September 2015
Nuclear History — 70 Years Later

Earlier this summer, I posted historical articles on the anniversaries of the Trinity Test in New Mexico on July 16, the bombing of Hiroshima by the Enola Gay on August 6, and the bombing of Nagasaki by Bock's Car on August 9, at the end of World War II in 1945. The contents of those three postings are collected into a single entry here with the same three parts: Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.


July 16, 2015
70 Years After Trinity

The following story is from 1945, and is true:

Marty had been excited when she boarded the bus that would take her from Jacksonville, Illinois, to Tucson, Arizona. The war in Europe was over, which meant Bud would be returning home. Marty didn't know just when Bud would get home. But she wanted to get back to Tucson, eager to be home again and eager to lay the groundwork so she and Bud could get married as soon as possible after he returned.

Now it was late at night (actually, early in the morning) as the bus rolled across New Mexico. Everyone else was asleep — only Marty and the bus driver were awake, and they were in the middle of a long discussion. Suddenly, the sky lit up with a brilliant light that seemed brighter than mid-day. Everything in sight stood out, but it wasn't obvious where the light was coming from.

The discussion stopped. When it started again, the topic for all the rest of the trip to Tucson was “What was that????” Marty and the bus driver were unable to find any reasonable explanation.

Marty figured it out three weeks later when the newspaper headlines told of the use of a new type of weapon — an atomic bomb — over Hiroshima, Japan. The news stories said there had been a test in the New Mexico desert. A check of the calendar showed that what she and the bus driver had seen that night was the flash from the Trinity Test.

Meanwhile, Bud was still stuck in Europe wondering, along with many others, why they weren’t being sent home and released now that the war was over. He may not have known the Army was working on the logistics of shipping them all from the European to the Pacific Theater. Bud returned home five months later, and my parents were married on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1945.

The atomic test 15 seconds after detonation July 16, 1945. The Trinity test was the first ever test of a nuclear device.

When the Trinity Test occurred, the war in Europe had been over for nine weeks — since the German surrender on May 8th. But the war in Asia and the Pacific continued and appeared likely to keep on for at least another year. Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin were meeting at Potsdam, mostly to make plans for post-war Europe. But Truman and Churchill were also outlining surrender terms for Japan.

While there, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson delivered a message to President Truman that said "Operated this morning. Diagnosis not complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations ... Dr. Groves pleased." This was the message that told Truman that the Trinity Test had taken place in New Mexico earlier in the day, and had been a success. As a result, Truman mentioned having an unspecified "powerful new weapon" to Stalin; presumably Churchill got more details. At the end of the conference, an ultimatum (that did not mention the new weapon) was given to Japan to surrender or meet "prompt and utter destruction".

When the Potsdam Conference began, the Allies were looking at plans for another year or more of war in the Pacific, including invasions of the Japanese home islands that would have made D-Day look small. Because of the Trinity Test (and the resulting operations), Japan surrendered without an invasion a little over a month after Trinity.

Trinity was a test of the plutonium implosion bomb developed at Los Alamos. The test was performed to determine whether the "gadget" would really work. The uranium gun-type bomb was never tested before being used on Hiroshima, because the scientists were that confident it would work. Fortunately, Trinity showed the implosion bomb worked. The Manhattan Project and its Trinity Test changed the course of the Pacific War.

Sixty years later, in July of 2005, my wife and I joined in the event at the National Atomic Museum (now the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History) commemorating the Trinity Test and the beginning of the Atomic Age. It started the night before. We ate dinner with an older couple; she lived through the bombing in Germany as a young girl, and he had seen the Trinity flash on his way to go fishing outside Roswell. There were 1940’s cars in the parking lot, and wartime fashions were shown. The meat of the evening was a panel discussion (more a series of presentations) by two historians and two men who had been part of the Manhattan Engineering District — the Army’s part of the atomic bomb development program more broadly known as the Manhattan Project.

The next morning, on the sixtieth anniversary of the test, we were on one of the event’s three buses. The White Sands Missile Range had the site open for the anniversary. (Normally, it’s only open to the public on two Saturdays a year — one in October and one in April.) We were at Stallion Gate when it opened, and drove in to the McDonald Ranch house where the plutonium pit was assembled. We then spent some time at Ground Zero, before having green chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio (where Manhattan Project people often ate on their way back and forth between the site and Los Alamos) before returning to Albuquerque.

