5. Activation (September 1, 1944 — June 27, 1945)
From 'Ruin From The Air' by Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts

A SAILOR carefully erased the legend I.58 from the conning tower of the submarine and, immediately above the Rising Sun emblem, painted the kikusui. It was the battle flag of the ancient warrior Masashige, who had fought against overwhelming odds, knowing he had no chance to survive.

With the kikusui flag gleaming in late December sunlight, Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, of the Imperial Japanese Navy, completed the transformation of his submarine by ordering a seaman to raise the boat's new war banner, Masashige's hiriho kenten, meaning "heaven's will." Banner and flag signified that the submarine was now a human-torpedo carrier. The human torpedoes, or kaitens—the underwater counterpart of the kamikaze —were the latest weapons devised by the Imperial Navy.

For almost two years, at a top-secret base on an island in Hiroshima Bay, the navy had been experimenting with the use of human torpedoes which could be launched from a mother craft and steered by volunteers toward an enemy ship. The navy hoped these weapons would help to halt the American advance on Japan.

To accommodate the kaitens on deck, workmen had removed the housing for the I.58's reconnaissance plane and the boat's deck gun. The six projectiles, shaped like miniature submarines and weighing eight tons each, had explosive warheads. They had a range of nearly fifteen miles, a top speed of thirty knots, and were not recoverable. Once a kaiten pilot squirmed through a narrow tunnel from the parent submarine into his torpedo and was cast off, there was no returning. Either he exploded against his target or was blown up by the enemy before reaching it.

After the kaitens were winched onto the deck and shackled securely, the pilots for the craft came aboard and were greeted by Commander Hashimoto, a veteran of the naval task force which had supported the air attack on Pearl Harbor. He was struck by the youthfulness of the kaiten crewmen; there was also an air of fanaticism about them that chilled him. He, too, believed in the emperor and the traditional concept of dying. But these youths were intoxicated with their patriotism; they told him proudly how they had literally fought for the privilege of making this kaiten mission, and how they longed for death. kaiten means "the turn toward heaven."

As the moment of departure approached, the pilots sat astride their craft, white towels wrapped around their heads, brandishing their ceremonial swords. To Hashimoto, it seemed they were "trying hard to be strong men."

Fenders were detached from the submarine's long casing. Water on the starboard quarter began to boil. Farewell shouts came from dockyard workers. The pilots raised their swords higher.

The submarine drew away from the shore, her bow pointing toward sea. A flotilla of motorboats accompanied the submarine, their occupants chanting in unison the names of the pilots. Then the submarine increased speed and the escorts fell away. In his log Hashimoto noted, "Took farewell look at the homeland."

Two and a half weeks later, off the Marianas, the lookout's shout, "Smoke on the port beam!" brought the men on the conning-tower bridge scrambling down the ladder into the control room.

"Dive! Dive! Dive!"

Moments later the submarine was sealed, the main vents opened, and the ship's bow tilted toward the seabed.

Ever since reaching the Marianas, Hashimoto had been dodging anti-submarine patrols. Now, two hundred feet below the waves, he and his crew listened for the throb of propellers. Somewhere above them, approaching, were two enemy ships.

Hashimoto wondered whether their presence was connected with the daring attack he had made three days before. Then, under cover of darkness, he had surfaced eleven miles off Guam, launched four of his human torpedoes against the mass of shipping in Apra Harbor, and submerged to periscope depth. As daylight came, he had seen great clouds of smoke rising from the harbor. He stole away to safer waters. Later he had led the crew in prayer for the souls of the four warriors.

Now the presence of the enemy above them reminded the crew that they, too, could be swiftly dispatched.

Hashimoto ordered the submarine rigged for silent running. Orders were relayed in sign language or in whispers; nobody moved unnecessarily. The crew strained their ears for the sound of propellers. It came closer, constant, the high-pitched note of steel blades turning steadily through water. The screws passed overhead and began to fade.

A look of relief crossed the faces of the men around Hashimoto. He shook his head, warning.

The sound increased again. The ships were circling. Hashimoto guessed that they were hoping their echo sounders could get a fix for their depth charges. The propellers passed overhead, faded and this time did not return.

For two hours the submarine remained silent in its position. Then Hashimoto ordered it to resume course for Hiroshima Bay, passing on the way other kaiten-carrying submarines headed for the waters around Guam.

ON GUAM, Major General Curtis LeMay was trying to find the answer to a paradox in his new charge, the 21st Bomber Command of the Twentieth Air Force.

