Opinions

75 years later, the flames from the firebombing of Tokyo still sear

“I was on a mission over Tokyo a few nights ago. To say the least it was exciting. Big fires and stuff. It was the biggest all around 'hell breaking loose’ I’ve seen yet.”

This sentence, buried in one of my father’s routine letters home is the only reference he makes to one of his most harrowing combat missions during World War II - a firebombing raid on Tokyo.

Seventy-five years ago, on March 9, 1945, Gen. Curtis LeMay made one of the big gambles of the war: He ordered his armada of B-29 bombers in the Mariana Islands to firebomb Tokyo. Firebombing involves the use of incendiaries or jellied gasoline bombs that start fires and spread them rapidly to a point where they merge into one giant conflagration — a firestorm so hot that glass melts, updrafts suck away oxygen and people combust like matches.

It was a complete change in tactics. The B-29 was a big aircraft developed for bombing from 30,000 feet — the very symbol of precision daylight bombing to minimize civilian casualties. But the jet stream and Japan’s incessant overcast weather made high-altitude bombing difficult. Effective firebombing required low-level flying at night and made no pretense of avoiding civilians. The lower elevation meant the weight of the fuel needed to climb to high altitude could be replaced with more bombs — each plane could carry six tons, rather than the usual four. Guns and gunners would also be removed to further reduce weight and prevent the bombers from shooting at each other in the confusion of fire and darkness.

The crews assigned to fly were certain the mission would be suicide. LeMay too harbored doubts. If he was wrong, his career was over

But he was not wrong. On the night of March 9, 1945, a 400-mile stream of B-29s flying between 5,000-7,000 feet dropped incendiaries during the night and Tokyo burned, and burned and burned. In a matter of hours, 16 square miles were obliterated and an estimated 83,000 people killed — more than either of the atomic bomb missions. An acceptable fourteen B-29s were lost. The astonishing success of the mission led to the incineration of four more cities over the next 10 days. The blitz of fire stopped only because LeMay ran out of bombs.

My father was not on that first mission, but he was on the first of two follow-up firebombing missions against the city beginning May 23. His plane was one of 500 bombers ordered that day to finish Tokyo. As a bombardier in the nose of his B-29, he had, as he described it, “a front row seat to all of the action.”

After a seven-hour flight over 1,500 miles of ocean, the bomb run began at Mount Fujiyama. As aircraft made the turn toward Tokyo, a glow of fire started by the first bombers could be seen in the distance. “As we closed in on Tokyo there were bombers all around us but in the dark and smoke we couldn’t see them. It was a traffic jam, we feared a collision.” Violent turbulence generated from the heat rising from the inferno below severely jostled the planes. It was a struggle for pilots to maintain control of their bucking aircraft. That night, the searchlights were intense and the anti-aircraft fire deadly. “As we approached the target I could see off to my left a B-29 caught in the lights get hit by flak and fall into the flames.”

Before that Tokyo mission, my father’s job as a bombardier was “to put a bomb in a pickle barrel.” From 30,000 feet, cities were just targets — a grid of rectangles, squares and landscape features viewed through the lens of a bomb sight. At 5,000 feet, however, the job was personal. Precision was not required. He only had to guide his plane to the edge of the fire and drop incendiaries in the dark areas where flames had not yet spread. Flying just above the city, he could feel the heat. The plane would fill with the stench of smoke and burning flesh. It was impossible to ignore the horror of firebombing.

In his later years, I accompanied my father to several reunions of his bomb group. Invariably the storytelling turned to a comparison of the firebombing raids with the atomic bomb missions. I found many of his fellow veterans ironically conflicted. All agreed the use of “the bomb” probably saved their lives because it shortened the war. But they were also disgruntled because it overshadowed the contribution of their firebombing raids. They believed the atomic bomb was unnecessary, but glad they didn’t have to fly the missions to prove it.

When President Harry Truman announced the use of the atomic bomb, he famously advised the Japanese to accept our terms of surrender or “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” But the earth had already seen that rain of ruin from the air. Every city of any size had been scorched. There was nothing much left to destroy. The firebombing raids had seen to that.

As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, many of us will recall stories told to us by our parents or grandparents — where they were, what they did, how they felt. While grateful to be here because my parents survived, I can’t help but think about the intense ferocity of events unleashed by the March 9, 1945, bombing of Tokyo that culminated six months later with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I imagine the horrific suffering inflicted by either method of aerial killing. I also see my young father folded in the nose of his B-29, forced to witness that fiery “hell breaking loose” and add his bombs to it. It was an image that must have been seared in his mind until the day he died.

Tim Troll lives in Anchorage. His father Ray Troll was a navigator/bombardier on B-29s and served with the 40th Bomb Group in India, China and the Pacific. Eight of Ray Troll’s 26 combat missions in World War II were firebombing raids.

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