What was Operation Meetinghouse?

Operation Meeting House was the code name for a massive firebombing raid conducted by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. It took place on the night of March 9-10, 1945, and targeted the city of Tokyo, Japan.

The raids involved the dropping of about 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs, causing a firestorm that devastated a large part of the city. It is estimated that around 100,000 civilians were killed, and much of Tokyo was left in ruins. This raid was one of the most destructive air attacks of the war and remains one of the deadliest single bombing raids in history.

But why were the air raids carried out in the first place? What bombers did the pilots fly? And how devastating were they?

Below, World History Edu provides answers to those questions and other popular questions about the devastating Tokyo air raids in March 1945:

Planning of the operation

Wanting to permanently bring Japan to heel, the US Army Air Forces came to a realization that in order to carry out those air raids on Japan it had to set up air bases not too far from the Asian country.

Majority of those air bases were established on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. The island had been captured in 1942. Thereafter, US military bases sprang up on islands such as Guam, Tinian and Saipan.

The airfields were then populated by B-29 bombers, the very sophisticated bombers that would eventually lay many Japanese cities to waste in 1945.

Unbeknownst to many, the US had contingency plans in place in case Nazi Germany was able to overrun Britain. The decision was made that those B-29 bombers would feature heavily in air raids against enemy forces in the event of that.

US General LeMay

The rationale for using B-29, which was the most advanced of in WWII

The B-29 bomber, also known as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, is a four-engine heavy bomber developed by the United States during World War II. It was one of the most advanced bombers of its time, capable of flying at high altitudes and long distances. The B-29 played a crucial role in several major air campaigns, including the bombing raids on Japan and the Pacific theater during the war.

For more than two decades, leading military engineers in the U.S. had worked on developing a bomber that possessed not just heated fuselages but also ones that were pressurized. This advanced feature of the B-29 bomber allowed pilots to operate the aircraft at more than 17,000 feet without the need for oxygen masks.

The advantage of such high altitude-flying aircrafts was that the bomber became out of range of anti-aircraft guns on the ground. It also meant that the bombers could operate for some period of time before enemy fighter aircraft could catch up with them.

B-29 bombers used by the US during World War II

Weighing at an average of 37 tons, the B-29 Superfortress, the aircraft used in Operation Meetinghouse and other bombing campaigns during World War II, had a substantial bomb-carrying capacity. It could carry up to 20,000 pounds (approximately 9,000 kilograms) of bombs in its bomb bays. The type of bombs used were the M69 incendiary cluster bombs.

Tactics used by the bombers

During the air raids on Tokyo in 1945, the B-29 bombers employed several tactics to maximize their effectiveness and sadly to cause as much damage to civilian areas in the city:

  1. Night Bombing: Many raids were conducted during the night to exploit the element of surprise and reduce the visibility of anti-aircraft defenses.
  2. Low-Level Attacks: In some cases, B-29 bombers flew at low altitudes to avoid radar detection and decrease the accuracy of enemy anti-aircraft fire.
  3. Incendiary Bombing: One of the most devastating tactics used was dropping incendiary bombs (i.e. fire bombs), which caused widespread fires, especially in densely populated areas with wooden structures. The goal was to create firestorms that would overwhelm firefighting efforts and cause massive destruction. The US military planners took cognizance of the fact that Tokyo had majority of its structures built using wood.
  4. Formation Flying: B-29 bombers often flew in tight formations to concentrate their firepower and improve their chances of successfully hitting their targets.
  5. Precision Bombing: While incendiary bombing was prevalent, precision bombing was also used to target specific military and industrial installations, such as factories, shipyards, and transportation hubs.
  6. Fighter Escort: To protect the bombers from enemy fighters, P-51 Mustangs and other fighter planes often provided escort cover during the raids.
  7. Radar Jamming: Some bombers used radar jamming equipment to disrupt Japanese radar systems and decrease the enemy’s ability to track and intercept the incoming raids.
  8. Area Bombing: The focus of the raids was not on specific military or industrial targets but on causing general destruction and disrupting civilian life.
  9. Multiple Waves: Raids were often conducted in multiple waves, with follow-up bomber groups targeting the same area to sustain the firestorm.

These tactics were part of the broader strategy to weaken Japan’s war effort and compel them to surrender. The air raids played a significant role in the eventual end of World War II in the Pacific.

Formation used by the bombers

During the air raids on Tokyo in 1945, the B-29 bombers used a formation known as the “combat box” or “formation Echelon.” This formation was designed to maximize the defensive firepower of the bomber group while providing mutual support and protection against enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire.

