“….The son-of-a-bitch had no legs…” said Old Man Jack from his wife’s blue wheelchair. His arms were making like windmills. Well, windmills as fast as his 88 year old arms could go. He had a comical yet strained look on his face, his bushy white eyebrows still prominent.
But you could see the pain behind those eyes…and in his deadened voice.
Several months have passed since I visited with Old Man Jack at his grave. With Memorial Day around the corner, May 17th was a beautiful day to visit him. A recent rainstorm had just passed and the blue skies were painted with thin, wispy clouds.
I could see no one had stopped by since my last visit; at least no one that left flowers for his wife Carol and him. The hole for flowers was covered up and grass had crept up onto his gravestone.
I had brought along something for Jack this time; something I thought he would enjoy. So after cleaning up his resting place, it was placed atop his gravestone – his beloved F4U Corsair:
I’m hoping he was beaming. He couldn’t possibly be happier, being with the two most beautiful ladies in his life.
But back to his story.
A few months before he was taken away from his home, we had been sitting in his cluttered garage, talking about this and that; I just can’t recall what. But something in our talk triggered an ugly war flashback from his tormented and mightily buried subconscious. By that day in 2011, I could tell when he was enduring one, having sat in his garage with him for ten years.
He began as he did before. He would suddenly stop then gaze down at his hands for a couple of seconds. His left ring finger would begin to rhythmically pick under his right thumbnail. His white, bushy eyebrows now made thin with time would partly obscure his eyes from me when he lowered his head.
While I am unable to recall his exact words, he slowly allowed an ugly event to surface:
Old Man Jack began, “We were ordered to go on a patrol. We were issued rifles and hoped to God we wouldn’t come across any Japs,” he said in a remorseful way.¹ “Then, we came to these rice paddies… We could see hills around us… but that also meant the Japs could see us.”²
“We just followed the guy in front of us like cattle,” he said. “We were making it through the rice paddies when a couple of shells came in. Man, I hit the ground real quick.
Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. Rounds were coming in like crazy all around me. They had this area zeroed in real good.”
He continued. “I ain’t ashamed to say it. I was scared real bad. Then we all started to scram. I got up and started to run. I dumped my rifle and ran like crazy.” While in that blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife Carol, Old Man Jack made like he was running, much like Popeye in this clip:
He then took his gaze away from his hands. “Then I saw this guy flying through the air with his arms making like he was still running… but the son-of-a-bitch had no legs!” He pointed his finger and made an arc like a rainbow, then swung his arms like a windmill. Apparently, an enemy round had hit his comrade, severing his upper torso from his legs then throwing him into the air. Although the comrade met a violent end, Old Man Jack was describing how he saw his arms flailing.
He stopped. His eyes returned to his hands. I still cannot imagine the torment he was enduring, even after 70 years.
I never will. I just hope he didn’t take it to his grave with him.
Let us remember this Memorial Day our fellow Americans who perished so young for the sake of their families and friends, no matter which conflict… and also firmly support those in uniform as I write. They, too, are being forgotten by many, even as they fight – and die – for us in godforsaken faraway places.
1. I would like to remind my readers that Old Man Jack had no hatred to me or my family when he uttered the word “Jap”. He is digressing to a most vile period in his life in which he could be killed the very next moment. If you are offended, it is suggested you participate in an all-out war; perhaps you will understand why.
2. At his funeral, the minister read off the islands he fought on. Based solely on his description of the large rice paddy and hills combined with what the minister said, I firmly believe this was Okinawa 1945. Oddly, while Old Man Jack mentioned Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Bougainville and Green Island, he never mentioned Okinawa.
I have been remiss in visiting Old Man Jack; when I arrived there today, I made sure he heard my Mustang he loved to ride in so much… I hope his now silent neighbors didn’t mind too much. As I neared his resting place walking on very sodden soil, it was clear I was his last visitor from some months ago. The grass had definitely encroached on his gravestone; even the hole where the water decanter should be seen was covered up.
As I trimmed away the overgrown grass, I fondly remembered a “Whhhoooo-eee!” Old Man Jack let out once. That one time, he had an extra emphasis on the “Whhhoooo”… with even more of a sopranic “eee” at the end. He then proceeded to tell me about how his old man kept him in line as a boy while handing me something from his past. More on that later.
