March marks anniversary of Tokyo mission
by Robert F. Dorr
As we approach the night of March 9-10, my thoughts are on a World War II event that tested American airmen to the limit and may have altered the outcome of the Pacific conflict.
It was the most destructive event of the war yet it's not remembered today by many of my neighbors in Oakton or by large numbers of Americans. It's the topic of my new book "Mission to Tokyo," which has been well received by reviewers on the national scene and by local civic and community groups. One reviewer called my book "'Band of Brothers' with planes."
On the night of March 9-10, 1945, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay's XXI Bomber Command launched 334 B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers from bases in the Marianas islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian for an all-out nocturnal attack on the Japanese capital. With a large number of planes navigating entirely over-water over vast distances, the mission was a test of flying skills and airmanship. It also meant confronting Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters.
The planners saw themselves striking at a home-based cottage industry of war-making materiel pouring from homes and small factories. Critics say the United States was attacking a city and its people. The B-29s arrived over Tokyo in early morning hours of darkness carrying incendiary ordnance — firebombs — and striking from altitudes as low as 5,500 feet. It was a dramatic departure from the previous U.S. policy of high-altitude, daylight bombing of military and industrial targets.
The mission was intended as one of many that would set the stage for the amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands, with the first landings to take place near Kagoshima, Kyushu, in November 1945 and the largest invasion in history to occur on the Kanto Plain at Tokyo Bay in March 1946. The allied plan for the invasion was called Operation Olympic Coronet. In an extraordinary logistics effort, the allies moved more than a million men from Europe to the Pacific in preparation to invade Japan.
"We were all afraid LeMay was going to get us killed," said my Oakton neighbor George Wale (1920-1998) in an interview more than two decades ago. "Going in at low level would make us inviting targets for the anti-aircraft guns that formed a ring around Tokyo." Wale was a flight engineer on a B-29.
It didn't happen that way. When the B-29s arrived over Tokyo beginning at about 1:00 a.m., they ignited the hottest fires ever to burn on the earth, razed 16 square miles of the city, and killed an estimated 120,000 —more damage than both subsequent atomic bombs put together. In "Mission to Tokyo," I wrote about the men in the air and the people on the ground, including a 13-year-old Japanese girl who survived the burning of her city: her name is Yoko Ono.
Fourteen B-29s were lost on the mission — painful for the families of the 11-man crews but considered a surprisingly low casualty count.
We know today that the invasion of Japan never took place. Because of the Tokyo mission and the B-29 campaign that followed, Japan was defeated from the air without allied troops ever placing their boots on its soil. Some historians say the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki three days later prompted the Japanese surrender. My view is that the B-29 aerial campaign made the surrender happen. It might have happened with or without the atomic bombings. Ending the war without an invasion may have saved more than a million lives on both sides.
My book is about the experiences of American airmen, not the political or moral questions behind the bombing. My telling of these events is intended for general audiences.
I'm scheduled to give a talk about "Mission to Tokyo" at George Mason Regional Library (7001 Little River Turnpike in Annandale, (703) 256-3800) at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 11. This presentation will be intended for audiences of all ages and everyone is invited.
I would like to hear from anyone with an interest in this topic. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 264-8950.