The Deadliest Mission of WWII, Tokyo, Japan, March 9-10, 1945

By Charles G. Chauncey

“I’ll tell you what war is all about . . . you’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.”

Gen Curtis LeMay

Some preliminary information for your edification: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bomber was the largest aircraft of World War II and was called "the greatest U.S. gamble of the war." The B-29 development cost $3 billion, against $2 billion for the atom bomb. Under pressures of war the B-29 was ordered into production as a top priority . . . Made in USA, Tested over Japan.

General Arnold, in his military autobiography Global Mission, writes, "The Boeing Company’s engineers informed me that the Superfortress would be able to reach all points in Germany from any place in the United Kingdom (used as an example of its long range, but not necessarily for use there). Needless to say, we went ahead with the project.”

Design work for the Superfortress was started in April 1940, and the first prototype, the XB-29, was completed in July 1942. The first test flight was made on 21 September 1942, and the first B-29 was delivered to the Army Air Corps on 29 July 1943, at a cost of one million+ dollars each (by the wars end, costs were down to roughly $600,000 ea).

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bombers of WWII were all used in the Pacific Theater . . . none in the European Theater. The first B-29’s (6/1944) were used in the China-Burma Theater (later moved to Tinian West Field 4/1945). Guam, Saipan, and Tinian were where the bases were located in the Marianas Islands . . . just three tiny dots in the Pacific Ocean . . . some 1500 miles South of Japan, making our missions roughly 15 ± hr long. (My longest mission was 17hr 20 min flying time)

It was to be the sleekest and fastest bomber; it could carry the heaviest bomb load (up to 10 tons) with 2 bombays; it could fly higher with its pressurized cabins (38,000ft); and could fly farther (4,800 miles) than any of the other WWII bombers. It was even later modified to carry the first ever Atomic Bombs (Little Boy and Fat Man).

Where the Iowa Class Battleships like the Missouri in 1941 had radar, . . . we, too, had radar. Where it had 16” guns that could fire beyond the horizon, which necessitated a number cruncher or some form of analog computer to hit a target . . . for our protection we had 12 remote-controlled 50 cal gun in 5 turrets, they were operated by gunners using remote-controlled-computerized gun sights (making them 4 to 5 times more accurate then the hand operated guns on other aircraft).

Our B-29, we named “GOIN’ JESSIE”, was the 704th B-29 built here in Wichita in late 1944. Our crew picked it up at the Herrington KS Army Air Base. From there we flew it to Mather Field, which is close to San Francisco; then on to Hickam Field, Honolulu, Hawaii (had an engine change); Kwajalein Island; and finally to North Field, Tinian Island, a speck in the Pacific Ocean. North Field was the largest bomber base in the world at that time with its 4 – 8,500 ft blacktop runways and could accommodate over 250 B-29’s.


On the morning of March 10th (1945), our B-29 crew, flying “GOIN’ JESSIE“, returned to Tinian’s North Field, having participated in what is now considered the “deadliest bombing mission” against any Axis countries of WWII. This action packed event occurred against Tokyo’s industrial section in the heart of Tokyo, and was the very beginning of the incendiary bombings that was to last through 70 Japanese cities by war’s end, the 16th of August 1945.

What led to this change in strategy by Gen Curtis LeMay? It was because of the newly found “Jet Stream” above Japan. Our high altitude missions of 30,000ft ± were a bust, as these winds would sometimes exceed 200+ mph, and the Norden Bomb Site just could not handle these sever winds (straight or crosswind). If lucky, only getting 25% to 30% bombs on a target, was almost like entirely missing the target. The enormous losses and costs of B-29’s and men, to their flak and fighter attacks plus the B-29 mechanical problems were over maximum, when compared to the very poor bombing results.

In addition to those problems, we were told that in many Japanese homes and small buildings they had and used equipment such as lathes, drill presses, etc, for making small parts, like many little sub factories for their war effort. These parts when finished were taken to the larger assembly for further completion in factories. This then made homes and small structures in the suburban areas open to bombardment, too. There had to be a major change in strategy, and indeed it was a major change initiated. This then was to be the prime justification for the use of incendiary bombings.