And that word’s made up, you know…”sopranic”. But for that moment, he was definitely Julie Andrews. 🙂
In our chats in his cluttered garage, Old Man Jack used to tell me how he used to “tussle” a lot while growing up in Glendale, CA. You know. Fight. He wasn’t embarrassed to say he took a lickin’ – once in a while. He frequently said one reason why he took a lickin’ was that he was a runt so he took up body building for protection – as well as for the girls. He had flashed his trademark grin while gently shaking his head fondly left and right as while talking about his youthful adventures; you wonder what crazy memories flashed in his mind filled with life’s wisdom to power that grin.
He reminisced that his dad was also a bit of a trouble maker, especially when he had a bit too much libation but that he was the family enforcer. Old Man Jack said his dad was also a sailor – a baker in the US Navy to be exact but he also had worked as a barber. They were together out in the SW Pacific during the war but on different islands. He said his dad would once in a while send him a cake and cookies on a B-25 Mitchell that was making some kind of supply run. Old Man Jack instantly became the most loved sailor on that island when the cake and cookies were unloaded… provided the pilots didn’t eat them along the way.
On the way to visit him at his resting place, I decided to listen to the news. Well actually, the only time I can hear the news is while in my Mustang is stopped at a light – the exhaust isn’t exactly quiet (listen below)… and in that brief instant, the newscaster reported again about a pro sports figure and an alleged “beating” he gave his son. I turned it off as I am tired of the media making a circus out of every perceived “socially incorrect” behavior. Of course, I wouldn’t know of the intimate details of the allegations. Can’t trust the media, you know.
Don’t get me wrong. I sure as hell don’t condone BEATING a kid. No way. But… I believe there is nothing wrong with a spanking – or a “whippin'” as Old Man Jack’s generation used to say. Because of the social pressures exerted by a faction of our culture, taking a hand – any kind of hand – to your child means police show up at your door – at least here in California. “Positive reinforcement” goes only as far as your front door.
There is nothing wrong with a good spanking, in my opinion… Or, when I was going to junior high school, it was called a “swatting”. There was our PE teacher, a Mr. T. He had a swat board the size of Rhode Island made out of balsa wood thicker than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps. It was even taped at the handle to enhance the grip for his elephant sized hands AND he had several large holes drilled into the paddle section to increase the device’s aerodynamic characteristics, i.e., more paddle speed, more pain. I’m positive he had its aerodynamics tested in a wind tunnel. If any of my male high school buddies are reading this, they know exactly what I’m talking about. I think the paddle section was even painted black. All the PE teachers carried one of their own design.
Believe me, the threat of a swat kept MANY a kid in line… meaning they really gave it a thought before crossing that line and risk getting caught – and greeting the aerodynamically enhanced swat from Mr. T. One benefit was it taught respect – the hard way.
Frankly, the prohibition of spanking – in my opinion – has contributed to the growing disrespect and behavioral problems being shown by many of today’s younger folks. A kid never gets a well deserved licking, i.e., pain, if you did something bad. All a kid gets now is a painless lesson in positive reinforcement or detention. No pain, you gained. You learned it was OK to whine, too.
But back to his “Whhhoooo-eee”…
As Old Man Jack belted out the whhhooo-eee, he handed me this; it has been hanging safe and sound in my hall closet since he gave it to me:
It’s a barber’s leather razor blade sharpening strop (not strap). Specifically, a “Scotch Lassie”; it was his father’s:
While I wasn’t clear if this was the one that was used or not, Old Man Jack got a whippin’ with this on occasion from his dad…the same one who sent him cakes and cookies out in the Pacific during a vicious war. From a couple of the stories he told me, it sure sounds like he deserved the whippings and therefore, the reason for his whhhoooo-eee. And you know what? Old Man Jack turned out to be one helluva respectful and forgiving man.
Remembering he was giving me that trademark grin while handing it to me, he said something to the effect of, “Koji, I’ll tell ya… The thought of getting another whippin’ from my dad sure kept me from getting into more trouble…but not ALL the time.” Knowing Old Man Jack well by then, it made me grin, too.
With that, he said it was time for him to part with it, to move on and that he wanted me to keep it… if I wanted it.
Knowing how it was an intimate guiding influence of how this great man turned out to be as he was, of course I did. I think he was glad.
