TOKYO - When hundreds of American B-29 bombers sent waves of fire racing through Tokyo 57 years ago today, Katsumoto Saotome ran for his life, stumbling over burned corpses. All around him people were on fire, some of them his neighbors.
Now 69, Saotome recalled his narrow escape at the opening of a museum dedicated to the firestorm on March 10, 1945, which killed more than 100,000 civilians and razed nearly half of Tokyo in the final months of World War II.
"Many of us who survived the brutality of war are getting old," said Saotome, the curator. "We have a responsibility to tell the younger generation firsthand stories of our experience, and we need to get started while we are still healthy and able."
Aftermath of US Firebombing of Tokyo
The War Damage Archive Center houses photographs, drawings, and personal effects contributed by survivors. The displays - including a teacup melted into a shapeless lump - testify to the fury of the flames that consumed what was then a city of mostly wooden buildings.
Saotome, a novelist, began planning the museum two years ago to document the raid for history and promote peace. He raised $828,000 million from survivors and other private donors.
Though later overshadowed by the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo wrought devastation comparable to that caused by the two atomic attacks, Saotome said. Historians estimate that 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.
Among the survivors who gathered to remember yesterday was an American B-29 navigator who was in a prison camp near Tokyo's Imperial Palace when the bombs began to rain down.
Ray "Hap" Halloran had been captured several weeks earlier after his bomber was shot down over Tokyo. He parachuted out and was unhurt.
The 80-year-old retired business executive from San Francisco said he attended the museum opening to convey a message of reconciliation to the Japanese.
Soon after the B-29s flew over the city, he recalled, the sky turned red and he could hear the screams of people outside on the street.
"I prayed for myself, and I also prayed for them, too," he said.
Copyright 2002 Associated Press