Hiroshima and Nagasaki
6 AND 9 AUGUST 1945
At 2:45 in the morning of August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber flew north from Tinian Island in the Marianas toward Japan. Three and a half hours later, over the city of Hiroshima, the Enola Gay dropped an 8,900-pound atomic weapon from its specially modified bomb bay. Two thousand feet above the ground, the bomb, dubbed "Little Boy" by its makers, detonated, leveling almost 90% of the city.
On August 9, another B-29, Bockscar, set out for the Kokura Arsenal on the southwest Japanese island of Kyushu. Foul weather, however, persuaded the pilot to proceed instead toward Nagasaki, the home of a Mitsubishi torpedo factory. Over this secondary target Bockscar dropped a larger device, code-named "Fat Man." Local geography spared Nagasaki from the near total devastation suffered by Hiroshima; only one third of the city was destroyed.
Fat Man and Little Boy
Fat Man and Little Boy, both weapons of unparalleled destructive power, were actually quite different. Little Boy, fueled by highly enriched uranium-235, was triggered by a simple "gun" mechanism; a small, slug-shaped piece of uranium was fired down a barrel into a larger, cup-shaped piece. This elementary design generated a destructive force of about 15 kilotons—the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. A much more complex implosion-type device triggered Fat Man. It consisted of a plutonium-239 core surrounded by high explosives wired to explode simultaneously. The shock waves from these conventional explosions triggered the fission of the plutonium, which yielded a 22 kiloton explosion. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a devastating psychological impact on the already weakened Japanese. Emperor Hirohito accepted the U.S.' terms of surrender on August 14. On September 2, Japan signed an official declaration of surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
U.S. military officials believed that such a massive demonstration of U.S. military power was the only reasonable way to force an unconditional Japanese surrender. Though the islands' supply lines had been cut, the Japanese air force was a shambles, and Tokyo was nearly in ruins, it was still widely believed that no conventional military action short of an invasion could make Japan surrender. In her entire history, Japan had never been invaded or defeated. Even after the destruction of Hiroshima, she refused to capitulate. The decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the first and last use of atomic weapons in combat—remains one of the most controversial in military history. Altogether, the two bombings killed an estimated 110,000 Japanese citizens and injured another 130,000. By 1950, another 230,000 Japanese had died from injuries or radiation. Though the two cities were nominally military targets, the overwhelming majority of the casualties were civilian.
Needless Tragedy or Prudent Military Decision?
Because of robust Japanese defenses and the topography of the islands themselves, an amphibious assault would have taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces. Military officials estimated that such an invasion might have incurred up to a million U.S. casualties, with corresponding Japanese military and civilian losses. Two fire bombing raids on Tokyo earlier in 1945 had already killed 140,000 citizens and injured a million more. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then, might actually have spared hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American lives.
This justification, however, is not universally accepted. Some sources' estimates of U.S. casualties are significantly lower—perhaps as low as 50,000 men. It is also not entirely clear that an unconditional Japanese surrender was impossible, especially if Russia had entered the war before the bombing (Russia officially declared war on Japan on August 8, two days after the destruction of Hiroshima). Some suggest that Harry Truman, fearing a Soviet attempt to dominate the postwar Asian order as it had the Eastern European, ordered the bombing to force Japan's surrender before Russia had the chance to enter the fray (and thus earn the right to affect the peace settlement). Truman may also have wanted to intimidate his potential rival Joseph Stalin with the United States' new destructive capability. Whether the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituted a needless tragedy or a prudent military decision will never be certain. Those who made the decision, as well as most of the survivors, are long gone. The effects, though—the lingering scourge of radiation, the memory of the ghastly civilian casualties, the psychological impact of simply knowing that such a destructive force exists—remain. One can only hope that those who now wield the tools of armageddon will remember the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a long time to come.***
WORLD WAR II (1939-1945)
Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria) versus Allies (U.S., Britain, France, USSR, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Yugoslavia).