But I sure miss his trademark grin and I think he misses my cigar in return… but not the whippin’ I gave him when he challenged me at stop lights in HIS ’68 Mustang on our way to breakfasts.
Scars are left on those who had to endure the horror…
Those who witnessed it…
Those who fought in it…
But then hopefully there is a healing.
Perhaps it will take a generation or two.
But it will happen.
Perhaps one will never forget… but one can forgive.
Perhaps is it wrong of me – a person who never endured war – to say it so simply. Forgive.
But I have witnessed forgiving with Old Man Jack… Mr. Johnson…
Warriors have forgiven and tried to move on with their life in spite of nightmares for the rest of their lives.
The result is endearing friendship. The same USAF that bombed Japan assisted thousands of stranded Japanese civilians after the tsunami. The world has benefited but at the cost of the sanity of single souls so many decades ago.
Captain Ray B. Smisek
On Sept. 2, 1945, Captain Ray Smisek once again made a round trip flight to Tokyo.
This time, it was as a member of one of the great air armadas ever assembled in history. Over 300 carrier based Navy planes and hundreds of B-29s. MacArthur rightfully wanted to make an impression upon the Japanese people by ordering a huge flyover Tokyo Bay and the USS Missouri, where the formal surrender documents were signed. (They were to fly over at the moment of the signing but were late, upwards of ten minutes. MacArthur apparently whispered to General Hap Arnold of the USAAF something to the effect of, “Now would be a good time, Hap,” with respect to his missing armada.)
It was the crew’s 21st mission. They were going home.
In Part 1, son S. Smisek said of his father that he hated to kill anything – even bugs. That was his character.
Capt. Ray Smisek returned home to his parents after the war and tried his hand in the Los Angeles real estate market; he also worked as a cook in a restaurant. He must have made one heckuva Sauerkraut, one of his favorites.
But… Ray Smisek had met a young woman while he and a back-seater were on a cross-country training flight in 1942. They were flying from Greenville, Mississippi when the BT-13 trainer developed engine trouble. To make matters worse, there was a bad storm. Not swell conditions when you’re training to be a pilot. Fortunately, the clouds miraculously parted and a small town below was bathed in forgiving sunlight. He said he did a barrel roll and dove through the break in the clouds. It turned out to be a rural airport in Springfield, MO (now known at the Springfield-Branson National Airport).
On the USAAF’s dime, he was put up in a posh hotel. After noticing “this sweet thing walk by” per his son, Ray Smisek asked a desk clerk if he knew who she was. Seeing the twinkle in his eye, the clerk contacted the gal’s father who agreed to let him meet his daughter…but under the father’s mindful eye. She apparently “had a guy”, so to speak, but they still ended up becoming pen pals. Those letters must have been so important to a young man off in a faraway place facing death at any time. It may have been fate but her beau tragically perished in a B-24 Liberator accident in England.
She was a singer in the “big bands” era of the 40’s and traveled extensively. Remembering there was no internet, Ray finally tracked her down in 1947. She was in Houston for a gig. His son tells me he drove for two days straight to get to where she was performing. Ray had a note he had written and asked a waiter to hand it to her. It said, “Let me take you home and love you forever. Ray!” The note is a precious heirloom; the family still has it.
After getting married, Ray re-enlisted in the newly organized USAF (It was separated from the US Army.). He flew for 16 more years in service of our country and retired from the USAF as a Colonel in 1963. Along the way, they had five children; one was born at each station at which he was assigned. Talk about the hardships of a military family.
S. Smisek explained to me that his father rarely, if ever, talked about his time at war while he was growing up. That was very typical, you see. His son wrote very eloquently:
When I was growing up, he never spoke much of his time during the war. When asked about those times, I could see a sullenness come over his face, then he would most often ask me another question just to change the subject. In those rare exchanges when he would answer, he made it very clear that he desired no recognition for what he had done. He desired no contact with his fellow comrades, felt no honor for the devastation he had helped cause, and amazingly to me, felt no affection whatsoever for the incredible aircraft which had brought he and his crew back safely from so many missions over so many horrible places.
He, along with the rest of these brave young men, was an ordinary and yet an extraordinary human being – a person who offered some of his life’s most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so that countless others would have the freedom to accomplish theirs.
