Last month, within the context of impending US/UK war crimes in Iraq, I wrote about the 58th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden (Feb. 13-14). This month marks another grim reminder of just how far the US is willing to go: 58 years since General Curtis LeMay, head of the Twenty-first US Bomber Command, brought his brand of hell into the Pacific theater.
Acting upon General George C. Marshall’s 1941 idea of torching the poorer areas of Japan’s cities, on the night of March 9-10, 1945, LeMay’s bombers laid siege on Tokyo. Tightly packed wooden buildings were assaulted by 1,665 tons of incendiaries. LeMay later recalled that a few explosives had been mixed in with the incendiaries to demoralize firefighters (96 fire engines burned to ashes and 88 firemen died).
One Japanese doctor recalled “countless bodies” floating in the Sumida River. These bodies were “as black as charcoal” and indistinguishable as men or women. The total dead for one night was an estimated 85,000, with 40,000 injured and one million left homeless. This was only the first strike in a firebombing campaign that dropped 250 tons of bombs per square mile, destroying 40 percent of the surface area in 66 death-list cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The attack area was 87.4 percent residential.
It is believed that more people died from fire in a six-hour time period than ever before in the history of mankind. At ground zero, the temperature reached 1,800? Fahrenheit. Flames from the ensuing inferno were visible for 200 miles. Due to the intense heat, canals boiled over, metals melted, and human beings burst spontaneously into flames.
By May 1945, 75 percent of the bombs being dropped on Japan were incendiaries. Cheered on by the likes of Time magazine-who explained that “properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves”-LeMay’s campaign took an estimated 672,000 lives.
Radio Tokyo, on the other hand, termed LeMay’s tactics “slaughter bombing” and the Japanese press declared that through the fire raids, “America has revealed her barbaric character… It was an attempt at mass murder of women and children… The action of the Americans is all the more despicable because of the noisy pretensions they constantly make about their humanity and idealism… No one expects war to be anything but a brutal business, but it remains for the Americans to make it systematically and unnecessarily a wholesale horror for innocent victims.”
Rather than denying this, a spokesman for the Fifth Air Force categorized “the entire population of Japan [as] a proper military target.” Colonel Harry F. Cunningham explained the US policy in no uncertain terms: “We military men do not pull punches or put on Sunday School picnics. We are making War and making it in the all-out fashion which saves American lives, shortens the agony which War is and seeks to bring about an enduring Peace. We intend to seek out and destroy the enemy wherever he or she is, in the greatest possible numbers, in the shortest possible time. For us, THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.”
On the morning of August 6, 1945, before the Hiroshima story broke, a page-one headline in the Atlanta Constitution read: 580 B-29s RAIN FIRE ON 4 MORE DEATH-LIST CITIES. Ironically, the success of LeMay’s firebombing raids had effectively eliminated Tokyo from the list of possible A-bomb targets. There was nothing left to bomb.
LeMay’s was later US Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965 when he immortalized himself by declaring his desire to “bomb [the North Vietnamese] back into the Stone Age.” LeMay also served as vice presidential candidate on George Wallace’s 1968 ticket.
When asked about his role in the Tokyo firebombing, he remarked: “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”
MICKEY Z. is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” on which this article is based. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.