By the time our crew briefing for this mission was held March 9th, our planes were all loaded to the brim in both bombays with 7 tons of incendiaries, and the fuel tanks were topped off with around 7,600 gals of 135 octane aviation fuel. While waiting for the mission’s briefing to start, the Red Cross girls passed out to each of us a small carton, holding two cigarettes (I don‘t remember whether they were Lucky Strike or Camels), plus a small chocolate candy bar . . I had those finished off before ever getting to our plane.

Shortly the briefing was called to order. Once made known in the briefing that the Tokyo industrial section was the target, there was some rumblings. But alas, when it was announced that it was to be an early morning “night strike“, a night “single” plane mission at the very low altitudes between 5,000 and 10,000 ft, all hell and near panic broke out among the crews . . . everyone was vocal, because you see, the night flying goggles they have today we didn’t have, so we couldn’t fly formation for our best protection against the Jap’s fighters.

Also at these low altitudes you were not only subjected to anti-aircraft fire but their hand guns, too. Admittedly, everyone present felt and just knew that this was a very bad headquarters decision by Gen Curtis LeMay, and that it would turnout to be a Kamikaze or suicide mission for all, or at least for many of us.

After the briefing ended, we had time to go get our flying gear for the mission, and if desired go to a religious service . . . at my Protestant service, it was so packed inside that it had many, many crewmen outside unable to received any spiritual uplift, blessings, prayers for our safety by our Chaplin Capt Chambers. Following the service we boarded one of the 6 X 6 trucks that was waiting to take our crew to our plane, “GOIN’ JESSIE.”

At the plane we loaded our gear, did some last minute daylight quickie inspections, pulled each propeller through a couple rotations, (to clear the accumulated oil out of the bottom cylinders), then we mounted our chariot, with great apprehension as to what would happen to us on this mission.

Only the verbal noises coming from us pilots going through the pre startup check lists with the flight engineer, Frank Prushko, along with receiving the crew position reports being called out . . . business was business now, with no further verbal bitching . . . each of us buried in his own thoughts. Everyone had pitched in and had completed their own particular responsibilities to make ready for takeoff. We were now ready to GO!

At a pre determined time we all started engines and when our turn came, we began taxiing out for takeoff. With engine checks completed on the pad and while taxiing, we had several planes both ahead and behind us in the single file taxi stream.

Every 60 seconds an earth shaking B-29 started their roll for takeoff. Once our turn came and ready in takeoff position, we held full brakes and increased throttles to full engine power . . . a very deafening roar of 8,800 hp causing the plane and earth to shake, and everyone to vibrate to the tune of this unleashed power. When the starter dropped the flag, the brakes were released and you were off, rumbling down the black-top asphalt runway, 100 mph . . 115 mph . . 130 mph . . using most all of the 8,500ft runway . . 140 mph . . lift-off . . gear up . . once those wheels left the ground, the automatic pilot was immediately switched on . . . we were on our way!!

There were 3 other bomb groups in our 313th Wing, taking off at the same time from our North Field, leaving just one runway open for any aborting B-29‘s to land. It generally took about 40 – 45 minutes to get our 3 squadrons of the 9th Bomb Group airborne. Guam’s aircraft lofted earlier being a hundred miles South of us, while our next island neighbor Saipan’s planes were lifting off, too, making a stream of 285 B-29’s many miles long . . . all Tokyo bound.

After turning on course we retrimmed the aircraft and autopilot, took time for a smoke, then flew low, around 2,000 to 4,000ft, to conserve our precious fuel. Night time darkness came while I was flying to Iwo Jima, then AC John Fleming flew to Japan with both of us alert through the mission target and back out to sea (pretty much our usual routine). We had climbed to our briefed bombing altitude of 6,400 ft before arriving at the IP (Initial Point) to turn and begin our bomb run. This occurred roughly around 2 am in the early morning. Navigator, Jack Cramer, was expertly right on course, and having donned our flak vests and helmets it was Go, Go, Go!

Tension ran very high amongst the crew, because with no aircraft clearance lights on, it was highly possible to run into another aircraft, or have someone flying a little higher drop his bomb load on you or visa versa. And of course, we had to be on the lookout for any Jap night fighter who may try to slip in underneath us to shoot up into our belly or bombays. We couldn’t do anything about the searchlights, flak, or hand fired guns at any level, as we had to stay committed to the bomb run with no evasive action on our part. ‘Chip’ Chilipka, needed to have a level base to operate the great Norden Bombsight (so effective over in Europe).

