The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

One of my WWII aviation lithographs; it shows a P-38 Lightning ironically over Leyte where my uncle was killed. Drawn by my good friend Mike Machat.

The View From the Ground

“うわぁ。。。二つの尻尾。。。それはその時代の飛行機だ。。。”, my Aunt Eiko said. “Oh, my… The twin tails… Its that plane from (the war).”

She just saw my lithograph of a WWII P-38 Lightning.  She and my parents had come for the first time after we moved into our house across the street from Old Man Jack. I had just put up my WWII aviation art gallery and she immediately recognized this US fighter plane with its distinctive twin tails from the war.  She said it strafed the high school that she was walking near.  She was about 18 years old.

Funny how things stick in your mind from war.


Circa 1930
(L to R) Mom and Aunt Eiko, circa 1931. Tokyo.

Along with my mom and grandparents, Aunt Eiko lived within walking distance of the Imperial Palace in Shimbashi, Tokyo.  Back then, the Emperor was god.  To live so close to the Imperial Palace meant your family had some extra change.

Although a photo of their house from that time no longer exists, the home was typical of that time.  Beams and floors made of wood. Doors called “shoji” (framed in light wood with paper “windows”) slid open and close.  By sliding, they saved space as regular doors would have to swing open and close, taking away precious space.  The floors were “tatami”, or boards wound with rice straw.  Believe me, they are uncomfortable to sit on to say the least.  Many homes still sported thatched roofs, or kusabuki, made with layers of a type of reed.  But all in all, the homes were made with wood products or straw.  Not exactly fireproof.

My Aunt Mieko (dad’s side of family) standing in front of our traditional style home, circa 1936. Although my dad’s home shown here is in Hiroshima, the construction is the same as my aunt’s: wood and paper. Behind her are the “shoji”, or sliding door panels as well as the hard tatami mats. As a side note, all these shoji were blown out by the atomic shock wave.


As three generations usually lived in a family home, Aunt Eiko had the same close knit circle of girl friends having stayed together through high school.  Families rarely moved back then.  The girls took classes in “kimono”, shamisen (a guitar of sorts) and cooking – very traditional fare for a Japanese girl.  To them, etiquette was to be followed, never to be broken.  I would think she had a crush on someone just as any girl would have…but she has not said.

Aunt Eiko, front row, third from left, and circle of close friends. Her closest friend, standing to the left of her, was slightly burned during a firebombing.  Taken atop the Asahi Newspaper Building, Tokyo, Oct. 30, 1937.


Before the Firebombing

Sometime in late 1943, my aunt says my grandfather decided to move the family, a rarity, due to her illnesses.  Apparently, my grandfather thought the unhealthy downtown Tokyo air was exacerbating her ills so they moved into another wooden frame home in Higashi Senzoku, a couple of kilometers south of Shimbashi.  It does not appear potential bombings by US planes was the reason to move at this time.

Soon thereafter, though, the family received mandatory evacuation orders (強制疎開). My Aunt believes this to be late in 1944… Times were tough.  Food supplies had already dwindled to nearly nothing. To make it worse, only older doctors remained as many younger ones were conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army as well.

They moved to her grandfather’s home in Omiya, Tokyo; it is about a mile due west of the Imperial Palace:

omiya visio
Omiya, the Imperial Palace and childhood home.

A drawing of the wood home in Omiya:

keizu crp
The actual traditional wooden home (立ての木) in Omiya, Tokyo where my family took refuge during the bombings. It is about a mile west of the Imperial Palace. This was drawn on extremely thin paper – much thinner than the old tracing paper we had here in the States – by my great-grandfather, Wakio Shibayama. Undated but post-war.

The Firebombing

My aunt’s writing. (Copyright Koji Kanemoto)

March 9, 1945 was about two weeks before my Aunt Eiko’s 19th birthday.  Due to the strenuous and meager living conditions, I doubt any birthday party was in the works.  I doubt there were many birthday parties at all.  There was little to be had as Japan was losing… and losing badly.

Aunt Eiko was at their grandfather’s house in Omiya that night when the pathfinders found their mark.  She says they all gathered in the front yard to gaze towards the Imperial Palace after hearing the first explosions.

She notes on the left:


In doing my best at translating, she says:

We were in the front yard of my grandfather’s house when the firebombing started on March 10.  The B-29s were dropping shocking amounts of bombs and firebombs – so many that they sounded like heavy rain coming down.  I will never forget that sound (of the falling bombs); it is still vivid in my ears even today.