In the combat box formation, the B-29 bombers flew in a staggered pattern, with each bomber flying slightly above and to the right of the one ahead of it. The bombers formed multiple layers, usually three or four, both horizontally and vertically, creating a box-like shape. This arrangement allowed each bomber to cover the blind spots of the aircraft ahead of it and offered better protection against enemy attacks from any direction.

The lead aircraft in the formation, known as the “lead ship,” was responsible for guiding the other bombers to the target and dropping marker flares to designate the aim point. The rest of the bombers would follow the lead ship’s actions to maintain the integrity of the formation during the bombing run.


The use of over 1450 tons of bombs

There was no doubt whatsoever that the United States was seeking to inflict the highest level of damage upon Tokyo and other Japanese cities during its 1945 air raids.

In the Tokyo air raids alone, more than 1450 tons of bombs were dropped on the city. This was largely possible because General LeMay had ordered for the removal of things deemed “unnecessary”, including the defensive parts, from the B-29 bombers so as to make for more room storage for the bombs. This decision to remove those defensive armaments left a palpable fear among the pilots and crew that were to fly the aircraft.

As the name suggests, the M69 incendiary cluster bombs were filled with small incendiary bomblets designed to create widespread fires and cause significant damage to urban areas. The bombs, along with other incendiary devices, were a key component of the firebombing campaign that devastated Tokyo and other Japanese cities during World War II. Image: Two M69 incendiary cluster bombs on display at the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

On the average, the B-29 Superfortress could carry up to 20,000 pounds (approximately 9,000 kilograms) of bombs in its bomb bays. This allowed it to deliver a significant payload of incendiary bombs during the air raids on Japan, which caused extensive damage and destruction to the targeted cities.

The use of incendiary cluster bombs contributed to the widespread destruction and loss of life during Operation Meetinghouse, the largest and deadliest air raid on Tokyo.

March 9: Start of the operation

Once dusk had fallen on March 9, orders were sent out to the crew of the B-29 bombers to make their way from airfields like Guam, Tinian and Saipan. Some pilots flew as much as 1,400 miles from the airfields to Tokyo.

Completely unaware of the disaster that awaited them, inhabitants of Tokyo went to bed on the night of March 9 hoping to wake up the following day and go ahead with their daily routine. As it turned out, many of them would not live to do this, as their homes were incinerated by the firebombs dropped by the United States Army Air Force.

At the start of the operation, the bombs were dropped steadily over the city, taking out key infrastructures. As the night rolled in, the air raid was intensified. And come the early A.M. hours of March 10, almost half a million bombs were dropped. The highly flammable gasoline in the bomb did all the damage as the bomb contained an ignition mechanism that was triggered upon impact.

The lucky ones that survived the initial onslaught quickly dashed out of their burning houses and made their way into the streets and intersections. There, the scenes were beyond hellish as bombs fell left, right and center. Screams were heard all around the city.

There were some that managed to make it to underground bomb shelters. But even that place wasn’t safe as the survivors quickly realized that the smoke from the fires outside could easily make it into the bunker and suffocate them to death. Therefore, the bomb shelters were no good in shielding people from the horrifying situation outside. Everything in the city – animals, stalls, houses, and people – simply burned.

Such was the intensity of the inferno that the bombers flying above soon had to deal with the smoke that entered their planes. This forced the bombers to move to slightly higher altitudes. While this happened, the pilots had to deal with a barrage of antiaircraft fire from the ground. This was probably the only defense that the Japanese could muster. Regardless, American airmen remained determined and evaded Tokyo’s defenses while still managing to drop more and more bombs on the city.

Many crewmen involved in the operation would later state that the inferno in the city could be seen several miles away from the city.

Devastation upon devastation

Operation Meetinghouse

It was absolute chaos in the hours that followed the bombings. People fled their burning homes and made it into the intersection, where the chaos even became more intense as the survivors tried their possible best to find safe spots. Almost every part of the city was littered with charred bodies. Image: A road passing through a part of Tokyo that was destroyed in the 10 March 1945 air raid

Although the air raids were over by sunrise on March 10, the inferno in Tokyo would perpetuate for an addition two or three days. The death toll from the air raids climbed to the tens of thousands.

The number of injured people was in the neighborhood of a million. Similarly, close to a million people in the city lost their homes. This created a severe refugee crisis across the country.

The air raids were seen as hugely successful as many of Tokyo’s industrial infrastructure had been decimated.

The use of firebombs during the air raids on Tokyo and other Japanese cities in 1945 contributed to the eventual surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in the Pacific.


