For some reason the notion that there was an itching sound inside the bomb as it rode along in the belly of the Enola Gay persists. It is mistaken of course. Who knows even where the notion came from? Perhaps the silence of the bomb in those moments before it was dropped on Hiroshima is just too immense to contemplate. The itching sound, then, is some sort of compensation for that end-of-the-world silence.
In 1939, before the United States entered what became World War II, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt explaining the efforts by the Nazis in Germany to purify uranium-235, which in theory could be used to build an ‘atomic’ bomb. An atom is comprised of the three sub-atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons cluster together to form a center mass around which the electrons orbit like tiny planets around a sun. Uranium is a heavy metal with the largest atom of all natural elements and is the most highly ‘splitable’ atom there is. Given several hundreds of thousands of years this atom will disintegrate naturally into lead. If it is bombarded with neutrons, however, a chain reaction occurs releasing heat and gamma radiation. It is this effect, it was thought, that could be used to create a blast to destroy our enemies.
Thus began the Manhattan Project. Two billion dollars were spent over six years to develop the atom bomb. A huge uranium enrichment plant was built at the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and, under J. Robert Oppenheimer a laboratory was created at another secret city; Los Alamos, New Mexico. By 1944 most of the work was focused on an implosion type device made with plutonium using the cold name ‘The Gadget’, which need to be tested before it could be used in combat. (This was the type of bomb used on Nagasaki on August 9th.) Oppenheimer directed Project TR, for Trinity, to conduct this test.
Some believed this test might cause a cataclysmic reaction in the upper atmosphere bringing about the complete destruction of the world and the annihilation of humankind with it, but apparently this did not cause enough concern to bring the project to a halt. Instead people prayed for God’s protection while their hands went about the work of creating the atomic bomb.
On July 16th, 1945 the Gadget was suspended one hundred feet above the ground on a steel tower in the pre-dawn hours and was detonated. .034 seconds later a camera caught a black and white image of the dome-like ball that looked like the back of a jelly fish or a flapper’s hat, with a roiling fringe along the bottom edge. The burst of light was such that people in distant towns thought the sun rose twice that morning. A blind girl 120 miles away ‘saw’ the light. This intense white flash stretched from the basin of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico across the Jornada del Muerto and then it became an orange fireball shooting upward at 360 feet per second turning reddish and pulsating, and finally blooming into the full mushroom cloud we have all become familiar with, pushing up to 30,000 feet in the atmosphere.
Oppenheimer, now at the very pinnacle of his achievement, grimly quoted from the Bhagavad Gita. “I am become Death,” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.” Several others circulated a petition to stop this monstrosity from ever being used again. Their efforts were, of course, like trying to put the genii back in the bottle. No one paid any attention to their protests.
In a diary entry dated July 25th, President Truman wrote, “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…
“This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children…
“The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives…”
Work commenced at once to produce the bomb – ‘Little Boy’ – that would be used in combat. Even though it was a cute little thing by today’s standards, the bomb was still ten feet long, over two feet in diameter and weighed four and a half tons. It would use TNT charges to force two masses of 235U together causing the chain reaction. Parts were delivered and assembled at the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, an island that had been liberated form the Japanese. Fierce fighting was continuing on other likely island locations like Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Hiroshima was chosen as the site of the drop because it was flat river delta country, with no hills or mountains in the immediate area to deflect the blast and so it had been bypassed as a target for conventional bombing, leaving it in pristine condition so that the effects of the blast could be more readily observed. The heart of the city covered about four square miles. Its normal population was 380,000 men women and children, but this had been reduced to 245,000 by wartime evacuations. There were factories and residential areas there, and other residential areas extended outward toward the hills in the distance.
At around six in the morning a minute-long sounding of the air-raid siren warned of approaching enemy planes but this got little response. People were used to weather planes coming over at about that time of day, so they paid little attention. Those who were going to evacuate had already done so. Besides, strangely, Hiroshima had been spared all bombing up to this time. People speculated that their city was not a critical target for Japan’s enemies. Perhaps, they thought, the area was so beautiful that the Americans could not bring themselves to spoil it with bombing. This in spite of the fact that 720,000 leaflets had been dropped two days earlier, warning them of the impending destruction of their city. Before eight another siren sounded, but then the all-clear was given. There was no breeze that morning. It was going to be a beautiful day, if a little too warm.
