Ben Hills reports

The charred figures in the photo montage are piled in the street, barely recognisable as human beings. All around, for mile after mile, smoke rises from the fields of ash that were once one of the world’s most populous and prosperous cities.

On the soundtrack, the engines of the B-29 Superfortresses, then the mightiest instrument of warfare ever built, bellow their curse of destruction over the almost-undefended Japanese capital, whose population huddles for shelter in dugouts, in temples and in the icy rivers.

“It is very realistic perhaps too realistic,” says Mrs Motoko Ohwada, a survivor of the apocalypse that destroyed one-third of Tokyo in a single night, killing more than 100,000 people, and leaving another million homeless. Mrs Ohwada is one of 2000 or so visitors a day to a new exhibition of film, facts and artefacts at the Tokyo Government’s Edo-Tokyo museum, mounted to mark the 50th anniversary of the nightmarish night that older Tokyo residents call “iki jigoku” hell on earth.

No one will ever know the true number of people “scorched, boiled and baked to death” that night the phrase the commander of the raid, General Curtis LeMay, used with relish to describe the death and destruction his bombers wrought.

Bodies, and unexploded bombs, are still unearthed when foundations are dug for Tokyo skyscrapers. A few years ago, the remains of 40 victims of the bombing were discovered in a forgotten mass grave on the banks of the Sumida River. History texts cite the toll as anywhere from 83,000 to 197,000, most incinerated in the firestorm that raged across the city. The higher figure is more than double those killed during the London blitz, and exceeds the toll from the firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden combined.

The US military historian, E. Bartlett Kerr, declares categorically: “No single act of war, before or since, would exact as great a toll in life and property as was inflicted on Tokyo during the hours between midnight and dawn on Saturday March 10, 1945.” Only Hiroshima, where the usually accepted toll is 140,000, comes close to the horror that was Tokyo that winter night.

And yet, until this display opened, that night officially might never have happened. While Hiroshima has been turned into a vast open- air peace shrine, and Dresden just last month solemnly commemorated its dead, the victims of the Tokyo bombing are remembered only by one obscure memorial in a park no one visits.

“I think Japanese just wanted to forget about it,” says Mr Toshihiro Itaya, one of the curators of the display. “Japan lost the war, and people just wanted to get on rebuilding their lives, not dwelling on the past.” But for historians such as Mr Itaya, the anniversary has rekindled debate over the necessity, and the morality, of using what the Allies called “slaughter bombing” against a predominantly civilian population. Such tactics had been ruled out just a month earlier by the US Secretary of State, Henry Stimson.

Recently released archival material appears to show that General Curtis LeMay the pipe-chomping 38-year-old who commanded the US Pacific air force acted on his own initiative when he assembled the vast armada of aircraft for the Tokyo raid. LeMay, a rabid anti- communist, went on to command the Strategic Air Command, where he was accused of trying to provoke World War III. In a final briefing to the crews of the 325 planes, before they took off from the Pacific island of Guam, he promised: “You are going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.” That turned out to be the understatement of the war.

In 138 minutes, starting just after midnight, General LeMay’s Superfortresses unloaded 2500 tonnes of bombs on Tokyo, 10 times the tonnage dropped on London by the Luftwaffe at the height of the blitz in September 1940. And these were no ordinary bombs they contained napalm, not explosives.

Tokyo was to be the first substantial trial for a particularly ghastly weapon called the M-69, which had been developed by the US Office for Scientific Research and Development at its chemical warfare centre in Dugway, Utah, for use against just such targets. There, in a desert proving ground, the M-69 had been dropped on mock-ups of typical two-storey Japanese wooden houses.

Models of this secret weapon at the Edo-Tokyo museum show that it was a prototype cluster-bomb. Each 250-kilogram bomb contained 38 bomblets the size of stove-pipes filled with napalm. On impact, they scattered and ignited, each one squirting out a 30-metre jet of flaming gasoline that incinerated anything in its path.

The father of the M-69 was Dr Vannevar Bush, the former dean of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and head of the US Office for Scientific Research and Development. According to a friend and fellow physicist: “For years after the war, Van Bush would wake up screaming in the night because he burned Tokyo. Even the atomic bomb didn’t bother him as much as jellied gasoline.” Mrs Ohwada, who was 15 at the time and working alongside thousands of other schoolgirls in a factory that built Zero fighters, watched as Dr Bush’s diabolical contraptions rained down on to Tokyo’s shitamachi, the wooden working-class suburbs north-east of the imperial palace.

“The whole sky lit up with a frightening red glow,” she said, tears coming to her eyes as she forced herself to remember. “I was lucky, but so many of my friends lost their houses, their whole families. I want everyone to come and see this so they can see what war is really like and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Crews of the bombers looked back from 300 kilometres away and said the ruins glowed like the sun coming up behind Mt Fuji, as 34 square kilometres of the city were incinerated.

Those not cremated alive were trampled in the stampede to escape, drowned or frozen to death in the Sumida River; the river was choked with bodies. The remains of more than 10,000 unidentified victims are still stored in urns by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Surprisingly, considering the sanitised history still taught in Japanese schools, the display at the Tokyo-Edo museum is little different to how one might imagine a similar collection at the Smithsonian or the war museum in Canberra.

In film and exhibit, the bombing is put in context. Japan’s relentless march to war is shown in detail: the 1931 invasion of Manchuria that started it all, the Rape of Nanking in which more than 200,000 civilians were massacred, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians at Chongqing, in which 35,000 were killed.

In spite of this revisionist balance, Mr Itaya, the curator, like many historians, remains unconvinced that the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the 40 other cities later was necessary. “The bombing should have been targeted, instead of causing a generalised firestorm. For instance, the biggest weapons factory in the district, at Ishikawa, was not bombed but thousands of civilians were indiscriminately murdered,” he believes.

Or, as General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, noted in the margin of a memo soon before the raid: “We must not get soft. War must be destructive, and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless.”

Publishing Info

Caption: The fire, devastation and horrific death that occurred 50 years ago is shown in four photographs taken by KOYO ISHIKAWA, a former Metropolitan Police Agency photographer, from the book The Great Tokyo Air-raid (Tokyo Daikushu no Zenkiroku), published by Iwanami Shoten; The 2500 tonnes of bombs contained bomblets filled with napalm
Sources include `Flames Over Tokyo’ by E. Bartlett Kerr, published by Donald I. Fine, New York.