In August 1945 Japan was on her knees. Her Pacific Empire, won in such spectacular fashion three years before, was crumbling. Everywhere her armies, fleets and air forces were being beaten back by the overwhelming firepower of a growing coalition of nations. Her war machine was throttled by an astonishingly effective American submarine blockade. Armadas of B-29 bombers roamed Japan's skies, incinerating cities at will while the few remaining Japanese fighter pilots could only watch helplessly, grounded for lack of fuel. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in a single fire-bombing raid on Tokyo in March 1945.
Despite the odds the Japanese fought on fanatically. As the Americans island-hopped their way towards the Japanese Home Islands resistance only seemed to stiffen. At the Battle of Saipan in July 1944, 3,500 Americans died in combat. At the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, 6,800. On Okinawa that spring, the final stepping stone before Japan itself, 12,000. Japanese troops and even civilians often choose suicide over surrender. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy admitted their hopeless situation by perversely sending their pilots to crash their planes into American ships—the Kamikaze.
Though incomprehensible to us today, most of the pilots were volunteers, and they looked forward to their self-immolation. Japan's leaders would not accept the inescapable logic of their defeat. Their only hope lay in extracting as high a price in blood as possible from their enemies in the off chance the Allies would give up. But after almost four years of bitter and costly warfare the United States and her allies were not given to accepting half-measures from an enemy who was virtually prostrate at their feet.
A Japanese Kamikaze pilot photographed just miliseconds before carrying out his mission. Nearly 4,000 kamikaze planes flung themselves at the American fleets, a frightening means of waging war that drove some American AA gunners mad.
No country has ever secured as large an empire in as short a period of time as Japan did in 1941 and 1942. By 1945 the homeland was all but cut off from her new colonies. The numerous garrisons in Southeast Asia were literally starving.
By August 1945 America's leaders were faced with the disconcerting prospect of a full-scale invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Operation Downfall, as it was to be known, would be far and away the greatest amphibious invasion in history. It would make the Normandy landings look like child's play. The first phase, the invasion of Kyushu, was scheduled to begin on November 1, X-Day. Given the geographical challenges presented by an invasion of these islands (no invasion of Japan has ever succeeded), and the expected hostility of the entire population, American casualty esimates ranged from 450,000 to 4 million. Even the minimum estimate was greater than all the casualties the Americans had suffered in the Pacific War up to that point. 500,000 Purple Hearts, the medals given to wounded soldiers, were manufactured in preparation for the campaign. Even today, after wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Military still has 120,000 of these medals in stock.
It was just at this moment that the Manhattan Project bore fruit. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested in New Mexico on July 16. By the first week of August two other bombs had arrived at an airbase on the island of Tinian, ready to be dropped on Japan.
The Manhattan Project had been inexorably progressing towards its ultimate goal since 1939. It was a monumental and unprecedented international effort, employing 130,000 people and costing $26 billion in 2014 dollars. This was a significant chunk of the entire American war budget, roughly the cost of 40,000 tanks. The Project was geared towards a single purpose—and it was ready.
On August 6, 1945, a B-29 dropped the atomic bomb codenamed Little Boy on Hiroshima, erasing it. Approximately 70,000 people were killed in seconds. Another 70,000 would die from their injuries and radiation poisoning in the days, months and years that followed.
The hellscape of Hiroshima. Cities destroyed by conventional bombing still usually had gutted remains of buildings. The atomic bomb left almost nothing.
President Harry S. Truman announced that a new weapon had been deployed. In a radio address he said "If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware."
A leaflet dropped by the Americans on Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. 1 o'clock to 11 o'clock all represent territory seized by the Americans during their island-hopping campaign. The message is clear.
Leaflets dropped on Japanese cities in the days after Hiroshima contained ominous warnings. Translated, they read:
TO THE JAPANESE PEOPLE: America asks that you take immediate heed of what we say on this leaflet.
We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2,000 of our giant B-29s can carry on a single mission. This awful fact is one for you to ponder and we solemnly assure you it is grimly accurate.
We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city.
Before using this bomb to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, we ask that you now petition the Emperor to end the war. Our president has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender. We urge that you accept these consequences and begin the work of building a new, better and peace-loving Japan.
You should take steps now to cease military resistance. Otherwise, we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.
EVACUATE YOUR CITIES.
In the chaotic hours following Hiroshima, the Japanese Army dispatched their top physicists from Tokyo to assess whether that city had in fact been destroyed by an atomic bomb. The Japanese had their own atomic program, and though it was nowhere near as advanced as the Allied effort, they understood the principles underlying atomic weapons. The scientists immediately confirmed that the bomb was atomic and they surmised the United States probably had enough fissile material for only one or two more bombs. After some debate the cabinet resolved to fight on, accepting that one or two more cities may be subjected to nuclear weapons. In reality, had Japan not surrendered after Nagasaki the Americans probably would have dropped seven more atomic bombs before the start of the invasion.
The Allies intercepted Japanese radio communications indicating that they intended to fight on, despite the example of Hiroshima. The green light was given to drop the second bomb.
Dropping the Bomb
At 3:49 am on August 9, the B-29 affectionately named Bockscar by its crew took off from Tinian carrying Fat Man, a bomb with a 14 lb plutonium core. Their primary target was Kokura, but smoke from fires started by local workers seeking to protect their city from Hiroshima's fate obscured the city, and the crew switched to their secondary target, Nagasaki. Bockscar was accompanied by two other bombers to measure the blast and take photographs; unlike over the skies of Germany, Japan's air defenses were so feeble they didn't even bother with a fighter escort.
Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, is preserved at the National Museum of the USAF in Ohio. With it is a replica of the atomic bomb, Fat Man.
Nagasaki was then, as it is today, an industrial hub. Nestled in a narrow valley, the city hosted steelworks, armaments factories and shipyards. In addition to the quarter of a million Japanese residents there were around 12,000 Koreans and 400 Allied prisoners of war being used as slave labourers. Allied commanders were aware that the prisoners were in the city, but this was total war. There were Allied prisoners in Hiroshima too. So it goes.
At 11:02 am the bomb bay doors opened and Fat Man fell to the earth. Today the spot beneath is marked by a stark obelisk monument.
William Laurence, a reporter with the New York Times, was on one of the accompanying bombers that photographed the explosion. He gave a mesmerizing description of what happened next:
Captain Bock swung around to get out of range, but even though we were turning away in the opposite direction, and despite the fact that it was broad daylight in our cabin, all of us became aware of a giant flash that broke through the dark barrier of our ARC welder's lenses and flooded our cabin with an intense light.
We removed our glasses after the first flash but the light still lingered on, a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky all around. A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail. This was followed by four more blasts in rapid succession, each resounding like the boom of cannon fire hitting our plane from all directions.
Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth, belching forth enormous white smoke rings. Next they saw a giant pillar of purple fire, 10,000 feet high, shooting skyward with enormous speed.
By the time our ship had made another turn in the direction of the atomic explosion the pillar of purple fire had reached the level of our altitude. Only about 45 seconds had passed. Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.
At one stage of its evolution, covering missions of years in terms of seconds, the entity assumed the form of a giant square totem pole, with its base about three miles long, tapering off to about a mile at the top. Its bottom was brown, its center was amber, its top white. But it was a living totem pole, carved with many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.
Then, just when it appeared as though the thing has settled down into a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upwards and then descending earthward, a thousand old faithful geysers rolled into one.
It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that held it down. In a few seconds it had freed itself from its gigantic stem and floated upward with tremendous speed, its momentum carrying into the stratosphere to a height of about 60,000 feet.
But no sooner did this happen when another mushroom, smaller in size than the first one, began emerging out of the pillar. It was as though the decapitated monster was growing a new head.
As the first mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flower-like form, its giant petal curving downward, creamy white outside, rose-colored inside. It still retained that shape when we last gazed at it from a distance of about 200 miles.
Here is the video taken from that plane.
The terrifying mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki could be seen for hundreds of miles. This photo was taken fully 45 minutes after the explosion. One wonders what the people at the bottom made of it all.
The First Moments After the Blast
Constructed into a hillside near the hypocenter monument is the Atomic Bomb Museum. In the darkened exhibit halls you'll find ordinary items that witnessed that most extraordinary of days. The objects tell the story.
The first indication the inhabitants of Nagasaki had that they were about to die was a lone plane flying high over their city, a common sight in those days that few people took note of. Then there was a sudden and intense flash, powerful enough to temporarily blind anyone outdoors. Those who happened to be looking in the direction of the explosion at that moment had their retinas permanently scarred. Many would later develop cataracts.
A tremendous pulse of heat emanated outwards from the hypocenter. It was estimated at 3,900°C, approaching temperatures seen in the sun's photosphere. The thermal energy scorched every surface in its path, leaving ghostly shadows on walls and pavement up to four kilometres away.
A watchman was finishing his shift on a building an astonishing four kilometres from the hypocenter at 11:02 am. He had just come down the ladder from his post when the bomb detonated. The heat turned the panelling behind him a lighter colour. One can only imagine his fate.
The heat caused roofing tiles to bubble and glass to melt. Those within four kilometres of the hypocenter who were not vapourized received hideous second and third degree burns.
Bubbles in roof tiles, left, a mere fifty metres from the explosion. Bottles, right, melted together.
Following the heat came a fantastically mighty shockwave. 1000km/hr winds, eight times stronger than a hurricane, blew down every building within a three kilometre radius, save those built of concrete and reinforced against earthquakes.
The larger memorial in the background is dedicated to the numerous streetcar drivers who were killed that day. On this spot there was a streetcar line, very near the hypocenter. As you can see, the initial blast of heat caused the skin of the streetcar's occupants to boil. Then the enormous shockwave that followed demolished the streetcar and blew their bodies onto a siding.
A helmet was found in the ocean of debris. The only piece that survived of the man wearing it are bits of his skull fused to the metal.
Up to four kilometres out any combustible substance immediately burst into flames, causing parts of the city not levelled by the shockwave to be transformed into blazing infernos. At a radius of four to eight kilometres not a window survived. All were blown in and flying shards of glass caused many horrific lacerating injuries.
The American scientists that descended on Nagasaki after the war noted that because Fat Man was more powerful than Little Boy, and because of the way the Urakami Valley funneled and amplified the explosion, Nagasaki's destruction was more complete than Hiroshima's. All in all the heart of the city essentially ceased to exist, though some neighbourhoods closer to the harbour (bottom right in the photo below) were shielded by hills.
The difference a day makes. The first photo was taken on August 8, 1945. The second photo on August 10. Nagasaki has been wiped from the earth. When conducting analysis of the atomic bombings after the war, the Americans used the term 'Ground Zero' for the first time to describe the epicenter of the blast. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the original Ground Zero.