detachment when the Guard was called up in 1941. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, White applied for Air Force officer training and was accepted in October 1942. A flight instructor, he eventually was stationed on Guam, one of three U.S. B-29 bases in the Mariana Islands. He flew 36 missions in the incendiary campaign and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his World War II service.

White's first flight was to Nagoya, the second Japanese city to be set afire.

From the Guam air base, they flew at 500 to 1,000 feet until they reached Nagoya. The plan was to climb to 8,500 feet, dive to 5,000 feet, drop the bombs, and fly back to base.

But the Japanese searchlights caught them, and a fusillade of anti-aircraft flak flipped the plane, which fell to within a few hundred feet of the ground before pulling out of its dive.

White tells the story, and the details are as sharp as if they happened to him yesterday. "It's such a part of your life. It's hard to forget," he said. "Picture a city ablaze, with smoke towers up to 25,000 to 30,000 feet. You know how turbulent a thunderstorm is - you had the same kind of turbulence with the fire clouds.

"The recollection I have is of hundreds of fires below, searchlights all over the city. Tracer fire from below. An occasional big blast when an aircraft blew up.

"Those are times you really don't forget."