There is a general consensus that the closing days of World War II went something like this: On August 6, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. After a couple of days of communications, Japan agreed to surrender terms on August 14, and the actual surrender document was signed on September 2, 1945, ending the war.
That chronology is correct, but it leaves out a significant number of important events that affected the surrender. Both the Soviet Union and Mongolia declared war on Japan following the attack on Nagasaki, the Chinese Civil War resumed, Korea was invaded by Russia, the Allies had a resounding victory over the Japanese forces in the Philippines, and the United States dropped leaflets warning of future nuclear attacks on all the major Japanese cities—all of these events happened in the week following the bombing of Hiroshima.
One event that is missing from this list, which is rarely mentioned in history books (or in war documentaries, or in Hollywood movies), is the last bombing mission of the war, when over 1,000 American planes attacked cities across Japan. The event is rarely mentioned for two reasons: First, the bombing raid is relatively unimportant compared with the enormous consequences of the end of the war or the first use of nuclear weapons. Second, many accounts of the last days of the war focus on the morality of using those nuclear weapons. (An argument that I have no interest in reviving in a blog post of only 1,241 words.)
By November of 1944, the United States was able to begin devastating strategic bombing raids on Imperial Japan. The production of thousands of long-range B-29 bombers (each capable of dropping up to ten tons of explosives), coupled with suitable runways built on the recaptured Marianas Island, meant that twice the monthly tonnage of bombs that had been dropped on Germany could now be dropped on Japan.
In addition, the bombing raids on Japan were more destructive because the United States had made improvements in the incendiary explosives that proved to be particularly effective on the type of construction used in Japanese cities. The use of incendiary bombs on Tokyo in the spring of 1945 were so effective that the city was ruled out as a possible target for nuclear weapons—in part because the city had suffered so much devastation that it was feared that Japanese officials would not be able to appreciate the destructiveness of the atomic bomb.
Nicknamed “firebombing”, incendiary raids on Japanese industry were far more effective than using conventional explosives owing to the Japanese custom of putting factories in densely populated areas of cities. Realizing the effectiveness of this new tactic, American napalm production increased by 700% in 1944. In the test of the new tactics, American bombers destroyed a square mile of the industrial area of Tokyo.
Click on the photo at left to enlarge it. While at first glance, this looks like Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the nuclear attack, this is Shizuoka after it was firebombed in June, 1944.
A string of islands in the Marianas had been turned into bomber bases, each capable of launching 80 to 120 large bombers. From the Marianas, the bombers flew 1,500 miles to Japan—the equivalent of taking off in Canada to bomb Mexico. Along the way, as the bombers passed Iwo Jima, they were joined by fighter plane escorts of P-51 Mustangs outfitted with belly tanks to extend their range. After dropping the bombs on their targets, the planes reversed course, landing back in the Marianas more than fifteen hours after they had taken off. These were the longest bombing missions ever undertaken.
Most people are still surprised to learn that the single most deadly aerial bombing mission during World War II did not use nuclear weapons. On March 9, 1945, 334 B-29 bombers based in the Marianas dropped 1,667 tons of napalm and petroleum jelly cluster bombs on Tokyo. More than 100,000 people died, injuring several times that number and destroying 267,000 buildings. This remains the highest death toll on any air raid in history, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The raid was roughly four times as destructive as the firebombing of Dresden, which had occurred a month earlier.
On August 10, the day after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese began preliminary surrender talks with the United States, generally agreeing to the terms previously laid out in the Potsdam Conference, but insisting on allowing Hirohito to keep his historical titles and powers—a rather large exception to the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies.
During this time, two smaller bombing raids were conducted by the Army Air Corps. A night time raid was conducted against an oil target, and a precision daytime raid, on a factory in Tokyo. The next day, all strategic bombing was canceled by President Truman, to encourage the Japanese to continue negotiations for surrender. Truman also knew that if bombing continued, it might appear that the talks had stalled, resulting in a loss of morale in Americans who were already jubilant at the prospect of an end to the war.
On August 13, American bombers once more took to the air, but the payloads were leaflets that outlined the Japanese government’s conditional offer to surrender. All major Japanese cities were targeted to receive the propaganda. This was actually the third time in less than thirty days that leaflets had been dropped. The first, on August 3, had been dropped by the millions on 33 cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) warning that America had the military power to utterly destroy Japanese cities. Nicknamed the “Lemay Leaflets”, it pictured five B-29 bombers firebombing Yokohama. On their second mission, following the bombing of Hiroshima, warning leaflets that included a photo of the mushroom cloud over that city were dropped, warning citizens of specific cities that they should evacuate these targets immediately.
When the surrender negotiations had made no progress, the President allowed bombing to resume on August 14. General Hap Arnold planned for the largest bombing mission in history—over a thousand planes to attack multiple Japanese cities at the same time. There were 828 B-29’s escorted by 186 P-51 fighter planes, for a total of 1,014 aircraft, that attacked targets at Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki (the last two targets were firebombed). The farthest target, the Nippon Oil Refinery at Tsuchizakiminato, was destroyed.
That last target is all but unpronounceable for Americans, so it is usually listed in history books as Tsuchizaki—or even more likely, Akita after a town five miles from the refinery. Today, a memorial to the more than 250 civilians killed in the raid stands at Akita.
During the return flight of their fifteen-hour mission, the planes received a radio message informing them that after their successful attack, Japan had radioed an acceptance of Allied surrender terms. At noon, the next day, August 15, Emperor Hirohito made a radio broadcast announcing his country’s intention to surrender.
The longest air raid (and the largest air raid of the war) is all but forgotten today, rarely mentioned in history books or listed in timelines of the war. When the planes took off, the world was at war and by the time they all landed (and all returned safely), the world was—at least temporarily—at peace.