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I hope none of you will mind that I've taken the liberty of posting
the appended article about the USAF's firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. It
appeared on the front page of the review section of last weekend's Financial
Times. It would be better for your peace of mind that you do not read it,
but this is a story that we need to know about, this is a story that must
This article made me weep with sadness and rage. It is much more than an incredibly moving story, however. The barbaric attack on the civilian population of Japan "cast the mould of postwar American air power as a weapon of strategic devastation", as the article says. It is therefore highly relevant to the current Iraq crisis. It gives us a glimpse of the real face of imperialist democracy, usually hidden behind a smiling mask; it show us what our enemy is capable of and what we must learn how to destroy.
One weakness in the article is its suggestion that the US rulers decided to target the civilian population because of technical problems with the B-29 bombers. There were much more important factors than this, factors which were also behind the merciless, genocidal civilian bombing campaign carried out against the working class districts of German cities by the UK's own Bomber Command. I have gathered some evidence and insights on this question of questions into an article entitled "The Straight Line Connecting Iraq and World War Two", which I will send anyone on request.
Best Wishes to You All
Financial Times March 4-5 2000
Lead article of review section
In a harrowing account, Paul Abrahams explains how the American fire-bombing of a Tokyo district marked a change in US policy towards civilians - and paved the way for use of the atom bomb.
The night more than half her family died, Kazuyo Funato was woken by
her mother’s screams. As the startled 12-year-old ran down the stairs
of her wooden home, her mother was bundling her baby brother, Takahise,
Japanese-style, on to her back. Outside she could hear the shouting
of neighbours and the drone of aircraft. The earth and sky were shaking.
The working-class district where she lived next to the Sumida River in eastern Tokyo was ablaze. For two hours, on the night of March 9 1945, an unprecedented force of more than 334 B-29 bombers rained napalm, phosphorus and oil on the most densely populated and inflammable districts of Japan’s capital, which also contained many small workshops supplying the military machine
For those watching outside the target area, the raid had a theatrical quality. Japanese accounts describe the bombers as “translucent, unreal, light as fantastic glass dragonflies”. The bombs were visible, too, as they descended slowly like a “cascade of silvery water”
Those cascades of M-47 napalm bombs wreaked unprecedented damage. Nearly 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed and 267,171 buildings damaged. The official history of the US Army Air Forces (AAF) concluded with pride: “The physical destruction and loss of life at Tokyo exceeded that of Rome [in Nero’s time], and that of any great conflagration of the western world.”
The statistics of human destruction were equally numbing. At least 84,000 people, and possibly more than 100,000, died in the great Tokyo air raid. The historian Michael Sherry concluded: “By some reckonings [this was] the highest toll of any air raid, conventional or atomic, during the war or for that matter any single manmade catastrophe.”
Yet, in most accounts, the bombing of Tokyo is but a footnote, ignored as much by the Japanese who endured it as the Americans who inflicted it. Only in May will the Tokyo metropolitan government at last compile a definitive list of the names of those who died that night.
Kazuyo, now in her 60s, sits upright and formal in the living room of her perfectly ordered Tokyo home. A small woman even by Japanese standards, she wears sombre clothes and dark glasses even though there is little natural light in the room. She knows that the pain of bearing testimony again will bring tears.
She explains how, as the raid began, the family initially gathered in the trench behind her parents’ home. Her father, a pharmacist, grabbed his iron helmet and rucksack of medical supplies, and, as instructed by the civil defence code, rushed to put out the flames. Minoru, her eldest brother, went to their grandmother’s home to fetch her and their three-year-old sister Teruko, but they had already fled. They were never seen again, their bodies never found.
Around midnight, about two hours after the raid began, the fire began to close in on their home, turning the sky red. First, they fled to a nearby school - the local evacuation point. But the fire followed them.
At that moment, Kazuyo’s father arrived with the two brothers. Flight was the only option. All around the family were falling cinders, described by survivors as “flaming dew”, which threatened to set them ablaze. Equally dangerous was the wind. There were already strong gusts from an unusually brisk northerly breeze that fanned the flames, but the inferno was also sucking in oxygen, creating huge drafts.