Raymond B. Smisek was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer in 1989 and passed away at home, surrounded by his family, in August 1990. He was just 70 years old. His son believes his father also suffered from another cancer – one related to unhealed scars from war. His son said they were cancers of the soul and spirit, much more damaging than those of the body. His wife – the singer in the big bands of the ’40s – passed away in 2001.
Please visit his son’s tribute to the men of the 330th Bombardment Group at www.330th.org. For the sake of the families of the WWII airmen, S. Smisek has researched and brought many of the pieces together of what it was like for their fathers at war. Through his website and in a sterling triumph several years ago, S. Smisek played a key role in coordinating the meeting of a Japanese gentleman living in Canada with a B-29 pilot from his father’s squadron. Seventy years earlier, the Japanese gentleman was in Kumagaya Japan as an eight year old, running from the bombs being dropped from the pilot’s aircraft. The two finally met and it was moving and emotional moment per S. Smisek. For an article of the meeting, please click here.
There was no escaping bombardment for Aunt Eiko, even after moving to Fukui slightly inland from the Japan Sea; the US Navy shelled their farming neighborhood heavily. She also vividly remembers a small group of high school aged Japanese soldiers relaxing at the nearby beach and still cries inside knowing their fate.
Preceded by my mother, Aunt Eiko and grandma returned to Tokyo sometime in mid-September to find it in shambles. People were living in lean-to’s, she said, and running water still had not yet been re-established in devastated areas. Food was a tremendous daily hurdle. She cannot recall when but she remembers it was such a relief when MacArthur began rationing out beans and drinkable water…but it was American beans. Still, the beans were appreciated.
But their greatest savior surviving the first few months after war’s end was another relative – an American. An American of Japanese descent that is. Taro Tanji was born in Livingston, CA but was drafted out of the Amache War Relocation Center in Colorado by the US Army. He became a member of the famed Military Intelligence Service.
He arrived in Tokyo at war’s end as part of the US 8th Army’s Occupation Force. Through his intelligence connections, he was able to track down Aunt Eiko and family in a suburb called “Toritsu Daigaku”. Some of it had miraculously escaped burning.
Driving up in his US Army jeep, he stayed at their house every weekend. Each time, he would bring a duffle bag filled with C-rations, instant coffee and American cigarettes for my Grandfather (which he reluctantly accepted – funny story). Yes, Aunt Eiko ate the Spam and deviled ham. Taro managed to get in a good word and found both Aunt Eiko and my mother jobs at the PX.
Things were tough until the early 50’s. Dogs as pets were still rare as they also needed to be fed…but Aunt Eiko wanted dearly to achieve one of her dreams – to have a dog.
And so she did… She named him “Prince”, or “Puri” when you shorten “Pu-ri-un-su” pronounced in Japanese. She loved him until he passed away in 1968. She was devastated, of course. I think Puri was an escape from the war’s ugliness for her.
She met Paul Sakuma sometime in the late 60’s; he was a Hawaiian born Sansei who was also drafted by the US Army into the Military Intelligence Service by the US Army. He was attached to the 720th MP Battalion to serve as a translator. He told a funny story to Aunt Eiko where the MPs frequently raided certain types of “houses”… You know… GI’s were prohibited from “fraternizing with the enemy” so they would raid them. One time, there was a fellow MIS Nisei caught inside. He made sure the “howlies” couldn’t escape…but held the door open for the Nisei. After being discharged, he decided to stay in Tokyo to live and worked for the USAF as a civilian employee, using his knowledge of Japanese as a go-between.
They married but had no children – but a week before my first marriage in 1980, I got a phone call from Aunt Eiko in Tokyo. She was sobbing uncontrollably.
Uncle Paul had gone upstairs in their beautiful home he just had built for them after washing her car. He screamed, “Eiko!” It would be his last word; he suffered a massive heart attack and died, right there at the top of the stairs in his brand new home.
Soon after his death, Aunt Eiko immigrated to the US along with my grandmother. She became an US citizen about a dozen years ago.
In an irony, the country that bombed her city to ashes in 1945 bestowed upon her beloved husband Uncle Paul (as well as to Uncle Taro) the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010 for their service to the country. While both had passed away before the award, Aunt Eiko cried for happy when I surprised her with the medal. She said, “Even after all these years, Paul still brings me happiness.”