A year earlier, my youngest daughter was interviewing her for a 5th grade family biography project.  One requirement was that the family member’s history was interesting or unusual.  Naturally, since experiences like my aunt’s are not found in school textbooks today, I recommended she interview Aunt Eiko about her war experiences in Tokyo.

提灯 or paper lantern.

During the interview, Aunt Eiko said the (AN-M69) incendiary sticks were like thousands of 撥 (bachi, or the drumsticks used for taiko drums) raining down from the sky… that there were so many of them that it looked like swarms of insects.  She also described the thousands of trailing streamers (attached to each stick) reminded her of ribbons fluttering in the breeze.¹  Unlike what many of us believe, she said the B-29s came for hours… that there would be a rash of explosions then the B-29s would disappear only to hear the now familiar drone of more B-29s approaching then more bombs.

In earlier conversations², she described seeing hundreds of flashes of light at roof top level during the firebombings.  It wasn’t clear to me then but it is clear now that the flashes she witnessed were likely the smaller high explosive bombs dropped from the B-29s hitting structures and exploding.  She also sadly described the homes burned like 提灯 (chouchin, or paper lanterns) and that the waves of heat distorted distances (like looking through the heat waves rising from your street in summer).  It made it hard to judge how far – or how close – the fires were.

The Firestorm

The main concentrations of fire occurred not just in the area behind and to the left of the Imperial Palace; Aunt Eiko said incendiaries (possibly dispersed due to the heat thermals) ignited neighborhoods just to the left of her Omiya house where they were staying. (Embers would have achieved the same results, however, and may be more likely.)

The city’s fire department was largely staffed by women who were not professional firefighters. Importantly, note the clothing worn by the mother and child in the forefront. Source: “The Reports of General MacArthur“.

According to studies, death occurred through suffocation, incineration, and heat.

Fed by winds and with a fire department largely staffed by women volunteers, the fires spread rapidly and raged out of control. These firefighters attempted throwing dirt or sand on the incendiaries, a hopeless effort. When there was water pressure, the water pressure was low.  Reports indicated the firefighters tried to douse the civilians as they fled but the water would soon evaporate from the heat.

Suffocation occurred as the great fires sucked all the oxygen out of the air. They just couldn’t breathe.  Those that were able to find cooler river water tried to keep their faces above the water; but they, too, simply suffocated due to the lack of oxygen. In some instances, fleeing civilians attempted to seek shelter in areas that had pretty much burned but their bodies were found later in a small cluster.  They suffocated to death together as oxygen became depleted.

Extreme heat was another cause of death as temperatures soared to 1,800F.  Asphalt bubbled and steel bridges became frying pans.  People panicking ran or were herded towards bridges or rivers only to be pushed into the waters by the ensuing masses of humanity trying to flee.  Unfortunately, the water was at boiling temperatures and they were essentially boiled to death once they fell in.  Escape paths were blocked with debris, downed power poles, burning trees…and bodies.  If one could not escape the heat, that person simply burst into flames.  Horrifically, superheated air swirled down towards street level.  People would then literally burn from the feet up when their pants would catch fire.

A Japanese artist’s depiction. Note the pants on fire and the swirling heat.  While unsure, the name appears to be Takahide.

Incineration was the worst, the most painful death I would assume.  One aspect not widely known by the general populace is their type of clothing contributed greatly to their demise of burning to death.  Their cloth-based head gear (see painting of women firefighters shown earlier) was meant to protect their ears and head from bomb explosions – not a firestorm.  In the end, this protective head gear easily caught fire as did their loose fitting trousers.  Aunt Eiko reported a girl she knew ran from the fires with a baby strapped onto her back in traditional Japanese style.  Through all the noise, screaming, running and panic, the girl was unable to notice until too late that burning jellied gasoline had landed on the baby’s face and had died.

No photos of corpses are deemed necessary here.


A wall exhibit at the Tokyo History Museum, showing the extent of the area destroyed by firebombing. The Imperial Palace is just right of center. The Omiya house is in the burned zone, in the very center.

Aunt Eiko has never said whether the Omiya home survived the firebombings and I don’t intend to ask.  While this Tokyo raid was the first of several, I cannot understand why my great-grandfather would have sketched the home out, apparently from memory, unless it no longer existed.

Japanese reports of the aftermath indicate that due to the thousands of burned corpses or of those who suffocated, it was nearly impossible to walk through Tokyo without stepping on bodies.  Further, as the seared corpses disintegrated, their ashes would swirl up into the air.

She, my mother and grandmother finally fled the city on or about July 1, 1945; grandfather stayed behind for reasons never known to her.  They lived at another cousin’s yam farm in Fukui, helping to farm the fields while living on meager rations.

The war ended six weeks later.  What happened in between is another story altogether.

