Japan marks 60th anniversary of Tokyo firebombing

Amid recollections of horror and solemn vows of peace, Japan today commemorated the day 60 years ago when US bombers burned Tokyo to the ground in a firebombing that killed 100,000 people, nearly all of them civilians.

Amid recollections of horror and solemn vows of peace, Japan today commemorated the day 60 years ago when US bombers burned Tokyo to the ground in a firebombing that killed 100,000 people, nearly all of them civilians.

Hundreds of survivors burned incense and clasped their hands in prayer for the victims at a memorial hall for the air raid in Tokyo this morning, and a series of speakers pledged to forever avoid the scourge of war.

“I hate war. Nothing is more important than world peace,” declared survivor Heiyo Majima, 75, ahead of the ceremony, which was attended by Prince Akishino - a grandson of wartime Emperor Hirohito.

The March 9-10, 1945, air raid was one of the great cataclysms of the Second World War, and a terrifying example of the then-widespread targeting of civilians.

In a single night, 334 B-29 Superfortress bombers carpeted Tokyo with 500,000 incendiary cylinders,sparking fires that spread with deadly speed through the cramped wooden homes and buildings of densely populated areas.

Survivors describe visions of hell: mothers killed while cradling their babies; parks and streets piled with incinerated, charcoal-black corpses; rivers and canals choked with the bodies of victims who hoped in vain the water would save their lives.

Superheated air rose to the sky, creating a whirlwind that sucked victims into the flames and fed twisting infernos. The turbulence was so strong it terrified the pilots of the B-29 bombers far above the city.

“I feel great sorrow thinking of the victims’ lives lost in the air raid,” Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, 72, who spent the war at his family’s home in a Tokyo suburb, said at an afternoon commemoration that drew 2,000 people.

“In order to achieve everlasting peace on earth, we have to further strengthen mutual understanding with people around the world.”

Despite the destruction, the Tokyo raid has long been overshadowed in history by the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That was reflected on today in Japan, where the commemorations received only perfunctory news coverage and top national officials had little to say about the anniversary.

Still, the Tokyo attack killed more people immediately than either atomic explosion, and is widely considered the most devastating air raid ever.

Along with the February 1945 bombardment of Dresden, Germany, the attack on Tokyo marked a new chapter in the Allies’ willingness to incinerate whole cities - and their civilian residents – in the quest for Second World War victory.

The official death toll was 83,000, but historians, considering the destruction of records and the chaos following the attack – generally agree about 100,000 people died in that one night of fire.

The attack and the suffering it brought are widely seen in Japan as a lesson in the evils of militarism, and many there readily acknowledge that the destruction of their country was largely a result of Tokyo’s wartime imperialism and the attack on Pearl Harbour that triggered the Pacific War.

Many in the US viewed the attack as an unfortunate necessity in a total war against an implacable foe. Planners at the time wanted to break Japanese morale and wipe out factories interspersed among urban residences.

Some feel the terror of the air raid and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the effect of turning the Japanese off forever to militarism.

“I think its greatest achievement was that it turned the samurais into pacifists,” said Thomas Searle, a historian at the Airpower Research Institute, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “It brought home the downside of military adventurism.”

Majima remembers that downside in vivid detail.

He was hiding with his sister in a rudimentary underground shelter near his Tokyo home that night when approaching flames prompted them to flee.

With terrifyingly huge B-29s roaring overhead, he raced ahead of the fires to a clearing around a nearby train terminal.

“I thought they were more like monster birds rather than planes,” Majima recalled as survivors lit incense outside the memorial hall and put flowers in an urn. “I thought it was some kind of dream. I just couldn’t believe it.”

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