Seventy years ago, atomic weapons were used for the first and only time in the prosecution of war. The final concerted military actions of World War II were the bombings of two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 6th, 1945, just before 9 a.m. local time, the Little Boy atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. The bomb was detonated more than one-third of a mile above ground, and its explosive force of nearly 15,000 tons of TNT resulted in immediate and vast destruction. Nearly five square miles of Hiroshima obliterated. Estimates of death and injuries that resulted from the bombing range wildly, but the lower estimate is that 90,000 people died in that bombing.
On August 9th, 1945, at 11:08 a.m. local time, the Fat Man atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki. The Fat Man weapon was more powerful, its explosive force calculated to be 21,000 tons of TNT, but its destructiveness was tempered by a number of environmental factors. Nonetheless, the damage and loss of life was significant, with approximately two square miles of Nagasaki destroyed in an instant. It’s estimated that, minimally, 39,000 people were killed.
In the two B-29 aircraft on those days—the Hiroshima bomb was dropped by Enola Gay and the Nagasaki bomb was dropped by Bockscar—members of the aircrew had immediate reactions to what they’d witnessed. In his book, The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, author Bruce Cameron Reed relates these comments from Enola Gay’s co-pilot, Robert Lewis, “My God, what have we done?” and a later remark of “If I live a hundred years, I’ll never quite get these images out of my mind.”
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was followed within a week by the surrender of Japan. The end of World War II was announced on August 14th.
While the denizens of Los Alamos anticipated news of the Japanese surrender with every new day, the pragmatic aspects of life that accompanied their day-to-day existence on a government reservation were never far away. Eleanor Jette, a resident of Los Alamos and wife of one the scientists, reveals in her book Inside Box 1663 that life on the Hill between the dropping of the bombs and Japan’s surrender had an odd business as usual quality to it:
On Friday…he (her husband Eric) handed me the Bulletin: it carried a notice on its front page which gave us permission to say we lived at Los Alamos. The following paragraphs appeard on the back page of the same bulletin:
ATTENTION ALL RESIDENTS
Conserver water—we are now in the most critical period in the history of our water supply system…
The primary public information that documented the Manhattan Project in the immediate aftermath of the war is commonly known as The Smyth Report. Written by physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, the document goes by two other, more descriptive names as well: “A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945” and “Atomic Energy for Military Purposes.” This initial report was published almost immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
The copy that we have doesn’t have any bibliographic information that indicates it’s a second edition, but the Preface, dated September 1, 1945, has this to say: “Minor changes have been made for this edition. These changes consist of the following variations from the report as issued August 12, 1945.” Given these dates, it would be easy to assume that some variations resulted from emerging information about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. However, the reality is that The Smyth Report contains almost no mention of Japan.
One report section, 12.18 Effectiveness, is specifically noted as having been updated post-Japan:
The bomb is detonated in combat at such a height above the ground as to give the maximum blast effect against structures, and to disseminate the radioactive products as a cloud. On account of the height of the explosion practically all the radioactive products are carried upward in the ascending column of hot air and dispersed harmlessly over a wide area.
Another mention of Japan comes later in the report, in section 13.3, which appraises the possibility of a German atomic bomb. The section ends with the following sentence: “By the same token, most of us are certain that the Japanese cannot develop and use this weapon effectively.”
Los Alamos resident, McAllister Hull, a member of the Army’s Special Engineering Detachment who would later go on to be a theoretical nuclear physicist, writes in his memoir, Rider of the Pale Horse:
Even had I known the consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki beforehand, I would still have worked as hard as I did to make the weapons a success. The personal consequence is that I have a share of responsibility for the destruction of two cities and thousands of civilians living in them. That is a responsibility I shall carry with me for the rest of my life.
We leave the final words of this post to the person who ultimately made the decision to use atomic weapons for the first time in warfare, President Truman. In The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, Reed quotes an entry written prior to the atomic bombing (July 25, 1945) from the President’s personal diary:
We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark. Anyway we think we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling—to put it mildly. […] The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.
This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. […] It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered […].