1. Fission ( August 3, 1945 — 8:16 a.m. August 6, 1945)
From 'Ruin From The Air' by Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts

LESS than half a mile from the Aioi Bridge, a solitary blindfolded American stood motionless inside the keep of Hiroshima Castle. His guard, Private Matsuoka, grasped the airman's arms, pumped them up and down. Once the prisoner began doing the movement himself, Matsuoka took hold of his knees, forcing them to bend. Each day, in turn, the twenty-three American POWs in Hiroshima received such exercise.

Some fifty yards away, in his Town Hall office, Mayor Awaya listened to his assistant's report. As of this morning, August 3, thousands of dwellings had been demolished for the firebreaks; some sixty thousand of the city's civilians had already been evacuated; another exodus was due within a few days as more homes were demolished. Maruyama estimated there were two hundred and eighty thousand civilians left in the city.

Awaya knew it was the demands of the military that made it necessary for so many citizens to remain in the city. The Toyo factory needed ten thousand employees to turn out its six thousand rifles a week. The Mitsubishi company also required a huge labor force, and, like Japan Steel's complex on the edge of Hiroshima, it was working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Awaya told his assistant he would ask Field Marshal Hata's help in "ending this madness." The mayor had been invited to a cock-tail party in the officers' club on August 5, and he would try t0 talk with the field marshal then.

In the Shima Surgical Hospital, Dr. Kaoru Shima smiled at his earnest visitor. The man, a farmer, had walked several miles to ask the doctor to call on his wife. From his description Dr. Shima guessed that the woman was pregnant. He promised to call at the farm the next time he was in the area.

ON AUGUST 3 LeMay flew into Tinian with the order for Special Bombing Mission No. 13, essentially the document Tibbets had drafted, but with a number of details added. The strike was set for August 6. The targets were:

Primary — Hiroshima urban industrial area
Secondary — Kokura arsenal and city
Tertiary — Nagasaki urban area

The order stated that no friendly aircraft,

"other than those listed herein, will be within a fifty-mile area of any of the targets for this strike during a period of four hours prior to and six sub-sequent to strike time."

Thirty-two copies of the order were distributed to commands on Guam, Iwo Jima, and Tinian. Tibbets locked his copy in the office safe and then departed with LeMay to inspect the uranium bomb in its cradle in the heavily guarded Tech Area.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m. the next day, the 509th's briefing hut was sealed off by carbine-carrying MPs. Inside, Intelligence Officers Hazen Payette and Joseph Buscher attached enlarged reconnaissance photographs of Hiroshima and the alternate targets to two blackboards, then draped both boards with cloths.

At 2:30 Captain Parsons arrived with a group of scientists. Among them was Second Lieutenant Morris Jeppson, assistant weaponeer, who a few days before had won a coin toss with another electronics officer to decide which would fly with Parsons on the mission.

At 2:45 the British contingent arrived. Both Cheshire and Penney were grim-faced, having just been told by LeMay that they were to be excluded from flying on the first atomic mission. Hoping for a last-minute reversal of the order, they seated themselves behind the scientists.

Tail Gunner Bob Caron — wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap to conceal a bizarre haircut — Flight Engineer Duzenbury, Assistant Flight Engineer Shumard, Radar Operator Stiborik, and Radio Operator Nelson arrived in flight coveralls. They had just returned from a test run of No. 82 to Rota, navigated by Van Kirk. Tibbets, as pilot, had made a four-minute bomb run, then banked sharply after Bombardier Ferebee released the practice bomb. All the plane's equipment had functioned perfectly.

Prior to the flight Tibbets had briefed Lewis. He at last made it clear to Lewis that his role would be that of co-pilot, with Tibbets in command, but Lewis still felt it was "basically my crew" that would fly the special mission.

Lewis came in for the briefing with Eatherly's boisterous crew from the Straight Flush. They seated themselves next to Sweeney's crew, who, taking a cue from their commander, were in a more thoughtful mood. Sweeney had just gone down the flight line with three scientists who were installing radio receivers and automatic film-recording devices aboard The Great Artiste. The scientists had explained to Sweeney that three parachutes carrying cylinders would be dropped from the plane near the target. Radio transmitters in the cylinders would send back data to the plane. Sweeney realized he would have to fly in perfect sync with Tibbets to be sure the instruments fell into the designated area.

