It was chaos on Kototoi Bridge.
B-29s were buzzing above as fire fell from the sky. Kikujima Koji, 13, was holding the hand of his 8-year-old sister, Harue, his parents standing paralyzed as panicked residents crossed the bridge from both directions trying to escape the fires all around them. Koji decided he needed to act, and continued to cross the Sumida River to Mukojima.
That was the last time Koji saw his parents as he dragged his sister over other people to cross the bridge. It was past midnight on Saturday, March 10, 1945, and the temperature before the American bombers appeared was icy cold. But when the hundreds of B-29 Superfortress bombers began their two-and-a-half hour campaign on the Eastern part of Tokyo between the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, the air was searingly hot, as Koji relayed to the writer, Saotome Katsumoto in his book “The Great Tokyo Air Raid (東京大空襲―昭和20年3月10日の記録).”
In the intense heat, my clothes quickly became bone dry and my eyes were burning. Drenching ourselves again and again with water from the roadside and crouching low, we crawled forward until we reached Kinshi Park. We made our way to a water storage tank in the park.
I soaked my gloves in the water and used them to beat off the sparks on our clothes. Brushing off the sparks, warding off smoke, and covering our hands and mouth with the wet gloves, we somehow made it through to the morning. Many of the trees around us were burned, but Harue and I had survived. We looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. My school coat was full of holes made by the sparks, my trousers were in shreds, and Harue’s feet were bare.
Kinshi Park in Kinshicho
As night turned to early morning, Koji and Harue saw charred bodies everywhere, “naked mannequins painted with black ink.” Over the next few days, bodies from all over the neighborhood were carted to Kinshi Park, where over 13,000 bodies were buried in mass graves (until they were moved to more formal burial plots later that year). In fact, parks all over that part of Tokyo were suddenly requisitioned for the immediate burial of the dead.
I know Kinshi Park. When I joined an insurance company in 2016, my office was on the 20th floor of Olinas Tower, which is situated across the street from Kinshi Park. I’ve taken many pictures of cherry blossoms there. Families descend on Kinshi Park on the weekends. On any given day, Kinshi Park is a celebration of family and friends.
I never suspected its past was cloaked in unspeakable tragedy.
In fact, Kinshicho was at the center of what is commonly called the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. It is estimated that about 100,000 people died that day in Tokyo.
In 1945, Olinas Tower and the Olinas Mall next to it did not exist. At that time, the watchmaker Seiko had a factory, a solid three-story cement structure that stretched the length of Kinshi Park across the street. This factory was built after the one before it was felled by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and was torn down in 1997.
In 1945, Seiko was making munition parts, and because of its prominent size, may have been a target of the B-29 bombers. But that entire area, today lovingly called “shita-machi,” (a nostalgic way of calling the area “downtown”), was filled with small family-run shops that were making parts for the larger manufacturers feeding the war effort.
Trying to discriminate between civilian areas and war industry in the midst of downtown Tokyo was a challenge from 20,000 feet in the sky. So Major General Curtis LeMay asked the simple question – why try?
LeMay and the Perfect Storm
In the summer of 1944, the United States Navy won critical battles against the Japanese Navy to control three islands in the Marianas: Saipan, Tinian and Guam. The strategic importance of these islands was huge as they immediately put Japan in range of a new American bomber. The B-29 Super Fortress could fly for about 3,500 miles, which was just right since the Marianas were about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. A B-29 could carry 4 tons of bombs to Tokyo and still have enough fuel to make the return back.
In late 1944, after the American military very quickly built massive air bases and runways on the three islands, the B-29s started to make sorties to knock out factories and disrupt Japan’s war production. But as Malcolm Gladwell explains in this fascinating podcast about napalm, LeMay and the firebomb attacks on Tokyo, the initial attempts to knock out Japan’s war production failed.
The philosophy at that time was to use precision bombing to blow up military targets and Major General Haywood Hansell stuck to that philosophy. In order to hit a military target, you had to see it. That meant his bombers flew during the day time. But to avoid Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft artillery, that also meant flying high in the sky, at least 20,000 feet in the air.
