The story of the plane, the crew and their grim task…
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds
By 1945, the Second World War had appeared to be drawing to a close. Germany had already fallen following the capture of Berlin and the subsequent Potsdam Declaration had been issued calling for Japan to surrender.
The Pacific War had seen some of the most brutal battles to be waged during the world conflict. The invasion of the Japanese islands of Okinawa had seen the loss of 14,000 Allied lives, with the Japanese toll over 77,000. Yet this battle was seen as purely a means to gain a base of operations for the mainland invasion of Japan, which was anticipated to bring even greater casualties on both sides.
Meanwhile, in the years that the war had been active, a special research and development unit based in Los Alamos in the United States was finally delivering results. The Manhattan Project had been designed to explore the use of the first nuclear weapons. With the discovery of the splitting of the atom, it was inevitable that the enormous energy unleashed would be considered for military uses. The results of which were the creation of atomic bombs capable of harnessing the awful and destructive forces within.
Physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos laboratory where the bombs themselves were designed. The first successful detonation, codenamed Trinity, was conducted on the 16th July 1945. The blast, which was equal to 20 kilotons of TNT, turned the desert sands to glass and released a blinding light. On recalling the explosion, Oppenheimer later called to mind a passage from the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one ”
Many years later, Oppenheimer expanded on this by discussing the initial reactions from the witnesses: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
A US combat group had been formed in the winter of 1944 to develop the means to deliver the newly created atomic weapons to targets in Germany and Japan. The B-29 heavy bomber aircraft was considered ideal for this purpose. Although the B-29 had already seen service for conventional bombing raids, the aircraft had to be specially adapted to carry the atomic weapons, mainly through stripping down the planes to be lighter and designing the bomb bay with new release mechanisms.Commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, the group relocated to the tiny Pacific island of Tinian. Tibbets had personally selected one of the B-29s on the assembly line and assumed command for the first mission. Considering a name for the aircraft, Tibbets had decided to name it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets (who herself had been named after the heroine in a novel).
While Germany had issued its unconditional surrender in May of 1945, Japan had opted to disregard the Potsdam Treaty, prompting the decision to initiate the mission to drop the atomic bomb on the country.
The bomb itself was codenamed ‘Little Boy’ (named after a character in the classic noir film The Maltese Falcon) and consisted of a gun-type fission weapon fuelled by uranium-235. Several potential targets were considered. Hiroshima, based in the south of Japan’s main Honshu island, was considered a legitimate strategic target based on both its industrial and military significance.
On the 6th August 1945, the Enola Gay left Tinian accompanied by two other B-29s The Great Artiste and another unnamed aircraft (later called Necessary Evil) who would serve as both observers and monitor the dropping of the bomb.In the early hours of the 6th August, a B-29 selected for weather reconnaissance, had flown over Hiroshima and radioed back clear cloud cover, ending with the message: “Advice: bomb primary”.
The Enola Gay began its bomb run at 08:09 as Tibbets handed control over to Major Thomas Ferebee, who coordinated the release of ‘Little Boy’. At 08:15 (Hiroshima time), ‘Little Boy’ was released and took 43 seconds to fall before detonating at about 580 metres (1,900 feet) above Hiroshima.
The blast was equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT and resulted in estimates of between 70,000-80,000 deaths in the immediate detonation and firestorm that followed. Another 70,000 casualties followed the initial destruction. The explosion was later referred to by Japanese people as pikadon (flash-boom).
The destruction at ground level was almost total. Buildings had simply vanished with estimates that 4.7 miles of the city had been destroyed. Curiously, the Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, a building located in the blast zone, had largely survived due to the airburst of the bomb directing downwards, rather than to the side. The building has since become known as the Genbaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome) and has become perhaps the most recognisable symbol of Hiroshima following the bombing.
Following the bombing, the US president Harry S. Truman, issued a statement that also contained a warning to Japan: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”
Despite this, the Japanese government were banking on the Allies being unable to deploy limitless atomic weapons. With a view to potentially losing more cities, they were gambling on the battle returning to conventional means and a long drawn-out defence of the invasion of Japan. With the prospect of a grueling siege, the Japanese government were hoping that this would result in a conditional surrender, rather than the total capitulation they were hoping to avoid.
But an already desperate situation became more complicated when the Soviet Union tore up a neutrality pact with Japan. Initiating an invasion of Manchuria and the northern islands of Japan, the Russians began to encroach on the Japanese mainland. Meanwhile, a second Japanese city was bombed on the 9th August as Nagasaki fell to the same fate as Hiroshima just days before.
The unexpected arrival of the Soviets into the conflict made the situation even more pressing for the Japanese. On the 12th August, the Japanese Emperor addressed the people in a radio declaration: “The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” Japan formerly surrendered on 2nd September 1945.
The bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki has provoked intense debate in the years following the destruction. Arguments that conventional methods were having a direct effect have been suggested (including a concerted effort to disrupt Japan’s food supplies which had shown signs of success). However, it is clear that the Allies were keen to avoid the possibility of a prolonged invasion of Japan and had considered the deployment of atomic weapons as a necessary, if brutal, method to force Japan’s hand.
Regardless of the arguments for and against, what is clear is that the first use of atomic weapons has subsequently provoked a staunch anti-nuclear movement. This movement gravitates towards the city of Hiroshima every year on the 6th August to commemorate the anniversary of the first bombing. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park has become both a shrine to the memory of the victims of the destruction as well as reminder of the horrors of nuclear war.