Air raid on Tokyo on 26 May 1945

The March 9/10 firebombing of Tokyo was would be followed by bombings of other Japanese cities, including Toyama, Nagoya, Hamamatsu, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kagoshima. For example, the air raids on Toyama, which at the time had a population of about 95,000, resulted in more than 98% of the city being destroyed.

It must be noted the survivors of the March bombing of Tokyo received no respite after March. The city would have to endure a series of air raids in April and May. By the close of WWII, a significant part of the Japanese capital had been reduced to ashes.

Such were the effectiveness of the fire raids on Tokyo and other densely populated Japanese cities that some US war planners expected bombers to run of targets in Japan by the middle of 1945.

Like Tokyo’s, the devastation caused by napalm bombs would hardly get any sympathy at the time as the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 made all the headlines.

And despite the high death toll suffered across Japan, senior Japanese officials remained steadfast, vowing to retaliate in the heaviest manner possible. That resolve would only fade away after Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japan surrendered to the Allies in September 1945.

A few weeks before the surrender, Japanese Emperor Hirohito spoke to his nation announcing Japan’s willingness to surrender in order to prevent the nation from been reduced to literal ashes. Known as the Hirohito surrender broadcast or the Jewel Voice Broadcast, the speech was made via a radio broadcast on August 15.

Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri as American General Richard K. Sutherland watches, 2 September 1945.

Tokyo and the rest of Japan rebound

Despite the scale of destruction, Tokyo began the process of recovery almost immediately. The Japanese government and local authorities initiated emergency measures to assist survivors, clear debris, and restore essential services. Temporary housing and emergency shelters were set up for those who lost their homes. The authorities also worked to repair critical infrastructure, such as water supply, transportation, and communication networks.

With government support and the efforts of the Japanese people, the city’s infrastructure was rebuilt, new buildings and structures were erected, and Tokyo’s economy rebounded beginning around the 1950s. The city underwent significant urban development and modernization, becoming a major economic and cultural center not only in Japan but also on the global stage.

Today, Tokyo is one of the world’s most populous and vibrant cities, known for its modern architecture, advanced technology, and bustling urban life. The recovery from the devastating bombings of World War II remains a testament to the resilience and determination of the Japanese people to rebuild and create a better future.

Did you know…?

  • The death toll during the bombing of Tokyo was higher than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which took place later that year.
  • Compared to the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden, the Tokyo air raids received significantly less public attention. Also, unlike the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo inhabitants still don’t have any museum to commemorate the devastating event of March 10.
  • It is said that the tactics proposed by the US military planners caused a lot of shock to the pilots that were picked to carry out the operation. For example, the use of fire bombs on civilian populations, and the tactic of flying at low altitudes in order to cause as much devastation were some of the few things that completely startled the pilots.
  • On the back of the very successful military air raids of Tokyo and many other Japanese cities in early 1945, the B-29s were called on again for the dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the only use of nuclear weapons in combat.

Ashes of the victims and Memorial

From 1948 to 1951, the remains of 105,400 individuals who perished in the Tokyo attacks were laid to rest in Yokoamicho Park, Sumida Ward. In March 2001, a memorial dedicated to the raids was established within the park.

The park also holds a register of names, honoring those who lost their lives in the bombing, with 81,273 names recorded as of March 2020. It serves as a poignant reminder of the human toll of that tragic chapter in not just Japan’s history but the history of mankind.

Questions & Answers

Such was the devastation of the bombing of Tokyo in 1945 that the fires from the bombs lasted for a number of days after the air raid. Some say it was the extensive fire damage that left the city scarred beyond recognition.

Here is what you need to know:

Who planned the operation?

Months into WWII, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed to nations in the conflict to avoid inflicting unnecessary and avoidable suffering on civilian populations.

However, six years later, the U.S. would be the one to carry out a series of deadly strikes on civilian populations in Asia, especially in Japan. The U.S. basically abandoned its earlier policy.

Operation Meetinghouse was placed under the command of General Curtis LeMay of the US bombers in the Pacific. The mission of the operation was to destroy Tokyo’s industrial center.

It is interesting to note that General LeMay served in the Korean War. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay was one of the leading military officials that was in favor of a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviets. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force (1961 – 1965), he pushed for a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

How many tons of firebombs were used?

The US Army Air Force used more than 1500 tons of firebombs during the operation. The bombs were carried by B-29 bombers.

When did Operation Meetinghouse begin?

Operation Meetinghouse began on the night of March 9, 1945. It was part of the larger strategic bombing campaign carried out by the United States against Japan during World War II. The raid continued into the early hours of March 10, 1945, resulting in one of the most devastating and destructive air raids in history.

