The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing
By Craig Collie
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2011 Craig Collie
All rights reserved.
Hiroshima, Monday 6 August 1945, morning
Fate is a plane high in the sky. Sometimes we hear it coming; sometimes we don't. Sometimes we guess the significance of that sound; sometimes it eludes us. We listen to the distant drone in a sort of uncomprehending stupor. Fate is a lottery, after all. It is only with hindsight that we can appreciate the steps that should have been taken, usually long before, to redirect it. Mostly, by the time we hear the sound of our approaching fate it is too late to avoid the consequences.
This is the story of the days leading up to the release of a cataclysmic product of human technological ingenuity, heralded by the sound of a plane at high altitude above the humdrum daily grind of a city crippled by war and languishing in the swelter of summer. Dog days in a city that fate would soon overtake.
* * *
On the bus that took them from the company-owned boarding house to within walking distance of Mitsubishi's Hiroshima shipyards, Tsutomu Yamaguchi realised he'd left his personal stamp — his inkan — behind. Dipped in red ink paste, the inkan was pressed on documents in lieu of a signature. Without it, Yamaguchi couldn't sign off on his departure paperwork. He told his two companions to go on and he would catch up with them at the shipyard. He got off and caught another bus back to their quarters. Smoke belched out of a wood-burning unit attached to the bus's rear end. That's how things worked after so many years of war. Making do with what was available.
On temporary transfer from Mitsubishi's Nagasaki shipbuilding works to its expanding Hiroshima operation, Yamaguchi and his companions, Iwanaga and Sato, were technical draftsmen working on a 5000-tonne oil tanker. The job done, they were ready to return home. The three had packed their bags early that morning. It was already a bright, clear summer day. They decided to go down to the workplace and farewell their colleagues of the last three months. The next day they would be on the train back to Nagasaki, to their families and friends on the southern island of Kyushu.
It was 6 August 1945. Japan had been at war with America and its allies since Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For the first six months the Japanese had surprised even themselves with the speed with which they drove through South-east Asia to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and Burma. But over the last three years all those gains had been slowly whittled away by the Allied counter-offensive. Having taken Okinawa after a bloody and costly battle, the Americans seemed poised to invade mainland Japan and bring Japan's dreams of empire to an inglorious end.
At this stage of the war, everything was in short supply. Life for the ordinary Japanese had become a grim struggle for survival, clinging to the forlorn hope of an improbable victory, pumped up by propaganda from Japan's various official sources. By 1945 there were no eggs, milk or coffee available in shops and very little tea. A bitter coffee-like brew could be made by roasting soybeans. Vegetables were the staple, mostly grown in backyard and communal plots. Many public areas, like schoolyards and parks, had been turned over to market gardening. Petrol was virtually non- existent for the general public. There were no private cars. Buses and taxis burned wood for fuel and electric-powered streetcars still operated in many cities. Apart from them, the streets were filled with bicycles, pedestrians and a few military vehicles.
Since March, the Allied advance had moved close enough to Japan for regular formations of bombers to carry out massive firebombing raids on Japan's cities. The predominance of wooden buildings made these attacks particularly destructive. In the face of the grim reality of their lost imperial cause, the Japanese maintained a stoic resilience. Food might be scarce, but civilian and military morale held on doggedly.
U Ba Maw, prime minister of the puppet government of Burma, noticed the change in the people when he revisited Tokyo at that time. They were 'visibly subdued and disillusioned by events', he said, 'but most of them were as determined and defiant as ever'. Ba Maw was there during an American incendiary bombing of the city. He was struck by the Japanese capacity to endure. 'The result was quite literally a holocaust, a mass burning of one of the densest areas of the city. I saw the ghastly devastation the next morning. But there was no panic or self-pity or even audible complaint among the huge mass of victims. In fact some of them were able to express their happiness that the Imperial Palace had escaped.'