Part 5 of “The Firebombing of Tokyo” will be an epilogue.

I hope you will stay tuned.

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 5 (Epilogue) is here.



1. That even surprised me as I didn’t know the incendiaries had streamers, so much so that I asked her what she was talking about.

2. Just like Old Man Jack and many other combat veterans, Aunt Eiko (along with my father) suppresses many of the horrific war experiences she witnessed.  She “gives” things out little by little.

33 thoughts on “The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4”

  1. Ugh, this is even worse than Part 3! Mom survived perhaps the first firebombing not long after everyone watched their first B29 flying solo way up high. She must have been on the edge of the bombing as it destroyed the home she stayed at but did not jump the river where she hid under a bridge, nor was the river water boiling! She said the bombers used Mt. Fuji as a landmark to turn around and come circling back to Tokyo, maybe “saving one for Hachioji” on the way if you know that story. Then one night, from her backyard (safely back in Tokorozawa) she watched the skies over Hachioji turn red as the town burned down, and she imagined all the children burning alive. She was about 18 years old. Your family is so lucky to have survived.

    1. Your mom and my aunt/mom were just about the same age. Your mom, too, was lucky to survive. What a horrible life for a teenager… to see your city burn and the deaths. Indeed, Mt. Fuji was a rally point for many a mission. If B-29s were flying a mission, their “little brothers”, the P-51 Mustangs, would tag along with them as they had no navigation gear like the B-29s. BTW, I went to the Toyota Technical School there in Hachioji back in ’73/’74. I was the only American student there.

    1. War is horrifying to all those who experienced it – unlike many of our leaders in Washington DC today. I’d say nearly zero served. I toured the underground chambers Churchill was in. Quite an experience.

      1. Don’t you apologize Koji! This was necessary to read. I think you do an incredible job of showing both sides of this horror story. It’s personal for you on so many levels. You have a very unique perspective and insight, and it needs to be read.

  2. It is wonderful that Aunt Eiko is sharing anything at all about this horrific period in her life. You’ve laid out the time line and events in a very interesting fashion, Koji. Outstanding!

    1. Its funny how Old Man Jack and Aunt Eiko are so similar. I had her write down some “stuff”; she wrote maybe 1-1/2 pages of what happened AFTER the firebombings but only a few sentences about the firebombing. Luckily, she leaked out stuff here and there plus when my little girl interviewed her, I recorded it. It is really odd to hear a Japanese person make the sounds of a machine gun firing compared to how we describe it.

  3. These examples of the cost of war must remain in our minds. Wars are some times necessary, but they are never inevitable unless mankind wills it so.

  4. This is truly horrific, it is so dangerous that humans have invented weapons that work at a distance, at least with swords the attacker was close enough to feel the danger themselves. I know the planes were in danger too, but on the ground these men would not, surely, have set fire to children.

    1. You are absolutely correct, Hilary. None of these men – unless they were driven crazy – would even THINK of doing these things. There are many photos of Marines, for example, on the islands tending to injured children – even carrying them to help their wounded mothers.

  5. I am horrified and sickened by this account, and deeply sad. So much pain and yet, I can’t stop reading. Nothing in my mind can imagine such events. It seems unnecessarily cruel, for as you said, Japan was losing. This account calls to mind the few stories my father told me of his experiences in the European theatre of WWII. He always wept, both at what happen to us and what we did to them. Important lessons here for us but sadly, we don’t seem to learn. I wanted to stop reading, but I felt those who suffered the and or died, deserved to be remembered.

    1. Kanzensakura, thank you for bearing with it. One thing that you should be proud of – that your father wept. But I do write about ugly things like this as if but a few understand what happened, they may elect not to make such decisions in the future if they find themselves in positions of power.

      1. Unfortunately, those in power only know the view from a few thousand feet up or at the rear in a tent with maps on a desk or sitting in a place in a government wit info on a computer screen. My father knew this and we put at what he had seen and what he had to do. He tried in his civilian years to spread kindness to all, as if he could use coin from his heart to repay the terrible debt. He never felt he had.

  6. I love looking at the photos of your mother and her sister, and the friends and family in happy, younger times. They obviously suffered a great deal during the war years and those still living must have very deep thoughts about what they saw and experienced as young people. I always learn so much from these posts, Koji. Thank you.

  7. Oh this is just painful to read. That wooden house is so beautiful. This reminds me of undergad Japanese History and watching these traumatic videos of women’s kimono’s burned into their skin, being picked out their flesh by tweezers, and children in the burn wards. Humans are the cruelest species on the planet. We need to try peace and kindness. Your blog is so important.

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