On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, officially drawing the United States into World War II. Luckily the bombing of Pearl Harbor was not a knockout blow and the US was able to recover relatively quickly. Payback and revenge was on the minds of many Americans when it came time to return the favor in the firebombing of Japan.
Unfortunately for the US the Japanese main islands were largely out of reach upon their entry into the war. Japan’s military might had extended their territory far out into the Pacific and given the limited range of US bombers at the time, Japan’s homeland was relatively safe.
The first bombing of Japan came in 1942 with the daring Doolittle raid. 16 modified bombers launched from the deck of the carrier USS Hornet and went on to strike the city of Tokyo. The bombing itself caused minor damage and casualties, though it raised American morale and struck a psychological blow to the Japanese. All 16 bombers were lost in the raid, which is why a similar raid was not repeated.
As the war in the Pacific progressed, the US strategy of island hopping slowly brought them closer and closer to the main Japanese islands. Soon, the cities of Japan would be in range for a new type of bomber: the B29 Superfortress.
The Firebombing of Japan in World War II
Just when did the US firebombing of Japan begin? The B29 Superfortress became available to the United States for operations in May 1944. With a longer range, higher payload and ability to fly at extremely high altitudes, the strategic bombing of Japanese cities began in earnest.
Early operations were launched from bases in India and China, though raids were greatly expanded upon the capture of the Mariana Islands in November 1944. Early raids utilized high altitude precision strikes to protect American bombers and target military and industrial targets.
These strikes proved largely ineffective and led to a change in US strategy. Major General Curtis LeMay, citing the need to end the war as quickly as possible, authorized the use of incendiary explosives over civilian targets when bombing major Japanese cities.1
At the time Japanese cities were largely made of wood, thus the use of the incendiary bombs proved devastating to infrastructure and industrial output.
In some cases, the bombings destroyed entire cities. Other cities saw over half of their buildings destroyed which displaced entire populations. The loss of life was rampant in these fire bombings attacks. Hundreds of thousands perished from the raids and even more from the aftereffects.
In one of the secondary cities, Toyama, the destruction from bombing completely burned out and destroyed 99.5% of the city.2
On August 6th the US dropped the first atomic bomb in history on the city of Hiroshima. 3 days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The combined devastation and sheer destructive power of the atomic bombs were a primary reason Japan surrendered to the allies less than a month later.
All told roughly 387,000 people, mainly civilians, died as a result of the American bombing of Japan. Scholarly debate remains today regarding the ethical, moral and legal justifications of the bombings. Though Japanese leaders earned war crimes for the killing of civilians in China, no such crimes came the allies for the firebombing of Japanese cities.
Bombing of Hiroshima (~140,000 killed)
On August 6th, 1945 the first atomic bomb ever used was detonated over the city of Hiroshima. The bomb was called “Little Boy” and dropped by a B29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay (after the pilot’s mother).
The bomb had a yield of about 13 kilotons; roughly the equivalent of dropping 13,000 tons of TNT at once. The world had never seen such devastation from one bomb.
In an instant, the bomb vaporized ~80,000-100,000 people and destroyed ~70% of the city. The remaining people died over the coming months as a result of succumbing to their wounds or radiation sickness.
Firebombing of Tokyo (~94,000-100,000 killed)
The city of Tokyo was the capital city of Japan throughout the war. As such, the city was the target of dozens of air raids. None proved as destructive as the bombing on the night of March 9-10th, 1945.
That night the US air force sent hundreds of B29 Superfortresses armed with incendiary explosives in an operation code named Operation Meetinghouse. Nearly 1,700 tons of these bombs were dropped across the city, setting off a firestorm that destroyed nearly 16 square miles of the city – over 250,000 buildings all told.
Between 94,000-100,000 people in Tokyo, Japan died in the firebombing, with another 1,000,000 survivors left homeless and displaced. It was the deadliest air raid in history excluding the dropping of the atomic bombs.3
Bombing of Nagasaki (~74,000 killed)
On August 9th, 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the allies struck the city of Nagasaki. The B29 Superfortress Bockscar carried the second bomb called “Fat Man.” This was the last atomic bomb used in active combat.
The resulting bomb had a yield of about 21 kilotons (or ~21,000 tons of TNT). This meant the second atomic bomb was actually more powerful than the first.
The damage in Nagasaki was extensive, though the city’s terrain helped it to avoid a similar or worse fate than Hiroshima. The surrounding hills allowed most of the damage and death to remain in one part of the city.
Estimates vary greatly as to the number of dead in Nagasaki, but recent estimates place this number close to ~74,000.
Bombing of Osaka (~10,000 killed)
The city of Osaka was the second largest in Japan. It was a pivotal industrial center for the Japanese war effort, which thus made it a target for US air raids.
US bombing of the Japanese city began in March 1945 and would last through the end of the war. The firebombings were less deadly here as the Japanese government learned from the devastation of Tokyo and took active measures to prevent as much destruction in the future.
Of all the raids across the 6 months, the deadliest occurred on the very first night of March 13, 1945. Bombers destroyed over 8 square miles of the city and killed ~4,000 people. All told, throughout all the bombings of the city, a grand total of nearly ~10,000 Japanese died as a result.
Throughout the war the allied aerial firebombing campagin destroyed over 100 cities in Japan. While the 4 above cities counted for a vast majority of the total deaths; historians estimate that over 28 other cities had over 1,000 deaths.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Huston, John W. “The Impact of Strategic Bombing in the Pacific.” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 169–79. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23612873.
2) Spaight, J. M. “Fire Bombing of Cities.” Ordnance, vol. 40, no. 212, 1955, pp. 222–25. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45360706.
3) Ralph, William W. “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan.” War in History, vol. 13, no. 4, 2006, pp. 495–522. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26061697.