One of the benefits of going as part of the group from the National Atomic Museum was that we weren’t just on our own looking around. Panel members from the night before spoke at the locations, giving us more of a picture of the conditions of sixty years ago. We also heard at least parts of interviews by various press organizations.

At the ranch house, an historian from the museum gave a picture of the camp that existed nearby at that time. He noted that the well and windmill could produce only about a gallon per hour of not very good water — which was why water for the several hundred people at the camp was trucked in. The one luxury was the stock tank, which was used as a swimming pool. Herb Lehr, who in 1945 was a sergeant in the Special Engineering Detachment, recounted bringing the plutonium pit (then the world’s supply of plutonium) down from Los Alamos, and told something of the checkout and assembly process. He noted that the markings on the door (clean your feet, don’t track in dust, etc.) were not authentic because they were done in chalk in 1945, while the ones you see now are painted on. At the request of some of the press representatives, he reenacted for the photographers how he took the assembled pit from the ranch house to the car (a 1942 Plymouth obtained new in 1945) to deliver it to the tower at Trinity Site Ground Zero.

Lehr also told of the hiccup in everyone's heartbeats as they attempted to load the pit into the rest of the device on the tower. Attempted — it didn’t fit, though the same pieces had fit at Los Alamos. The team lead said to just stop and they left it where it was, in contact with the outer uranium sphere, while they thought it through. A few minutes later, it slid in a fraction of an inch, and they realized they had a thermal problem. The plutonium core and the part of the unit near it were hot to the touch; the sphere had overnight cold. As the core heated the section of the sphere near it, its thermal expansion allowed the unit to slide in. Over a half hour or so the unit was assembled.

The historian speaking at Ground Zero (Ferenc Szasz, author of The Day the Sun Rose Twice) focussed on the difficulties in actually performing the test. This included worrying whether the night’s thunderstorms would clear before morning, and needing the wind to come from the proper direction. General Groves directly threatened the meteorologist that night, but fortunately the weather worked out well. That still left the question of whether the device would work properly, and with what kind of explosive yield. Of course, it did work — as everyone who saw the flash can attest.

That made me think of the tale told me years ago by people who had been in the Manhattan Project. Enrico Fermi was among those outside the blockhouse when the Trinity Test took place. After the initial radiation flash, he stood up and started dropping small pieces of paper. When the shock from the detonation arrived, the piece of paper that was in mid-air was moved and fell away from the rest. Fermi measured how far it was moved by the shock and, in just a few minutes, computed an estimate of the test’s explosive yield that was almost as good as the value that came days later from analyses of the experiment’s instrumentation.

Back at Ground Zero, Szasz noted that the inner fence surrounds the area where the test’s fireball touched the ground, where the trinitite was created. (Trinitite is glass created from the sand there by the heat of the Trinity Test fireball, all of which was later buried.) He also said that area was used to determine the detonation altitude that should be used in the attacks on Japan, both to maximize blast and shock effects on the cities from the atomic explosions and to avoid having the detonation fireballs reach the surface. Keeping the fireballs from touching the ground was necessary to minimize nuclear fallout from the explosions so the cities (and the areas downwind) would not be overly dangerous (longer term) either to their surviving residents or to invading U.S. soldiers — and so they would be better able to recover when the war was over.

On the bus ride home, I thought about the wartime focus that allowed a new weapon — a new class of weapon — to be used in the war just three weeks after the Trinity test showed it would work. That’s a very different timeline from what we see today. But it did bring the war to an end.

Now it is another ten years later. The Trinity Test took place seventy years ago today. It was the beginning of the end of World War II in the Pacific — and, in a significant sense, the beginning of the Atomic Age.

There has been no wartime use of nuclear weapons since the end of that war. How long will that continue to be true?


August 6, 2015
70 Years After Hiroshima

With the Trinity test, the Manhattan Project was effectively complete — and was a success. The atomic reactor under the Stagg Field stands at the University of Chicago had proved the nuclear chain reaction would work. The uranium enrichment effort at Oak Ridge had been successful; the cyclotron-based effort in Berkeley was successful, though less efficient. The plutonium production efforts at Hanford were sucessful. And the Trinity test proved the design group was successful in designing a potentially weaponizable plutonium device; the uranium device was never tested since there was never any question that it would work as intended. (My wife and I visited Trinity Site in July of 2005 as part of the National Atomic Museum’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the Trinity Test.) The question now became whether and how to use atomic weapons against the enemy.


