Bombing of the Japanese Islands
American bombing campaign of Japan
18 April 1942 - 15 August 1945
author Paul Boșcu, February 2019
During World War Two, and especially after fall 1944 the American air force employed the B29 Superfortress plane to bomb Japanese cities. The Americans targeted industrial centers and military objectives, thus further paralyzing Japan's capacity for war, but residential districts were also targeted.
During World War Two, the Allies executed many bombing raids on Japan, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and extensive property damage in Japanese cities. Although during the first years of war such attacks were rare, strategic bombing began in the autumn of 1944 and continued throughout 1945, until the Japanese surrender.

Moral issues did not trouble the Superfortress crews or their commanders: with characteristic youthful facetiousness, every member of the 330th Bomb Group was presented with a certificate declaring that he, ‘having visited the Japanese emperor a total of … times to pay his respects with H.E., incendiaries and C-ration cans, having helped to clear the Tokyo slums and having aided in the spring plowing is hereby inducted into the royal and rugged order of EMPIRE BUSTERS.’

In the fourteen months of the USAAF bombing campaign against Japan, 170,000 tons of bombs were dropped, most of them in the last six months; 414 B-29s were lost and 3,015 crew killed; about a hundred Japanese died for each American flier, and sixty-five Japanese cities were reduced to ashes.

In 1944 the war closed in on the people of the Home Islands like the clouds of Mount Fujiyama and enshrouded them the following year. In autumn 1944, B-29s began to appear over Japan. But, at this stage, they were too few in number and their bombardments too imprecise to be more than a nuisance. Yet, despite the efforts of Japanese interceptors and anti-aircraft fire, the great silver machines came back again and again.

The early raids from the Marianas showed the Japanese people far more dramatically than the prior small air raids based from China that the American air force could now reach the home islands. There was considerable damage, but this was not at all as bad as what Germany had had to endure. Two American operations altered the situation in the air war against Japan dramatically. The landing on Iwo Jima provided an intermediate step, and allowed the stationing of fighters to escort the bombers to Japan. This later became important because of a second measure adopted: flying low in order to carry masses of incendiaries to burn Japanese industry out instead of flying high to destroy factories with explosive bombs. The two operations proved dramatic indeed.

The American bombers were out of range of Japanese anti-aircraft fire and beyond the altitude most fighters could reach, but the distance and weather took their toll, and most of the bombs dropped from 30,000 feet and even higher missed the aircraft factories and other targets at which they were aimed.

The Americans had long looked toward a landing on Iwo Jima as the best place in the Bonins for an intermediate base for the air, sea and land attack on Japan. The Japanese could readily see the identical geographic realities. They had developed a complicated series of defenses, most of them underground, to fight any American landing force.

The bombing of the Japanese home islands from the Marianas — one of the main purposes of the American landings there in June 1944 — had begun in the autumn. The Superfortress bomber had been especially designed for long-range attacks on Japan, and bases were being built on Saipan, Guam and Tinian to accommodate the big bombers when they became available from the factories, and when those previously assigned to Chinese airports were transferred to the Marianas in early 1945.

The B-29 bombing effort from the Marianas had originally been something of a disappointment. From October 1944 into early 1945 a series of raids had produced some effects, especially on the Japanese aircraft industry against which it was primarily aimed. However, they did not bring anywhere near the results hoped for. At the same time they suffered considerable losses to fighters, from anti aircraft fire, and — most of all — weather, accidents, and other operational problems.

As early as 1939, the USAAF’s Gen. Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz had anticipated using America’s embryo B-29 Superfortress bomber to attack Japan. Sporadic air raids took place in 1944, some launched from India, others from fields constructed at huge cost and in the face of painful local difficulties in China. Only in 1945 was the offensive dramatically transformed and intensified, first by the establishment of a huge network of bases on the Marianas; second, by large deliveries of aircraft; and finally, by the ascent of Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay to leadership of XXI Bomber Command.

USAAF chiefs displayed an admiration for XXI Bomber Command’s forceful new supremo that was untinged by any moral scruple. Gen. Lauris Norstad said apologetically to LeMay’s sacked predecessor, Gen. Heywood Hansell, ‘LeMay is an operator, the rest of us are planners. That’s all there is to it.’