Why did bombers fly at low altitudes during the raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities?

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress is a four-engined propeller-driven heavy bomber. It was primarily used by the United States during World War II and the Korean War. Even though it was engineered for high-altitude strategic bombing, it proved versatile, excelling in low-altitude night incendiary bombing.

The US generals in charge of the operation had come to realize that when bombs were dropped from high altitudes – say 25,000 feet – the bombs often missed their targets. This was due the bad weather that more often than not sent the bombs to veer off target.

General LeMay devised a strategy to fix this. He instructed the pilots to fly at very low altitudes – between 5,000 and 7500 feet. The general also issued the command for the bombing to be done at night.

What formation did the bombers use?

The combat box formation provided a concentrated and coordinated attack on the target, and it allowed the B-29 crews to defend themselves more effectively against enemy interceptors. However, it also made the bomber group vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, as enemy defenses could concentrate their fire on the tightly packed formation. Despite this risk, the combat box proved to be an effective formation for the B-29s during their air raids on Tokyo in 1945.

Why did the operation use fire bombs?

A firebomb is a type of incendiary device designed to start fires and cause damage primarily through the spread of flames rather than an explosion.

It typically consists of a container filled with flammable materials, such as gasoline, napalm, or other combustible substances, along with a fuse or ignition mechanism. When the bomb is dropped or released, the container breaks open upon impact, releasing the flammable material, which then ignites and creates a fire.

The decision to use firebombs during the air raids on Japan in 1945 was primarily driven by several strategic and tactical considerations.

  1. Destruction of Urban Areas: Firebombing was chosen as a method to target and destroy densely populated urban areas, particularly in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. The goal was to cause maximum damage and disruption to industrial production, transportation networks, and civilian morale.
  2. Limited Resources: The United States faced limitations in its supply of high-explosive bombs. By using incendiary bombs, which required fewer raw materials to produce, they could increase the overall tonnage of bombs dropped and enhance the impact of their air raids.
  3. Fire Vulnerability: Japanese cities were largely made of wooden structures, which made them highly susceptible to fire. The use of firebombs was particularly effective in causing widespread and devastating conflagrations.
  4. Psychological Warfare: The firebombing raids were also intended to create fear and terror among the Japanese population, weakening their support for the war effort and potentially pressuring the Japanese government to surrender.
  5. Strategic Objectives: The air raids were part of the broader American strategy to cripple Japan’s industrial capacity, disrupt transportation and communication networks, and reduce the overall effectiveness of its military.

What was the purpose of the raid?

“Operation Meetinghouse,” also known as the Tokyo firebombing raids, was aimed to weaken Japan’s morale and industrial capacity during the latter stages of World War II. The firebombing of Tokyo resulted in one of the deadliest and most destructive attacks in history, causing significant civilian casualties and a massive firestorm that engulfed the city.

How many bombs were dropped during the operation?

The US Army Air Force used more than 1500 tons of firebombs during the operation. The bombs were carried by B-29 bombers.

How many civilians were killed during the raid?

The death toll from the raids on Japan on March 9/10 was in the tens of thousands. 100,000 is usually the figure stated.

Did the raid have any significant impact on Japan’s war efforts?

Yes, Operation Meetinghouse and the other air raids on Japan in 1945 had a significant impact on Japan’s war efforts. The firebombing raids caused extensive damage to Japan’s industrial infrastructure, disrupting production and transportation networks. This severely hampered Japan’s ability to manufacture weapons, munitions, and other essential war supplies.

The destruction of industrial facilities, along with the loss of skilled workers and engineers, further weakened Japan’s war capabilities. Additionally, the air raids demoralized the Japanese population and put a strain on their ability to provide support for the war.

The relentless bombing campaigns also diverted valuable resources and manpower to civil defense and firefighting efforts, drawing attention away from the war effort. This contributed to the erosion of Japan’s ability to sustain the war.

How did the Japanese authorities respond to the attack?

It would be an understatement to say that the Japanese authorities were shocked by the devastation caused by Operation Meetinghouse and the other air raids on Japan in 1945.

In response to the attacks, the Japanese authorities intensified their efforts to defend against further air raids. They attempted to strengthen their air defenses, but the damage caused by the bombing raids had already severely weakened Japan’s industrial and military infrastructure.

Despite the Japanese government’s efforts, the relentless bombing campaigns continued, leading to further devastation and contributing to Japan’s eventual surrender in August 1945. The bombing raids played a significant role in hastening the end of World War II in the Pacific.