Why was the B-29, the world's most superior bomber, not realizing its potential at just the time when it had become available in sufficient numbers to strike terror into the enemy? The training manuals said the B-29s could operate at thirty-eight thousand feet and cruise at three hundred and fifty miles per hour.

The manuals were wrong.

In the Pacific the bombers showed signs of severe strain on prolonged flights at over thirty thousand feet, and they frequently failed to complete missions because of mechanical difficulties.

Then there was the weather. It was impossible for air force meteorologists to provide accurate forecasts for the thirteen hundred miles of sky between the Marianas and Japan. Fierce jet streams crisscrossed the void, and over Japan the targets might be visible one minute, obscured the next. Bombs dropped from thirty thousand feet were blown off target, and results using even the latest radar equipment were unsatisfactory. Eleven targets selected for bombing this January remained almost undamaged. These high. flying tactics, developed earlier by LeMay, had been used against Japan by B-29s operating out of China.

That had been a costly and hazardous venture, but LeMay had made contact with a fanatic guerrilla leader. In return for medical supplies and materials, LeMay had persuaded him to radio regular weather forecasts from that area of northern China where the partisans were fighting the Japanese. The reports were invaluable for LeMay's pilots. They often drank a toast to this man.

His name was Mao Tse-tung.

Mao, who would soon become the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth, was, on this late January day in 1945, proud and willing to act as a barometer for the American general he persisted in calling Cull-tse Lee May.

LeMay proposed a revolutionary solution to the B-29's problems in the Pacific. If it succeeded, he believed he could break Japan. If it failed, his career would be in ruins.

First, LeMay had the B-29s stripped of their arsenal of machine guns and cannons. Then he decided to strike in darkness—having his bombers over their targets between midnight and 4:00 a.m. —and have the planes go in low, at between five thousand and nine thousand feet. He was gambling that intelligence was right, that the Japanese had not developed a night fighter or converted their anti-aircraft guns to radar control. He hoped that their manually operated weapons would react too slowly to his low-level assault.

Removing the bombers' guns would increase each plane's payload. LeMay intended the B-29s to carry only incendiaries, and thus put the torch to Japan's vulnerable wooden buildings.

While formulating his new tactics, LeMay went on listening, something he was good at. Just today, January 20, he had heard an officer from CINCPAC—Commander in Chief, Pacific—saying that Admiral Chester Nimitz was raising hell over some flying unit in the States that was trying to get itself shipped to the Marianas. It sounded an unlikely story to LeMay. The unit was something called a composite group. And he knew there was no such designation in the air force.

A few weeks before, Tibbets, recently promoted to full colonel, had first heard that General LeMay was on his way to Guam. He had reason to know the general well. Only a year ago Tibbets, Lewis, and Sweeney had taken turns teaching LeMay how to pilot a B-29. LeMay was a difficult pupil, a flying general who found it hard to accept that an aircraft 99 feet long, 29 feet 9 inches high, with a wingspan of 101 feet, was different from any other bomber he had flown. But he finally learned to listen, respect, and obey his instructors, and at the end of the course he had predicted, "We can win the war with this plane."

Now in the Marianas, in charge of the 21st Bomber Command, LeMay intended to do just that.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Groves approved a letter Fleet Admiral Ernest King had sent to Admiral Nimitz. He hoped it would end the queries emanating from CINCPAC. It read:

It is expected that a new weapon will be ready in August of this year for use against Japan by the 20th Air Force.

The Officer, Commander Frederic L. Ashworth, USN, bearing this letter will give you enough details so that you can make the necessary plans for the proper support of the operations. By the personal direction of the President, everything pertaining to this development is covered by the highest order of secrecy, and there should be no disclosure by you beyond one other officer, who must be suitably cautioned.

I desire that you make available to Commander Ashworth such intelligence data as applies to the utilization of the new weapon.

Ashworth was an Annapolis graduate and combat veteran whom Captain Parsons, at Los Alamos, had personally engaged for the Manhattan Project. Groves doubted that Ashworth would welcome the trip to the Pacific, which would take him away from his test work on detonating the atomic bomb, but the project chief planned to use Ashworth as more than a courier. He wanted Ashworth to choose the overseas base for the 509th.

Groves favored Guam, with its sophisticated military workshops for any last-minute modifications to the weapon. Tibbets preferred Tinian. It was said to have the best runways in the Pacific.

Ashworth was to look at both islands.

Tibbets was spending more time than ever with his men. His wife and small sons rarely saw him. When he did see the children he was usually too tired or preoccupied to play with them. His wife looked accusingly at him. Their marriage continued its downhill progress.