The atomic cloud over Hiroshima August 6, 1945

By the time of the Trinity test, however, it had already been decided (subject to President Truman’s final decision) to assure “the successful combat use of an atomic bomb at the earliest possible date after a field test of an atomic explosion and after the availability of the necessary material.” Targets had already been selected using criteria that required military significance in a large, largely intact, target city. Hiroshima was included as an industrial center that was an army embarkation port and the southern headquarters of the Japanese army; it became the target for the first atomic bomb used in war — the uranium bomb which had never been tested. The heavy industrial city of Nagasaki was a secondary target behind the military arsenal and steel center of Kokura.

At the time of our visit to the Trinity Site, I heard a spokesman for the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) express his opinion (as if it were fact) that the “viewpoint” that the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki speeded the end of World War II was “no longer respectable.” I also heard spokesmen for that group state that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian, not military, targets. And I saw their demonstrators’ signs quoting General Curtis LeMay saying that Japan would have collapsed within two weeks with or without the use of the atomic bombs. (That sign — which may or may not have been accurate as to LeMay’s views — made me think of LeMay’s equally accurate Congressional testimony that a ballistic missile was a physical impossibility.)

I respectfully disagree with the LASG and its supporters on several grounds.

First, these cities were not “non-military”, not “civilian targets.” They were selected as potential targets because of being military-industrial centers and military command centers. Yes, they were selected from among the list of potential targets in part because they had not previously been heavily attacked, but that does not make them invalid as targets. As targets, they were no less valid than Berlin, Tokyo, and Dresden.

Second, the purpose of any military attack, first and foremost, is to reduce or end the enemy’s ability and willingness to wage war — to damage the enemy and to convince him that he cannot win. This was precisely the purpose of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even so, even after the atomic attacks, Japan’s military council still intended to proceed with a fight to the death under their Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive) strategy. It was only in the early hours of the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki — the second atomic bombing — that the emperor intervened with the decision for surrender. (Incidentally, had Japan not surrendered when it did, the third atomic bomb was said to have been targeted for Tokyo as soon as it could be transported to Tinian Island from the U.S. — and that third bomb was on its way.)

Third, the number of casualties to be expected in an invasion of the Japanese home islands, which would have been necessary had the Japanese not capitulated after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been horrendous. The number of American casualties, both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of the invasion force, increased exponentially island by island as the American forces approached Japan. Entry onto the home islands would certainly have been even more costly. The invasion plans had already been made under the overall title of Operation Downfall, incorporating two separate invasions under the code names Olympic and Coronet. General Douglas MacArthur projected at least a million U.S. casualties (killed and wounded) in the first year of these invasions. We now know the defending force was more than three times what was expected then, making the one million casualty estimate quite possibly a substantial underestimate.

Fourth, the number of Japanese casualties in the invasion and in the pre-invasion bombings would have been even larger than the number of American casualties, and far larger than the number in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something like 100,000 people died in the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945. Similar bombings of multiple Japanese cities would have preceded any U.S. invasion. It would not have mattered to those killed whether they died from conventional or atomic bombing — whether their cities were destroyed by one bomber or a thousand.

Fifth, and more personally, there were the American prisoners of war — including those captured at Bataan and put through the Death March, like my uncle — being held on the Japanese home islands. The POW camp commanders had standing orders to execute all prisoners in the event of an invasion. By avoiding the invasion, making it unnecessary, the atomic attacks directly saved these men’s lives.

The revisionists among us would pretend that Japan’s situation in the middle of 1945 was hopeless, that Japan knew it was hopeless and was seeking to surrender, and that the American government knew this and dropped the atomic bombs anyway. The reality is that, in spite of their losses, the Japanese military was still insisting on fighting on and — if it hadn’t been for the atomic bombs — would have done so. The use of the atomic bombs therefore saved hundreds of thousands of lives — at least — and may have saved millions. (And, given the larger than expected numbers of defenders, there’s no guarantee the U.S would have prevailed in the invasion of Japan.)

The revisionists either ignore or never knew the conditions of 1945 and what they meant to those who lived through them. At the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Trinity Test, I met a pilot from the European Theater of World War II. In the summer of 1945, he already had orders to the Pacific Theater, which were cancelled after V-J Day. His comment: “This bomb saved my life!” The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also almost certainly gave me (among many others) the chance to be born. They allowed my father, a veteran of the Normandy invasion, to return home to marry my mother instead of being sent to be part of the Japanese invasion (which would have been much larger — and bloodier — than the Normandy invasion he had been a part of). His brother is the uncle mentioned above who survived the Death March and was in a POW camp in Japan at that time. There are many similar stories, some by recognized writers, some gathered and published by newspapers and others, and most less generally available. All are worth seeking out. And virtually all include a recognition of the huge number of casualties — Allied, Japanese, and others in the Japanese-occupied countries — avoided because of the war’s end.