Radar Officer Jake Beser walked in with Tom Classen and sat down at the rear of the room for a welcome respite "from the murderous pace up at the Tech Area." Having worked on the uranium bomb, he was now assisting with the final assembly of the plutonium bomb. Before this briefing, Ed Doll, a civilian scientist told him to "stand by to go on a second mission as well." Beser had asked how many missions were planned, and Doll replied, "Just as many as it takes to make them quit."

Ferebee and Van Kirk entered soon afterward and took seats up front, near Groves's deputy, General Farrell.

At 3:00 precisely, Tibbets arrived. Flanked by Payette and Buscher, he walked to the platform. The two intelligence officers positioned themselves by the blackboards. Parsons joined Tibbets on the dais.

Two months earlier, at a Los Alamos conference, one of Parsons' staff had proposed "arming" the bomb in flight. Groves and Oppenheimer had opposed the idea, believing it would be too easy for something to go wrong. Nevertheless, Parsons, increasingly troubled by a recent spate of crashes on take-off from Tinian, had decided to insert the bomb's conventional explosive and detonator after the plane was airborne. In the event of a crash, this would reduce the risk somewhat, although the uranium bullet might still slip down the barrel, hit its target, and cause a nuclear explosion.

Parsons had told nobody of his decision. He feared that Groves would reach out nearly seven thousand miles and stop him. The murmuring in the room ceased as Tibbets began to speak.

"The moment has arrived. Very recently, the weapon we are about to deliver was successfully tested in the States. We have received orders to drop it on the enemy."

He nodded to Payette and Buscher, who removed the cloths from the blackboards.

Tibbets announced the targets in order of priority. He next assigned three B-29s to serve as weather scouts. Eatherly's Straight Flushwould go to Hiroshima; Jabbit III, commanded by Major John Wilson, would fly to Kokura; Full House, piloted by Major Ralph Taylor, was given Nagasaki..

Sweeney's The Great Artiste, and No. 91, commanded by Major George Marquardt and carrying photographic equipment, would accompany Tibbets to the actual target. If all three cities were ruled out by weather conditions, the planes would return to Iwo Jima, after Parsons had "disarmed" the bomb in the air.

The seventh B-29, Top Secret, commanded by Captain Charles McKnight, was assigned to stand by at the specially constructed pit on Iwo Jima.

Tibbets then introduced Parsons, who came directly to the point.

"The bomb you are going to drop is something new in the history of warfare. It is the most destructive weapon ever produced. It will knock out almost everything within a three-mile area."

A stunned gasp swept the room.

Parsons sketched in the background of the Manhattan Project and described the test at Alamagordo.

"A soldier ten thousand feet away was knocked off his feet. Another soldier more than five miles away was temporarily blinded. A girl in a town many miles away who had been blind all her life saw a flash of light. The explosion was heard fifty miles away."

Every man in the room was transfixed. Even Tibbets was "over-whelmed by the presentation."

Parsons continued.

"No one knows exactly what will happen when the bomb is dropped from the air. That has never been done before. But we do expect a cloud this shape" — he drew a mushroom on the blackboard — "will rise to at least thirty thousand feet and maybe sixty thousand."

Buscher brought forward a cardboard box and pulled out a pair of tinted Polaroid goggles similar to those worn by welders. Parsons explained that these would be worn by every crew member near the target at the time of the explosion. He indicated a knob on the nose bridge and told his audience that turning it would change the amount of light admitted by the glass. Over the aiming point, he said, the knob must be set to admit minimal light.

Payette and Buscher distributed the goggles while Tibbets issued a warning. "You're now the hottest crews in the air force." That meant no talking about the mission — even among themselves — and no writing home.

He then gave details of the route to be taken to Japan, including a rendezvous of the bomb carrier and the two observer planes over Iwo Jima before flying on. Likely takeoff time: the early hours of Monday, August 6.

The air-sea rescue officer took over, saying no mission was ever so thoroughly supported. Flying off the Japanese coast would be Superdumbos — B-29s equipped to coordinate rescue operations. Navy flying boats would patrol the flight path to and from Japan, ready to swoop down and rescue any crew that ditched. Supporting the aircraft would be cruisers, destroyers, and "lifeguards" — submarines prepared to "come almost onto the enemy beaches to pick you up."

Tibbets concluded the formal briefing with a short homily. Later he would not be able to recall his exact words, but Sergeant Abe Spitzer, the radio operator on Sweeney's crew, was keeping a diary of his impressions, and his was the only record. The colonel began by saying that whatever any of the men had done before was small potatoes compared to what they were going to do now. Then he said how proud he was to have been associated with them, and how difficult it had been for them, not knowing what they were doing, thinking maybe the "gimmick" was just somebody's wild dream. He was personally honored and he was sure all of the men were, to have been chosen to take part in this raid, which, he said, would shorten the war. One got the feeling he really thought this bomb would end it.

