On Aug. 1, 1945, 12-year-old Hideko Sudo went to bed fully clothed and full of worry. For days, air raid alerts had left the coastal city of Toyama on edge, prompting her school's closure. More alarmingly, earlier that day, American planes had rained down leaflets warning of an imminent attack.
Hideko's fears proved well-founded. Despite a sophisticated alert system and a decade of air defense drills, the arrival just after midnight of a wave of B-29 bombers plunged Toyama into chaos. Superfortresses — 173 of them — encountered only sparse antiaircraft fire as they released around 1,500 tons of incendiaries onto the city's center.
In a few short hours, Toyama was enveloped by a "sea of fire," Hideko recalled in a written account. Over 95% of the city was incinerated, leaving around 2,600 people dead. While Hideko's family survived, they numbered among the 165,000 left homeless, virtually the entire population.
With the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings upon us, we would do well to retrieve the burning of Toyama from the margins of public memory. For too long, scholarly predilections and public fascination with the atomic bomb have divorced the mushroom clouds from the firestorms that preceded them.
Rather than a sideshow to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, the incendiary destruction of cities was a fundamental facet of the war against Japan. The atomic bombings evolved out of a fierce U.S. campaign to target and destroy entire cities, in hopes of forcing a Japanese surrender.
This was not how air power strategists had initially imagined the war against Japan. The commitment at first was to the precision bombing of "war-making targets," such as airplane factories.
Planes, however, struggled to hit their targets, due in no small part to the jet streams they encountered while flying at high altitudes over Japan. Eager to both justify the immense costs of the newly developed B-29 and to play a central role in the defeat of Japan, U.S. Army Air Forces officials in Washington, D.C., were hungry for results.
Enter Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the commander of the 21st Bomber Command based on the Mariana Islands, who, in early 1945, ushered in a shift to nighttime incendiary area bombing — a doctrine that quickly moved to the center of the American air assault against Japan.