Throughout Japan, schoolchildren and other non-essential civilians had been evacuated to the country, but it wasn't systematically planned. Those who stayed behind were organised to combat fires, build shelters and work in factories and on gardens. Under bumbling leadership, the hopelessly inadequate home defence was ineffective against the scale of the aerial attacks. A system of air-raid alarms and shelters had been developed across the country. Alarms sounded almost every day, but so far Hiroshima had been spared from the attacks.
At 7 a.m. on 6 August, the Japanese early warning radar network detected US aircraft approaching from the south. The alert was raised and radio broadcasting stopped in many cities, including Hiroshima. The planes approached at high altitudes, but they were few and quite dispersed. By eight o'clock the radar operator in Hiroshima decided there were no more than three planes in the vicinity and the air-raid alert was lifted. Radio broadcast resumed, advising people to go to shelters if an American B-29 bomber was actually sighted, but these aircraft were assumed to be on a reconnaissance mission. Fuel was now in such short supply that Japanese fighter planes would no longer take off to intercept small groups.
Yamaguchi returned to his boarding house in the south-eastern quarter of the city. He either hadn't heard or had ignored the air-raid alert. As he took off his shoes, the elderly manager spotted his guest of the last three months and invited him to share a cup of tea. In the exchange of pleasantries, the 25-year-old Yamaguchi told how he was looking forward to seeing his family again. His son had been born just before he came to Hiroshima. He hadn't yet seen his new house. There was plenty to look forward to on his return home.
Another Nagasakian who had been away on business was already on a train home. A short, stocky man with a trim moustache, Takejiro Nishioka was in his mid-fifties, the publisher of Minyu (People), a Nagasaki daily. The intensity of recent American incendiary bombing had prompted newspaper editors in western Japan to look into emergency measures in case their printing plants were destroyed. The group had resolved to set up rotary presses in a cave shelter at a location in Nagasaki yet to be decided. The editors agreed to build the underground plant within a month, despite the shortage of labour and materials. The best labour source would be convicts, among whom they could expect some experienced coal miners, but this required approval by the minister of justice and the cooperation of prefecture governors. An order from the home minister would ensure the governors' support.
The well-connected and upright Nishioka was elected by the group to go to Tokyo to enlist the support of the two relevant ministers. His mission had been successful. He had the consent of both, but in discussions in Tokyo Nishioka realised they would need army labourers as well. These could be requisitioned through General Yokoyama, commander of army forces in Kyushu. In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, who you know can be as useful as what you know. Nishioka didn't know Yokoyama, but Field Marshal Shunroku Hata, army commander over south-west Japan, was a relative of Yokoyama and a friend of Nishioka. Hata had his headquarters in Hiroshima. The publisher decided to stop off there on the long train journey from Tokyo back to Nagasaki.
On 5 August there were no seats available on the scheduled west-bound service to Hiroshima, but Takejiro Nishioka was a man with connections. He used them to get on an overnight military train instead. It was expected to arrive at Hiroshima at eight o'clock in the morning, but the early air attack warning had delayed the train by twenty-five minutes. It was already 8.15 when it pulled into Kaidaichi on the outskirts of Hiroshima, 8 kilometres from the city centre.
On the same side of the city and close to the port, Yamaguchi had finished his tea and retrieved his inkan. Having put on his shoes, he set out once again for the shipyard, this time by streetcar. It went by a less direct route than the bus, going into the city centre and out again, but Yamaguchi was in no hurry. He walked the remaining short distance to the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company. Akira Iwanaga — his roommate in the boarding house — and Kuniyoshi Sato were already there chatting with workers in one of the large office buildings. Yamaguchi took off his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Another oppressively hot day was on the way. He crossed a short bridge over a creek. Walking past recently planted potato fields, he noticed a woman coming towards him wearing a black monpe, the shapeless uniform with gathered trousers that most Japanese women wore at that time. In that instant, Yamaguchi heard the faint drone of a plane high in the sky. He and the woman both looked up to see if they could spot it.
