Military history


Bombing Nagasaki

Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, scientists in Britain and America had become alarmed by the prospect of the enemies of Western democracy acquiring the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. At the war’s outbreak, Britain succeeded in transferring from France to Britain the French government’s stocks of heavy water, then an essential component of the process of separating the heavy from light elements of uranium, the fissile material from which scientists knew a nuclear warhead must be made. The British military nuclear research organization, codenamed Tube Alloys, was the recipient of the heavy-water stocks and used them in the research undertaken to advance development of an atomic bomb. Once the United States entered the war, in December 1941, however, Britain agreed with the government of the United States that all research into the development of nuclear weapons must be concentrated in America, where the first uranium chain reaction had been initiated at the University of Chicago by the emigré Italian scientist, Enrico Fermi, in 1941.

Unified under the umbrella of the so-called ‘Manhattan Military District’, the Allied nuclear weapons research programme succeeded by mid-1945 in creating two nuclear war-heads, a heavy uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb. A test warhead was developed at Los Alamos and exploded in the New Mexico desert in July. On 6 August, the uranium bomb was dropped by an American B-29 bomber at Hiroshima. Three days later the plutonium bomb was exploded over Nagasaki. William Laurence’s news report describes the operation, Laurence having flown on the mission in one of the supporting aircraft. Six days after the Nagasaki bombing, the Japanese Emperor announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.


Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki Toldbya Night Member By William L. Laurence

The first signs of dawn came shortly after 5 o’clock. Sergeant Curry, who had been listening steadily on his earphones for radio reports, while maintaining a strict radio silence himself, greeted it by rising to his feet and gazing out the window.

‘It’s good to see the day,’ he told me. ‘I get a feeling of claustrophobia hemmed in in this cabin at night.’

He is a typical American youth, looking even younger than his 20 years. It takes no mind-reader to read his thoughts.

‘It’s a long way from Hoopeston, Ill.,’ I find myself remarking.

‘Yep,’ he replies, as he busies himself decoding a message from outer space.

‘Think this atomic bomb will end the war?’ he asks hopefully.

‘There is a very good chance that this one may do the trick,’ I assure him, ‘but if not, then the next one or two surely will. Its power is such that no nation can stand up against it very long.’

This was not my own view. I had heard it expressed all around a few hours earlier, before we took off. To anyone who had seen this man-made fireball in action, as I had less than a month ago in the desert of New Mexico, this view did not sound overoptimistic.

By 5:50 it was real light outside. We had lost our lead ship [i.e. aircraft], but Lieutenant Godfrey, our navigator, informs me that we had arranged for that contingency. We have an assembly point in the sky above the little island of Yakoshima, southeast of Kyushu, at 9:10. We are to circle there and wait for the rest of our formation.

Our genial bombardier [bomb-aimer], Lieutenant Levy, comes over to invite me to take his front-row seat in the transparent nose of the ship and I accept eagerly. From that vantage point in space, 17,000 feet above the Pacific, one gets a view of hundreds of miles on all sides, horizontally and vertically. At that height the vast ocean below and the sky above seem to merge into one great sphere.

I was on the inside of that firmament, riding above the giant mountains of white cumulus clouds, letting myself be suspended in infinite space. One hears the whirl of the motors behind one, but it soon becomes insignificant against the immensity all around and is before long swallowed by it. There comes a point where space also swallows time and one lives through eternal moments filled with an oppressive loneliness, as though all life had suddenly vanished from the earth and you are the only one left, a lone survivor traveling endlessly through interplanetary space.

My mind soon returns to the mission I am on. Somewhere beyond these vast mountains of white clouds ahead of me there lies Japan, the land of our enemy. In about four hours from now one of its cities, making weapons of war for use against us, will be wiped off the map by the greatest weapon ever made by man. In one-tenth of a millionth of a second, a fraction of time immeasurable by any clock, a whirlwind from the skies will pulverize thousands of its buildings and tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

Our weather planes ahead of us are on their way to find out where the wind blows. Half an hour before target time we will know what the winds have decided.

Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March on Bataan [in the Philippines; scene of the surrender of US and Philippine forces to the Japanese, April 1942].

Captain Bock informs me that we are about to start our climb to bombing altitude.

He manipulates a few knobs on his control panel to the right of him and I alternately watch the white clouds and ocean below me and the altimeter on the bombardier’s panel. We reached our altitude at 9 o’clock. We were then over Japanese waters, close to their mainland. Lieutenant Godfrey motioned to me to look through his radar scope. Before me was the outline of our assembly point. We shall soon meet our lead ship and proceed to the final stage of our journey.

We reached Yakoshima at 9:12 and there, about 4,000 feet ahead of us, was The Great Artiste with its precious load. I saw Lieutenant Godfrey and Sergeant Curry strap on their parachutes and I decided to do likewise.

We started circling. We saw little towns on the coastline, heedless of our presence. We kept on circling, waiting for the third ship in our formation.

It was 9:56 when we began heading for the coastline. Our weather scouts had sent us code messages, deciphered by Sergeant Curry, informing us that both the primary target as well as the secondary were clearly visible.

The winds of destiny seemed to favor certain Japanese cities that must remain nameless. We circled about them again and again and found no opening in the thick umbrella of clouds that covered them. Destiny chose Nagasaki as the ultimate target.

We had been circling for some time when we noticed black puffs of smoke coming through the white clouds directly at us. There were fifteen bursts of flak in rapid succession, all too low. Captain Bock changed his course. There soon followed eight more bursts of flak, right up to our altitude, but by this time they were too far to the left.

We flew southward down the channel and at 11:33 crossed the coastline and headed straight for Nagasaki about 100 miles to the west. Here again we circled until we found an opening in the clouds. It was 12:01 and the goal of our mission had arrived.

We heard the prearranged signal on our radio, put on our arc-welder’s glasses and watched tensely the manoeuvrings of the strike ship about half a mile in front of us. ‘There she goes!’ someone said.

Out of the belly of The Great Artiste what looked like a black object went downward.

Captain Bock swung around to get out of range, but even though we were turning away in the opposite direction, and despite the fact that it was broad daylight in our cabin, all of us became aware of a giant flash that broke through the dark barrier of our arc-welder’s lenses and flooded our cabin with intense light.

We removed our glasses after the first flash, but the light still lingered on, a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky all around. A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail. This was followed by four more blasts in rapid succession, each resounding like the boom of cannon fire hitting our plane from all directions.

Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth, belching forth enormous white smoke rings. Next they saw a giant pillar of purple fire, 10,000 feet high, shooting skyward with enormous speed.

By the time our ship had made another turn in the direction of the atomic explosion the pillar of purple fire had reached the level of our altitude. Only about forty-five seconds had passed. Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.

At one stage of its evolution covering millions of years in terms of seconds, the entity assumed the form of a giant square totem pole, with its base about three miles long, tapering off to about a mile at the top. Its bottom was brown, its center was amber, its top white. But it was a living totem pole, carved with many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.

Then, just when it appeared as though the thing had settled down into a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of sea foam, sizzling upward and then descending earthwards, a thousand Old Faithful geysers rolled into one.

It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that held it down. In a few seconds it had freed itself from its gigantic stem and floated upward with tremendous speed, its momentum carrying it into the stratosphere to a height of about 60,000 feet.

But no sooner did this happen when another mushroom, smaller in size than the first one, began emerging out of the pillar. It was as though the decapitated monster was growing a new head. As the first mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flower-like form, its giant petal curving downward creamy white outside, rose-colored inside. It still retained that shape when we last gazed at it from a distance of about 200 miles.

The New York Times, 9 September 1945

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