Nuclear Weapons on their 70th Anniversary

The sun had been up for a while now.

Paul Tibbets silently wondered whether the glint from his silver aircraft would alert enemy air defenses to his presence before the drone of his engines. The Enola Gay, named after Tibbets’ mother, cut through the blue sky above sparse low clouds as the Japanese coast came into view. It was 8:05 in the morning, Hiroshima time.

In his own mind, Tibbets struggled with conflicting feelings he’d never share with his crewmen.

“Ten minutes to target,” Tibbets casually mumbled over the intercom.

He and his crew had taken off from the island of Tinian six hours prior to this moment, then rendezvoused briefly with escort bombers over Iwo Jima. Tibbets had ordered crewman Lt Morris Jeppson to arm their cargo about twenty minutes ago. He and his crew didn’t completely understand what they carried, but they knew whatever was inside the nearly five-ton bomb — affectionately named “Little Boy” — would unleash a destructive power on Japan such as the world had never seen.

In his own mind, Tibbets struggled with conflicting feelings he’d never share with his crewmen. On one hand, he was fully aware there would be untold human death on the ground as a result of his direct actions. On the other hand, he knew he might be able to single-handedly bring the Pacific war to an abrupt end. He suppressed his thoughts and checked the time.

“Six minutes to target.” Game on.

Moments later, he turned the B-29 bomber over to his bombardier, Thomas Ferebee. At 32,000 feet, the brownish-green mountains surrounding the broad city of Hiroshima were clearly visible. The whitish-gray tint of thousands of buildings and structures colored the expansive flat ground below the hills, and directly in front of the aircraft the port of Hiroshima appeared with its long channels and sawtooth-like wharves. This was one of the few cities in Japan that was left fully intact by allied Air Forces, who had instead turned their sights on the firebombing of other large population and military-industrial centers.

Unbeknownst to Tibbets and his crew, enemy air defense units had canceled all air-raid alerts. It couldn’t have been a major attack, they thought. After all, there were only about three aircraft overhead.

“Two minutes to target. Opening bomb bay doors.”

Tibbets remained silent and closed his eyes, placing his hand on the aircraft’s throttles.

Ferebee carefully lined up his bombsight on the Aioi Bridge, smack in the middle of downtown. A wide structure, it was easily visible from the air, crossing the Ota River, just north of the island where the Nakajima-cho district was located.

Ferebee turned his lips toward the intercom. Almost in a whisper, he muttered, “Thirty seconds. Here we go, boys.”

Tibbets remained silent and closed his eyes, placing his hand on the aircraft’s throttles. Shortly after, he heard: “Bombs away. Pilot, your aircraft.”

He immediately pushed the throttles forward and rapidly banked away from the city. The Enola Gay and its escort aircraft moved fast, knowing that even at their high altitude, any resultant shock wave could damage their aircraft.

The fireball was hotter than the surface of the sun.

Forty-five seconds later, at roughly 2,000 feet above ground level, time and barometric triggers inside Little Boy initiated their firing mechanism. The internal “gun” device shot into the fissile uranium core. Neutrons split nuclei, which split other nuclei, and the atomic chain reaction immediately filled the sky with a brief but intensely bright flash. The fireball was hotter than the surface of the sun.

“My God…” Tibbets muttered to himself as the sky turned white. His crew remained tensely silent.

Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945

On the ground, a blast equivalent to 12,000 tons of TNT tore across the city in a millisecond. Nearly every building was flattened, and 80,000 Japanese — 20,000 of which were members of the Imperial Navy — were immediately incinerated. They never felt a thing.

A film crew aboard one of Tibbets’ escorts captured the massive fireball and mushroom cloud, but none of the airmen felt the expected shock wave until they were more than eleven miles away when it violently shook their aircraft. One crewman later described, “it was like sitting on an ashcan and having someone hit it with a baseball bat.” The deafening sound of snapping sheet metal filled the fuselage and at first Tibbets, a veteran of bombing missions over Europe, thought anti-aircraft fire had hit the plane.