* * *
8.09 a.m: thirty-year-old Colonel Paul Tibbets of the US Army Air Forces pointed his B-29 Superfortress over the Inland Sea towards the city of Hiroshima on Japan's main island of Honshu. The previous afternoon, he'd named the plane Enola Gay after his mother.
'We are about to start the bomb run,' Tibbets announced over the intercom. 'Put on your goggles and place them on your forehead. When the countdown starts, pull the goggles over your eyes and leave them there until after the flash.' The crew had been issued with arc-welder's adjustable goggles to protect them from the anticipated intense flash of the explosion.
There was no flak coming up, no sign of enemy planes. Co-pilot Captain Robert Lewis wrote in his in-flight log: 'There will be a short intermission while we bomb our target.'
Massive in the belly of the plane, as snug as the family St Bernard, lay a 4-tonne blue-black bomb called Little Boy. The name was not ironic — the American military is not much given to irony — but to distinguish it from its longer prototype. At 3.5 metres in length, it still wasn't short. The product of the top-secret Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb had been developed at laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was assembled on Tinian, an island in the Northern Marianas group, which had been captured from the Japanese in the Allied advance through the Pacific. The Manhattan Project had been so closely guarded that the new US president, Harry S Truman, was unaware of its existence until he was promoted from vice-president on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt. Soon the whole world would know of it. A formation of three B-29s had taken off from Tinian, carrying the uranium-cored bomb capable of considerable but largely unquantified devastation. This type of bomb had never been tested.
Behind Enola Gay a second B-29, The Great Artiste, following 10 metres off its right wing, dropped back a kilometre or so. A third, the unnamed No. 91 piloted by George Marquardt, began circling to position itself to take photographs. The bombardier on Enola Gay, Major Thomas Ferebee, pressed his left eye to the Norden bombsight. At 8.13 + 30 seconds Tibbets said to him, 'It's all yours.' Then, over the intercom: 'On goggles.'
Ferebee's bombsight generated flight corrections in autopilot. The aiming point, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge spanning a branch of the flat Ota River delta over which spread the city of Hiroshima, came into the crosshairs.
'I've got it,' said Ferebee.
The bomb-bay doors swung open and a low-pitched continuous tone was sent through the intercom. In response the crew, except the pilots and Ferebee, pulled down their dark welder's glasses. The tone was also sent by radio to the other planes, giving them fifteen seconds' notice of the bomb's release.
At 8.15 + 17 seconds, the radio tone stopped abruptly, replaced by the sound of air rushing past the open bay. Little Boy dropped out rear first. It flipped and hurtled nose down towards Hiroshima.
Hiroshima, Monday 6 August 1945
Major Charles Sweeney had the bulky build of the college footballer he once was, but with a face like a friendly bear and a self- effacing manner he wasn't intimidating. At the controls of The Great Artiste he watched Enola Gay lurch upward as its heavy payload fell free. Colonel Tibbets disengaged autopilot, banked 60 degrees to the left and dived into a 155-degree turn to gather speed. 'Bomb gone,' called Sweeney's bombardier, Kermit Beahan, and began his prescribed routine for the mission. The crew in Chuck Sweeney's plane heard the mechanical hum of pneumatic bomb-bay doors opening, followed by the roar of rushing air. Three cylinders slid into the air torrent. They looked like large fire extinguishers, but were aluminium packs with transmitters sending back data. A parachute opened behind each one.
Little Boy took 43 seconds to fall from Enola Gay, flying at 10,000 metres, to a preset detonation point 600 metres above the city. A crosswind drifted the missile 250 metres away from Aioi Bridge. It detonated instead over Shima Surgical Clinic. Working like a gun barrel, a few thousand kilograms of high explosive propelled one piece of the unstable uranium isotope U-235 into another piece. A nuclear chain reaction was triggered when the two pieces pressure-welded to supercritical mass.
