Key point: Attacks with fire bombs were made worse by Japan's wooden housing. These attacks took a terrible toll.
Major Sam P. Bakshas woke up that morning with the secrets in his head.
Bakshas was one of the men flying B-29 Superfortress bombers from three Pacific islands—Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. A writer dubbed these men “the thousand kids.” There were actually several thousand, and they were giving heart and soul to bombing the Japanese home islands—what they called “the Empire”—with no success. They were dropping bombs from high altitude and not hitting much. The air campaign against Japan was failing.
Bakshas believed the situation could be turned around.
Bakshas was 34. He was older and bigger than the Superfortress crewmembers around him. He was six-feet-one and almost 200 pounds. He was from Fergus County, smack in the center of Montana, and had courted his wife Aldora with the gift of an airplane ride. Today, Bakshas commanded the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, part of the 19th Bombardment Group.
In Guam’s affable climate, many B-29 crewmembers had taken scissors to their long khaki trousers to create frayed and sloppy-looking shorts. Not Bakshas. Sammy Bakshas—always Sammy, never Sam—did not understand sloppy. Bakshas was wearing long khakis and low-quarter shoes as he prepared for a day that would end with an evening takeoff.
Bakshas would be one tall guy among many today in a B-29 that was named Tall in the Saddle because no one in its regular crew was less than six feet in height. Bakshas was not a regular crewmember but would command Tall in the Saddle, relegating airplane commander Captain Gordon L. Muster to co-pilot duty.
“There was a wonderful urgency and an exhilarating secrecy about the B-29 outfits in the Marianas,” wrote St. Clair McKelway in a perspective. Even after other crewmembers began learning the two key secrets—low level, no guns—Bakshas kept them locked up, much like his buttoned-up expression, as his morning unfolded.
A Low-Level Bombing Run
It was 10:30 am, Chamorro Standard Time (Guam time), March 9, 1945, the morning of the great firebomb mission to Tokyo. The B-29s would arrive over the Japanese capital in tomorrow’s early hours. It was the mission for which 21st Bomber Command boss Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay changed tactics in hope of changing the war against Japan.
Staff Sergeant Carl Barthold, radio operator of a B-29 named Star Duster, began the day in his Quonset hut on Saipan by writing a letter home. The right blister gunner on Carl Barthold’s bomber crew was certain that none of them would return from tonight’s mission. He stuffed everything he owned into his B-4 bag—the multipocketed, fabric-covered equivalent of a travel suitcase—and left his belongings tidily packed in the center of his cot.
“He said he was looking at his possessions for the last time,” explained Barthold.
Barthold, a radio operator with the 870th Bombardment Squadron, 497th Bombardment Group—a rail-thin, 21-year-old Missouri boy at five-ten and a lightweight 142 pounds—wore underwear and clogs trudging to and from the shower, a hundred yards uphill from his Quonset.
Outdoors, he had a spectacular view of Aslito airfield, now renamed for Navy Commander Robert H. Isely, who had been killed a year earlier strafing the place when it was in Japanese hands. Isely’s name was spelled wrong when the name was bestowed, and the airfield was now Isley Field. Its two parallel 8,500-foot runways were straddled by parking spots for 100 aircraft, looking like giant silvery cigars with wings.
“That guy has me spooked,” Barthold said aloud when he looked at the B-4 on the cot. That’s how it would have looked if Didier had gone to heaven, but as far as Barthold knew he had only gone to chow.
Two months ago, Barthold had had a bombardier die in his arms high over the Empire. Last night, Barthold and the rest of the crew of his B-29 had gotten a casual heads up from airplane commander Captain James M. Campbell, who had been told the secrets—low level, no guns. Barthold and his crew would take off this evening, climb into the night, and assault Tokyo not from the usual height of 28,000 feet—from which their bombing hadn’t been accurate—but at low level at around 8,000 feet.