Leaving the IP we shoved the throttles forward to boost our indicated airspeed from 210 mph to 275 mph, especially since we were on our very own. Get in fast . . . get out fast was the rule.

The Pathfinders had already been there to set the initial fires in the four different quadrants, of which our target was in the NE quadrant. We arrived fairly early in the bomber stream, and while there were many fires already set, it had not reached the intensity that was still to come. The fires had not joined together to become a Fire Storm or the dreaded Wave Conflagration, that would soon become a reality to Tokyo. Chip Chilipka, our bombardier, had been instructed to lay our incendiary load close to another’s B-29’s fires, but not on top of them for better coverage and effect . . . which he did.

Although it was a pitch black night it was beginning to get hazy from the smoke, and the fires were creating blackish grey and crimson colors on the bottoms of the smoke cloud condensing and building above us. We dropped our 7 tons of incendiaries and made it through the bomb run without a scratch from any of the flak that was popping around us, nor any hand guns that might have been fired. It was almost as if we had caught them entirely off guard.

Once back out to sea, I flew us back to Iwo Jima where John took over and flew us back to Tinian . . arriving there around 9 am in the morning, a 15 hour mission. I’m not so sure any of us slept during the entire mission, after having been so emotionally pumped up with the very apparent and unknown dangers of this mission.

Our happy ground crew was there to meet us at our pad, and appeared eager to began work on the needed engine maintenance in anticipating the next Blitz mission.

A 6 X 6 army truck was waiting to take us and all our gear to the debriefing building. There we told them all about what we had seen of the fires, flak, hand guns, and fortunately we hadn’t see any night fighters, etc.

When the debriefing ended, and the medical Doc was finished checking us over, he gave each of us a half cup full of booze and we exited via the back door, headed to bed down or chow down first. For the dedicated ‘dries’ they went out the front door, and the Red Cross girls would give them lemonade or chocolateade . . . because taste-wise the plain well water wasn’t fit to drink.

A photo plane was en route to Tokyo to take pictures and then evaluate and assess the battle damage. The first reports the next day was that we had burned out 17 sq mile and that some 80,000 people had perished in the fires. It was an overwhelming success! This was only the first mission of the five missions of the Fire Bomb Blitz . . . the aircraft losses were very tolerable for this 285 plane raid involving planes from Guam, Tinian, and Saipan. It was determined later, that probably many of our losses occurred with planes literally breaking apart in the severe turbulence of the wave conflagration, but not from Jap night fighters.

These damage assessments were later changed to 16 sq miles burned, and the death toll was increased when the Japanese said 130,000 people had died. I have seen later written accounts after the war suggesting that upwards to more than 240,000 people may have perished from this first incendiary mission.

You might be asking yourself just what is a “Firestorm” or worse yet a “Wave Conflagration”, which Tokyo received on this deadly war shaking mission. A Firestorm happens when the fires covering a large area consolidate, or all get together into one large, massive, raging fire. Now add to that the 28 mph surface winds that prevailed in Tokyo that night, and the Firestorm then became a fierce Wave Conflagration, like a tidal wave of fire, with its fire tops bending over sometimes licking the ground on the surface. A Firestorm, on its periphery, may get up to over 1,400º+ F . . . while the terrible Wave Conflagration may get up over 1,800º+ F. That is what happened in Tokyo early that morning the 10th March, 1945.

It is well to note that at this time, the density of population in this Tokyo area was almost 140,000 people per sq mile (which I can‘t even begin to comprehend). Compare this to New York’s density of 34,000 people per sq mile, or San Francisco’s 14,250 people per sq mile. Even the center of Hiroshima August 1st 1945, was only 35,000 per sq mile. It is my personal opinion that there may have been a much higher death toll because neither the US or Japanese would ever want to acknowledge or admit too this large scale carnage.

Then continuing on Mar 11th Nagoya; Mar 13th Osaka; Mar 16th Kobe; Mar 18th we again hit Nagoya again completing the first Blitz. Japan wouldn’t capitulate, so by war’s end we burned the hearts of 70 Japanese cities. Thank goodness in June they began dropping leaflets warning the people to leave before burning the city.

