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What was the Tokyo Firebombing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2014
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The firebombing of Tokyo was an American bombing raid on the Japanese city of Tokyo which occurred on the night of 9 March, 1945. Over the course of the bombing raid, American planes dropped an estimated 2,000 tons of explosives on the city, creating a massive firestorm which killed countless numbers of civilians. Estimates for the death toll in the firebombing of Tokyo range from 70,000 to almost 200,000, with most historians settling for around 130,000.

This event in Japanese history is often overshadowed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which occurred just a few months later. Unlike these events, the Tokyo firebombing is not widely discussed, even in Japan, although it was a major event in the Second World War. The Tokyo firebombing marked one of the first incidents in which civilians were the victims of a mass-bombing which deliberately and viciously targeted an entire city, following hard on the heels of the devastating firebombing of Dresden in February 1945.

American commanders justified the Tokyo firebombing by claiming that they had to destroy light industry in the city to strike at the Japanese war machine, and this may well have been the case. However, they must have realized that in the process of bombing suspected factories, they would probably spread fire throughout the closely packed wood-frame neighborhoods of Tokyo, potentially killing large numbers of civilians.

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The planes used in the firebombing of Tokyo were B-29 bombers, stripped of all extra material so that they could carry an extra-large payload and travel especially quickly. Tokyo had already been bombed numerous times over the course of the war, and many survivors of the Tokyo firebombing described the minimal reaction to the air raid sirens on the night of 9 March. Citizens were tired of the war, and many failed to seek shelter when alerted to the danger. By the time they realized the severity of the situation, it was too late.

Incendiary bombs like those used in the Tokyo firebombing spread fire very quickly, and in a city built almost entirely of wooden structures, the fire quickly became extremely hot, causing spontaneous combustion in areas which hadn't been bombed. Metal electrical poles glowed red and melted from the heat, according to survivors, and the rivers of the city quickly became choked with bodies and debris as civilians tried to escape.

When the fires finished burning, roughly 25% of the city had been destroyed. Over the course of the month of April, numerous other bombing raids targeted specific factories in the city, with the last bombing raid over Tokyo occurring on 10 August, 1945: four days after the bombing of Hiroshima, and less than a week before the Japanese surrender.

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