The Enola Gay was a B-29 Super Fortress under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. It had been flying practice missions out of North Field, Tinian, since early July and on August 5th LI1 – Little Boy – was loaded into the front bomb bay. The following morning at 2:00 a.m. it took off on Special Bombing Mission #13. Target: Hiroshima, with the bomb to be dropped from 30,000 feet at 8:15 local time. Ground Zero was a point 1,980 feet above the Aioi Bridge.
In an instant 70,000 people vanished from the face of the earth, evaporated by a 13 kiloton explosion that measured one mile in diameter. The super-heated x-ray heated air sent a shock wave and fireball in all directions at the speed of sound. Houses were reduced to kindling as this massive wave shot forward with 5psi (which amounts to about 720 pounds per square foot), and the kindling then burst into flame, further fueling the destruction. At the very center of the blast the temperature was 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Another 70,000 were injured with no one to care for them.
A noiseless sun-bright flash of light bounced across the sky toward the hills. Those who survived the initial blast were knocked off their feet and covered with splinters of wood and shards of glass and bits of concrete. Only those many miles away heard any kind of noise from the explosion. Most thought that the bombing had been a near-direct hit in their own neighborhood. Clouds of dust rose up into the air, causing a kind of eerie morning twilight. Flames and clots of smoke rose up from anything left to burn. Survivors staggered around with terrible burns on their faces and arms, and in many cases their clothes had been burned away, leaving the pattern of the fabrics imprinted in their skin. Some people’s faces had been melted away completely. A wind picked up now and peculiar grape-sized raindrops began to fall from the dirty sky. We know now that this rain was packed with extreme amounts of radioactive materials. Here and there children were calling out for help form the piles of rubble which moments before had been their homes. For the most part there was no one capable of digging them out, and after a time their cries died down.
Survivors tried to help each other out as much as they could, but in the face of such destruction there wasn’t much anyone could do. Many made their way to the Red Cross hospital, which was filling up so quickly most were left outside. The few doctors and nurses left alive were soon overwhelmed by the shear number of casualties.
The shadow of one anonymous man – all that remains of him – was found on some steps near a bank.
Over the next several days those who had not been killed in the initial blast began to experience headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and recurring fevers. Many died. In two weeks their hair fell out in clumps, diarrhea and cramps increased, and fevers shot up to 106 degrees. By the end of the month incidents of blood disorders increased, people’s gums began to bleeding, and they experienced a sharp drop in their blood cell counts. (White cell counts went below 4,000). Open wounds were slow to heal. They had sore throats and mouths.
If their burns healed at all, and many did not, these ‘kibakusha’ as they were called – ‘explosion-affected persons’ – healed with deep layers of pinkish, rubbery scar tissue called keloid tumors.
In his book ‘Hiroshima’ (1946), the finest and most horrifying book written about this event, John Hersey quoted a report sent to the Holy See in Rome by a German Jesuit priest, a Father Siemes, “It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”
Everything following ‘Hiroshima’ can be read in a different light – the light of a nuclear explosion. Not that literature itself was shaken by this book’s words or style, but that life itself has been irreparably shifted from its foundations and that literature from then on likewise had shifted. There is no way it could not have. For that reason alone everyone who reads should read this book. It is horrible, intelligent and realistic. It begins, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima…” The author then proceeds to give a rundown on what each of his six ‘characters’ were doing at that moment. These are some of the real-life survivors of ‘the Bomb’.
Originally published in ‘The New Yorker’ in its entirety, it was recognized at once as a classic in American literature, standing witness to the tragic and earth-shaking (literally a global event as subsequent decades have proven) moment of a nuclear detonation over a largely civilian population. A hundred thousand people died in a single blast intended to prove to Japan the futility of its continue the fighting of World War II. Those who supported the use of the weapon justified it by pointing out the casualties that would be spared by abruptly putting an end to the war. Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece repudiates their claim by presenting the horrifying facts about how the blast affected the lives of real people.
Hersey wrote, “Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendezvous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Superfortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.”
Special indeed: “He heard no roar. (Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb. But a fisherman in his sampan on the Inland Sea near Tsuzo… saw the flash and heard a tremendous explosion; he was nearly twenty miles from Hiroshima, but the thunder was greater than when the B-29s hit Iwakuni, only five miles away.)”
Nearly forty years after writing ‘Hiroshima’ John Hersey returned to Japan to follow up with the people who had lived through this horrendous event. He wrote an ‘Afterward’ to his original work, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1985). Most had gone on with their lives, as one might expect; and most believed that nuclear weapons would be used again one day. Their memory, “like the world’s, was getting spotty.”
Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All Rights Reserved.