As for her childhood friends, she is all who remains now at 88 years of age, just like Old Man Jack. Her friend who was burned during the firebombings was one of the last to pass away. She was the tall girl standing behind Aunt Eiko atop the Asahi Newspaper Building on October 30, 1937 and shown here in 1963.
A most sincere thank you to S. Smisek without whom this series would not have been possible. I wish him continued fortune with his 330th Bomb Group’s website, helping those descendants piece together their father’s contribution in World War II.
Previous parts can be found by clicking on the links below:
“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.
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.
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.
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:
A drawing of the wood home in Omiya:
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
Capt. Ray Smisek loved to fly above all else per his son, S. Smisek. Indeed, he was a most capable pilot being the Aircraft Commander (A/C) of a B-29 of the 330th’s “City of San Francisco (SN 44-69800)“, a gleaming silver bird that carried ten other young men.
But he didn’t ask to be in that pilot’s seat in 1945 let alone be responsible for ten other young lives.
He had his orders. Orders from General Curtis LeMay.
Per Aviation History Online Museum, “the B-29 (initially) had a maximum permissible weight of around 105,000 pounds which was quickly upgraded to 138,000 pounds. During the latter phases of the war with Japan, gross take-off weights of well over 140,000 pounds were fairly common for the Superfortress.
A whopping 40% of the fuselage was dedicated to carrying bombs. The double bomb bay could carry 16,000 pounds to a target 2,050 miles away and return to base. It took 6,988 gallons of 100 octane aircraft fuel to fill the tanks. The maximum capacity was 9,548 gallons with ferry-tanks in the bomb bays, in which case the range was extended to 6,000 miles.” 
If the crew was lucky to return, they would have logged over 15 hours in the round trip from their airstrip on Guam to Tokyo.
As you complain today about the leg room on your five hour flight to New York , think about their 15-hour flights. No flight attendant. No movie…and you certainly aren’t shot at. 
The Decision to Firebomb
Without getting into detail, Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell was in command of XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas in 1944. Dismal bombing results were being attained by the B-29s flying out of China, primarily due to only 5% of the bombs hitting target from 30,000′. One other significant contributor to the poor results was the before-mentioned unreliability of the B-29 engines. They had a tendency to overheat during the climb to bombing altitude or at other inconvenient times. Many young lives were lost and not due to enemy fire. In addition, the wind currents over Japan were wicked; bombs dropped from even 20,000′ would land nearly a mile away off target. 
The USAAF – particularly the cigar smoking and belligerent General Curtis LeMay – was dissatisfied with Hansell’s leadership of XXI Bomber Command. LeMay took over in January 1945. Even under LeMay’s command, the same poor results were initially obtained but after “successful” bombing missions over Kobe and Tokyo, LeMay officially changed his overall bombing strategy: he ordered the B-29s designed for high-altitude bombing to go in at 5,000′ to 9,000’…and to carry incendiaries along with smaller fragmentation bombs. LeMay had also been inspired by the bombing of Dresden. 
Ray Smisek, Captain of the “City of San Francisco”, had his orders. His crew was bound for Japan.
They say ballet is a difficult art form that yields beautiful results. Timing, training and execution. It all pays off at the end.
However, no one dies.
Indeed, to get hundreds of B-29s laden with jellied gasoline bombs and 8,000 gallons of high octane fuel into the air was like a ballet. It took timing, intensive training and execution.
But men died. It was not a simple task even when perfectly executed.
Because these laden B-29s were at their weights limits and powered by four unreliable behemoth engines, some planes crashed during take-off due to engine malfunction.
Perhaps you can imagine the thoughts racing through Capt. Smisek’s head as his B-29 thundered down the runway, straining to achieve sufficient airspeed to lift off – before he got to the end of the runway.
Pilots knew anything could happen during a mission. A plane could have turned back due to mechanical problems or crashed. No flight plan EVER went according to plan so two basic approaches to bombing Japan existed: one for daylight bombing and one for night time bombing.
Briefly, once in the air, B-29s would fly individually to an assembly point about 100 miles from Japan for daylight bombing. They flew “on their own”, so to speak, as fuel was a high concern. Flying in formation will consume more fuel and individual pilots could adjust for their own flight environment. Every gallon DID count. Upon a signal from the navigator, the captain would nudge the huge plane up to bombing altitude, normally 20,000′ to 30,000′. This climb was also another precarious phase: engines could overheat and they did. If they overheated too much, they would erupt in fire. If not put out, the fire would quickly burn through the wing spar with disastrous results.