The small cadre of bombers turned back for a look, seeing it covered in a massive, tall plume of purple-grey smoke. The city wasn’t visible, but fires creeping up the mountains could be plainly seen. The Enola Gay’s crew stared in stunned silence, then navigator Theodore Van Kirk put his hand excitedly on Tibbets’ shoulder.

“Look at that, Paul. Look at that!”

Ferebee cut in over the radio: “You guys think this’ll make us all sterile?”

Co-pilot Robert Lewis muttered, “Does anyone else taste lead?”

There were numerous eyewitness accounts recorded just after the bombing, each of which express the profound experiences of the crew. These paragraphs are a dramatization, of course, but it’s easy to imagine that this is how it might have been inside the now-famous B-29 bomber as Paul Tibbets and his men streaked across the southern Japanese sky seventy years ago.

The Japanese government knew something wasn’t right when all military and civilian contact with Hiroshima immediately went dead. It was confusing — they knew there had been no major American air raid, and there were no substantial stores of explosives that might have been accidentally ignited. The military general staff didn’t think anything noteworthy had gone wrong, but launched an aircraft anyway to have a look the city from the air. But even as far as a hundred miles out, the pilot began to realize something was terribly amiss. The massive cloud was clearly visible, and as he got closer and circled the area, it was apparent that the once-great city of Hiroshima quite literally no longer existed. Japan didn’t know what could possibly have inflicted such grave damage until President Truman’s White House made an announcement sixteen hours later that removed all doubt.

The nuclear age had begun.

…the use of these weapons has been questioned by many ever since.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 (and Nagasaki three days later) killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens seventy years ago this month. The damage inflicted was unprecedented, but it was a major contributor to ending World War II, the most destructive conflict in the history of mankind. Despite this fact, the use of these weapons has been questioned by many ever since.

There have been those who have argued that the Japanese were essentially defeated before the bombs were dropped, and therefore using them was unnecessary. Many others have similarly argued that the extreme death toll resulting from atomic weapons made their application immoral. However, this reasoning ignores the fact that nearly the entire enemy population — from elderly citizens to young children — had been systematically brainwashed and trained by their government to fight to the death. Indeed, this tactic was seen throughout the island-hopping campaign undertaken by the Navy and Marine Corps throughout 1943-45. The worst was on Okinawa, where civilian women and children were used, among other things, as suicide bombers. Other citizens were forced or frightened into killing themselves by the thousands. Japanese soldiers also committed suicide rather than face the shame of enemy capture. This was the result of more than ninety percent of all enemy casualties — not combat deaths. On Saipan alone, 30,000 Japanese died from self-inflicted causes; only a few thousand surrendered.

Louis Zamperini noted in the book Unbroken that when he was paraded as a POW through a recently-firebombed Tokyo, he witnessed a great many structures and homes that had burned to the ground — only to reveal the presence of hidden military equipment, presumably held in reserve to fight any U.S. invasion of the home islands. As American forces closed in on Japan in 1945, the desperation and fanaticism grew — Kamikaze pilots crashed their planes into American ships, inflicting catastrophic casualties and damage. If there were to be an invasion, there was little reason to think this insanity would stop. In fact, allied intelligence later learned the Japanese air forces were preparing a sizeable number of their remaining air forces for Kamikaze operations. It was clear to military planners that during any operation, much of the Japanese population would be killed.

Prior to President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, the American military laid out extensive invasion plans under the code name “Operation Downfall.” In the face of a large number of highly trained Japanese military forces and a militarized population, the U.S. knew there would be a massive number of friendly casualties as well. It would take several amphibious assaults that greatly exceeded the size of those used in Operation Overlord — the D-Day invasion of France on June 6th 1944.