Tibbets could see what was happening—and hated himself for making no move to stem the destruction of his family life. The truth was, as he would later admit, that he did not know what to say to mend matters. Besides, by March of 1945 he and Beser felt they were passing their lives on an endless treadmill between Wendover and Los Alamos.

One morning the two men found the sentries at the Los Alamos gate more nervous than ever. When they entered the site, Oppenheimer told Tibbets the reason for the increased tension. Groves had just ordered that the first plutonium bomb be ready for testing by the middle of July, and the first uranium bomb be available for war purposes by early August. The deadline had placed an additional burden on men and women who had been working under great strain for two years.

Beser was at Los Alamos now to learn more about the fuzing mechanism of the bomb. Of late, he had tended to avoid any scientist—and there were a number beginning to oppose the bomb's use in war—who raised a doubt about the validity of his work. In Beser's opinion such men were misguided. He preferred the views of Dr. Louis Slotin, a young researcher who had worked on the original experiments to test the theory of critical mass. "Whether you die by a bullet or a bomb, you are still dead." The words exactly matched Beser's own views at a time when thousands of Americans were dying from Japanese bullets on Iwo Jima.

Tibbets had come to see Oppenheimer about the imminent arrival at Wendover of a new special unit—the 1st Ordnance Squadron—which would have technical responsibility for the atomic bomb when the 509th was overseas. Tibbets and Oppenheimer were joined by Commander Ashworth, just returned from his visit to the Marianas, where he had delivered Fleet Admiral King's letter to Admiral Nimitz and had explained to the Pacific commander the role of the 509th. Nimitz had made one comment: he wished the bomb were available now to be used on Okinawa, the last major island to be invaded before mainland Japan.

Ashworth told Tibbets that Guam was unsuitable as a base for the 509th. Instead, he agreed that the 509th. should use North Field, Tinian; it had four eighty-five-hundred-foot runways.

"I'll only need one," responded Tibbets.

The 1st Ordnance Squadron arrived at Wendover on a heavily guarded train. Its men were directed to a special fenced-off compound on the field, watched over by a detachment of Uanna's security agents. The squadron would "baby-sit" the atomic bomb when the 509th went to Tinian. Each of its members was a specialist. Together they were capable of carrying out, under scientific supervision, any last-minute modifications to the bomb that might be required.

Even the 509th had never seen such an outfit as the 1st Ordnance Squadron. Lewis put it succinctly. "If we think we're something special—these guys are something else!"

The majority were skilled in metallurgy and allied disciplines. Twenty-seven held science degrees. Several were middle-aged, and one or two spoke with a foreign accent. Some were Jewish technicians who until a few years before had been employed in workshops in Berlin and Munich. Others, Uanna reported brutally to Tibbets, were convicted felons on the lam from the pen. When Tibbets asked how convicted criminals had gotten into such a secret outfit as the 1st Ordnance, Major Uanna replied, "This is wartime, Colonel. The army doesn't ask too many questions. It's just glad for the skilled manpower."

The squadron was totally self-contained. The members erected their own workshops, connected their own electric power, installed their special tools. They emerged from their compound only at mealtimes. Then they were accompanied by several agents. They all sat in a corner of the mess hall, and when strangers approached, they fell silent. The curious were firmly rebuffed.

The night after they arrived, some of the 1st Ordnance men went down to the flight line to meet the regular shuttle service from Albuquerque. There was only one passenger—wearing a navy captain's uniform. He led the men over to a B-29.

The regular flight crew had been told to answer any questions the man put to them. He was interested in the technical performance of the bomber and spent time examining the bomb-bay doors. At the end of his inspection the captain turned to the ordnance men. "These ships are not good enough for the job. They will have to be replaced."

With that, he walked past the gaping flight crew, boarded the transport, and was on his way back to Los Alamos.

By lights-out the whisper had spread. A fellow officer told Beser the story. "Hear about this navy nut who flew in, said scrap our aircraft, and flew out again? Doesn't he know there's a war on—nobody can scrap aircraft just like that!"

"We'll get the new planes," Beser said. He knew how much power the visiting navy captain—William Parsons—could wield. Parsons had initially been considered as an alternate to General Groves to head the Manhattan Project. He had come to Wendover to check out the planes that would fly the atomic strike. He found that constant test-flying and training had almost worn them out. They were to be exchanged for the latest models, with fuel-injection engines and electronically controlled reversible propellers —much better planes.

When the new bombers began to arrive, they were different. They were built more ruggedly. Tibbets admired the reversible propellers. Ferebee liked the quick-action bomb doors, designed to close in two seconds after a bomb was released. This would allow the plane to carry out its 155-degree turn even faster. Van Kirk appreciated the comfortable navigator's seat.

