While Japanese cities were being reduced to ashes by U.S. air raids including the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945 (the 20th year of the Showa Era), the government finally began moving to seek an end to the war. Meanwhile, on July 26, the Allied Powers announced the Potsdam Declaration that presented the terms for Japan’s surrender. Why couldn’t Japan accept the declaration immediately? Why couldn’t Japan bring itself to end the fighting before it suffered the devastating losses inflicted by the U.S. atomic bombs and the Soviet Union’s entry into the war?
Firebombing devastates Tokyo
At 12:15 a.m. on March 10, 1945, air-raid warning sirens started wailing in Tokyo. About 2 hours later, 150 B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers (334 B-29s according to U.S. documents) carried out wave after wave of low-altitude carpet bombings, sometimes flying alone, sometimes in groups. The bombings set fire to houses and buildings over a wide area of the capital. Devastating, tornado-like flames whipped up by the wind engulfed every wooden building in their paths and engulfed about 40 percent of Tokyo.
The bombing actually began seven minutes before the sirens sounded when B-29s flew in very low from the east and firebombed the Fukagawa district in a surprise attack. The intensity of the bombing was ferocious. According to Fire and Disaster Management Agency records, U.S. bombers dropped six 100-kilogram bombs, 8,545 45-kilogram firebombs filled with jellylike gasoline, 180,305 2.8-kilogram firebombs and 740 1.7-kilogram electron bombs. The bombers first dropped incendiaries on areas around a target that set off huge fires that cut off evacuation routes. There was no escape for thousands of people trapped by the flames.
According to Metropolitan Police Department records, the air raid claimed about 88,000 lives and affected more than one million others. About 267,000 houses were completely burned down. A report by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, a research team ordered by President Harry Truman to investigate the impact of the Tokyo raid, said it “resulted in a greater degree of death and destruction than that produced by any other single mission in any theater during World War II.”
The first bombings of Tokyo by B-29s were carried out on November 24, 1944. After taking off from Saipan, the B-29s pounded the Musashi factory of Nakajima Hikoki, then the nation’s top military plane manufacturer and now Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., as well as Shinagawa and Suginami Wards. Since then, B-29s had mainly targeted industrial areas, home to war factories. However, after the Great Tokyo Air Raid, the U.S. Air Force strategy shifted to indiscriminate bombings in which massive numbers of incendiaries were dropped on noncombatants and ordinary houses.
The United States hoped the air raids would crush Japan’s will to continue the war. According to one Japanese Army document, the Tokyo raid “doomed victors and losers of air defense operations, blew away in one swoop the people’s spirit to fight and defend the country’s air space, and impelled Japan’s leaders to end the war.”
The indiscriminate bombings spread to Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and other cities after the Great Tokyo Air Raid before shifting in mid-June to smaller cities including Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, and Kagoshima. In late July, U.S. planes started to drop leaflets informing people of planned bombings of specific cities. According to a survey on wartime damage conducted by Keizai Antei Honbu (Economic Stabilization Board) from 1947 to 1949, damage from the air raids amounted to about ¥65.3 billion—a figure more than five times that of damage wrought by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which claimed more than 140,000 lives.
How did Japan organize its air defenses to counter the U.S. air raids? In July 1944, the government formulated the Central Air Defense Plan. For the first three months after the plan was drawn up, Japanese fighters had some success in shooting down B-29s on bombing missions. However, their ability to protect the mainland withered as the number of B-29 sorties rose, their target areas expanded and Japan’s remaining air power was steadily destroyed by U.S. forces. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s report stated, “...although hostile fighter and flak inflicted considerable damage to our units on a number of occasions, the over-all effectiveness of Jap defenses never constituted a serious threat to the accomplishment of the mission of strategic air warfare.”
The government started transferring ground-based air defense units, which were originally deployed mainly in large cities, to smaller cities in July. But by then, it was too late. An air defense manual for the public drawn up by the Home Affairs Ministry said, “The first minute is the most crucial for dealing with firebomb attacks.” It also advised people “to throw water on flammable things near you to prevent a fire from spreading if it breaks out.”However, the U.S. attacks were far more devastating than those for which Japan had expected and prepared. The government and the military failed to protect the people from the devastating air raids.