On March 10th, 1945, 279 B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers conducted the most devastating conventional bombing raid in human history. Their target was Tokyo. The new tactics they employed had been tested but never implemented on such a large scale.
High altitude precision bombing over Japan had proved difficult compared to Europe due to high altitude winds over Japan. The US Army Air Forces decided to switch tactics, primarily at the behest of Curtis LeMay, although the ideas were not entirely his own.
The tactic of large formations of B-29s conducting high altitude precision bombing using high explosive bombs was completely altered. The attacks would happen at night. The B-29s would attack as a swarm, with each bomber flying individually without formation. The attacks would be conducted from very low altitudes to ensure accuracy and to confound Japanese anti-aircraft defense. Finally, the B-29s would use incendiary bombs instead of high explosive bombs.
The target was Tokyo itself, its people, and the largely wooden based construction of Japanese homes and small businesses. Some bombers carried a small number of high explosive bombs which were the first out of the bay. The idea being to crack open the roofs of structures using high explosives so the follow on incendiary bombs would fall within.
LeMay took extreme risks in the plan. To increase bomb load, all defensive guns on the B-29s were removed except for the tail gun. A lack of defensive formation meant each B-29 would be highly vulnerable to Japanese night fighters without mutual defensive support from other B-29s. Nevertheless, LeMay decided to proceed with the new tactics.
The raid succeeded on a scale few could have imagined. The Japanese were completely taken off guard by the new tactics. No Japanese night fighters were able to engage a single B-29. Japanese anti-aircraft guns did manage to down 14 B-29s with the loss of 96 Americans. But generally, Japanese anti-aircraft fire was ineffective as the gunners were not prepared for a low altitude attack and the low altitude run of the B-29s rendered Japanese radar mostly blind.
The attack started a firestorm throughout Tokyo with a ferocity previously seen in places like Hamburg. However, the wooden base of Japanese construction made the consequences even stronger. An estimated 100,000 Japanese died in one night, almost all of them civilians.
Until the end of the war, the USAAF would continue to employ the nighttime, low altitude, incendiary attacks across all of Japan. And yet, by August 1945 even after five months of firestorm bombing Japan was no closer to surrender. As World War II would demonstrate, no amount of conventional strategic bombing would ever bring an Axis country to surrender.
In Germany, it had taken a complete conquest via ground forces. American plans were in place for a ground invasion of Japan to start on Kyushu which estimates claimed would cost millions of lives. And so the decision was made to try and short circuit such a scenario. The Soviet Union would enter the war, and America would employ atomic weapons in a last attempt to force Japan’s surrender without a ground invasion.
On August 6th, 1945 the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima with perhaps over 100,000 Japanese killed. And yet, Japan still did not surrender. President Truman did announce to the public and to Japan what had been done. A single plane, with a single bomb, had done what had previously taken hundreds of bombers.
Japan’s leadership was well aware of what had happened, but refused to surrender anyways. The same concept, that the Japanese people could endure anything, and Japan could fight on remained inside their minds. It must be acknowledged that by this point most of the Japanese senior leadership were certifiably insane. It is akin to Hitler’s last moments, where he ordered divisions to attack, that no longer existed.
And so the decision was made to use a second atomic weapon, this time on Nagasaki. For the most part, Nagasaki had avoided conventional bombing throughout the war due to its difficulty as a target. But with an atomic weapon accuracy and raid tactics were essentially irrelevant.
On August 9th, 1945, once again, a single B-29, with a single bomb. At 11:01 in the morning a plutonium core weapon detonated about 2,000 feet above Nagasaki (the airburst setting allowing for the blast wave to not be absorbed by the ground). Approximately 80,000 people died.
The devastation is clear to see, before and after:
Hirohito, finally, seeing the inevitable, and perhaps making one of the braver decisions of his life (there was no guarantee that the militarists would not simply assassinate him and fight on) decided to surrender. When he spoke via radio to the Japanese people it was the first time they’d ever heard his voice.
Nagasaki Peace Park began in 1955 and has a museum and hall adjoining it. It’s hard to explain what it was like to visit the place as an American man in my early twenties. Nuclear war on such scale, such horror, is difficult to comprehend when you haven’t seen it or know personally anybody who did.
I don’t really have any conclusions to draw here. I could probably write a super long post on the morals of strategic bombing done by both sides during the war. Or the ethical decision to use atomic weapons to avoid a horrific ground invasion. But others far wiser than I have written legions of books on these topics.
As to the rest of this post, it’s just about the photos I took while there, and a few words from the Japanese themselves.
ground zero or otherwise known as the hypocenter
some of the ruins were left on purpose inside the park
inside the museum
After experiencing that nightmarish war,
that blood-curdling carnage,
that unendurable horror,
Who could walk away without praying for peace?
This statue was created as a signpost in the
struggle for global harmony.
Standing ten meters tall,
it conveys the profundity of knowledge and
the beauty of health and virility.
The right hand points to the atomic bomb,
the left hand points to peace,
and the face prays deeply for the victims of war.
Transcending the barriers of race
and evoking the qualities of Buddha and God,
it is a symbol of the greatest determination
ever known in the history of Nagasaki
and the highest hope of all mankind.
— Seibo Kitamura (Spring 1955)