Actual photo of firestorm in Tokyo during a firebombing mission. Courtesy of S. Smisek.
The Long, Perilous Flight to Tokyo
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.
A drawing by S. Smisek showing his father and the crew of the “City of San Francisco” at their respective stations.
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. 
Wind currents and cloud cover over Japan. National Archives.
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.
Capt. Smisek’s B-29 was at the upper left. For a detailed description of how these huge, bomb laden B-29s would take off for a mission to Japan, please see S. Smisek’s write up at https://flic.kr/p/49N5vr.
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.
B-29 formations such as this one rarely occurred for bombing attacks on Japan. Source unknown.
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.
(Lower left) Per S. Smisek, the cockpit had been sheared off and the B-29 has rolled over onto its back. All lost. (NOTE: that is smoke, not clouds; notice the double bomb bay doors are open.)
Another B-29, a squadron mate of Capt. Ray Smisek, disintegrates after suicide planes rams it. Although two apparently bailed, they were later killed. All KIA. Courtesy of S. Smisek.
Flak bursts amongst B-29s during the dropping of bombs. Courtesy of S. Smisek.
B-29 crash site in Japan. Undated. Tail number visible. Source unknown.
More wreckage from a crashed B-29 in Japan. Japanese citizens surround the tail. Source unknown.
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.
Ray Smisek’s handwritten mission log with daytime missions on the left, nighttime missions on the right. Aborted missions (two) are on another log page. The one mission not on his handwritten log was his last: the flyover of Tokyo Bay after the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. Indeed, Smisek was part of that great aerial armada.
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.
Actual AN-M69 with its infamous ribbon-like streamers. Courtesy S. Smisek.
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.
Burned out areas stretched from the bay at left to the Imperial Palace. USAAF photograph.
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.
A view from a B-29 cockpit, or “Greenhouse” as it was nicknamed. While the smoke rising above Kobe, it should give you an idea of what Tokyo may have looked like. Courtesy of S. Smisek.
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.
For Part I, click here.
For Part II, click here.
1. B-29 specifications, courtesy of S. Smisek; an average load would be 20,000 tons:
Assembling the incendiary bomb clusters on Guam for the next mission. (NOTE: Depending on the article read, this B-29 in Capt. Smisek’s 330th BG was still armed with the .50 caliber Browning machine guns.) Courtesy of S. Smisek.
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.