Saipan, with its tall cliffs from which so many Japanese had flung themselves in suicide leaps when the Marines were in the process of securing the island, was a place of raw beauty with deep blue, wave-capped ocean readily visible on all sides. And it was a place from which a B-29 Superfortress could plummet down toward the sea after leaving the runway’s end, taking a pronounced dip before gaining sufficient power to climb aloft—or go smashing into an ocean that could crumple it and swallow it up.
Code Name: Meetinghouse
It was 11:30 am, Chamorro Standard Time, March 9, 1945. Within easy eyesight of Saipan was Tinian—38 square miles of coral rock, dust, jungle, and cane fields, crowded with B-29 hardstands. Tinian was a little green slab formed by prehistoric volcanoes and dead coral animals. Tinian’s North Field boasted three crushed-coral runways 8,500 feet long and 200 feet wide, running parallel, with a fourth soon to be added and with parking revetments for 265 Superfortresses, making it the busiest airport in the world.
Tokyo (code name: Meetinghouse) was Japan’s largest city, built along the edge of a big, gently curving bay. It was the center of Japanese life. For symbolic reasons, the Americans planned not to bomb the Imperial Palace, but the rest of the city was fair game with its military assembly plants and vehicle factories. Moreover, it was home to a cottage industry in which tens of thousands of Japanese families manufactured small parts for the military. The wood and paper houses that would fall beneath LeMay’s firebombs were also factories.
About six million people lived in Tokyo on the eve of the B-29 strike that would kill many inhabitants, send more fleeing to the countryside, and reduce the city’s population by fully half. Astonishingly, the city had only a token fire department and almost no civil defense infrastructure. It was a city of fragile houses with sliding shoji screens, floored wooden roka or passageways, and fusuma, or partitions of wood and paper. It was no accident that the Americans were coming to Tokyo with fire.
On tonight’s mission, E-46 chemical incendiary bombs would rain down on Japan like giant firecrackers. They came in bunches of 47 small bomblets called M69s, strapped together inside a metal cylinder fused to break open at 2,000 or 2,500 feet. Three to five seconds after the big firecrackers hit, they would go off. An explosive charge would violently eject a sack full of gel that would burn intensely.
The sack held the gel in one spot, thereby igniting a hotter fire. Other weapons being employed today were the E-28 incendiary cluster bomb and the M47, a petroleum-based bomb that would be carried by the lead B-29 piloted by the in-air commander of the mission, Brig. Gen. Thomas “Tommy” Power—and would penetrate buildings and scatter gel in all directions to burn out the insides.
Briefing the Crews
It was 1 pm, Chamorro Standard Time, March 9, 1945. In the terminology of Field Order No. 43 issued at 8 am on March 8, 1945, by 21st Bomber Command, Tokyo was “the urban area of Meetinghouse.” The order tasked men like Bakshas on Guam (in the 314th Bomb Wing) to attack at 5,000 to 5,800 feet, those on Tinian (313th Bomb Wing) to strike at 5,000 to 5,800 feet, and those on Saipan (73rd Bomb Wing) to bomb at 7,000 to 7,800 feet. No armada of warplanes had ever before been launched in such numbers without flying in formation. No American heavy bomber had ever flown so low on a mission against a major target.
Depending on the island—Guam, Saipan, or Tinian—and depending on the bombardment group (a dozen in all), the briefing for the March 9-10 mission to Tokyo was held at different times throughout Friday the 9th. Most B-29 crewmembers shuffled into giant Quonset huts where crews sat together and stared up at maps and charts. The group commander, the intelligence guy, and the weather officer each took his turn to strut and fret on the stage.
At the briefing for the 19th Group on Guam, some kind of conversation with a bit of an edge took place between 93rd Squadron commander Bakshas and airplane commander Muster. Apparently, there was tension between the two over the risks in tonight’s journey to the Empire.
At the 497th Bomb Group on Saipan, Carl Barthold’s briefing was held inside a large concrete building. The intelligence officer talked too long about Japanese antiaircraft guns, fighters, and mistreatment of prisoners. Said Barthold, “My plane was a pathfinder and we would be taking off 45 minutes before the rest of the wing. The intel officer, who’d never seen the Empire from the air, wasn’t much help.”