9–10 March 1945: at 17:35 local time, 9 March 1945, the XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force, began launching 325 Boeing B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bombers from airfields on Guam and Saipan. This was Operation Meetinghouse, a night incendiary attack on the Tokyo Metropolis, the capital city of the Empire of Japan, and the most populous city on Earth.
Operation Meetinghouse was the single deadliest and most destructive air attack in history.¹
XXI Bomber Command was led by Major General General Curtis Emerson LeMay. The B-29 Superfortress bombers had been engaged in the U.S. Army Air Forces doctrine of precision daylight bombardment, but with limited success. Only a few days a month was the weather over Japan good enough for precision bombing, but the very high winds encountered dispersed the falling bombs, limiting the attackers’ accuracy. Also, though Japan did have major industrial centers, a large part of its war production was dispersed to small shops throughout the cities.
The B-29s had been designed to operated at high altitudes, bombing from 30,000 feet, but the long climb to altitude with a heavy load of bombs and gasoline strained the engines. Engine fires were common. Although the Wright “Duplex Cyclone” engines’ crankcases were machined from forged steel, the nose and accessory cases were made of magnesium alloy. Once burning, the engine fires could not be put out and the bomber would be lost.
Further, bombing during daylight increased the vulnerability of the B-29s to Japanese air defenses.
General LeMay decided to change tactics. Under the new plan, the Superfortresses would bomb at night, at low altitude. As the construction of Japanese cities made them vulnerable to fires, the bombers would carry incendiary bombs rather than high explosives. The lower altitude would reduce the strain on the R-3350 engines.
LeMay did not expect much reaction from enemy fighters during hours of darkness, so he ordered that, except for the tail guns, all defensive guns on the B-29s, along with their gunners and ammunition, be left behind. This reduced weight allowed him to order double the normal bomb load.
General LeMay also ordered that rather than attack in formations, the bombers would attack as individuals.
Brigadier General Thomas Sarsfield Power, commanding the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) based on the island of Guam, was in command of the air attack. The 314th dispatched 56 B-29s. The 73rd Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) and the 313th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) took off from Saipan in the Marianas Islands, putting up 169 and 121 Superfortresses, respectively.
The B-29s began to arrive over Tokyo at 12:08 a.m., 10 March. The weather was clear with visibility 10 miles (16 kilometers). It was very windy, with surface winds blowing at 45–67 miles per hour (20–30 meters per second) from the southwest. The target was designated as a 3 mile × 4 mile (4.8 × 6.4 kilometers) rectangle in the northwest quadrant of the city. More than one million people lived inside the boundaries. It was one the densest population centers on Earth.
Flying at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet (1,524–2,134 meters), the B-29s dropped their 7-ton bomb loads. As the cluster bombs fell they broke apart and the 38 6-pound (2.7 kilogram) AN-M69 bomblets in each cluster spread. These were filled with napalm and ignited by a white phosphorous charge. A total of 1,665 tons (1,510 Metric tons) of the incendiaries fell on the northeast section of Tokyo.
The resulting firestorm burned out 15.8 square miles (40.9 square kilometers) of Tokyo, with only brick structures still standing.
There can only be estimates of the casualties inflicted on the ground. It is known that 79,466 bodies were recovered. Following the War, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people had been killed, and 40,918 injured. Other estimates are much higher.
Of the bomber force, 279 airplanes reached Tokyo. 12 were shot down and 42 damaged. 96 crewmen were either killed or missing in action.
The B-29 Superfortress was the most technologically advanced—and complex—aircraft of World War II. It required the manufacturing capabilities of the entire nation to produce. Over 1,400,000 engineering man-hours had been required to design the prototypes.
The Superfortress was manufactured by Boeing at Seattle and Renton, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas; by the Glenn L. Martin Company at Omaha, Nebraska; and by Bell Aircraft Corporation, Marietta, Georgia.
There were three XB-29 prototypes, 14 YB-29 pre-production test aircraft, 2,513 B-29 Superfortresses, 1,119 B-29A, and 311 B-29B aircraft. The bomber served during World War II and the Korean War and continued in active U.S. service until 1960. In addition to its primary mission as a long range heavy bomber, the Superfortress also served as a photographic reconnaissance airplane, designated F-13, a weather recon airplane (WB-29), and a tanker (KB-29).
The B-29 was operated by a crew of 11 to 13 men. It was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.068 meters). The vertical fin was 27 feet, 9 inches (8.305 meters) high. The airplane’s empty weight was 71,500 pounds (32,432 kilograms). Its maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds (63,503 kilograms).
The B-29’s wings had a total area of 1,720 square feet (159.8 square meters). They had an angle of incidence of 4° and 4° 29′ 23″ dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft to 7° 1′ 26″.
The B-29 was powered by four air-cooled, turbocharged and supercharged, 3,347.66-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 18 (also known as the Duplex-Cyclone) 670C18BA4 (R-3350-23A) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engines. These had a Normal Power rating of 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m., for takeoff. They drove 16 foot, 7 inch (5.055 meter) diameter, four-bladed, Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-23A was 6 feet, 4.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,646 pounds (1,200 kilograms).
The maximum speed of the B-29 was 353 knots (406 miles per hour/654 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters), though its normal cruising speed was 216 knots (249 miles per hour/400 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The bomber’s service ceiling was 40,600 feet (12,375 meters) and the maximum ferry range was 4,492 nautical miles (5,169 statute miles/8,319 kilometers).
The Superfortress could carry a maximum of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) of bombs in two bomb bays. For defense, it was armed 12 Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in four remote, computer-controlled gun turrets and a manned tail position. The bomber carried 500 rounds of ammunition per gun. (Some B-29s were also armed with an M2 20 mm autocannon at the tail.)
A number of B-29 Superfortresses are on display at locations around the world, but only two, the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29A-60-BN 44-62070, Fifi, and B-29-70-BW 44-69972, Doc, are airworthy. (After a lengthy restoration, Doc received its Federal Aviation Administration Special Airworthiness Certificate, 19 May 2016.)
¹ (a.) Hiroshima: A single B-29 dropped a 16-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. Approximately 5 square miles (12.9 square kilometers) of the city were destroyed by the detonation and resulting firestorm. Estimates are that approximately 70,000–80,000 people were killed immediately, and about the same number injured by the detonation and resulting firestorm. (b.) Nagasaki: A single B-29 dropped a 21-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. 60% of the structures were destroyed. An estimated 35,000 people were killed immediately by the detonation and resulting firestorm. (c.) Dresden: The raids of 13–15 February 1945 included 1,296 RAF and USAAF heavy bombers, dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm destroyed approximately 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of the center of the city. Afterwards, 20,204 bodies were recovered. The most recent estimates are that approximately 25,000 people were killed.
© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes