1945 Tokyo firebombing left legacy of terror, pain

TOKYO — For decades, Teruo Kanoh never revealed the terror locked in his heart the night in 1945 when American bombs turned Tokyo into a raging fireball. Then, three years ago, he slowly began releasing his demons in oil and watercolor.

In his vivid, unsparing paintings, U.S. warplanes shower the sky with rivulets of fire, and thousands of corpses — many of them women and children — clot Tokyo's main river. In one piece, flaming victims plummet in agony from a burning bridge.

The paintings are a gripping testament to the destruction as Japan prepares to mark the 60th anniversary this week of the March 9-10, 1945, air raid that killed an estimated 100,000 people in a single night of fire.

"Civilians are defenseless, and this is what it is like when they are killed," said Kanoh, who was 14 at the time and lost both parents and two younger sisters. "I want young people who haven't known war to think about this."

The Tokyo firebombing has long been overshadowed by the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which preceded the Japanese surrender that ended World War II the following August. But the burning of the capital, which resulted in more immediate deaths than either of the nuclear bombings, stands as a horrifying landmark in the history of warfare on noncombatants.

More than 300 B-29 "Superfortress" bombers dropped nearly a half-million M-69 incendiary cylinders over Tokyo that night and early morning, destroying some 16 square miles of the city.

The attack, coming a month after a similar raid on Dresden, Germany, brought the mass incineration of civilians to a new level in a conflict already characterized by unprecedented bloodshed.

The official death toll was some 83,000, but historians generally agree that victims unaccounted for bring the figure to around 100,000 — overwhelmingly civilians. It is widely considered to be the most devastating air raid in history.

While critics in Japan and elsewhere decry such attacks as war crimes, others say the Tokyo assault took place against a backdrop of the increasing brutality of total war fueled by the militarism of the Axis powers.

The German air attack on Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese bombing of Chungking, China, (now known as Chongqing) in the 1930s are cited as early examples of indiscriminate urban air raids — a trend that greatly expanded in World War II.

"At this stage, everybody had been burning down cities," said Thomas Searle, a historian at the Airpower Research Institute, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. "The Americans certainly weren't out of step in that sense."

The Tokyo attack was aimed in part at demolishing Japanese morale and hastening a surrender. Planners also wanted to wipe out small factories and drive away their employees as a way of choking the economy.

The American decision to go after civilians emerged from the failure of precision bombings against traditional military targets, and accompanied significant advances in technology and bombing tactics. The B-29, for instance, gave the United States greater range and firepower, while innovations such as low-altitude nighttime attacks multiplied the potential for terror and destruction.

That terror was apocalyptic.

The M-69s, which released 100-foot streams of fire upon detonating, sent flames rampaging through densely packed wooden homes. Superheated air created a wind that sucked victims into the flames and fed the twisting infernos. Asphalt boiled in the 1,800-degree heat. With much of the fighting-age male population at the war front, women, children and the elderly struggled in vain to battle the flames or flee.

Survivors say Japan has been slow to come to terms with the bombing's place in history, in part because of the reticence of survivors.

A small museum devoted to the attack, the Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages, opened near the center of the disaster zone in 2002, and has been renovated for the 60th anniversary.

The museum has expanded its timeline display to include Tokyo's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and examples of Japanese pro-war propaganda to show Japan's role in starting the fighting, said Haruyo Nihei, a 68-year-old survivor and museum researcher.

Like other survivors, Nihei, who escaped the fire with her family intact, said the bombing showed that war is never justifiable.

"Those images in my mind ... can never be erased," she said. "I can see myself there, the flames all around me. And I'm running for my life."

Tokyo firebombing

This week marks the 60th anniversary of a March 9-10, 1945, air raid that killed an estimated 100,000 people in Tokyo.

More than 300 B-29 "Superfortress" bombers dropped nearly a half-million M-69 incendiary cylinders, devastating some 16 square miles of the city.