The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1

A View From Both Sides

IMG_5039-1
From left: Grandmother, Dad in US Army uniform 1947 and his youngest brother (seated), circa 1943. The writing is my aunt’s; you can see “B-29”.  Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

My Aunt Eiko called me in April of 2011; you can tell she was crying.

“I’ve seen this before,” she said in Japanese.  She was watching the TV footage of the disaster caused by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Dumbfounded, I asked, “How could you have seen this before?  The earthquake just happened.”

“完全な破壊。。。戦争思い出したわぁ。。。” or loosely translated, “From the war…  I remember seeing this (complete destruction) from the war…”

Ironically, she was recalling what she saw exactly 66 years earlier – April 1945 – when Tokyo and many other cities were firebombed in an all out world war.

She was there.

And so was someone else from the other side of the Pacific.

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Through the miracle of WordPress, many of us here have met in the most peculiar of ways –  the hub being World War II…  Perhaps ironic but nevertheless destiny.

For instance, pacificparatrooper‘s father was in the US Army’s 11th Airborne and parachuted into combat over the Philippines with my Dad’s youngest brother killed later on Leyte as a Japanese soldier.  JeanneRene‘s father fought on the wretched islands as a critical Seabee.  Of course, my neighbor Old Man Jack was a sailor fighting to survive in the thick of things on those “stinkin’ islands” – Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Okinawa and Green Island.  Mr. Johnson fought and was wounded on-board CV-6, the USS Enterprise, manning the 20mm AA guns as a US Marine.  Although they returned, they did not return home unscathed.

None of them did.

The Main “Human Beings” of this Story

This series hopes to present the ugliness of war as personally experienced by two human beings – one who was on the ground and one who was in the air.

…The scarring of a Tokyo teen-aged girl on the ground: my Aunt Eiko.

Circa 1932
(L to R) Aunt Eiko, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma. Circa 1938, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

…AND the scarring of a young B-29 Superfortress pilot in the US Army Air Force’s 330th Bomber Wing: Capt. Ray B. Smisek who flew bombing missions over Japan.

Capt Smisek 2
Ray B. Smisek (to right of nose gear) after a safe return from a bombing mission to Gifu. Behind him is the B-29 he captained with a crew of ten young men, the “City of San Francisco”. 1945. Courtesy of son S. Smisek (copyright).

There is one sad, dreadful thing about their fateful relationship: neither had asked for it.

Neither had asked for war.

A very bitter war.

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Ray B. Smisek, the Gent

Capt Smisek Catalina island
A “life is good” portrait of Ray Smisek on Catalina Island. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

One person I met online was S. Smisek.  He has an extensive photo collection on flickr of his father’s service during World War II; that is where our paths crossed (his photo link is here).  His father was Capt. Smisek, the captain of “City of San Francisco”, a B-29 bomber flying out of Guam as part of the 330th Bombardment Group, 458th Squadron.  Born in Minnesota in 1920, he was also a lead pilot – a very heavy responsibility let alone if under attack.

His son shared with me his remembrances of his father.  He shared that Capt. Smisek liked flying above all else – especially open cockpit.

“(His dad) liked Czech and German food, like Sauerkraut, sausage and beer. Polka music. Baseball and football.  He loved baking bread and pastry.  Made amazing sourdough pancakes and Christmas bread. He loved gardening.  He could grow ANYTHING and liked to tinker on anything and everything around the house.  Fix it… or break it if it already was fixed.

Capt Smisek Football at 18 yo Thrid from front right
A young Ray Smisek, third from right. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

He hated hunting. Did not like to kill anything.  He would pick up bugs and release them outside.  Used to freak us kids out!

He liked his newspaper and watching the news.  He occasionally smoked a pipe.  Wore Old Spice aftershave all the time I knew him (I keep some around to this day.).  He loved licorice. 

He was honest as the day is long.  A man of his word.  A handshake was an agreement.  A promise.  A very strong Republican who loved Richard Nixon and John Wayne.  He liked Louis L’Amour books.  I think he dreamed of being a cowboy.

(Dad) hated racists.  Always gave everyone a chance. Maybe two and that’s it.”

Aunt Eiko, the Teenager

(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.
(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.

My Aunt Eiko and my mother had lived with my grandparents in Tokyo since their births in the mid-1920’s. Their childhood home was next to the Ginza at Shimbashi 5 Chome; think of it as Japan’s Beverly Hills.  It is within walking distance from the Imperial Palace.  My aunt says the picture to the left was taken near their Shimbashi home and next to a relative’s kimono shop in the Ginza.