“The wind was throwing shop signs and door frames through the air. That was terrifying enough,” explains Kazuyo. “But suddenly the wind took my mother. She was scooped up and started rolling away. I remember her hair blowing in the wind. My baby brother, Takahise, was on her back - I think he was crying.”
Kazuyo’s father reached out desperately for his wife, but he, too, was whisked away into the smoke, together with Yoshiaki, a brother who was holding on to his belt. Kazuyo was left with her six-‘year-old sister Hiroko, and brothers Minoru and Koichi.
Across the street, Kazuyo’s brothers spotted a small trench which might have offered some shelter but just after they clambered in, Minoru’s back burst into flames. He jumped up and was immediately swept away. Koichi stood up to go after him and was taken by the winds, too.
Kazuyo was now alone at the bottom of the trench with her little sister Hiroko. As they had crossed the street, Hiroko’s purple stuffed cotton hat caught fire and her hands and head were badly burnt. “Hiroko kept saying how hot she was, and how her hands hurt and she wanted water,” explains Kazuyo. “The air was cooking. Only the soil seemed cool. I began digging with my hands like a dog.” Fatefully, Hiroko copied her.
As they lay in the trench, the area around the Sumida River was being scorched, boiled and baked. Many of those expecting to find safety in open spaces were killed or knocked unconscious by the superheated vapours running ahead of the flames. Others were sucked into the flames by the winds or found the intensity of the inferno spontaneously set their clothes on fire, turning them into human torches.
Those who tried to flee found their path blocked by flying debris and thickets of fallen poles and live electric wires. The natural Instinct to head for water betrayed others. In fact, the waterways crisscrossing the district created fatal fire-traps. The bridges were blocked by other refugees or were already ablaze. Even jumping into the canals provided no sanctuary: keeping your head above water meant breathing noxious fumes.
This mass slaughter was the result of an air strategy devised by Major General Curtis Le May.
In the spring of 1945, the US AAF in the Pacific was in trouble. The B-29 “superfortress” bomber was proving an expensive mistake. The fuel system had persistent faults, with the result that many of the aircraft were being forced to ditch in the ocean. At that time only 20 percent o f the bombers’ losses were caused by Japanese action. The crews feared the aircraft more than the enemy. Worse, when the B-29s did reach Japan, they proved inaccurate. It took eight raids to inflict meaningful damage on the Nakajima aircraft factory on the western outskirts of Tokyo.
In January 1945, Le May was brought in to demonstrate the value of the B-29. At 37, he was a master of Improvisation. He decided to fly at night and attack low, below the range of anti-aircraft guns. So that more munitions could be carried be daringly left off defensive ammunition and crews. And for the raid he mustered the largest bomber force yet assembled in the Pacific.
The targets were to be residential areas – the region around the Sumida River, the city’s most densely populated district, with 103,000 people per square mile. Until then, the Americans had condemned bombing of civilian targets, such as that practised by the British over Germany. The Tokyo raid represented for the AAF the final breakdown of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant.
Official reports justifying this morally dubious shift are filled with business jargon and euphemism. One read: “Dehousing industrial workers causes a greater loss of man hours per ton of bombs dropped than can be accomplished by any other method.”
And for the new target, Le May chose new weapons incendiary bombs. Each aircraft carried six tons of munitions, primarily the recently developed napalm, as well as oil and phosphorus. Nearly 2,000 tons would be dropped over 12 square miles of Tokyo.
The effects had been predicted. In 1943, mock-ups of wooden Japanese houses had been built at Eglin Airforce Base in Florida to measure the effect of an incendiary raid.
But the results were even greater than the Americans could have hoped. Tokyo was defenceless. Anti-aircraft batteries did not work against low-flying targets and the imperial air forces had only two units of effective night fighters. American losses were just 4 per cent, far lower than normal.
The only defence against Le May’s tactics was Tokyo’s civil defence plan. It was found wanting. Internal wrangling had prevented the implementation of effective precautions. The Japanese appeared complacent. In 1943, the most notable development was the decision to kill the lions at Ueno Zoo in case they escaped after a raid. Only 18 of the planned 5,000 concrete shelters had been completed.