Operation Meetinghouse, the firebombing raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities, was considered successful from a military standpoint.

What was the extent of the damage caused by the firebombing?

Survivors of the devastation would later recount the horrors of the air raids, with many stating that almost every part of the city was littered with charred bodies. Some also stated that the city was so hot that the asphalt in the street melted. The only safe place in the city were the banks of rivers.

It was estimated that about 17 square miles (around 42 square kilometers) of Tokyo was destroyed as result of the bombing.

The bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities was described by the emperor of Japan as an absolutely horrifying event. He called it a ‘great national loss’.

In terms of the death toll, the bombing of Tokyo was the most destructive bombing campaign of WWII. And it holds the unenviable honor of being the deadliest air raid in history.

Additionally, the bombing left more than a million civilians homeless. This was because majority of the buildings were made of wood. Therefore, when the bombs rained down on Tokyo, the resulting fire simply consumed large parts of the city. Image: Dispondent Japanese in the aftermath of Operation Meetinghouse

Was the US the only nation to use incendiary bombs during WWII?

During World War II, firebombs were extensively used by various countries, including the United States, Britain, and Japan.

Was Operation Meeting House considered successful from a military standpoint?

The raid achieved its objective of inflicting significant damage on Japan’s industrial and urban centers. The use of incendiary bombs resulted in massive firestorms that consumed large areas of the targeted cities, destroying factories, warehouses, and transportation facilities.

While the human cost of the bombing raids was tragic, with a significant loss of civilian lives, the strategic success of Operation Meetinghouse and subsequent firebombing raids played a crucial role in hastening Japan’s surrender and bringing an end to World War II in the Pacific.

The above explains why General LeMay was patted on the back as a hero, receiving several distinguished military medals. He even got appointed as the US Strategic Air Commander.

Was the bombing a war crime?

There is no doubt whatsoever that it is difficult to argue whether the air raids on Tokyo in 1945 were illegal under the international laws of the time. Image: Photograph taken of Ningyōchō district of Nihonbashi following Operation Meetinghouse

The bombing of Japanese cities, including Operation Meetinghouse, involved the use of incendiary bombs that caused widespread destruction and loss of civilian lives. The firebombing raids targeted urban areas and resulted in massive firestorms, causing immense suffering and devastation among the civilian population.

The question of whether the firebombing raids constituted a war crime is a complex and controversial issue. During World War II, the laws of war were less well-defined compared to modern international humanitarian law. The concept of “war crimes” was not as well-established as it is today.

While there were instances of civilian-targeted bombings throughout World War II, the strategic bombing campaigns were generally considered acceptable military strategies at the time. The Allied powers, including the United States, justified such bombings as necessary to weaken enemy industrial and military capabilities.

However, the firebombing raids on Japanese cities, including Operation Meetinghouse, have been the subject of retrospective criticism and debate. Some argue that the extensive destruction of civilian areas, especially when it was disproportionate to the military objectives, raises moral and legal questions about the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.

The bombings caused significant civilian casualties and raised ethical questions about the targeting of non-military targets. Quote: General LeMay, military planner of Operation Meetinghouse

How did Tokyo recover from the bombing?

The Japanese people showed resilience and determination to rebuild their city. With the end of World War II in 1945, Japan focused on rebuilding and reconstruction efforts. The process of recovery was challenging, as the country was dealing with widespread destruction, economic difficulties, and the challenges of demilitarization and democratization under the occupation forces.

Facts and figures

The psychological impact on the Japanese population was substantial. The devastation caused by the firebombing raids led to a sense of hopelessness and despair, weakening the resolve to continue the war.

Here are a few important facts about the operation:

From a strategic perspective, the firebombing raids disrupted Japan’s war production and weakened its ability to sustain the war effort. The destruction of key industrial facilities, coupled with the loss of skilled workers and engineers, severely impacted Japan’s ability to manufacture weapons and munitions.

  • The US used about more than 320 bombers (i.e. B-29 bombers) during Operation Meetinghouse on March 9-10, 1945. The bombers took off from mainly Guam and Saipan islands.
  • Out of the 320 something bombers that flew, less than 50 were destroyed by the Japanese defenses.
  • In defense of the city, Tokyo’s authorities used about 630 anti-aircraft guns and 90 fighter aircraft.
  • About 7500 civilian firefighters worked around the clock to put out the fires that engulfed the city.
  • More than a quarter of a million buildings were destroyed in Tokyo as a result of Operation Meetinghouse. This left over a million people homeless.

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