Germany invades Poland and annexes Danzig; Britain and France give Hitler ultimatum (Sept. 1), declare war (Sept. 3). Disabled German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee blown up off Montevideo, Uruguay, on Hitler's orders (Dec. 17). Limited activity (“Sitzkrieg”) on Western Front.
Nazis invade Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg (May 10). Chamberlain resigns as Britain's prime minister; Churchill takes over (May 10). Germans cross French frontier (May 12) using air/tank/infantry “Blitzkrieg” tactics. Dunkerque evacuation > about 335,000 out of 400,000 Allied soldiers rescued from Belgium by British civilian and naval craft (May 26–June 3). Italy declares war on France and Britain; invades France (June 10). Germans enter Paris; city undefended (June 14). France and Germany sign armistice at Compiègne (June 22). Nazis bomb Coventry, England (Nov. 14).
Germans launch attacks in Balkans. Yugoslavia surrenders—General Mihajlovic continues guerrilla warfare; Tito leads left-wing guerrillas (April 17). Nazi tanks enter Athens; remnants of British Army quit Greece (April 27). Hitler attacks Russia (June 22). Atlantic Charter—FDR and Churchill agree on war aims (Aug. 14). Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Philippines, Guam force U.S. into war; U.S. Pacific fleet crippled (Dec. 7). U.S. and Britain declare war on Japan. Germany and Italy declare war on U.S.; Congress declares war on those countries (Dec. 11).
British surrender Singapore to Japanese (Feb. 15). Roosevelt orders Japanese and Japanese Americans in western U.S. to be exiled to “relocation centers,” many for the remainder of the war (Feb. 19). Dutch in East Indies (Indonesia) surrender (March 8). U.S. forces on Bataan peninsula in Philippines surrender (April 9). U.S. and Filipino troops on Corregidor island in Manila Bay surrender to Japanese (May 6). Village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia razed by Nazis (June 10). U.S. and Britain land in French North Africa (Nov. 8).
Casablanca Conference—Churchill and FDR agree on unconditional surrender goal (Jan. 14–24). German 6th Army surrenders at Stalingrad—turning point of war in Russia (Feb. 1–2). Remnants of Nazis trapped on Cape Bon, ending war in Africa (May 12). Mussolini deposed; Badoglio named premier (July 25). Allied troops land on Italian mainland after conquest of Sicily (Sept. 3). Italy surrenders (Sept. 8). Nazis seize Rome (Sept. 10). Cairo Conference: FDR, Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek pledge defeat of Japan, free Korea (Nov. 22–26). Tehran Conference: FDR, Churchill, Stalin agree on invasion plans (Nov. 28–Dec. 1).
U.S. and British troops land at Anzio on west Italian coast and hold beachhead (Jan. 22). U.S. and British troops enter Rome (June 4). D-Day—Allies launch Normandy invasion (June 6). Hitler wounded in bomb plot (July 20). Paris liberated (Aug. 25). Athens freed by Allies (Oct. 13). Americans invade Philippines (Oct. 20). Germans launch counteroffensive in Belgium—Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16).
Yalta Agreement signed by FDR, Churchill, Stalin—establishes basis for occupation of Germany, returns to Soviet Union lands taken by Germany and Japan; USSR agrees to friendship pact with China (Feb. 11). Mussolini killed at Lake Como (April 28). Admiral Doenitz takes command in Germany; suicide of Hitler announced (May 1). Berlin falls (May 2). Germany signs unconditional surrender terms at Rheims (May 7). Allies declare V-E Day (May 8). Potsdam Conference—Truman, Churchill, Atlee (after July 28), Stalin establish council of foreign ministers to prepare peace treaties; plan German postwar government and reparations (July 17–Aug. 2). A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima by U.S. (Aug. 6). USSR declares war on Japan (Aug. 8). Nagasaki hit by A-bomb (Aug. 9). Japan agrees to surrender (Aug. 14). V-J Day—Japanese sign surrender terms aboard battleship Missouri (Sept. 2).***