The United States had devoted a significant portion of her armed forces to preventing Japan from consolidating her newly won empire. The massive air superiority established by the Americans in particular allowed them to pound the Japanese forces to a terrible degree. The blows that rained down on Japan’s Army, Navy, Air Force and cities smashed each of them before the atomic bombs delivered the coup de grâce.

The 1944-45 air offensive took place chiefly because the B-29, conceived in the very different circumstances of 1942, had been created to carry it out – the Superfortress program cost $4 billion, against $3 billion for the Manhattan Project. America’s airmen were determined to demonstrate their ability to make a decisive contribution to victory.

The fire-raising attacks did not match the impact of the submarine blockade on Japan’s economy, because they took place when industry had already been crippled by lack of fuel and raw materials; but they convinced all but the intractable militarists in the Tokyo leadership that the war was lost. LeMay’s role in punishing Japan for launching a war of aggression was more significant than his contribution to enforcing its surrender.

LeMay changed the tactics in the field. The target areas of Japan had almost invariably been covered by clouds in daytime and had to be bombed by radar, a system which, with the technology of the time and the tremendous strength of the jet stream and winds over Japan, almost guaranteed misses. At night the clouds were thinner, Japanese anti-aircraft fire was nowhere near as strong or accurate as that over Germany, the Japanese had very few night fighters, and low-flying planes could carry far heavier loads of incendiaries. In addition, LeMay decided to take a chance by removing the ammunition in the planes to increase bomb loads.

LeMay was architect of the first great fire-raising raid on Tokyo. He dispatched 325 aircraft to attack by night at low level – between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. Torrents of incendiaries fell and exploded with their characteristic sharp crackle. Only twelve bombers were lost, most destroyed by updrafts from the blazing city. Forty-two suffered flak damage, but the Japanese defenses were feeble. Around 100,000 people were killed, and a million rendered homeless.

A pilot wrote laconically next day: ‘We took off last night at 18.35 and after a dull trip hit the coast of Japan at 02.10. Even before we made landfall we could see the fires at Tokyo. We were at 7,800 and there was smoke towering above us. The radar run was perfect and we dropped in an open spot visually. The city was a “Dante’s inferno”. One night fighter made a run on us but we turned into him and lost him.’ He added in a letter home: ‘Fires were everywhere and the destruction wrought this night could have been nothing less than catastrophe.’

The raid is regarded as the most destructive conventional bombing raid in history, and even bears some comparison with the nuclear bombs that were to come, although it has excited nothing like the amount of moralizing. Dozens of large factories and hundreds of feeder-workshops were destroyed. A new stage of the air war against Japan had begun.

Flying low, unarmed, and without having to stay in tight formations against fighter attacks, the big bombers showered a huge load of incendiaries on the Shitamachi section of Tokyo. The Japanese were caught by surprise, and their preparations to deal with large-scale fires were in any case hopelessly inadequate. For over three hours, the procession of American bombers lumbered over Tokyo, turning the great mixed area of homes and industry into a raging inferno.

More than 10,000 acres of the city, a quarter of its area, were reduced to ashes.

Even when the bombers began to strike in daylight, losses remained low, and a hundred new B-29s were arriving from America’s factories each month. The airmen reluctantly acceded to navy requests to divert some effort to offshore mining operations: Operation Starvation achieved dramatic results, for the Japanese were as short of minesweepers as of everything else. The first nine hundred mines to splash into the seas around Japan imposed further drastic cuts on its imports; when merchantmen were ordered to brave the sub-surface menace, a spate of sinkings followed.

By the war’s end, B-29s had laid 12,000 sea mines, which accounted for 63 percent of all Japanese shipping losses between April and August 1945.

The Superfortresses’ main effort was directed against cities. Some daylight raids against aircraft factories provoked a strong response – one formation was met by 233 fighters. Cities like Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe were heavily bombed. In several of these cities, modern buildings of stone and reinforced concrete held up somewhat better than the Tokyo tinderbox, but in each of them enormous areas were devastated, with industrial facilities, docks and shipyards being destroyed on a large scale along with vast residential districts.

