Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This reflection was inspired by The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
It could have been the Germans. It could have been the Japanese. It could have been the Russians. But it was the Americans. The United States was the only nation with the resources to be able to create such a Thing. It was a Thing made for one job. For one purpose.
Since the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg on Poland in 1939, since the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, war raged around the world. Millions were refugees, dead or held in concentration camps. It was time for it to be over. It would take a Thing to bring it to an end.
The question was: Would it work? The scientists said it would work. The tests had given them the assurance that it would work. But no one was absolutely sure. They would not know until those final moments over Japan. Until it was dropped.
By August, 1945, the Nazis had surrendered. But not the Empire of Japan though it was defeated. It had no air force to speak of. It was under allied blockade. Many of its greatest cities, including Tokyo, were devastated by the firebombing American B29s. Yet the military fanatics who led Japan had decided that the Empire would go down in a blaze of glory rather than submit.
The Japanese military used fifteen and sixteen-year-olds as pilots of planes that were designed to be nothing more than bombs to crash into ships. They fired human torpedoes from their submarines. This was a foreshadowing of things to come if the United States invaded the Japanese homeland. Every man, woman and child was to be a kamikaze. Even Japanese school girls were taught to attack the enemy with spears. Suicide was preferable to surrender.
Few events were as controversial as the decision to drop the Thing. It was debated among the scientists who created It. It was debated by both the civilian and the military leadership in Washington, D.C. President Truman decided the Japanese leaders had left him no choice. After discussions with his advisers, he came to believe that the Thing would shorten the war and save not just thousands of American lives but millions of Japanese as well.
The Thing’s name was Little Boy, also known as the Gadget, the Device, the Gimmick, the S-1, and the most technical of all names, It. It was created at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Then It was assembled 5500 miles from there on Tinian Island, a part of the Marianas in the Pacific. On the night of August 5, 1945, the technicians wheeled It out to a special loading pit to be lifted up into the the bay of the B29 that was to deliver It.
Hours before the mission, the crews of the 509th Composite Group waited. They did what crews do the night before an important mission. A few ate. Some lay in their bunks and thought about loved ones. Some drowned their homesickness with a few shots of whiskey. Some played poker. One, a Catholic went to confession. Another spent his time briefing the New York Times reporter assigned to the mission. The navigator checked his flight bag to make sure his navigational tools were all in order. Each found a way to while away the hours that dragged.
Practice. Practice. Practice. For months, the team had practiced dropping The Thing, then make a 155 degree turn to get the hell out of there. Now there was a different kind of practice. Just in case of a crash upon take-off, the weaponeer decided to load and arm the Thing once the plane was in the air. In the hours before the takeoff, he practiced inserting the explosive charge and the detonator into the Thing. Difficult work to do considering how tight, how hot, how poorly lit the bay of the B29 that was to carry It. When offered a pair of gloves, the weaponeer said no. “I’ve got to feel the touch.”
At midnight, the commander of the mission gave a final briefing. He was the pilot of the B29 that would deliver the Thing to its destination. He finished with a word of advice for the twenty-six airmen in the room. “Do your jobs, obey orders, don’t cut corners.” Then the crew had breakfast while the flight engineer went out to the plane for his preflight check.
Early in the morning of Monday, August 6, 1945, the rest of the crew—the pilot, the co-pilot, the navigator, the electronic countermeasure man, the two radar operators, the bombardier, the tail gunner, and the ordinance expert—climbed aboard the plane, joining the weaponeer and the flight engineer. Painted on the nose of the B29 was the name of the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay.
2:27 a.m. Front engine No. 3, then No. 4, then No. 1, then No. 2.
“Okay to taxi,” the tower said.
2:35 a.m. In position to taxi.
Clear to take off.
A final check.
Take-off weight: 150,000 lbs., 7000 gal. of fuel, 12 men on board, and a five-ton Thing in the plane’s belly. The Enola Gay was eight tons over its normal weight.
All throttles were pushed forward. Down the 8500 foot runway, the plane went past the ambulances and the fire trucks every fifty feet on each side. At the last minute, the B29 lifted into the air and was off the island and heading north by northwest toward Iwo Jima. It would be over the Japanese homeland 1500 miles away in a little less than six hours.
The tail gunner tested his gun, using 50 of the 1000 rounds he had.
