The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth
Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb
Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian's 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay
Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan
And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb
The flight of the bomber called Bock’s Car on August 9, 1945, from Tinian to Nagasaki was blessed but not smooth. In a Quonset hut at the air base before takeoff Chaplain Downey had prayed for the success of the plane’s mission. “Almighty God, Father of all mercies,” he said, “we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night.” He also said: “Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts. Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world.”
But things went wrong from the start. A fuel pump wasn’t working. So the captain, Major Charles “Chuck” Sweeney (“cheerful Irish grin”), decided to rendezvous with escort planes over Japan and refuel in Okinawa on the way back. The skies were thundery and turbulent. The rendezvous was missed: the planes lost contact and much time. The primary target, Kokura, an industrial city in northern Kyushu, was covered by smoke from a bombing raid on a neighboring city. Fuel was running low, but Sweeney flew his B-29 bomber on to the second target on the list: Nagasaki.
A thick deck of clouds had rendered Nagasaki invisible, too. “Skipper” Sweeney had to think fast. Fuel was running out. Ditching his load in the ocean was one possibility. But he decided against it. “After all,” he said, “anything is better than dumping it in the water.” He would ignore his orders, which stipulated that the target had to be visible, and drop the “Fat Man” by radar. Then, suddenly, Kermit “Bea” Beahan (“slow Texas drawl”; “crack bombardier”; “ladies’ man”), shouted: “I’ve got it. I see the city. I’ll take it now….”1
And so the “Fat Man” went down, slowly at first. It took a while for things to happen. Internal radar fuses had been activated in the bomb to sense its height. Chuck Sweeney was impatient. “Oh, my God,” he said to his copilot, Charles “Donald Duck” Albery (“a deeply religious man”), “did we goof it up?” Moments later, the sky lit up, the plane was rocking like a rowing boat in a storm, and Sweeney could relax at last. “Well, Bea,” said “Donald Duck” to the bombardier, “there’s a thousand Japs you’ve just killed.”
The “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb, exploded about three miles from the center of Nagasaki, above an area called Urakami, sometimes referred to in Nagasaki as Urakamimura, or Urakami village. The pressure generated by the bomb at the hypocenter—the point directly under the blast—was about ten tons per square meter. The heat at ground level reached 4,000 degrees Celsius. People near the hypocenter were vaporized. Others, who were not so lucky, died more slowly, often after shedding their skins like snakes. Some died weeks or months, or even years, later of various kinds of cancer. Altogether up to 70,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. About half of them died on the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.