As a child, she was apparently sickly.  They say she was quite skinny from this ailment and that ailment; the food shortage didn’t help much although my grandfather reportedly had black market connections to obtain food once in a while.  Nevertheless, she had a weak digestive system.  She has it to this day.

Like most Japanese “upper society” girls of that time, she was required to know how to play the shamisen, or a Japanese stringed instrument.  She was also trained on the silk kimono – it was an elaborate dress that took a couple of hours to put on properly.

Showa 14 Aki - Fall 1939 / Grandma in center, Aunt Eiko on right
Aunt Eiko on right playing the “shamisen”. Tokyo, Autumn 1939.

Aunt Eiko didn’t disappoint anyone’s ear drums when she saw a bug.  She screamed really loud when a bug got near her.  It was easy to see them since they get as big as footballs there in Japan.  Ok, I’m exaggerating – a little.

She had an artistic flair, with her grandfather being a noted painter and art professor.  She loved “ikebana”, or flower arranging.  In fact, she made it her career after war’s end, becoming one of the top ranked ikebana instructors in Tokyo.

Amazingly, in spite of her stomach ailments, she liked cooking; unfortunately, she had a knack for burning things.  I know.

Most of all, she loved dogs.  After feeding one with her chopsticks, she’d just go right back to using them to feed herself… but with food a scarcity, her love for dogs would have to wait until quite a while after war’s end.

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In Part 2, we will visit the B-29 Superfortress, her crews and the ordnance she would typically carry into battle above Japan.

Hope you’ll stay tuned.

Edit: You can find the other chapters in the links below:

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 2

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 3

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue

47 thoughts on “The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1”

  1. I am sorry, but I have to tell the truth. Your bog has serious gravitas. Few people, not even in Japan, know this first person narrative history. We all need to learn.
    Have I told you lately that you rock your socks off?

  2. You have such a way with words that you transport us back in time with the stories of your family and friends. Although my mother was in Germany I think of her often when I read your stories – for your aunt it was the earthquake, which I am sure other things also took her back to those years, but for my mother it was thunderstorms, till the day she died she could not tolerate the thunder – so many victims and like you said no one survived unscathed – civilian or soldier, marine or sailor.

    1. Touching words, Patty… I was not aware your mother was in Germany during WWII. I feel so sad to read about the fear that thunderstorms brought on. People today in America just don’t know the fear of having bullets, bombs and shells pummeling your own neighborhood. They are unable to appreciate what it means by “unscathed”.

      1. my mothers prayer was that we will never will. In spite of all my trials they are nothing compared to what our families had to go through.

  3. this is beautifully done; but “STAY TUNED?” I was just getting SO into it 🙂
    Your mother was a real beauty, Koji-san. Did your aunt marry?
    I can’t WAIT to hear more.

    Patty; people don’t talk about how horribly the German people were hurt by the war … I believe it’s made their recovery even harder. So many were NOT ideological Nazis, yet they know the world considers them that still today. They can’t even protest islamist terror without being called NAZIS. I’m so sorry for what your mother went through. I have strong connections to Germany and lived there often.

    1. Thank you for your comment, yes my mothers family were not Nazi’s she often told us her father was proud of the fact that he voted for Hindenburg. But during those times you became one or disappeared.

  4. I shall follow this journey with you. In April 1945 my father was in Kanchanaburi camp, Thailand/Siam, and some of his 69 men, whose lives I am writing about, were in Japan at the time. Most of these men were very ordinary post office workers thrown, to their total surprise, into war on the other side of the world. I do wonder if we, as humans, will ever grown out of the notion that might = right and is the only way to solve disagreements.

    1. I do recall the stories of both men in your family; one who tragically met his death from a horrible accident in flight, the other your father mentioned above.

      As for might = right… People suffer when their leaders fail. Yet, the leaders in general escape death from combat.

  5. I do recall the stories of both men in your family; one who tragically met his death from a horrible accident in flight, the other your father mentioned above.

    As for might = right… People suffer when their leaders fail. Yet, the leaders in general escape death from combat.

  6. Oh, Koji, this personal history is fascinating. It’s not something many of us (at least me) has ever had a chance of hearing. History books would certainly never tell the entire story. Your writing and pictures are beautiful and fascinating. I definitely look forward to reading more.

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