Leon Smith, one of the 509th Composite Bomb Group’s three weaponeers on Tinian Island, was asked by a Japanese documentary film crew (including three individuals from Hiroshima) a number of years later how he felt when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. (By a flip of the coin, the other two weaponeers flew on the missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Smith would probably have flown on the atomic bomb mission to Tokyo had that mission been necessary, but flew on the post-war test at Bikini Atoll instead.) He recounted his response as follows:

I pointed out there had been a long war — intensive battles starting in the South Pacific, moving ever northward toward Japan. I talked about the 30,000 Japanese soldiers, 20,000 civilians, lost on Saipan. On Iwo Jima, which was roughly halfway to Japan and a fighter base, 60,000 Marines went ashore, and suffered the highest casualty rate they’d ever suffered in any Marine operation. The Japanese had 21,000 defenders. 20,000 died. The battle for Okinawa had just been completed at the end of June. There over 100,000 Japanese soldiers died. 125-150,000 civilians.

General Marshall believed that defending Japan were 2.3 million soldiers, 4 million navy men, and 28 million armed civilian militia. I said the invasion was scheduled for November of ’45. I thought the casualties would have been simply unreal — beyond comprehension.

I said, “How did I feel when the bomb was dropped? I felt a sense of relief.” I was confident that the war would soon be over. That I could go back and see my wife whom I’d seen very little since our marriage in 1941. The U.S. and its allies could go back to their homes and their families. And the Japanese could go back to their families. Yes, I felt a sense of relief.

Today is the anniversary of the Enola Gay’s flight to Hiroshima, the anniversary of the day Leon Smith’s relief began.

Addendum:
Jules Crittenden wrote an excellent article in 2007 on this World-Changing Anniversary over on PJ Media. Go read it!
Also go read two excellent current pieces, The Lives Saved by the Bomb and Thank God for the Atom Bomb.


August 9, 2015
70 Years After Nagasaki

Hiroshima had been destroyed, and in a unique and spectacular manner. A single B-29 had flown over Hiroshima, and had dropped a single bomb. No one had ever thought a single plane could cause so much damage. Destruction on that scale required huge numbers of aircraft, like the many hundreds of B-29s that had dropped their bombs on Tokyo in March.

And yet, preparations continued for the expected invasion of the home islands by the United States. Military units were being moved to Japan’s southern Kyushu Island, and civilians there were being given weapons and training. (Japanese military planners could read military realities as well as their American counterparts, and had correctly identified where the Americans would invade.) Hiroshima had been destroyed, but nothing had changed. And so a second atomic bomb mission occurred, and Nagasaki was destroyed by a plutonium bomb (like the one tested in the Trinity Test in New Mexico) when there was too much haze and smoke over Kokura for the bombardier to identify his aimpoint.


The atomic cloud over Nagasaki
August 9, 1945

General Leslie Groves, head of the U.S. Army’s Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bombs, had predicted it would take two bombs to get the Japanese to surrender — one to stun them and a second to demonstrate the first wasn’t a fluke or a one-of-a-kind. But, as is often the case, there’s more to the story than that.

Japanese physicists were involved in nuclear studies in the 1930s, just as European and American physicists were. By 1940, the Japanese had determined that they had access to more than enough uranium in Korea and Burma to make an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb project was started in April 1941, but it determined by late 1944 that it could not produce a bomb in time to affect the war.

The knowledge they built up during their atomic project was put to use in August of 1945. The story is told that physicists sampled the debris after the Hiroshima bombing, and reported that the city had been destroyed by an atomic bomb built of uranium. To the Japanese authorities, that meant it was probably one-of-a-kind because they knew uranium was so difficult to enrich sufficiently that “they can’t possibly have another.” They sampled debris again after the Nagasaki bombing, and reported that a plutonium bomb had been used. This was a shock to the authorities, because it meant to them that the U.S. could have a nearly unlimited number of such bombs, depending on a production rate they had no way to know. (The next plutonium bomb was already on its way to the B-29 base on Tinian Island; a number of reports assert the planners had targeted Tokyo for this bomb.) Suddenly the choice the Japanese authorities faced was very stark, indeed — surrender or incineration.

