World War II: Atom Bomb and Hiroshima Part 1

About the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima in World War II, the first use of a nuclear weapon in war, a description of the aftermath.


WHEN: 1945

HOW: The dropping of "Little Boy," scientists' nickname for the 9,000-lb., 10'-long, 28"-round uranium bomb encasing the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT, which had been achieved at a cost of $2 billion over a 2 1/2-year period, was the most controversial decision ever made in military history. The atom bomb--so called because it involves splitting an atomic nucleus by bombarding it with neutrons, which sets off a chain reaction of fission that releases enormous quantities of energy, infinitesimal matter bursting into infinite power--fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Immediately it turned Japan's 8th major city, with a population of 300,000, into what one writer called "the world's largest guinea pig." No warning had been given, other than the half-million leaflets that had shimmered down from the skies like so much confetti 2 days earlier. These warned, "Your city will be obliterated unless your Government surrenders."

Already by the summer of 1945 Japan's great urban centers of Tokyo-Yokohama and Osaka-Kobe had endured "conventional" destruction by saturation and carpet bombings to an unimaginable degree. B-29s fire-bombed these cities daily--weather permitting--and had incinerated 100 sq. mi. of habitation, gutted or razed 2 million buildings, devastated and rendered homeless 13 million people. In one massive, all-night raid by 1,000 planes, 74,000 people were killed or wounded. Hiroshima, however, a city of minor military significance and until then quite undamaged (the Japanese conjectured that Americans were saving it as a residential sector, if and when they won the war), was wiped from the map by one plane discharging a single bomb.

That morning of August 6, a B-29 Superfortress from the 509th Composite Group of the 20th Air Force, the Enola Gay--so-named for the mother of the young Southern pilot who commanded the plane, Paul Tibbets, Jr.--set off from the tiny Pacific atoll of Tinian, which had been captured from the Japanese a year earlier. Flying at a speed of 285 mph and a height of 32,000', its target was Aioi Bridge in the heart of downtown Hiroshima. The bomb, inscribed with nasty remarks about the Emperor, exploded in the air 660 yards above the ground and only 300 yards off its target.

There was a pika, a blinding flash of pink, blue, red, or yellow light--none of the survivors ever agreed on the color--brighter than 1,000 suns but coming from a fireball only 110 yards in diameter. In that split second the hypocenter or point of impact reached a heat of 300,000deg C. Within a 1,000-yard radius granite buildings melted, steel and stone bridges burned and so did the river below them, roof tiles boiled, and people evaporated, leaving their shadows "photographed" like X-ray negatives on walls and pavements.

In a matter of seconds, 4 sq. mi. of central Hiroshima was flattened into extinction. Every clock and watch stopped at exactly the same time: 8:15. Because of ionization, the choking air filled with a sickish sweet "electric smell." The bright blue, sunlit sky turned darkly yellow, and a churning cloud of smoke spurted upward for 50,000'. From a distance it looked like a gigantic mushroom, but to the escaping Enola Gay the shape was more that of a grotesque question mark. Capt. Robert Lewis, the co-pilot, exclaimed as he saw it roiling in the air, "My God, what have we done?" The cloud rose so high its heat condensed water vapor. In minutes "black rain," sticky, pebble-sized drops of wet radioactive dust dripped down over Hiroshima, staining the skin of the survivors with red blotches.

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