That Time US Firebombed a Japanese-Occupied Chinese City Killing 20,000
The new incendiary bombs that would go on to burn down Japan in 1945 were first tried out on a Chinese city in December 1944
One week before Christmas in 1944, nearly 200 American planes raided the Chinese city of Wuhan, dropping 500 tons of incendiary bombs. Thousands of Chinese lives were lost in this incident, which has received very little attention in the intervening decades. Here is a rare account of this tragic event, by Stephen R. MacKinnon, history professor at Arizona State University and author of the book Wuhan 1938.
On December 18, 1944, the Chinese leadership in Chongqing, namely Chiang Kai-shek, Chen Cheng and He Yingqin, connected the China war with the European theater by approving the tactic of strategic firebombing of the major occupied city of Wuhan.
The vehicle was the giant new American B-29 Flying Super Fortress bombers that were brought to Chengdu expressly for the purpose of firebombing Wuhan.
The commander of the bombing raid of 92 planes was none other than the youngest two-star general in the US Army Air Force at the time, General Curtis LeMay. A few months later LeMay would become famous for directing the firebombing of Tokyo and a hundred other Japanese cities.
The firebombing of Wuhan drew little attention internationally and was censored in the Chinese press. Yet the physical destruction and loss of life was very heavy. (Chiang Kai-shek in his diary admitted to 40,000.) Hankou* was said to have burned for three days.
LeMay was transferred from Europe to Asia in the fall of 1944 with a mandate to develop strategic bombing plans for Chinese and Japanese cities. Frustrated at first by the ineffectiveness of high-altitude bombing of Japan from China, LeMay began to explore the alternative of low-altitude incendiary or fire bombing (introduced first in the European theater by the British and famously applied at the end of the European war in the destruction of Dresden on February 13, 1945). LeMay planned to use M-69 incendiary bombs, an extremely deadly cocktail of phosphorous and napalm just developed for the purpose by scientists at Harvard University.
The Japanese had been using airbases and railway lines of Wuhan in central China since its capture in October 1938, to wage war and bomb targets in central and southwestern China. Wuhan had been an especially important launching pad for the last big Japanese offensive, beginning in the spring of 1944, known to historians as the Ichigo campaign. This campaign seemed in November-December, after the fall of Guilin, to possibly threaten Chongqing.
Chinese official sources on the subject are understandably limited, but both Chiang Kai-shek’s and Wang Shijie’s diaries mention the bombing — as does the US Ambassador Hurley and others in dispatches. Clearly there was an agreement at the highest level of the Chinese government — on the military side namely Chen Cheng and He Yingqin with US commanders Wedemeyer** and Chennault***. LeMay was given the green light by General Wedemeyer and Minister of War Chen Cheng to firebomb Wuhan in order to destroy its airbases, industrial capacity and railroad lines.
On December 18, ninety-four B-29 Fortress Super bombers took off from airfields outside Chengdu on an operation with the codename Matterhorn loaded with 500 tons of incendiary bombs. For LeMay, this was his first experience with firebombing on a grand scale.
For the Chinese leadership in Chongqing, this was a strategic decision resembling earlier ones like the blowing of the dykes of the Yellow River or torching of Changsha and Guilin. A top advisor and Minister (of Propaganda) to Chiang Kai-shek at the time, Wang Shijie, who was a native of Wuhan, expressed regret in his diary; but he agreed that the bombing was necessary — regardless of cost to the city and its civilian population. Wuhan had to be sacrificed.
Five hundred tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Wuhan at low altitude on December 18… Japanese defense was minimal. The tricity complex of Wuhan was destroyed. The city and vicinity is said to have burned for three days! [The city continued to be bombed over the three days.] LeMay was pleased, declaring this his first experience with firebombing as a tactical weapon to be a successful experiment.