The men In the B-29B were soon aware of the devastation they had wrought. Inside their aircraft they could smell the soot and burning flesh. Many struggled to avoid choking and vomiting.
But even now the full scale of the carnage remains unclear. Hiroshi Hoshino is trying to set the record straight. He sits in a cold cramped office on the top floor of a rickety two-storey wooden building. On the walls are maps of Tokyo, covered with red splotches indicating where the city was destroyed. In the corner is a computer compiling a list of those killed?
“We’ve been pressing the municipal government to record the names of those who died,” explains Hoshino, secretary-general of the campaigning body. “At first they had just 3,930 - people whose bodies were identified but never claimed. But finally, last year they began a poster campaign asking people to come forward. By December, our group had found more than 7,300, and in all we have 45,000. The problem is that many families were obliterated, so there’s nobody to come forward.”
The reluctance of the Tokyo municipal government is typical of Japan’s primary reflex to the second world war - to indulge in collective amnesia.
There has never been an appropriate time for the Japanese authorities to commemorate the raid, argues Seiichi Imai, professor emeritus at Yokohama City University. “At the time of the war the government denied the truth because it was afraid of the effect on morale. During the American occupation, nothing could be said. And then with the cold war, the Americans were suddenly allies,” he says.
That alliance with the Americans led to one of the greatest ironies of the 20th century. Le May, who had devised the raids, later helped Japan rebuild its air force. In 1964, the then emperor awarded him the kyokujitsu daijusho - “cord of the rising sun” - a great honour.
The west has also mostly forgotten the Tokyo raid. It attracted big headlines the following day but was overshadowed by the death throes of Germany and then by the technological novelty and symbolism of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Besides, as historian John Dower has pointed out, the American public had little concern about killing Japanese civilians.
In fact, Le May let loose his force on 63 other conurbations. The casualties were far lower - 80.000 were killed in total - partly because the Americans dropped warning leaflets and partly because civilians now knew they needed to run rather than fight the flames. But the campaign cleared the moral ground for the atomic bombs of that August. They were merely the culmination of be May’s strategy.
For Le May, personally, the campaigns were a huge success. As Sherry argues in The Rise of American Air Power: “Le May’s decision reversed the fortunes of the faltering air force... and cast the mould of postwar American air power as a weapon of strategic devastation.”
It was people like Kazuyo who paid the price for Le May’s triumph. After emerging from the trench just before dawn, she and her sister Hiroko struggled to find their home. They only located the site because of a stone water trough outside. There was a dead body in it.
Gradually, what was left of her family emerged. Her father and other brother Yoshiaki had survived in a small water-filled hole. Her brother Koichi had sheltered in a truck. Minoru was never found. As for her mother, Yoshiaki spotted her sitting near the house.
“At first we didn’t recognise her,” said Kazuyo. “She was wrapped in a blanket. Almost all her clothes were burnt, and so too were her hands. I went running over. Then I noticed she didn’t have the baby. One of the few places she wasn’t burnt was on her back where the baby should have been. None of us dared ask what had happened, whether she had left him or dropped him. My mother lived until she was 90. She never did tell me.”
The family’s ordeal was not yet over. A few days after the raid, Hiroko was found to have contracted tetanus. “One night, I heard relatives saying didn’t you contract tetanus from soil? I realised then that by encouraging Hiroko to put her hands into cool ground while in that trench, I might have killed her.”
The six-year-old died 10 days after the raid. She died alone. Her father had been away begging the army for drugs. “She knew she was dying. Maybe it would have been better if she had died straight away because she was in such pain. I remember the tears on her cheeks,” said Kazuyo. “As long as I live I will regret what happened.”
Until she died, Kazuyo’s mother would visit the family grave. Kazuyo says she had the habit of pouring water on her children’s graves. As she did, she would repeat the same refrain: “Teruko darling, you must have been so hot. Hiroko darling, you must have been so hot.” And then she would pour on more of the cool water.