The well-informed German naval attaché reported to his government (and unknowingly to American intelligence) that these raids had been ‘amazingly effective’, and that the additional air attacks which followed were more damaging than had been expected and were crippling Japanese industry.

During the last stages of the Pacific War, the American air force embraced with relatively little debate the concept of area attacks which it had so long opposed in Europe, where it had for years been advocated and practiced by the British Royal Air Force. In the face of a series of ever bloodier battles at the front, there were few if any qualms about launching a rain of death on Japan's cities, which now experienced what the Japanese air force had first visited on China.

From March until August 1945, LeMay’s B-29s covered Japan with a ‘blanket of fire’. Twentieth Air Force, the independent command for all B-29 operations in Asia, made Japan’s 60-70 industrial cities and associated military installations the target. The fire raids continued throughout March, destroying Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. At the end of March, LeMay’s air forces in the Marianas had run out of incendiaries, but in April the B-29s had put their fire raids into a general operational context that now included daylight raids with mixed bomb loads.

In their desperation, the defenders also adopted kamikaze tactics, with Japanese fighters ramming American bombers. Much historical attention has focused upon the willingness of Japan’s pilots to sacrifice themselves, but by this stage of the war few of those who flew conventional fighters showed much appetite for the fray: American aircrew often remarked upon their lack of aggression. Tokyo and other cities were attacked again and again.

Even this expedient was not always successful against the huge, heavily armored Superfortresses: one plane returned after suffering a suicide attack with the loss of only an engine. Its flight engineer, Lt. Robert Watson, said, ‘There was surprisingly little jolt when the Jap hit us, and our navigator didn’t even know we’d been rammed.’ Weather and atmospheric conditions troubled crews more than did the enemy defenses: thermals created freak effects – one Superfortress landed on Saipan with a section of tin roof flapping from a wing leading edge.

The Strategic Air Offensive against Japan had been as pitiless as that against Germany, particularly the firestorm created by the great Tokyo Raid. With Mustang P-51s escorting the B-29s from Iwo Jima, the USAAF was able to establish almost complete air superiority in the skies over Japan for the last three months of the war; indeed major raids were undertaken from there even while there were still Japanese holding out in different parts of the island. Yet, although the bombing left ordinary Japanese terrified and demoralized, there was no appreciable pressure put on the Government to end the war. The military clique that ran the Japanese Government felt no inclination to surrender, a course of action which they considered dishonorable.

Almost half of the residential area of Tokyo was destroyed by the end of the war, aided by the flammability of much of the paper and wooden housing. No fewer than 750,000 incendiary bombs were dropped at very low altitudes by 500 US bombers on the single night of 23 May, and a similar number the next night too. Yet Japan’s reaction, or at least that of her government, was to fight on, and a resigned but obedient population, which had little practical alternative, went along with the decision.

The raids were not without cost. The Japanese mounted a determined night-fighter program, based primarily on the twin-engine Nakajima Ki-45 Dragon Killer. The Americans countered with a two-engine night-fighter of their own, the P-60 Black Widow. Bombing operations became more sophisticated and devastating with every incremental improvement in weather forecasting, terminal guidance, and weapons effects. Bombers still fell, and the campaign eventually cost the army almost 500 bombers, lost to all causes, and nearly 3,000 lives.

The American strategic bombardment campaign had a staggering impact on the fabric of Japanese urban society. The most careful count, done by the Japanese themselves, produced fewer losses than the Americans estimated, but either number is horrific: 240,000 to 300,000 dead, approximately 2.5 million homes destroyed, and more than 8 million refugees. Of 71 Japanese cities, only five escaped substantial damage — and two of these were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About half of the bomb tonnage dropped on Japan fell on specific industrial targets.

In Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya alone, the areas leveled by fire-bombing exceeded the urban areas destroyed in all German cities by the US air force and RAF combined. Without argument, the bombing crushed the Japanese aviation industry and contributed to the decline of power generation and industrial production within Japan. The fire-bombing brought the war home to the Home Islands in ways no other Allied operation could have, but it alone did not persuade the Japanese political elite to give up the war.