Tibbets now had the best fleet of bombers that America could provide.

FROM THE UPPER floor of his small private hospital Dr. Kaoru Shima had a depressing view of Hiroshima. A slash of wasteland stretched on each side of the Aioi Bridge, eight hundred feet away, marking one of the fire lanes crossing the city. Dozens of houses, shops, and bars had been demolished in the vicinity of the Shima Surgical Hospital, leaving its director and staff feeling that they worked "on the brink of destruction."

The morning newscast had reinforced this feeling. For days the radio and newspapers had pointed out that the enemy's pre-invasion bombardment had done little to destroy the Imperial Japanese Army, sheltered in caves and deep tunnels, often protected by thirty-five feet of concrete. And when the Americans had landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima they had been nearly crushed by murderous crossfire from the entrenched army. But now, in early March, the latest bulletins were speaking of a "strategic withdrawal." Dr. Shima, an old hand at assessing the truth of such claims, knew that Iwo Jima was doomed and that the island's eight square miles, just seven hundred miles from Tokyo, were close enough for the Americans to covet as an air base.

As a prelude to invasion, air raids must be expected, and Dr. Shima would have to deal with casualties. His resources were meager, his dispensary in need of replenishment. He suspected that many of the city's twenty-two other hospitals and clinics and its thirty-two first-aid centers were in a similar position.

The few medical supplies reaching Hiroshima would go to such large hospitals as the Hiroshima Army Hospital, the Red Cross Hospital, and the Mitsubishi Shipyard Hospital. Dr. Shima's private clinic was low down on the army's list of priorities.

The clinic survived solely because of the driving force of its owner. He was also frequently called upon to perform operations in country hospitals. The sight of the doctor pedalling his bicycle, with his bag of instruments strapped to his back, was a familiar one in the area. The construction of fire lanes often added time to his journeys, forcing him to make long detours. But Dr. Shima never complained. To those who did he had an unfailing answer. "Be glad you are alive."

ON THE EVENING of March 9 the first of three hundred and twenty-five Tokyo-bound B-29, bombers took off from Guam. This B-29, and eleven others were pathfinders—torchbearers for the operation LeMay had code named Meetinghouse. The pathfinders were to sow their incendiary bombs carefully in a giant X across Tokyo.

Chomping on a cigar, the chunky LeMay watched the main bomber force take off. In a few hours either his bold plan would be vindicated or he would be in disgrace.

None of the bombers climbing into the dusk were armed for defense. They would drop a total of two thousand tons of incendiary bombs.

LeMay had ended his briefing of the crews with, "You're going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen!"

The crews were concerned about their orders to attack at low altitudes without armaments. Around Tokyo the Japanese were reported to have 331 heavy-caliber guns, 307 automatic-firing weapons, 322 single-engine fighters, and 105 twin-engine interceptors. LeMay had confidently predicted that this defensive arsenal would be outwitted by his surprise tactics.

The pathfinders arrived over Tokyo at midnight. Flying downwind, they marked the target area with magnesium, napalm, and phosphorus, sowing their canisters in straight lines across wooden buildings and narrow streets.

At 12:30 a.m. the main task force arrived. As LeMay had predicted, no fighters scrambled to meet them; ground fire was minimal. The B-29s began to drop their loads of pipelike canisters to fuel the growing inferno begun by the pathfinders.

The conflagration spread and intensified, sending great whirls of superheated air high into the sky. The bomber pilots felt they were flying, one reported, "in Dante's Inferno." Turbulence from the fire storm raised the bombers hundreds of feet higher in the air, then sucked them down again. Fliers were sick from the bouncing. Then a new sensation made them vomit afresh: the sickly sweet stench of thousands of bodies burning. The fires were a funeral pyre for some hundred thousand souls. Almost half a million others were injured. Two hundred and fifty thousand buildings were destroyed in an area of about sixteen square miles.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, with air temperatures in the blitzed area reaching 2000 degrees, thousands of Tokyo residents jumped into the Sumida River in their frenzy to escape—only to die. Police and firemen were trampled in the panic, and thousands of refugees began to flee the city.

Of the three hundred and twenty-five bombers that created this holocaust, fourteen were lost. LeMay's gamble had worked. He immediately ordered further low-level sorties against Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Yokohama.