The traditional view has been that these two bombings shortened the war, thereby saving the lives of large numbers of American soldiers and Japanese soldiers and civilians. Several historians have been trying to change this view in recent years, but it seems there’s a bit of schizophrenia in their views. On the one hand, they (some) assert that Japan was seeking to surrender, and the American government knew this and dropped the atomic bombs anyway. On the other hand, they (some) say the bombings made no difference, noting that the Japanese military was insisting on a “defense to the death” even after both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both positions have facts behind them. There were elements in the Japanese government that wanted to negotiate a peace, and the army did want to keep fighting to the bitter end. What the bombings did, however, was make it possible for the emperor to step in and direct a decision without provoking a coup. (Even so, an abortive rebellion and attempted coup did occur.) That is why both Japanese and American authorities agree with the conclusion of Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson: “This deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”

The bombs had other effects, too, of course. Those effects could not have been known to the U.S. military authorities in any detail as there had been no outsiders into either Hiroshima or Nagasaki and those effects had not been evident in the Trinity Test. But this was a new type of weapon, and General Douglas MacArthur and his staff apparently didn’t want information on any possible new effects made public, at least until they knew what they were dealing with. And so they made broad areas of Japan, including these cities, off-limits for some time after the Japanese surrender. (There may have been other motives than those suggested here — either instead of or in addition to these motives. The motives identified here, I think, put the best face possible on MacArthur’s actions.)

In spite of the ban, war reporter George Weller got to Nagasaki a few days after the formal surrender, four weeks after the city was bombed. He got there by impersonating a colonel and forcing his way onto Japanese trains with pure brashness. He and the sergeant who accompanied him were the first Westerners to reach the city. Weller wrote late into each night and filed his dispatches through the normal channels. Those channels went through MacArthur’s office and its censors, which made sure the dispatches never reached their destination — until now. Weller’s son found his father’s original carbon copies, long thought to have been lost, after his father’s death. Anthony Weller, the son, turned them into a book released at the end of 2006: First Into Nagasaki.

To read Weller’s book is to be transported back into the immediate post-war period in Japan. Through Weller’s eyes, we see the damage done to Nagasaki and the frustration of the doctors trying to deal with “Disease X”. As one review (by Melanie Kirkpatrick) put it, however,

The after-effects of the atomic bomb aren't the only story that Weller finds in Nagasaki. After a few days in the city, he heads to the nearby prisoner-of-war camps, where he has what can only be called the incredible experience of informing his fellow Americans, who did not know the war had ended, of the two atomic bombs, the Japanese surrender and the impending arrival of American occupation troops.
And this is a full month after the Nagasaki bombing. He describes, too, how prisoners in some of the camps he visited near Omuta, outside Nagasaki, actually saw the mushroom clouds of both atomic bombs. Among the men at these camps were veterans of the Bataan Death March and veterans of the Burma railway construction (the “River Kwai”) prisoner camps.

Weller wrote dispatches about the conditions in the Prisoner of War camps during the war, many primarily composed of quotations from one POW after another — each identified by name, rank (usually), unit, and home town. These dispatches are historically important. Far too little has been written of the Japanese camps and what happened in them. In fact, it is not clear that we have a complete list of those interned in the camps, even yet, or even a complete list of the camps themselves. Anthony Weller calls the lack of attention to the Japanese POW camps "one of the great omissions in World War II memory."

One thing I found shocking in Weller’s account is that no one from the West had been to many of the Prisoner of War camps a full month after the atomic bombings, more than three weeks after the Japanese surrender (V-J Day, August 14th), and well over a week after the formal signing of the surrender documents on the battleship Missouri on September 2nd. This is tempered somewhat by recognizing that everything happened more slowly sixty years ago than today. And, too, the Japanese were less than cooperative in providing complete information on the prisoner camps they operated and the men held in them — in part because those records were not priorities in the Japanese system. Recall that, even at this late date, we may not have a complete list of the Japanese prisoner camps, much less of those held in them. Indeed the camp in Tokyo, that my uncle is identified (on one list, along with more than two thousand others) as having been liberated from, does not appear on most lists of POW camps.

Still, camps like those near Nagasaki were apparently well-known. So why had no one from the U.S. Army gone to them for so long? And when did they reach others of Japan’s 200 or so POW camps? The answers to these questions are not known to me, though they may be known to others.

Today is the anniversary of the Bock’s Car flight to Kokura and Nagasaki, the anniversary of the day World War II — in the Pacific Theater — really began to end.

Category: History


Weblog Webmaster