At the end of 1944, a major target was Nakajima Aircraft, which built fighter planes (but today builds Subaru cars). But no matter how hard the pilots tried, they did little damage to the factory in Western Tokyo.
When LeMay replaced Hansell, the philosophy was flipped. We’re simply too high up in the sky for precision bombing, reasoned LeMay. And the goal is to win the war, which can be accelerated by increasing the level of intimidation through indiscriminate bombing. LeMay decided to fly lower, around 7,000 feet. But since that was within range of anti-military craft and fighter planes, he decided also to fly at night.
He targeted the eastern part of Tokyo – shitamachi – as it was the most densely populated area speckled with small to medium size manufactures. And he decided to drop incendiary bombs, the napalm bomb, freshly developed in the research halls of Harvard University, to maximize its destructive impact. Tokyo homes and buildings were composed primarily of wood. And because March was known as the windiest month in Japan, the expectations were that the wind would spread the fires ignited by the napalm bombs and thus widen the destruction beyond the drop areas.
If ever a plan came to fruition, it was on March 10, 1945. Two hundred and seventy nine B-29s dropped 609,000 pounds of incendiary bombs, burning to the ground fifteen square miles of Tokyo. As historian Edward E Gordon explained in his talk entitled “Fireball in the Night: The Bombing of Japan, 1944-45,”
The Red Wind (as it was called in Japanese) drove temperatures upwards of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a super-heated vapor that advanced ahead of the flames, and killed or incapacitated the victims. The mechanisms of death were multiple and simultaneous: oxygen deprivation, carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat, direct flames and debris, and trampling crowds.
Saotome Katsumoto wrote these words as an adult, remembering the feelings of helplessness he had as a 12-year-old boy.
In every direction – east, west, south and north – the dark sky was scorched with crimson flames. The steady roar of the B-29s’ engines overhead was punctuated by piercing screeches followed by cascading sounds like sudden showers. With each explosion, a flash of light darted behind my eyelids. The ground shook. Flames appeared one after another. As our neighbors looked outside their air raid shelters defiantly holding their bamboo fire brooms, they cursed when they saw how fiercely the fires were burning. They were helpless against the raging flames. Fire trucks, sirens wailing, were already speeding toward the fires, but what could they do in this gusting wind and intensive bombardment? Even in the eyes of a child, the situation seemed hopeless.
Saotome Katsumoto and The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage
It was June 13,1967 and Katsumoto read an article in the Mainichi Shimbun that brought back a flood of memories of that horrible morning of March 10, 1945. In the midst of repair work to tracks of the subway station Monzen-nakacho, construction workers uncovered the grisly remains of an air raid shelter 15 meters below the surface. The workers found the huddled remains of four adults and two children, evidence of burn marks on the bones.
A man named Tszuzuki Shizuo identified the deceased as his wife, daughter, mother in law, her two other daughters and a grandchild. An established author who had already penned 7 books, Katsumoto felt compelled to interview Tsuzuki, who declined. Undeterred, Katsumoto went on to interview victims of the Tokyo firebombings and publish in 1971 the book, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid.” In the introduction, he wrote:
I was turned away at the door many times, and not one of those who agreed to be interviewed was calm or composed. As if on cue, they all broke down during their accounts and, sitting there with my pen in hand, I was unable to look up at them. The scars are still deep. These wounds will never heal as long as they live. For them the “postwar” period will never end.
Katsumoto understood that despite the pain of remembrances past, revisiting this time and place was critical to our future. “However painful it might be, confronting people’s actual experience of war will surely help to build a firm foothold for peace.”
On March 9, 2002, The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage opened, its location in Koto-ku very much a part of flattened, rubble-strewn aftermath of March 10, 1945, its appointed director, Mr Saotome Katsumoto, a keeper of memories.
Take a walk along the Yokojikken River from Sumiyoshi Station and visit The Center.
Other Relevant Articles I’ve Written
- Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 1: The Aftermath of the Bombing Raids on Japan at War’s End
- Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 2: “Kyodatsu” and the Desperate Times of Post-War Japan
- Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 3: Grave of the Fireflies
- Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 4: Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur’s Office – The Dai-Ichi Insurance Building
- Japan Rising from the Ashes Part 5: The Ernie Pyle Theater aka The Old Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho