icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


A Brief Incomplete History of Aerial Bombing

The fashionable Ginza neighborhood in Tokyo pulverized by American bombs on March 9-10, 1945. All bombed-out neighborhoods look the same from the bombardier's POV. S/he can't see the people down there.


The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.


-J. Robert Oppenheimer


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."


-Dwight D. Eisenhower


Before unleashing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans fire-bombed Tokyo. It was March 9-10, 1945 and my cousin, Fritzi Burger Nishikawa, was living just outside Tokyo with her husband, Shinichi and son, Yoshi, in what was considered a "safe" zone near the pearl farms of their Mikimoto relatives. In 1999 I outed her as a collaborator in my memoir, Searching for Fritzi. An Olympic silver medalist, she had entertained the German and Japanese High Command with her ice dancing throughout the war years, and had done nothing to save her family—my  family—most  of whom were killed in the Nazi death camps.


The images of bombed-out buildings and bodies in shrouds and body bags in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine, brought back a memory of those long-ago bombings, and the civilian deaths in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When is such bombing "justified?" When is "collateral damage" acceptable? With or without a nuclear conflagration, body counts are high after bombing. A conservative estimate is 80,000 deaths in Tokyo alone.  It's a crude tool of warfare despite modern technology to improve "targeting." There are children down there. Think of  all the movies you've seen of London during the Blitz.


It is my hope that the moral questions raised by even targeted bombing will plague us after the current wars are over and inspire conferences, seminars, some sort of international détente. But I dream. Many of the IDF soldiers in "the strip," as it is so charmingly referred to now, will return to civilian life, maybe even to renewed and more vociferous demonstrations against the right-wing Israeli government. Many will have nightmares as well as memories of heroism and historical necessity.  Many will  undoubtedly have regrets. Many will have to serve in the occupation of Gaza; occupation never goes well long-term. Think of the West Bank. Remember the intifadas, tame compared to the massacre of October 7.  Vengeance, massacres, occupation, refugees, displaced persons, suffering morphed into rage.


Soon after I  published Searching for Fritzi, I received an email from Mike Ramsey, a soldier in General MacArthur's occupying army in Japan. He was sent to Tokyo about fifteen months after the occupation began, one of two thousand soldiers managing the day-to-day needs of the army and the rebirth of a "democratic" Japan. There wasn't much left of Tokyo and there won't be much left of Gaza when the Israelis are done either. As for the hostages, praying for them may make us feel righteous, but it won't save them. Wild guess: they are in the tunnels underneath the hospital that is under siege as I write.


Most Americans can only imagine what it must be like to try to survive in a pulverized landscape. Residents of New York during 9/11 may have some idea, but even this tragic event does not compare in most significant respects, including the scale of destruction. When Warrant Officer Mike Ramsey arrived in Tokyo there were  beggars everywhere and very little shelter. The American soldiers and their Japanese employees did not starve, however. Food was flown in and the American PX was well stocked at all times.


Mike's official title was Medical Inspector but like other soldiers in MacArthur's army, he had authority when he was out in the field, beyond his specified duties, and beyond his assigned rank. If MacArthur was the American emperor, Mike and his fellow officers were MacArthur's viceroys. Free-floating oversight was encouraged. If Mike didn't like something he saw, he made  a report to his commanding officer. He could even call the MP's to make an arrest. Few complained about this undemocratic arrangement  at the time, least of all Members of Congress, the defeated Japanese people, or the bankrupted Allied Powers who were relieved America was taking on the job of reconstructing Japan. Who will reconstruct Gaza after the war with Hamas is already under discussion, and it's a contentious one, less so the discussions about Ukraine. Wars and post-war reconstruction are economic windfalls.




Mike's assigned task was to make sure the water supply in the city was sanitary and the buildings habitable. Electricity and much else was on strict ration and when Mike went around in a jeep with his Japanese driver/translator he made sure no one was cheating. The translator, Chui, was a former officer in the Imperial Army, wearing a haisen fuku—a "defeat suit," stripped of its insignia.  


It was a beautiful late afternoon when the two men set out for a hospital. There had been reports that the building was collapsing, and Mike was instructed to verify and recommend. It was a desolate part of the city where they were headed, far away from General Headquarters which was in the once fashionable part of town. Many of the buildings there had been left standing after the bombings. Elsewhere, some construction was going on, but not much.  The infrastructure of the city had to be stabilized first.

Mike spotted a strange light up ahead. It seemed unnatural, almost surreal, so he detoured towards it. The translator pointed to a partially bombed-out brick structure but did not reply when Mike asked what it was. As they drew closer, the vista beyond the brick looked flat and white. Incredibly, it was a good-sized ice rink and swirling around at the center in a graceful pirouette, there was a lone figure in a dark ice-dancing dress, the bottom flared out in a spin just above her knees.


Mike was more than perplexed, he was dumbfounded. It was summer, temperature in the mid-70's and humid, the ice of questionable consistency, and the rink was not an "approved installation." That meant someone was using rationed electricity which gave Mike "probable cause" to ask some questions. Who was this woman for goodness sake? Even from a distance she didn't look Japanese. She was short, true, but her hair was blond. More importantly, she looked robust. Clearly, despite the famine, she was eating well. How else would she have had the energy to skate?


Mike and the translator alighted from the jeep, stood at the barrier looking into the oasis of ice and beckoned, then shouted, to the woman. Slowly, she drifted over.

Mike's first impression was not complimentary. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and European features, this woman could only be a "Fraulein," the wife or girlfriend of a soldier or engineer sent to Japan to share technology and weapons. Surely the soldier or engineer was already in custody, perhaps returned to Germany for war crimes interrogation. Or—hypothesis  again—he might have been hiding out and only recently arrested, his wife or girlfriend left to fare on her own. Recently, Mike and his buddies had liberated a holiday cabin on Mt. Fuji decorated with alpine scenes. A young Fraulein had appeared during their visit and asked to collect her belongings. They allowed her this privilege, but also questioned her before letting her go. There was enough to do without holding someone who would be of no use to them.


His mind clicking over with all the possibilities, Mike said, in English: "Fraulein, who the hell are you?"


He purposely did not speak in German at first, though this would have been easy for him. He wanted the message to be: I am a representative of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and you must obey my orders.


The woman clearly understood what Mike had said, but remained mute. When he spoke in German, however, she looked alarmed. Then she turned towards the translator and stared knowingly at him, waiting for him to speak. What was going on? Mike had no idea but he asked the translator to tell him. "And that's an order," he said impatiently. Reluctantly, it seemed, the translator said, "Mikimoto," but that was all.


          "Mikimoto pearls?"

          "Yes. She's married to Nishikawa and Mikimoto is his grandfather."    


 The pearls were valuable commodities, easily transportable, and there was concern in the early days of the occupation that they would find their way onto the black market. Memorandums went out to all occupation personnel alerting then to this possibility. New regulations had made it clear that all pearls could only be bought and sold through the newly-established Army Exchange Service.  Proceeds of all sales were used as reparations.


"She's an Olympic ice skating champion," the translator continued and then, in Japanese, he asked the little Fraulein to identify herself to the American officer. Finally, she did so—in  fluent, impeccable Japanese.


Back at General Headquarters, Mike reported the incident to Lt. Colonel Schellenberger, his commanding officer, and was told to leave the matter alone, he knew who the woman was, and would take care of it. Mike was a bit annoyed. Why was this Fraulein on the loose ? He felt like a fool when he recalled what he had said to her: "You'll be hearing from us."  Obviously, this wasn't going to happen.


Fritzi Burger survived. She eventually divorced Nishikawa and married an American who worked for Citibank in Tokyo. They probably met at her tennis club. I found Fritzi living in Gorham, Me. with her new husband  as I was researching my book. When I asked her about the fire-bombing of Tokyo she was insouciant and said it hadn't changed her life at all.  


Dedicated to all veterans including my husband, Jim, who served in the 7th Fleet out of Treasure Island, SF.


Post a comment