By February 1945, the U.S. Twentieth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign against Japan was in trouble. The new commander of its combat operations from the Marianas, Major General Curtis LeMay, knew he had been given the assignment in January to get results. He had reorganized the staff, instituted new training, and designed new maintenance programs, but the achievements of his high-altitude precision-bombing attacks remained disappointing. Besides technological problems with the hastily fielded B-29 Superfortress, the biggest difficulty he faced was the weather. Overcast skies and jet stream winds at normal bombing altitudes obscured targets and negated flight patterns.
Other theater commanders were trying to gain control of the expensive B-29s, and LeMay knew he could be relieved just as his predecessor had been if he did not produce significant success. He had had some experience with fire raids in China and had conducted some experiments over Japan. Although unsure how higher headquarters would react to a departure from precision bombing, he and his staff decided to destroy key targets by burning down the cities around them. This result would be achieved with low-level, mass night raids. These tactics would avoid high winds, reduce the strain on the B-29s' problematic engines, allow aircraft to carry more bombs, and exploit weaknesses in the Japanese air defenses.
The first raid employing these new tactics, Operation meetinghouse, was conducted against Tokyo beginning on the night of 9 March. The selected zone of attack covered six important industrial targets and numerous smaller factories, railroad yards, home industries, and cable plants, but it also included one of the most densely populated areas of the world, Asakusa Ku, with a population of more than 135,000 people per square mile. For the first time, XXI Bomber Command had more than 300 bombers on a mission—325 to be exact—and they put more than 1,600 tons of incendiary bombs on the target.
Before the firestorm ignited by Operation meetinghouse had burned itself out, between 90,000 and 100,000 people had been killed. Another million were rendered homeless. Sixteen square miles were incinerated, and the glow of the flames was visible 150 miles away. Victims died horribly as intense fires consumed the oxygen, boiled water in canals, and sent liquid glass rolling down streets. The B-29 crews fought superheated updrafts that destroyed at least 10 aircraft. They also wore oxygen masks to avoid vomiting from the stench of burning flesh. A total of 14 Superfortresses were lost on the mission.
The attack on Tokyo was judged a great success. It resuscitated the flagging strategic bombing campaign against Japan and restored the hopes of Army Air Forces leaders that the B-29s could prove the worth of independent airpower by defeating an enemy nation without the need for an invasion. meetinghouse set the standard for the incendiary raids that dominated Twentieth Air Force operations for the remainder of the war. Conrad C. Crane
Cortesi, Lawrence. Target: Tokyo. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1983.; Edoin, Hoito. The Night Tokyo Burned. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.; LeMay, Curtis, with MacKinley Kantor. Mission with LeMay. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.; Werrell, Kenneth P. Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1996.
Conrad C. Crane