The U.S. bombing of Tokyo during World War II took place between 1942 and 1945.
The first raid on Tokyo was the Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942 when sixteen B-25 Mitchells were launched from the USS Hornet (CV-8) to attack targets including Yokohama and Tokyo and then fly on to airfields in China. The raids were military pin-pricks but a significant propaganda victory. Launched prematurely, none of the attacking aircraft reached the designated airfields, either crashing or ditching (except for one aircraft which landed in the Soviet Union, where the crew was interned). Two crews were captured by the Japanese.
The key development for the bombing of Japan was the B-29, which had an operational range of 1500 miles (2,400 km); almost 90% of the bombs dropped on the home islands of Japan were delivered by this type of bomber (147,000 tons). The first raid by B-29s on Japan from China was on June 15, 1944. The planes took off from Chengdu, over 1500 miles away. This first raid was also not particularly damaging to Japan. Only forty-seven of the sixty-eight B–29s airborne hit the target area; four aborted with mechanical problems, four crashed, six jettisoned their bombs because of mechanical difficulties, and others bombed secondary targets or targets of opportunity. Only one B–29 was lost to enemy aircraft. The first raid from the east was on November 24, 1944 when 88 aircraft bombed Tokyo. The bombs were dropped from around 30,000 feet (10,000 m) and it is estimated that only around 10% of the bombs hit designated targets.
The initial raids were carried out by the Twentieth Air Force operating out of mainland China in Operation Matterhorn under XX Bomber Command. Initally the Twentieth Air Force was under the command of Hap Arnold, and later Curtis LeMay. This was never a satisfactory arrangement because not only were the Chinese airbases difficult to supply via the Hump from India, but the B-29s operating from them could only reach Japan if they substituted some of the bomb load for extra fuel tanks in the bomb-bays. When Admiral Chester Nimitz's island-hopping campaign captured islands close enough to Japan to be within the range of B-29s, the Twentieth Air Force was assigned to XXI Bomber Command which organized a much more effective bombing campaign of the Japanese home islands. Based in the Marianas (Guam and Tinian in particular) the B-29s were now able to carry their full bomb loads.
Unlike all other forces in theater, the Bomber Commands did not report to the commanders of the theaters but directly the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In March 1945 they were placed under the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific which was commanded by General Carl Spaatz.
As in Europe, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) tried daylight precision bombing. However, it proved to be impossible due to the weather around Japan, as bombs dropped from a great height were tossed about by high winds. General LeMay, commander of XXI Bomber Command, instead switched to mass firebombing night attacks from altitudes of around 7,000 feet (2,100 m) on the major conurbations of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. Despite limited early success, LeMay was determined to use such bombing tactics against the vulnerable Japanese cities. Attacks on strategic targets also continued in lower-level daylight raids.
Aftermath of the firebombing
The first fire bomb raid was on Kobe on February 3, 1945, and following its relative success the USAAF continued the tactic. Much of the armor and defensive weaponry of the bombers was also removed to allow increased bomb loads; Japanese air defense in terms of night-fighters and anti-aircraft guns was so feeble it was hardly a risk. The first such raid on Tokyo was on the night of February 23–24 when 174 B-29s destroyed around one square mile (3 km²) of the city. Following on that success 334 B-29s raided on the night of March 9–10, dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. Around 16 square miles (41 km²) of the city was destroyed and over 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the fire storm. It was the most destructive conventional raid of the war against Japan. In the following two weeks there were almost 1,600 further sorties against the four cities, destroying 31 square miles (80 km²) in total at a cost of only 22 aircraft. There was a third raid on Tokyo on May 26.
The fire bomb raids were not the only raids on Tokyo; there were more regular raids using conventional high explosives. With the capture of Okinawa, the Eighth Air Force was transferred there from Europe and began its own raids. Monthly tonnage dropped on Japan had increased from 13,800 tons in March to 42,700 tons in July, and was planned to have continued to increase to around 115,000 tons per month.
The firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities is considered a war crime by some. Unlike unrestricted submarine warfare, as no Axis personnel were tried at the post-war war crime trials for participating in the decisions on, or execution of, assault by aerial bombardment on defended enemy territory, no international legal precedent is available to support such a consideration. Unlike the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were intended to knock Japan out of war immediately, fire-bombing, which killed more civilians in total, was carried out as a long-term strategy to destroy Japan's ability to produce war materials as well as undermine the Japanese Government's will to continue the war. In the context of total war, the large number of Japanese civilians killed by strategic bombing was seen as acceptable by the American administration. When reflecting on the campaign after the war, some expressed doubts about the morality of the firebombing. Curtis LeMay, later said: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal." He felt, however, that his bombings were saving lives by encouraging Japan to surrender earlier. Former Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe's statement that "the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing" lends support to this view.
Tokyo was not considered as a target for a nuclear attack, although Tokyo Bay was apparently examined as a target for a non-lethal demonstration.