While no one knew exactly how many B-29s would make it to the assembly point, the planes that got there would line up with a “lead” plane at the assembly point then follow the lead to target (Capt. Smisek was such a lead plane.). They would likely be in flights of three to four but no more than ten (i.e., three formations). When the lead dropped their ordnance, so would the others. S. Smisek reported his father “…comment(ed) once about how the B-29 would lurch up as 10 tons of bombs were released”.
For the night time firebombing raids, the B-29s would still take-off from Guam at one minute intervals but each would have their own course and altitude. However, before the rest of the squadron arrived, pathfinders made their drops first. They would literally criss-cross over their target and drop their incendiaries, a conceptual “X marks the spot” with fires.  That general “X” area became the target for the ensuing planes.
While very few photographs exist of the B-29s that night for obvious reasons, perhaps these daytime images largely provided by S. Smisek will illustrate the deathly hazards his father and crew undertook during their bombing missions to Japan. Many other privately taken pictures – many of the men – can be seen in his photostream; merely click on the images.
All crew members knew their fate if they bailed out over Japan. Pilots were urged to head out to sea if at all possible and ditch in hopes of being rescued by Allied ships. If the damage was not excessive, their goal would be Iwo Jima, just taken by the US Marines. In fact, one landed while the battle for Iwo Jima was still going. She would be the first of hundreds of B-29s to be saved.
The most devastating bombing attack in history occurred on March 9-10, 1945. While the actual number CANNOT be officially established, roughly 100,000 civilians perished that first night. In comparison, the first atomic blast over Hiroshima claimed about 80,000 lives on August 6, 1945; many were Korean slave laborers while others were Allied POWs. While this first firebombing mission is the most well known, other firebombing missions were just as terrifying – for those in the air or on the ground. While Capt. Smisek made his first incendiary drop over Japan on April 12th, the terror was the same.
The US military deemed the factories scattered about in Tokyo needed to be shut down. The bombers’ primary target was the industrial district just inland of Tokyo Bay. This is where intelligence determined the factories, docks and the homes of the workers who supplied the labor for Japan’s war industry were located. The area was a heavy concentration of Japanese traditional style wood and paper homes. My aunt lived one of these in the target area through high school.
In the few days before the attack, solitary B-29s flew over Tokyo at night, setting off search lights and flak. No bombs were dropped as these brave souls were testing Japanese reaction to their night time intrusion. In other words, they were scouts that actually wanted to be found by the enemy.
On the night of March 9-10, 334 B-29s weighing about 70 tons each began their 15+ hour flight to Tokyo; each plane took off in one minute intervals maintaining radio silence. As each plane was loaded with 40 clusters, the potential total number of individual AN-M69s to be released over Tokyo that night would be about 450,000 sticks (small amounts of other ordnance was dropped).
Twelve B-29 pathfinders were deployed in this attack; their mission was to set up to five targets in Tokyo. Depending on the report, the very first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo at about 10:30 pm flying into a strong headwind. They were met with intense flak and searchlights. The other pathfinders arrived in succession afterwards, each marking the targets for individual planes that were following.
One by one, the initial B-29s approached on their individual courses and altitudes ranging from 5,000′ to 9,000′, seeking out the fires set by the pathfinders. Bombardiers released the incendiary clusters accordingly over target. When the clusters broke apart between 2,500′ and 5,000′ and released the individual AN-M69 sticks, the swirling wind scattered them about. As one stick would puncture through a roof or otherwise hit a building, these sticks – capable of shooting flame 100 feet if unobstructed – would ignite three to five seconds later. This would happen 450,000 times that night if all ordnance had ignited without fail.
The stream of B-29s stretched for hundreds of miles; the bombing continued for over three hours. Fires raged out of control. Winds fanned the fires so intensely that temperatures at street level reached over 1,800F, bubbling asphalt. Fire crews were amateur, comprised mostly of women as the able men had been sacrificed for war. If someone escaped the fire, the likelihood was high that person would still suffocate to death as the firestorm consumed oxygen to feed itself.