This bomb hadn't been tested because extracting U-235 from uranium ore is a laborious and expensive process. All the purified U-235 produced at that time, all 60 kilograms of it, was used in Little Boy. Exploding with a force equal to 12,500 tonnes of TNT, the temperature rocketed to over a million degrees centigrade, igniting the surrounding air and forming an expanding giant fireball. At the point of explosion, energy was given off in the form of light, heat, radiation and pressure. The light sped outwards. The shock wave created by enormous pressure followed, moving out at about the speed of sound.
In the centre of the city everything but reinforced concrete buildings disappeared in an instant, leaving a desert of clear-swept, charred remains. The blast wave shattered windows for 15 kilometres from the hypocentre or, as it's more colloquially known, 'ground zero'. Over two-thirds of Hiroshima's buildings were demolished or had interiors completely gutted, all windows, doors, sashes and frames ripped out. Hundreds of fires were ignited by the thermal pulse, generating a firestorm that rolled out for several kilometres. At least 80,000 people — about 30 per cent of Hiroshima's 250,000 population at the time — were killed immediately, but possibly nearer to 100,000. The exact number will never be known.
At the instant of detonation, the forward cabin of Enola Gay lit up. Tibbets felt a tingling in his teeth from the bomb's radiation interacting with the metal in his fillings. A pinpoint of purplish-red light kilometres below the B-29s expanded into a ball of purple fire and a swirling mass of flames and clouds. Hiroshima disappeared from sight under the churning flames and smoke. The tail gunner, Bob Caron, grabbed his Kodak camera and started snapping pictures. A white column of smoke emerged from the purple clouds, rose rapidly to 3000 metres and bloomed into an immense mushroom. The mushroom seethed turbulently as it rose on its smoke stem to 15,000 metres. Co-pilot Lewis wrote in his log, 'My God, what have we done?'
Chuck Sweeney had swung The Great Artiste in a hard-diving turn to the right. Those on board were pinned back in their seats. Sweeney had difficulty seeing through the goggles so he pushed them up. As he had straightened course, the sky was bleached a translucent white, 'brighter than the sun'. Light filled his head. His sight was returning when he heard his tail gunner, 'Pappy' Dehart, uttering gibberish over the intercom as they raced away from the bomb. The plane was hit with a violent force and bounced. Beahan yelled, 'Flak!' It was hit again with less force, but they were pressure waves from the explosion, not enemy flak. Data was coming back from the canisters that had been dropped. Scientists on board watched the blast-recording equipment with fascination and excitement. This was a new era in science, going who knew where?
In the third plane, physicist Bernard Waldman captured vision of the event on a special Fastax high-speed camera. He hadn't had time to test the camera in the air, so he counted to forty when he saw the bomb dropped and turned it on. In The Great Artiste, scientific observer Harold Agnew pressed a borrowed 16 mm home movie camera against the window and rolled his single spool of silent film. Beahan was so overawed he forgot to turn on a recorder to capture crew comments for posterity.
Navy Captain William 'Deak' Parsons was the 'weaponeer' on Enola Gay for that mission, the Manhattan Project's man on the spot. He sent a coded message back to Tinian to be passed on to their masters in the United States: 'Results clear cut successful in all respects. Visible effects greater than Trinity test [a bomb test in New Mexico]. Target Hiroshima. Conditions normal in airplane following delivery proceeding to base.' The mission had gone like clockwork. For those in the air the feeling was a mixture of elation and relief.
On the ground the experience was altogether different.
Looking up at the aircraft, Yamaguchi the naval draftsman had seen a small black object fall out. A white parachute unfurled, then another one. The distant engine's drone was the only distraction on this clear, hot day. In an instant, his eyes were filled with a blinding flash like a huge magnesium flare. All other sensory responses deserted him. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Nagasaki by Craig Collie. Copyright © 2011 Craig Collie. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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