Tokyo Burns: Raid of March 9-10
"A silver curtain falling"
With the night came north winds, blowing bitter and cold across the uneasy city. By 8:00 p.m., great shuddering gusts, at 45 to 67 miles per hour, "violent as a spring typhoon," shoved against the wooden walls and pried at the doors and windows of the dwellings of Tokyo's 4.3 million citizens. Elsewhere, the winds toppled or jammed radar antennas and made mischief with communications. On the pitching seas to the south, picket-boats raised frantic alerts of many approaching bombers, but faulty radio reception--and faulty organization--muffled the alarms.
On radios throughout the capital, the voice of Hidetoshi Matsumura, the spokesman for Imperial General Headquarters, hailed the coming day, March 10, as Army Day. His oration ended in the weary cliché: "The darkest hour is just before dawn." His words had barely faded when, at 10:30 p.m., sirens sounded the long, steady wail warning of distant but potentially threatening aircraft. In contrast to the pervasive disorder that had invaded and overwhelmed all aspects of daily life in the capital, the air-raid alert system that roused many from mid-slumber was still respected for its efficiency. With electric lights forbidden after nightfall and cooking gas nonexistent, most families now habitually prepared and ate meals at twilight and then retired early. But even in repose, Tokyo's denizens remained partly dressed, usually in shapeless, loose monpe trousers.
Near midnight, coast watchers reported droning noises that were likely from B-29s. The listeners could speak with authority, for the dreaded Superfortresses--known to the Tokyoites as "bikko," "B-san," "Lord B.," "okyakusama" (visitors), and "regular mail"--had come many times to the capital, though only once at night, and never in such numbers or so low. Surprised and confused, civil-defense authorities hesitated, and the sirens did not exclaim the sharp, broken notes of the air-raid alarm, signifying an imminent attack, until 12:15 a.m. By then, bombs had been falling for seven minutes, and rusty red-yellow roses of flame already flowered across eastern Tokyo.
A Danish diplomat, Lars Tillitse, dutifully ventured outside to make sure that his property betrayed no light. A "terrific noise" assailed him as the four-motored bombers thundered by overhead. Another Western observer, Robert Guillain, was more exact: A B-29 passed with "an odd, rhythmic buzzing that filled the night with deep, powerful pulsation and made my whole house vibrate." Tillitse observed his neighbors erupting from their homes, animating the dark narrow streets, the men in helmets, everyone else in padded air-raid hoods. "Radios were going full blast and doors and windows were open, so that people in the street could keep informed," recalled Tillitse. "Already we could see fires."
Radios proclaimed the approach of another wave of bombers, and Tillitse stayed outside to watch. Energetic searchlight crews fanned the slender, probing white columns of their beams from horizon to zenith. As the diplomat gazed upward, six or seven times a bomber punctured a column of illumination, whereupon five or six other lights converged to hold it. Centered in an aura, the silvery body became the target for gunners, who sent shells skyward. But in each case, the shiny cross glided on unhurt. Then Tillitse heard the crowd cheer and swiveled his head to behold one B-29 alight. The whole body glowed red, but the plane continued its flight until, like lightning, white flames burst from the sides. Enveloped in fire, the Superfortress plummeted to the ground.
Everywhere across Tokyo, the night teemed with citizens scurrying from their houses clutching sleeping mats and carefully culled possessions--pots and pans and, above all, treasured hoards of rice and soya paste--seeking refuge. The entire city had only eighteen satisfactory concrete shelters, with a total capacity of five thousand, little more than one space for every thousand persons. The next-best shelters comprised the basements of the relatively few Western-style buildings, constructed to resist earthquakes, and some equally sparse cave shelters. But the mass of citizens lacked any adequate haven. Some families gathered in clothes cupboards within their homes, as the government recommended. Most citizens, however, headed for their bokugo, little holes that had been bored beside their houses or in the little ribbon of earth between street and sidewalk. These were typically crude, two to five meters long, one meter across, and one and one-half to two meters deep, covered with a roof made with a few poles, bamboo rafters, and a thin crust of earth. The citizens provided these rudimentary protections themselves, chanting "oh, one, two, oh, one, two" as they dug, around which many then planted flowers, and into which many a man or woman tripped, breaking bones.