By the time the trailing B-29s approached, the crews were tossed around by the swirling heat thermals rising from Tokyo. Some reported their B-29 bomber weighing 60 tons was thrust upward by 1,800 feet. Others vomited after smelling the intense stench of burning flesh permeating through their aircraft. Another crew member described the inferno below as flying over a forest of burning Christmas trees. These were young men just like Capt. Ray Smisek – if not younger.
Fourteen B-29s and their crews of eleven each did not return – 154 young men. Most of the planes were lost from the intense updrafts from the firestorm. Two collided over target from the effects of the dense smoke and heat thermals. It was a miracle more were not lost. 
The fire ran out of things to burn once it reached Tokyo Bay and concrete structures. Fire crews had nothing to do with it. The all clear was sounded at about 5 AM.
The raid achieved General LeMay’s goals and his crews did as ordered. Again, while estimates will always vary, about 13 square miles of Tokyo ceased to exist; that is more than half the size of current day Manhattan. Over a quarter-million homes and buildings were burned to the ground – including my Aunt Eiko’s childhood home.
Hope you will stayed tuned. The view from the ground in Part 4.
Edit: You can view the other chapters in this series by clicking on the links below:
1. B-29 specifications, courtesy of S. Smisek; an average load would be 20,000 tons:
2. A sample flight plan to a Japanese target, courtesy of S. Smisek:
3. Per S. Smisek, a contributor to the initial bombing inaccuracy was the B-29’s encounter with what is now known as the Jet Stream; this occurred as the B-29’s pressurized compartment enabled the aircraft to fly at higher altitudes (in the 23-39,000′ range).
4. LeMay understood the consequences of his command decision. If America were to lose the war, he would be charged as a war criminal. In addition to a “bat bomb” that was actually developed by the US military, S. Smisek reports LeMay’s planners came up with dropping delayed explosive ordnance. These were anywhere from 20lb all the way to 500lb GP HE that had up to a 30 minute delay fuse. These were employed to kill the personnel that were dispatched to put out the fires from the incendiary bombs.
5. Per S. Smisek, the pathfinders also carried a variety of GP (General Purpose) HE (High Explosive) bombs to break up the target area.
6. In WWII, over 250,000 US airmen were killed, far surpassing those troops lost on the ground.
That’s what we called them here in the States; nicknames for the Boeing B-29 bomber.
My aunt called them “地獄からのトンボ” or dragonfly from hell.
The development of the B-29 actually started before WWII began for the US – in 1939. Perhaps there were some shenanigans back then but Boeing had engineered a pressurized cockpit for their B-17 Flying Fortress (from whence the nickname Superfortress hailed from) for the USAAF. Conveniently, the USAAF put together in 1939 a call for a new bomber capable of 400 mph while carrying a 20,000 pound payload. The B-29 was born.
Her development was not smooth. Indeed, it was the most advanced aircraft design of its time with its pressurized crew compartment and ten remote control dual .50 caliber Browning machine guns. The second prototype YB-29 crashed into the Frye Packing Plant in Seattle killing her pilot, Eddie Allen, all ten of her crew of engineers as well as 19 workers on the ground. (In fact, two engineers managed to bail out over Seattle but they were too low for their parachutes to deploy.) As an indication of things to come, an engine caught fire 20 minutes into the flight causing the horrendous crash. As the plane was secret, there was a tremendous cover-up as well.
The production of the B-29 was a nightmare. Due to immensity of the aircraft for its time, there were no manufacturing facilities large enough to house it let alone build it. Four assembly plants were utilized with Boeing’s Wichita plant eventually becoming the hub. The plane’s complexity exacerbated the production; over a thousand sub-contractors were involved. Production changes were so prevalent, numerous and on-going that even when a B-29 had been assembled, it was towed to a holding area in Wichita to have major modifications done post-production. The freezing weather also made work a nightmare. Production was so poor that even when about 97 were delivered in 1943, only about 15 were flyable.
Some examples of these major flaws included:
Defective pressure seals around cockpit windows and gunner blisters;
As each plane had about ten miles of wiring and electronics, there were numerous failures;
The analog computers used for the new “remote control” machine guns were problematic; and,
As as mentioned, the engines overheated to the point of being set on fire during flight.