Word of the destruction in Tokyo reached Hiroshima unofficially three days later, on March 12, from civilians who arrived on one of the few trains they could still use. The censor's office had so far refused to clear reports on the raid for the nation's press and radio. Within an hour of the Tokyo refugees' arrival in Hiroshima, Mayor Senkichi Awaya knew what had happened in the capital. Using his official position, Awaya managed to reach his wife by telephone. She and the children were unharmed. He told his wife to bring the children with her and join him as soon as possible in Hiroshima, where they would be safe.

Sachiyo Awaya hesitated to accept her husband's plan. The army in Tokyo had said it was unlikely the bombers would return.

The mayor spoke urgently. "The enemy will return. That is the nature of war. You and the children must come here. It is possible that we will all die in the battles to come. If that is to happen, I wish us to die together as one family here in Hiroshima."

His wife promised that as a start she would bring their thirteen-year-old son. He could continue his education at a school in Hiroshima. The other children would remain in Tokyo.

Kazumasa Maruyama, chief assistant to the mayor, rose early one morning about a week after that phone call, to make his regular weekly trip into the countryside to barter for food. He listened to the all-important radio before leaving the apartment.

The newscaster this morning was as confident as ever. The Special Attack Corps, the kamikazes, had yesterday struck another mortal blow against the enemy off the shores of Okinawa. But Maruyama deduced that the blaring words were preparing listeners for an unpalatable fact: the enemy had reached the shores of Okinawa. If the island should fall, Maruyama had no doubt the enemy would then invade Japan itself. The thought of what that would mean was too horrible to contemplate. The newspapers and radio spoke of American soldiers as "bloodthirsty devils."

Perhaps he had been wrong to support the idea of bringing the mayor's family to Hiroshima. They might be better off near Tokyo, protected by the largest concentration of defending troops.

ON GUAM, where all of LeMay's efforts had been devoted to developing the new fire-bomb tactics, there had been no time to listen to the recurring rumor about the crack new outfit coming to the Marianas. But now, in his moment of triumph—the total success of Operation Meetinghouse—the rumor took on substance. The general was told that part of North Field, Tinian, was being annexed on direct orders from Washington to house a "special bombing group."

LeMay reckoned that unless this new outfit arrived soon, there might be little left for it to bomb.

At Wendover, Tibbets was growing anxious to leave. For the third time in a week, security regulations had been breached. Now Tibbets glanced in angry disbelief at one of his most trusted officers, a short, trimly built lieutenant colonel.

Uanna, seated beside Tibbets, was questioning the officer. "You admit you took a B-twenty-nine without authority to fly home on a weekend pass?"

The officer maintained his aggressive stance. "I have the authority to take a plane."

"You left it unguarded for two whole days on a civilian airfield?" Tibbets interposed.

"Yes. But the plane was locked."

"And then you gave your father a tour of an airplane that few servicemen on this base are allowed to go near?"

"My father's interested in flying."

At that, Tibbets exploded. "I don't want to hear about your father's interests!"

"Colonel, I'm prepared to apologize—"

"Apologize! You think that settles matters?"

The officer waited uneasily.

Tibbets wasted no time in delivering sentence. "You've got just sixty minutes to pack. A plane will be waiting for you. Its destination is Alaska!"


"Another word and I'll have you court-martialed."

The disgraced officer left.

Coupled with the security breaches, there were other factors that made Tibbets edgy. For months he had worked his men at a relentless pace without himself being that familiar with "the object of all this slave-driving"—the intricate nuclear mechanism inside the bomb. Then Parsons had flown to Wendover with schematic drawings of the uranium bomb. Tibbets already knew it would be about ten feet long, twenty-eight inches in diameter, and would weigh something over nine thousand pounds, but what he learned from Parsons caused him to be "amazed by the sweet simplicity of the thing."

The weapon's uranium core would consist of two unequal segments, six feet apart, in a cannon barrel inside the bomb's casing. Between the pieces of uranium 235 was a "tamper," a neutron-resistant shield made from a high-density alloy. The tamper was to stop the two pieces of uranium from combining in a critical mass, thereby causing an unscheduled nuclear explosion.

The smaller piece of U-235 would weigh five pounds. This was the atomic bullet which, when the gun was activated by the proximity-fuzing system, would be fired through the tamper into the "target," a seventeen-pound piece of U-235 fixed to the muzzle of the cannon just a few feet away.

After the description, Tibbets was jolted when Parsons told him that there was no way of being certain—until it was used—that the weapon would go off. The risk of failure wasn't high. But it was there.

Tibbets was also worried by loose talk within the base. It was now an open secret that the 509th was going to drop "a big bomb" on Japan. Tibbets thought it was only a matter of time before there was a serious security leak.

« NEXT » « Ruin from the Air » « History » « Library »