ON AUGUST 5 crucial data on the weather expected over western Japan in the next twenty-four hours was radioed from northern China, as usual, on orders of Mao Tse-tung.

Sweeney was instructed by Tibbets to take The Great Artiste to thirty thousand feet over the ocean for a final fuzing test — the release of an inert bomb containing the proximity-fuze firing mechanism — while the scientists on Tinian tracked its fall.

Among those waiting to monitor the test was Luis Alvarez, who had headed the Los Alamos team that had built the complex re-lease mechanism for the bomb. On Tinian he had developed a device that would be carried by Sweeney's plane and dropped over the target city to help measure the atomic bomb's shock wave.

Now, wearing earphones, Alvarez was listening to the steady tone that would stop only when Sweeney's test bomb left the plane. The sequence of events which would follow, if everything worked properly, was precisely the same as for the real atomic bomb to be dropped the next day.

When the bomb fell from the plane, wires attached to it would be pulled out, cutting the tone signal and closing a switch within the bomb — the first in a series of switches to be closed before the electricity traveling from batteries within the bomb could reach the electric detonator. Once the electricity reached the detonator, it would ignite the explosive powder. If all went well the next day, this would send the uranium bullet down the gun barrel, causing the atomic explosion.

Alvarez heard the signal stop. The test bomb was on its way; the first switch should have closed. Sweeney started his 155-degree turn. A timing device now delayed the closing of the second switch in the electric circuit by a preset number of seconds. Once that switch was closed, the electricity would continue along the line until stopped by a third switch, which was set to close when the bomb was five thousand feet above the ground. Then the final and most sensitive instrument in the, chain would take over — the proximity fuze — a miniature radar set enclosed within the bomb. Its antennas stuck out like strange feelers near the front of the weapon. It was up to the radar set to close the final switch when the bomb was at 1850 feet.

If the fuzing system worked properly during this final test, the bomb would emit a puff of smoke at 1850 feet. Through binoculars, Alvarez and the other scientists watched for the smoke.

In vain. The test bomb plunged, smokeless, into the ocean.

Alvarez turned to his colleagues.

"Great, just great," he said. "Tomorrow we're going to drop one of these on Japan, and we still haven't got the thing right."

THAT afternoon a group of men led by scientist Bernard Waldman — a physics professor on loan from Notre Dame University — fitted out Marquardt's No. 91 for its photographic role. Waldman himself would be acting as cameraman.

At 2: l 5 p.m. the telecon machine clattered out confirmation from LeMay on Guam that the takeoff time for the strike ship was to be in just over twelve hours, making the time over the target between 8: 00 and 9: 00 the next morning.

At 2:30 p.m. Ed Doll sent an encoded telegram to Los Alamos. He reported that a rigorous search by Jake Beser

"had so far detected no Japanese using the frequency on which the bomb's radar will be operating."

By 3:00 Morris Jeppson and three others had completed installing a control panel — thirty inches high and twenty inches wide — just forward of the bomb bay and just aft of the engineer and pilot compartments of No. 82, the bomber Tibbets would be flying. The console contained switches, meters, and small, colored indicator lights. Attached to its back were four thick cables stretching like umbilical cords to the bomb bay. Once the bomb was in place, they would be plugged into the weapon. They would automatically disconnect when the bomb was dropped.

The console was designed to monitor the bomb's batteries and firing circuit and to spot malfunctions in the barometric-pressure device, timing mechanism, and radar set.

While Jeppson's team toiled inside, a painter placed a ladder against the bomber's nose and climbed to the top, carrying a can of paint and a brush. Tibbets had handed him a piece of paper and told him to "paint that on the strike ship, nice and big."

The paper contained two words: "Enola Gay."

AT 3:30 P.M. a group of scientists, MPs, and security agents assembled around the atomic bomb, resting on a trolley in a hut in the Tech Area.

Major Uanna carefully draped the weapon with a tarpaulin; the trolley was hooked to a tractor and pulled slowly out of the hut. Looking to some observers like a funeral cortege, the trailer and its guards traveled half a mile down the asphalt to the Enola Gay. The weapon was winched up into the plane's front bomb bay and clamped to its special hook. The fifteen-foot doors banged shut. There were just over ten hours to takeoff.

At 4:15 Tibbets, Ferebee, and Van Kirk posed with Lewis and his regular crew for an official air force photograph outside the 509th's headquarters. Afterward, Lewis and the rest of the crew drove down to inspect the bomber. Lewis walked around the nose.

