On this day in 1945, the Army Air Corps launches Operation Meetinghouse, generally referred to as the Tokyo Firebombing. The night of March 9-10, 334 B-29 Superfortress bombers took off for Japan, with 279 of them dropping 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo; the effects were devastating and it is regarded as the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.
The bombs were mostly the 500-pound E-46 cluster type which released 38 napalm-carrying M-69 incendiary bomblets at an altitude of 2,000–2,500 ft. The M-69s punched through thin roofing material or landed on the ground; in either case they ignited 3–5 seconds later, throwing out a jet of flaming napalm globs. A lesser number of M-47 incendiaries were also dropped; the M-47 was a 100-pound jelled-gasoline and white phosphorus bomb which ignited upon impact.
The first B-29s to arrive dropped bombs in a large X pattern centered in Tokyo’s densely populated working class district near the docks in both Koto and Chuo city wards on the water; later aircraft simply aimed near this flaming X. The individual fires caused by the bombs joined to create a general and giant conflagration.
15.8 square miles and 50 percent of the city’s war-making capacity were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas; Elise K. Tipton, professor of Japan studies, has arrived at a rough range of 75,000 to 200,000 deaths.
Emperor Hirohito’s tour of the destroyed areas of Tokyo in March 1945 was the beginning of his personal involvement in the peace process, culminating in Japan’s surrender six months later. Hence, we can only turn to the cloying bromide that this act, seen as a war crime by much of the world, served to save countless millions of American and Japanese lives.
Of course, we’ll never really know for sure, and with this moral uncertainty, our lesson endeth.