On August 6th, 1945, a light never before seen on the face of the Earth cast its deadly pall over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a similar light fell on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Neither city nor the world would ever be the same.
The atomic age had arrived in startling and awe-inspiring fashion. At the first city, almost 50,000 Japanese people (by the lowest estimates) were vaporized in a microsecond as the uncontrolled power of the atom was unleashed. In addition, at least another 15,000 died from radiation poisoning and other causes in the following four months. Most experts maintain that the actual death toll was far higher.
The Manhattan Project
Credit: LANL / LANS under US Department of EnergyDuring World War II, the Allies' quest for the “atomic” bomb was initiated out of dire necessity. When it was learned that Nazi Germany and, to a far lesser extent, Imperial Japan, were embarked upon efforts to build an atomic weapon, the United States, under the auspices of the Roosevelt administration, undertook a most ambitious plan to develop this fearsome weapon ahead of her enemies. It was a noble goal but one fraught with danger as substantial and much needed resources were allocated to an unproven technology.
This most secret plan, code named the Manhattan Project, was directed by Major General Leslie Groves and conducted at over 30 disparate sites located in the United States, Great Britain and Canada with most of the work being done at sites in Oak Ridge, TN, Richland, WA, and Los Alamos, NM.
At its height, the Manhattan Program employed well over 100,000 people and its cost, in current (2012) dollars, was approximately $26B. Still, the outcome of this nuclear arms race was far from certain. Once successful, however, President Roosevelt noted,
“We have spent $2 billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history - and won.”
The fact that the United States won this race and its subsequent beneficent behavior should provide ample food for thought for those who question the motives of the greatest nation in all recorded history.
Credit: Sebastian BasileDelivery of a nuclear weapon during the World War II era required an over flight by a plane and its crew. At the time, the ICBM was just a sparkle in the eye of some engineer at Caltech. As the results of the explosion on the plane were far from certain, the crews were briefed that, in many of the physicist’s minds, the mission was of a “suicide” nature.
Nevertheless, the crewmen of the Enola Gay and the lesser known Bockscar carried and delivered their payloads. The plane’s commanders, Colonel Paul Tibbets and Major Charles Sweeney, and their crews were instrumental in the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives of American and Japanese soldiers as well as countless Japanese civilians.
The Japanese High Command meant to sacrifice the bulk of its population in a face-saving exercise that would leave ultimately them in control of their island. Instead, when confronted with a weapon of unprecedented and unimagined power, they finally saw “reason. The Japanese Imperial government surrendered, unconditionally, a mere six days later. No invasion was necessary.
Both plane commanders led successful post war careers. Colonel Tibbets remained with the army and rose to brigadier general while Major Sweeney transferred tot eh Massachusetts Air national Guard and retired with the rank of Major General.
The other members of the crew had generally successful careers but many were best remembered for their roles on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions.
The first photos and only still photos of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima were taken by tail gunner, Technical Sergeant George “Bob” Caron. Due to a variety of technical difficulties with the cameras in the accompanying planes, his still photos are the only ones ever captured of the mission.
The weaponeer of the Enola Gay, Captain William Sterling "Deak" Parsons, was in technical command of the mission over Hiroshima. For his efforts in the raid and in the Manhattan project, he was eventually promoted to rear admiral. An almost unique distinction as he never commanded a ship.
Radar Specialist Jacob Beser guided the crew of the Enola Gay to its target and then, three days later, joined the crew of Bock’s Car for the raid on Kokura and its secondary target, Nagasaki. He is the only person to part of the strike force of both missions.
Only one man, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator from the Enola Gay, is still alive as of 2012. His continuing sentiments about the raid echo those of his former comrades,
“ Under the same circumstances -- and the key words are 'the same circumstances' -- yes, I would do it again.”
By today’s standards, the bombs “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” were actually quite small in terms of yield as evidenced by the fact that many modern nuclear weapons and natural disasters are characterized as being equivalent to a certain number of Hiroshima type bombs.
Little Boy delivered energy equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT while Fat Man delivered 21 kilotons of explosive force. Both weighed approximately 5 tons and were shaped liked a conventional bomb. Other than these external features, the mechanics of the bombs were utterly dissimilar.
Little Boy was the simpler of the two. It used a “gun method” to shoot a subcritical mass of uranium-235 into another and thus create a supercritical mass and achieve sustained fission. Fat Man, on the other hand, relied on an implosion method. Various conventional, high explosive but specifically shaped charges surrounded a core of plutonium-239. When the explosives were simultaneously detonated, the subcritical mass of plutonium was compressed and fission was achieved.
Credit: ScienceDiscovererThe current nuclear arsenals of the world hold approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons down from almost 100,000 at the height of the Cold War. Still, these weapons are far more powerful than their predecessors and their striking power is greater than it has ever been.
A all out nuclear war is unfathomable and would likely spell the end of civilization as we know it. Nevertheless, the use of the two atomic weapons, Fat Man and Little Boy ended the largest conflagration in the history of mankind and undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Perhaps, the legacy of Fat Man and Little Boy missions are best summed up by the bombardier of the Bocks Car, Kermit Beahan, who was the last man to drop a nuclear device on a human inhabited target.
In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, he said that the mission was the “best way out of a hell of a mess” and that he would never apologize for his role in it. He then went on to say that he hoped he would forever remain the last man to ever drop an atomic bomb. For almost 70 years, it has remained so. Let us pray that Captain Beahan’s hope continues to be realized.