Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 1: The Aftermath of the Bombing Raids on Japan at War’s End

 

Tokyo firebombed 1945
Aerial view of Tokyo September 10, 1945

 

On October 10, 1964, Japan welcomed the world to Tokyo, a bustling, clean and modern city.

But only 19 years before, when the Pacific War ended on August 15, 1945, Tokyo was a flattened devastated city. The war had taken its toll on the Japanese.

An estimated 3 million Japanese died during the war in both Japan and he war zones of Asia, including upwards of 800,000 civilians. And while the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific moments at war’s end, much of the devastation in Japan was due to continuous air raids by American bombers. After the American Navy’s victories over Japan’s Imperial Navy in the Mariana and Palau Islands, the American military built airfields on Saipan and Tinian. These islands were some 2,400 kilometers away from Japan, close enough for B-29 bombers to make routine sorties over Japan and return without refueling.

And from November, 1944, the bombing raids over Japan was relentless. And the destruction immense.

  • 66: major cities heavily bombed
  • 40: percentage of all urban areas in Japan destroyed by bombing
  • 100,000: civilian deaths in Tokyo alone

In the powerful documentary, The Fog of War, director Errol Morris interviews Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense for American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. During World War II, he was also a captain in the US Army Air Force whose job was to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of American bombers. Intimately familiar with the incendiary bombing raids on Japan during World War II, commanded by General Curtis LeMay, McNamara describes the results of American bombers in Japan with hard cold facts.

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city so when we dropped these firebombs they just burned it.

In order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand – burning to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none? And then have our soldiers cross the beaches of Tokyo and be slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you are proposing?

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama – Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland – so 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya.

According to McNamara’s rational mind, this was overkill. And yet, in the end, the desire for the American government to end the war as quickly as possible was the overriding objective.

This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way, was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline of war. Killing 50-90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities, and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs, is not proportional in the minds of some people.”

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bombs. The US-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide – unbelievable. What one could criticize is that the human race prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are the rules of war. Was there a rule that you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night?

McNamara grappled a bit with the moral dilemma of the bombings of Japan. And perhaps McNamara maintained a lingering sense of guilt over the destruction in Japan.

LeMay said if we lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. What makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?