When we criticize Russia's war crimes in Ukraine, we should remember the bombing of Tokyo

Of course Russia should be condemned for targeting civilians. But the brutal U.S. air war on Japan was much worse

Published October 30, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Tokyo residents who lost their homes as a result of the U.S. bombings, March 10, 1945. The Operation Meetinghouse air raid of 9-10 March 1945 was later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
Tokyo residents who lost their homes as a result of the U.S. bombings, March 10, 1945. The Operation Meetinghouse air raid of 9-10 March 1945 was later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

In its brutal campaign to seize territory from Ukraine, Russia has placed the bull's-eye on the backs of men, women and children. Russian bombs and artillery have killed thousands of civilians while destroying Ukrainian schools, hospitals and apartment buildings. 

As of this week, the UN has tallied 15,908 civilian casualties, including 6,306 killed. Those numbers, which include hundreds of children, are likely low. Russia's strike this summer on a crowded shopping mall drew the condemnation of leaders of the G7: "Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime," said the elected leaders of the largest Western democracies. "Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account."

But that statement, endorsed of course by President Biden, glosses over America's own complicated legacy of bombing civilians in World War II. 

Throughout that war, civilians worldwide sadly bore a heavy burden. The Japanese pulverized China's wartime capital of Chongqing, while the Germans hammered British cities in the Blitz. The British subsequently retaliated, burning Hamburg, Berlin and, of course, Dresden, a city whose name has become synonymous with the horror of air warfare.  

Throughout that period of carnage, the U.S. had remained committed to the concept of precision bombing, convinced that it was not only morally superior but also a better way to destroy an enemy's industry. "The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population," President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in 1939, "has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity." 

The war against Japan, however, changed that view. 

In the Pacific, terrible weather and violent jet streams combined to wreck bombing accuracy. At the same time, commanders were anxious to knock Japan out of the war before American troops had to slosh ashore in what promised to be a bloody invasion, one that would far exceed the horror experienced on Iwo Jima and Okinawa and could have led, based on one War Department estimate, to as many as four million American casualties.  

This prompted Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, only 38 years old at the time, to make one of the most consequential decisions of the war. As head of the 21st Bomber Command on Guam, LeMay chose to abandon America's longtime strategy of daylight high-altitude precision attacks in favor of burning Japanese cities in low-level nighttime raids. For his inaugural strike on the night of March 9, 1945, he set his sights on Tokyo. 

LeMay's 12-square-mile target area, which was 87.4 percent residential, had an average population density of 103,000 people per square mile, meaning the bombs fell largely on the kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms of the Japanese capital's working-class civilians. LeMay justified the decision because many such homes doubled as small factories, a vital cottage industry that fed parts to Japan's ravenous war machine.

LeMay's incendiary bombs targeted an area that was 87% residential, with 103,000 people per square mile. He deliberately attacked the homes of Tokyo's working-class civilians.

The general likewise knew that incendiary bombs did not discriminate. The fires his bombers ignited would consume everything and everyone in their path, from factory and armaments workers to artists, teachers and housewives. "We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town," he later wrote. "Had to be done."

To his aides, LeMay was even more blunt. 

"If we lose," he warned, "we'll be tried as war criminals."

At 12:07 a.m., his first bomber unloaded on the Japanese capital. For the next 142 minutes, nearly 300 planes dropped 1,665 tons of incendiaries. These napalm-filled explosives were designed to punch through the metal and tile roofs of shops and homes, spraying flaming jellied gasoline on walls, furniture and bedding. 

Hundreds of blazes soon erupted, ultimately melding into a massive tidal wave of fire that rolled across the city. Temperatures amid the conflagration soared as high as 2,800°F., hot enough to melt concrete, liquefy asphalt and fuse coins together. "The town was a blazing hell," recalled survivor Sumi Ogawa, "lit by the swirling and roiling flames."

American airmen in the skies overhead inhaled the acrid aroma of the dying city, including the sickening stench of burnt flesh, from dogs and horses to mothers and fathers. "It was," remembered pilot Charles Phillips, "the smell of death."

The sun rose the next morning to reveal an apocalyptic wasteland. The attack incinerated 16 square miles of Tokyo and killed 105,000 men, women and children. Another 40,000 people suffered injuries and a million were left homeless. "There was still a light wind blowing," one reporter observed, "and some of the bodies, reduced to ashes, were scattering like sand."

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Back in Washington, officials monitored the nation's editorial pages and radio broadcasts for evidence that the killing of civilians might spark outrage among the American public. Those fears, however, proved unfounded. "Properly kindled," Time magazine declared, "Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves." 

The lack of any public outcry served as a green light for LeMay, who over the next five months proceeded to burn dozens of Japanese cities. His initial focus on urban industrial areas, like Tokyo, where home factories contributed to the war effort, faded as the attacks continued and his list of cities dwindled. In the latter raids, as the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted, the No. 1 factor driving target selection was a city's "combustibility." 

America, in short, was waging war against Japan's civilians. "The preponderant purpose appears to have been to secure the heaviest possible morale and shock effect by widespread attack upon the Japanese civilian population," the Strategic Bombing Survey concluded. "Certain of the cities attacked had virtually no industrial importance."

In the 177 days from his strike on Tokyo until the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri, LeMay torched 66 Japanese cities, leveling 178 square miles. Of all those operations, LeMay's raid on Tokyo proved one of the deadliest, rivaled only by the fatalities caused by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of the war.  

All told, America's bombing campaign against the Japanese homeland killed 330,000 people, injured nearly a half million more, and left 8.5 million homeless. "Curtis LeMay," observed his biographer Warren Kozak, "ordered the deaths of more civilians than any other man in U.S. history. No one else comes close, not William Tecumseh Sherman, not George S. Patton — no one."

It is important, as we grieve the awful war crimes Russia is committing in Ukraine, that we as Americans remember our own tragic history of attacks on civilians nearly eight decades ago in our quest for total victory.

By James M. Scott

James M. Scott is the author of "Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb," just published by W.W. Norton.

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Analysis Curtis Lemay History Japan Russia Ukraine War Crimes World War Ii