Suddenly, as Caron would recall, Lewis bellowed, "What the hell is that doing on my plane?"

The crew joined the pilot, who was staring up at the words Enola Gay.

Lewis later recounted,

"I was very angry, so I called the officer in charge of maintenance and said, 'Who put this name on here?' He refused to tell me. So then I said to him, 'I want it taken off!' He said, 'I can't do that!' I said, 'Who authorized you to put it on?' He says, 'Colonel Tibbets."'

Lewis drove back to group headquarters and stormed into Tibbets' office. What followed is a matter of dispute. In Lewis' version,

"Tibbets knew what I was coming in there for. I said, 'Colonel, you authorized men to put a name on my airplane?' He said, 'I didn't think you'd mind, Bob.' I guess he was embarrassed."

Tibbets would maintain he was anything but embarrassed. He had, in fact, consulted Ferebee, Van Kirk; and Duzenbury before naming the bomber after his mother; none of the three had raised any objection. Tibbets had not, however, cared to consult Lewis.

In the early evening Parsons practiced inserting the explosive charge and detonator into the weapon, a delicate maneuver made more difficult by the cramped conditions, poor light, and stifling heat of the Enola Gay's bomb bay.

When Parsons finally emerged from the bomber, General Farrell pointed at his lacerated hands and offered to lend him a pair of thin pigskin gloves. Parsons declined. The gloves would interfere with his sense of touch.

At 7:17 p.m. Farrell sent a message to Groves telling him that Parsons intended to arm the bomb after takeoff. By the time Groves received the message, it was too late for him to do anything.

At 7:30 a dozen ground officers were briefed on their various duties before takeoff. They were to escort scientists and key military personnel to "safe" areas well away from North Field; there was to be no chance of losing irreplaceable atomic experts in an unscheduled nuclear explosion. When the time came, however, many of the scientists refused to budge, pointing out that almost nowhere on Tinian would be safe if an accident occurred.

Fire trucks were to be stationed every fifty feet along runway A, the North Field airstrip selected for takeoff. The flight surgeon was told that in the event of a crash, rescue teams must not touch anything until a specially detailed squad from the 1st Ordnance Squadron had monitored the crash area for radioactivity.

By 8:00 p.m. Mess Officer Charles Perry's cooks had begun to prepare the meals he would be offering the combat crews just after midnight; they could select a breakfast, dinner, or supper from a choice of thirty dishes. Afterward the crews could collect wrapped sandwiches for eating over Japan in the morning. Then Perry personally began to prepare the pineapple fritters that Tibbets had requested.

ON The same day, at 6:00 p.m., guests began arriving for a cocktail party at the officers' club in Hiroshima. Among the civilians were senior civil servants and Mayor Awaya.

Field Marshal Hata moved from group to group, sipping sake and making polite conversation. Periodically, Awaya drifted to the door of the salon, where Maruyama waited with a sake container filled with cold tea. Awaya was a teetotaler, and it was Maruyama's duty to replenish the mayor's cup so that Awaya would be spared the embarrassment of having to refuse sake.

As soon as Lieutenant Colonel Oya arrived at the reception, Hata sought him out, eager for a firsthand account of the situation in Tokyo. Oya, just back from the capital, reported that morale was still high. The two men reviewed briefly the military matters that were to be discussed at a full-scale communications conference called by Hata for 9:00 a.m. the next morning, at which many of the senior commanders crucial to the defense of western Japan would gather.

When Mayor Awaya cornered Hata, the field marshal made a vague promise to discuss civil matters in a few days. The disappointed mayor decided to go home. His wife had just returned to Hiroshima with their three-year-old grandchild.

Maruyama accompanied the mayor home and said he would see him in the morning, as usual, soon after 8:00.

Dr. Shima, traveling toward the outskirts of Hiroshima, worried about his patients back in the clinic. But it was unthinkable to refuse to make house calls around the countryside. He had a busy night's work ahead of him, moving from one farm to another. He did not expect to be back in Hiroshima much before 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, the communications bureau of Field Marshal Hata's headquarters continued its surveillance of exchanges between American aircraft and control towers. It was clear that Japan was in for another brutal series of raids. In fact, 30 bombers were en route to Japan to mine the Inland Sea; 65 more were coming to bomb Saga; 102 planes were about to launch an incendiary attack on Maebashi; 261 bombers were headed for the Nishinomiya-Mikage area; 111 were bound for Ube; 66 for Imabari.

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