Nagasaki, 60 years later

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, I’ll share some relevant passages from Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory.

President Truman, in a diary entry from July 25, wrote: “This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

“He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.”

Many of the scientists did not want to drop the second bomb, or even the first. But Groves had been adamant. Consumed by the desire to demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt his success in building the monstrous new weapon, he lobbied vigorously for its use. Finally the military managed to convince Truman to drop the bomb on a real target, instead of making a demonstration like many scientists recommended, but Truman insisted the target be military. Fortunately, that took candidates like Kyoto and the Emperor’s palace in Tokyo out of the running. Unfortunately, it was then an easy end-run for the military to claim that Hiroshima, or Nagasaki, was a military target, since of course, both cities did contain factories producing war materiel. The orders that went out on the very same day of Truman’s diary entry, July 25, made no mention of military vs. civilian targets, and simply designated the entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others, as targets.

The bomb detonated over Hiroshima, “Big Boy,” was a uranium bomb, which Hanford had nothing to do with. It was dropped on August 6 1945. Riding along in a separate plane, named “The Great Artiste” and carrying monitoring equipment, was a certain Major Charles William Sweeney. Three days later Sweeney, commanding a B-29 named “Bock’s Car” after its usual pilot, Capt. Frederick Bock, dropped “Fat Man,” so named for its pudgy shape, over Nagasaki, a little Japanese port town on the southern island of Kyushu. Nagasaki was not really a strategic target, other than being where a Mitsubishi plant had produced some of the torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor. When Fat Man was ignited, conventional explosives violently squeezed the softball-sized capsule of Hanford plutonium inside until its density reached the point of supercriticality, causing a nuclear explosion. The fierce blast wind, heat rays reaching several thousand degrees, and deadly radiation generated by the explosion crushed, burned and killed everything in sight and reduced the entire area to a barren field of rubble. Hanford’s plutonium had performed its work admirably.

Bock was much less creative in naming his plane than one Capt. George Marquardt, who came up with the cute moniker “Up an’ Atom” for the weatherplane he flew along on the run.

Fat Man almost did not make it to its August 9 date with destiny. There was a firing unit on Fat Man’s front that needed to be connected to a cable going through the bomb’s innards to a radar antenna on its tail that detected when the bomb was at the right altitude to ignite. Technicians in the Marianas from where the flight was to take off were trying to hook up the bomb on the night of August 7 when they discovered to their horror that both connectors were female; somebody had threaded the cable through the bomb backwards! There wasn’t enough time to disassemble the bomb and reverse the cable. Without telling anyone, the two got a soldering iron and some extension cords. They secretly, and very carefully, removed the two plugs on the cable and swapped them so everything fit.

The technicians evidently did their job well, since the bomb detonated as planned. Sweeney recalls that as he watched the bomb falling free on its forward arc, the somewhat bizarre thought flashed through his mind: “It’s too late now. There are no strings or cables attached. We can’t get it back, whether it works or not.” The mushroom cloud was “multicolored…intense…angry…mesmerizing…breathtaking…ominous.”

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