Because production of the first B-29’s were done “on the run”, the first 100 built were really built by hand by unskilled laborers. Each one differed from another. One end result of this production on the run was that there were significant differences in weight between supposedly identical bombers.
Only personal intervention by the great General Hap Arnold improved the production problem… but it took months.
The first combat deployment of the B-29 occurred from the China-Burma-India theater of war on June 4, 1944. Ninety-eight B-29s flew to targets in Thailand. However, the results were dismal (Reports indicate perhaps one bomb hit target. Most bombs landed two kilometers off target.). As another indicator of things to come, five B-29s were lost during the mission. They were not lost due to enemy fire; they crashed due to mechanical failure.
Under the command of Curtis “Iron Pants” LeMay, the first bombing mission to Japan occurred on June 15, 1944. Sixty-eight B-29s took off from bases around Chengdu and bombed a steel plant in Yahata, Japan. As a first indicator of an ugly pattern, only 47 of the 68 B-29’s reached their target.
As in the XB-29 prototype crash, the engines were the most serious operational defect. They utilized the 2,200 hp Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engine with 18 cylinders in two rows. One central design defect rested within the top five cylinders of the radial engine. These radial engines needed massive air flow to cool them off. Unfortunately, engine shortcomings, i.e., engine failures, led to a number of crashes at take off when the planes were fully loaded with ordnance or at other unfortunate times during their long flights. Engines needed overhaul or replacement only after about 75 hours of operation to give you an idea of their unreliability. Bombing missions to Tokyo averaged 15 hours in the air.
Later models – the B-29B or ‘”Silverplate”¹ – would be stripped of all defensive armament except for the tail gun.
Imagine being on the plane during that time flying over thousands of miles of ocean…exponentially worsened if you were under attack.
I wonder what unpleasant thoughts kept gnawing at Capt. Ray Smisek and his crew during one of their missions.
He was flying the Chevy Citation of the skies.
In essence, there were many combinations of bombs used in the bombing of Tokyo. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on a couple.
The AN-M69 Incendiary Bomb was a cluster-type jellied gasoline (napalm) weapon; the gel would be contained in a cheesecloth sack then enclosed in a metal tube. The Standard Oil Development Company started work on the weapon two months before Pearl Harbor. The engineering goal was to develop an incendiary device with as little magnesium as possible due to supply constraints. The objective of this weapon was to simply burn things (and the enemy) up. Ironically, German buildings were the initial target but as the war progressed, use against Japanese targets became the focus.
The most common cluster assembly (the M19) held 38 individual AN-M69s, nicknamed “Tokyo Calling Cards” by her crews; the B-29s would release the M19s 5,000 feet above a target. As the M19 canister would break open, the force of the wind would deploy the streamer attached to each AN-M69 stick. As the individual AN-M69s scattered in the air stream, they would orient themselves to the nose-down position. The M1 fuse would activate after hitting the ground or target, then would lay there 3 to 5 seconds allowing the stick to lay on its side. After those seconds, the explosive charge would disperse the burning jellied gasoline, clinging to anything it touched.
For a USAAF film taken of its assembly and testing:
Each B-29 could carry 40 M19 canisters in their bomb bays with each canister carrying 38 AN-M69s. Using simple (non-common core) multiplication, that would be 1,520 AN-M69s per each B-29. A raid could involve hundreds of B-29s.
There were other variations of this concept, such as the M17s.
We have all been camping at one time or another. When we try to start a campfire “the old way”, the kids would be sent about looking for smaller twigs and branches to be used as kindling. Larger logs would then be placed upon the then burning kindling.
The AN-M41 was a 20 pound fragmentation bomb, held in clusters. There is nothing very unique about this weapon. Upon hitting a target, it’s mission was to simply break things up upon impact. Smaller pieces would then be easier to burn, much like kindling in concept.
I would think it would take immense courage to be flying in an aircraft being shot at while carrying these explosives. In colloquial terms, it took balls.
Lots of it. You were in a flying gasoline tanker.
The perilous B-29 missions will be coming next in Part 3.
Hope you’ll stay tuned.
Edit: You can find the other chapters in the links below:
1 Ironically, the secret codeword Colonel Paul Tibbetts of the Enola Gay was given by General Hap Arnold while assembling his atomic bombing group was “Silverplate”. If Tibbetts encountered any administrative SNAFU, he could get anything ordered by using the secret codeword.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family