Shortly after midnight on March 10, 1945, more than 300 American B-29 airplanes began dropping incendiary bombs over Tokyo in a coordinated attack called "Operation Meetinghouse." Their targets were large airplane parts factories, as well as small cottage industries that were dispersed throughout densely populated neighborhoods.
A City Unprepared
Tokyo had only 18 concrete air raid shelters. Each could hold 5,000, providing shelter for a total of 90,000 people out of a population of 4.3 million citizens. By March 1945 almost two million people had left Tokyo, but those who remained lived in a city where 98% of the buildings were made of wood and paper. These structures were no match for the almost 1,700 tons of incendiaries that rained down on Tokyo on March 10.
An Intense Attack
Yoshiko Hashimoto was a 24-year-old mother, living with her husband, baby and extended family in Tokyo's Sumida district. Her husband, an army officer, was on the outskirts of town guarding a military base the night of the attack. Mrs. Hashimoto would recall:
"The B-29s were dropping numerous firebombs and it sounded like a squall. I was astounded to see the intensity of the air raid. I had never seen one before."
The incendiary bombs were filled with napalm -- gasoline in a jelly form. When the bombs hit their targets the napalm spread quickly, causing fire after fire. Escape was difficult, if not impossible. The city's 6,000 professional fire fighters were ill-equipped to fight the conflagration.
Desperate to Escape
Yoshiko and her family fled their home. The narrow streets were clogged with people desperately looking for an escape. Like many in Tokyo that night, Yoshiko and her family sought refuge near water. Along the way, two sisters got separated from the family.
Deadly New Weapon
"We were in chaos. People were panicking. They were pushing and shoving to escape."
Yoshiko, her mother, father, baby, and youngest sister finally made it to the river in their neighborhood. However, it was not the safe haven they sought.
"...burning pieces were falling onto us and the wind was getting stronger. Burning signboards, wooden doors and bedding were flying. Warehouses, lined upon both sides of the river, were burning. Their flames ran vertically like a gas burner because of the gusty wind, and were blown toward a crowd of people on the bridge. Women's hair and men's clothes caught on fire."
Survival in the chaos came down to split second decisions. For Yoshiko Hashimoto, her father made a decision that would save her and her baby's life.
"The heat was unbearable. I was praying to the gods: 'please help us.' My father thought that we would all die if we stayed there. He knew that I was a good swimmer. He said, 'Yoshiko, jump into the river with the baby.' I was hesitant because it was March and the water was ice cold, and with the baby.... Then, my mother said, 'you have to listen to your father. You have to do what he says.' My mother took off her protective hood from her head, put it on my head, and looked into my eyes."
Moment of Decision
Yoshiko took her baby and dove into the icy cold river.
"I managed to float to [a] raft and placed my baby on it. Some burning logs were drifting by. I dipped my head into the water and put some water on my baby. His eyes were wide-open. I was worried that he might be dying. Many people were clinging to the raft. Then there came a small boat with two men inside rowing, apparently avoiding the raft and the people. I shouted at them, 'Help! Help! Please at least save my baby!' The men pulled over and took the baby into the boat. They also pulled me up into the boat. The boat went down the river and passed the bridge where I had left my family. I looked up to search my family, but I couldn't find anybody. The boat kept going down the river... Many people in the river were groaning in pain all night. It was like the voices of frogs in a rice paddy. The day broke and I saw many bodies floating on the river."
Scene of Destruction
Sirens announced "all clear" at 2:37 a.m. Incendiaries had targeted Tokyo for more than two hours. Sixteen square miles of the densely populated city had been reduced to ash. Yoshiko Hashimoto and her baby survived. But from 83,000 to as many as 100,000 Japanese civilians, including her mother, father and a sister, perished in the firestorm.
"Without a protective hood, mother's hair must have caught on fire after I jumped into the river. She must have died in agony. I cannot hold back my tears whenever I think about it, and cannot forget her sad face looking into my eyes."