The firebombing raids on Tokyo, codenamed Operation Meetinghouse, were low altitude incendiary bombing raids ordered by General Curtis LeMay.
The first wave of planes was followed by a procession of bombers sowing death until dawn, touching off devastating firestorms: almost 17 square miles of the city were reduced to ashes. Estimates of the number killed range between 80,000 and 200,000, a higher death toll than that produced by the dropping of either of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki 5 months later.
Robert Guillain was a French reporter assigned to Japan who was trapped in the country after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was in Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945 and published a book recounting his experiences, “I Saw Tokyo Burning”. This is his description of the start of the raid as the sound of air-raid sirens pierce the night and the first B-29s make their appearance:
“They set to work at once sowing the sky with fire. Bursts of light flashed everywhere in the darkness like Christmas trees lifting their decorations of flame high into the night, then fell back to earth in whistling bouquets of jagged flame. Barely a quarter of an hour after the raid started, the fire, whipped by the wind, began to scythe its way through the density of that wooden city.”
“The first Superfortresses dropped hundreds of clusters of the incendiary cylinders the people called “Molotov flower baskets,” marking out the target zone with four or five big fires. The planes that followed, flying lower, circled and crisscrossed the area, leaving great rings of fire behind them. Soon other waves came in to drop their incendiaries inside the marker circles. Hell could be no hotter.”
The American objective was to shorten the war by demoralizing the Japanese population and breaking its will to resist, but it didn’t work. Once the shock passed, the war work went on.