Forty-two aircraft carriers, twenty-four battleships, four hundred destroyers, thirty-five landing beaches, and thirty-nine army divisions would be employed — it would be the largest naval armada ever assembled. The infantry footprint used in Normandy would pale in comparison — only twelve divisions landed on five beaches in Northern France. An army this size would mean the use of up to 700,000 infantrymen, not to mention the personnel footprint of the expected naval and air forces. Numbers would reach into the millions, and allied casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) were expected to reach anywhere from 500,000 to 900,000.

Japanese training of civilians for home defense in anticipation of American invasion, 1945

In 1944, my own grandfather joined the Army Air Forces and trained as a bombardier aboard a B-24 Liberator for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. As a kid, I remember him telling me stories of his extensive training at Kelly Field, Texas, and Langley Field, Virginia. Some of his old photos included pictures of ground targets with a cartoon-faced Emperor Hirohito in the center. He and his crews were gearing up to deploy in support of Operation Downfall, which was expected to begin in November or December 1945. Then, the atom bombs fell. Within nine months, he was mustered out of service and returned to Philadelphia to join the post-war work force. He always used to tell me he was disappointed to have trained for so long, only to be forced out of uniform because of a couple of big bombs put an end to all the action.

The reality is if he’d gone to war in Asia, the odds of him being killed were high. Had that happened, my mother would never have been born and I might not be here today — nor my kids. Now apply this concept to a far larger scale. Think of nearly a million American casualties — how many more baby boomers, their children, and grandchildren, might never have existed? Think of the medical, technological, and financial advances that might never have happened as a result. Similarly, the huge explosion of the 1950s middle class that grew from returning GIs might never have occurred. The world could have seen many more Japanese atrocities that matched or exceeded the brutality of the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking, and others. The war could have dragged on into the late 1940s, or even 1950s. The boom in the Japanese economy of the 1970s and 80s may never have happened, which would not have resulted in economic growth and prosperity across the globe, including here in the United States.

Was dropping the bombs the right thing to do?

While almost a quarter of a million Japanese people died as a direct or secondary result of the use of atomic bombs, it’s likely the death toll (both American and Japanese) would have been staggeringly higher had they notbeen used — far greater than anything ever seen in the history of mankind.

President Truman struggled with the decision to use nuclear weapons to bring Japan to its knees, but in the end, he reached this same conclusion. While use of the bombs would result in unprecedented destruction, not using the bomb might result in even more.

Are we better off today for having dropped them? The answer is likely yes. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of lives were saved on both sides, and using these fearsome weapons was the lesser evil.

What about all the baggage that came with atom bombs and their successors, like the proliferation of nuclear arms? Frankly, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. Both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan had nuclear weapons programs underway in 1945. Had we elected not to use our own, the war might ultimately have been won, but those programs might have proliferated during or after the hostilities anyway. Our enemies in the mid-1940s might even have used them against us. The development of nuclear weapons would have been inevitable — it was hardly a “secret” technology. Better they were controlled and used first by the United States, the war ended, and enemy programs halted. The Russian program, which led to the arming of nuclear states such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, would also have likely happened anyway.

In 1945 the world was a dangerous place, and it remains so today. World War II is still noted as the most catastrophic conflict in history — more than 60 million people died, which accounted for 3% of the world’s entire population in 1940. But in the seventy years since atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese home islands, it has become apparent that ridding the earth of nuclear weapons would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Our own weapons have served as a deterrent to prevent hostile usage on Americans by a foreign power — their value was proven during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It isn’t without it’s problems, but overall American nuclear deterrence remains strong today, and it will continue to be used as a pillar of American security strategy into the 21st Century.


Jason Nulton is an Air Force veteran and author. He teaches leadership and energy science at Ohio Valley University and has collaborated with British historian and History Channel commentator Martin King on a documentary book detailing a century of combat by the US Army's 4th Infantry Division from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq, which will be published in the fall of 2016. He is currently writing a book on the true story of a Vietnamese family who escaped Saigon the day before it fell in April 1975.


Header Image: Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, August 6, 1945


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