Iwo Jima was finally taken from the Jap’s and secured while the Incendiary Blitz was in progress. With our US armada, it was thought the island of Iwo Jima would be taken in less than 5 days, but after 36 days of hell, that began Feb 18th, Iwo Jima was finally taken. It was there we built both a B-29 primary emergency landing field and a P-51

fighter base. It was a godsend to our B-29 crews as we had over 2,250 B-29’s land there by wars end . . . having been shot up, fuel and/or mechanical problems. While our crew never landed there . . . just knowing it was available was very comforting to us.

The Marines lost over 6,000 men and the casualties inflicted to our forces was over 27,000 men . . . the Japanese lost around 20,000 men. This little 3 X 11 mile island (about the size of Tinian) was located roughly half way between Japan and Tinian. Since the war, the island has been given back to the Japanese. And the whole island is now considered a holy burial ground, because so many perished and were entombed in sealed caves, mass graves, etc. Special permission has to be obtained to go there now. All of our cemeteries were moved to Punch Bowl Cemetery in Honolulu, HA.

Our P-51 fighters were also located there and with the help of a B-29 navigation plane, they could give about 20 minutes of fighter cover the target on daylight raids. Their long roundtrip missions to Japan ran around 7½ hrs . . . just try driving your vehicle this long, never being able get out of the seat, surrounded by other aircraft and with no safe place to land except home.

Because our 313th Bomb Wing did most all of the night navel mining missions in their bays, harbors, and channels. . . out of my 35 missions, 22 of them were night single ship missions, with 8 of these being mining missions, dropping 1,000 and 2,000 lb mines by parachute into the bays, harbors, and channels. So we did miss out on several of the later incendiary raids with other Wings after the original five mission Incendiary Blitz was completed. However, our mining missions created one of the most effective blockades ever accomplished, by cutting the axis Jap’s shipping over 85 %. I would be remiss though, not to include our Navy and Submarines help in this almost total blockade.

You might be interested to know there are two meanings for “GOIN’ JESSIE”. #1 ~ It means going fast, fast like a “bat out of hell.” Thus our fast, mean looking rabbit nose art. #2 ~ In the Southern states, it can also mean a “loose woman!!” We didn’t know this at the time, so the art work is very tame, if you know what I mean, so maybe it‘s lucky for you and us, we didn‘t know about the latter terminology.

I’ve beat around the bushes, and still haven’t told you my take on this deadliest mission. But with time to think about this order while en route to the target, I’m sure many things passed through my mind about my family but especially if we were shot down, and lived to be captured. When this mission was first announced, I was no better than anyone else in that room . . . madder than hell after being told the components of this mission. Was I thinking of the happenings to all the civilians of Japan? . . . Not only no, but Hell NO . . . it was all about myself, about all of us fellows that befell the duty now to carry out our leader’s orders, even though we were in disagreement.

Remembering back when I first entered the military, the first basic premise of learning was to never question but to obey orders. But then such thoughts as: the Jap’s don’t honor the Geneva Convention of war; Jap’s shoot our men out of parachutes; all the Jap carnage we heard they did to the Chinese from the wanton killings, beheadings of civilians to raping of their women; the Jap’s beheading and torturing prisoners; Jap’s booby-trapping their own; Jap’s committing suicide rather becoming prisoners; Jap’s throwing their families off the suicide cliffs on Saipan and Tinian; their religious beliefs to die for their Emperor; but hey . . . they started this bloody WAR, and we‘re just the guys to help finish it.

There seemed to be no derelict of duty that I saw with any of the crews, as we all seemly hit the target with fervor of now completing this mission as ordered on Tokyo. While that was not enough to end the war by their Japanese War Lords, it took another 69 cities to be burned; their shipping cut 85+ %; and two atomic bombs before their Emperor interceded and capitulated. I was asked during an interview last Sept (2007), by a Japanese group “Was I ‘proud’ to have killed 100,000 people and been involved in this mission? In so many words, I said that ‘proud’ was not the correct usage in their question, but that I was proud when duty called me for this mission, that I served with the best of my abilities, guts, and fortitude for my Country. The outcome of what happened, happened! Today I would ask them “Can the Japanese War Lords be proud of what they did to their very own peoples and country? I think not.”