The rest is history. A few months later, from the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, General LeMay famously directed the low-altitude blanket firebombing of Tokyo (over 1,500 tons of incendiaries in one raid), following up with the carpet bombing of Japan’s other major cities. The effects were devastating and human cost huge (over 100,000 civilians in Tokyo alone). The earlier connection of the firebombing of Japan to the Chinese firebombing and the destruction of Wuhan is not well-known. It remains a kind of historical secret, rarely mentioned today in Chinese sources (or Western for that matter). I have had to rely chiefly on obscure official US military sources.
The most detailed Chinese description of the firebombing of Wuhan that I have so far found is a couple of paragraphs from the Wuhan city gazetteer (my translation, P.H.):
On December 18, 1944, two hundred American fighters and bombers bombed Wuhan in waves, dropping a large number of incendiary bombs over the area between Hankou’s Yiyuan Road and Wuma Road, and from the river bank to the railroad.
An area measuring three times five kilometers became a sea of flames, and all buildings were turned into rubble.
On December 21, airplanes from the 14th Air Force in coordination with Super Fortresses dropped more than 1,000 tons of bombs on Hankou, setting off huge fires in the slum areas near the docks, spreading for about five kilometers.
On December 28, 1944, US General 兰达 (Lan-da, LeMay?) proposed in Chengdu to make US bombing raids on Wuhan the initial step in a general offensive against Japan. From then on, American air units used Chinese bases to launch repeated bombing of Wuhan. As a result, Hankou’s old government district was reduced to rubble and the densely populated area between Wangjia Alley and Minzu Road was leveled to the ground. The area from Jianghan Road northeast towards the old French and Japanese concessions were transformed into a vast landscape of broken bricks and tiles.
The historical records of Simin Bank on December 2, 1944 contains the following passage: “The horror of the bombings had a severe impact on the people’s morale, and their situation was indescribable. Fearing for their lives, the residents gradually fled from Hankou, and eventually more than one third of the city’s population had left.” “After November 18, there was a breakdown in morale, and the city stopped functioning. People left their homes, and most buildings were empty… Many homes were destroyed beyond repair, and dwellings rented out by the bank were also destroyed.”
According to the records, Wuhan suffered a total of 151,607 casualties during the entire anti-Japanese war. Of these, 96,557 were killed, while 22,389 were seriously injured, and 32,661 sustained light injuries. According to casualty statistics compiled by Hankou city in 1946, more than 20,000 were killed or injured in the December bombings of 1944… (During the war), 7,515 buildings were bombed, including 554 before the fall of the city (in 1938), and 6,951 after. Those bombed by American planes accounted for 92 percent. Compared with Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Tianjin and Qingdao, the destruction in Wuhan was considerably worse.
Did the insane American bombing in December 1944, carried out without taking the wellbeing of ordinary people into account, reflect a wish to liberate China as soon as possible? No. The motive was revenge. On December 16, after Japanese forces occupying Wuhan captured three American aviators, they pulled off their uniforms, tied them up, and dragged them through the streets, beating and kicking them on the way, in an extremely bloody spectacle.
In the end, the Japanese soldiers dragged the American aviators to a Japanese temple (outside the current Wuhan city government), where they hanged them and burned the bodies. When news of the execution reached the Americans, they were infuriated and immediately planned revenge. This was why on December 18, more than 170 American planes took off, bombing the entire area between Hankou Yiyuan Road and Huangpu Road, costing the lives of more than 20,000 residents of Wuhan!
Tremendous destruction is noted with tens of thousands of civilians killed. This Chinese source (as well as references on the Internet) suggests that the motive behind the US bombing of Wuhan was simple: revenge for the public torture and execution in Wuhan of three captured American pilots. In the US sources there is no mention of the three pilots. The Chinese and US military leadership had agreed that the strategic purpose was to blunt Japanese offensives in the southwest — and perhaps, it could be argued, this was achieved, By January 1945, the Japanese offensive had been blunted and their armies were beginning to retreat.
*One of the three major districts in Wuhan. Historically, Wuhan emerged as the conglomeration of three cities: Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang.
**Albert Wedemeyer, Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff and commander of US forces in China.
***Claire Chennault, commander of 14th Air Force in China.