The radar operators studied the radar pictures of Hiroshima.
“Judge going to work.” The weaponeer began to load The Thing. He inserted the gun powder and the detonator. He tightened the breach plate. It took him thirty minutes to complete his task.
The pilot did a check with the two planes following and got a “conditions normal”. So far nothing out of the ordinary. He turned the plane over to his co-pilot and went off to chat with the rest of the crew.
The pilot palavered with his crew for a few minutes, answering any questions they might have, trying to ease any tension there might be. The crew gave him a thumbs up that everything was a-okay. The pilot returned to the cockpit. He took the plane up to 9000 feet for a rendezvous in the pale, pink sky above Iwo Jima. A camera plane and an instrument plane joined up with the Enola Gay.
“Proceeding as planned,” the pilot radioed Iwo Jima downstairs.
The three planes formed into a V, the Enola Gay leading the way. Now it was on to what was left of the Japanese Empire.
The ordinance expert armed the charge. He was the last person to touch The Thing. Then he checked the circuits of The Thing on his monitor.
The pilot announced to the crew, “You are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.”
The Enola Gay climbed to an altitude of 30,800 feet.
“Bomb primary,” came the message from the weather plane ahead. The pilot announced, “It’s Hiroshima.”
All lights on The Thing remained green. It was ready to do its job.
Course change to a heading of 264 degrees.
Hiroshima’s morning sky was bright and clear. Perfect weather.
Below soldiers did their calisthenics.
Below a doctor was administering a shot.
Below a sixteen year old girl drove a tram.
Below two women arrived at the bank where they worked.
The pilot knew the city like the back of his hand from studying maps, photographs and radar pictures. He headed straight to the Aiming Point.
From below: “Top alert.”
“On goggles,” the pilot directed his crew to put on their goggles to shelter their eyes from the blast of The Thing they were about to drop. Only the pilot, the bombardier and the electronic countermeasures man did not slip their eyewear over their eyes. They needed their naked eyes to do their jobs.
Hiroshima in the bombardier’s viewfinder.
The plane began its three-and-a-half minute run.
The pilot: “Stand by.”
Below a nurse sterilized hospital tools.
Below a group of boys played hide-and-go-seek.
Below a woman had breakfast with her two children and her husband. He read the “Chugoku Shimbun” daily newspaper.
One of the women in the bank wiped a desk top. A soldier removed his shirt.
The Aiming Point of the T-shaped Aioi Bridge came into the bombardier’s cross hairs. “I’ve got it.”
The doctor looked up and saw the Enola Gay. Just one plane. Nothing to worry about.
8:15:17 a.m. Enola Gay’s bay doors opened. The Thing dropped from its restraining hook. Freed of the five tons, the B29 lurched upward. The pilot swung the plane into a 155 degree right turn and a steep power dive. The bay doors shut.
The Thing wobbled, then picked up speed.
Below Field Marshall Hata dressed for a meeting.
Korean Prince RiGu cantered his horse on the Aioi Bridge
Radio Hiroshima broadcast an air raid warning. Thousands of workers stopped what they were doing and hurried toward the “safe areas”.
The Enola Gay now five miles from the Aiming Point and heading out of the city.
Five seconds to go.
At 1890 feet above the city of Hiroshima, the Thing detonated, untold quantities of energy released in a blast. A white light, a flash, a fireball fifty million degrees centigrade at its center. The fireball expanded to 300 meters wide.
There was a new sun in the sky. A sudden and throbbing roar, then total darkness, then red, yellow, orange, green burbled up from the city below, then grayish, brownish, black smoke. Looking down at it all, the tail gunner said that it was “a peep into hell.”
That morning in 1945, the people below in the city were no longer Japanese. They were human beings.
Hersey, J. (1989). Hiroshima. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Smith, J. M. (2010). Fire in the sky: The story of the atomic bomb. Place of publication not identified: Textstream.
Thomas, G., & Witts, M. M. (1995). Enola Gay – Mission to Hiroshima. Loughborough, England.: White Owl Press.
Hiroshima (BBC History of World War II) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2009). BBC Home Entertainment.
Joffé, R. (Director). (1989). Fat man and little boy [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Modern Marvels – The Manhattan Project (History Channel) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2005). A&E Home Video.