Dropping the Bomb (Part 1)

Inside the Dulles site of the National Air and Space Museum sits a B-29 bomber that is over 70 years old. The silvery metallic Enola Gay catches my eye whenever I visit the museum. The history of this World War II airplane intrigues me, even while the horror of its famous mission repels me. After my last stop at the museum, I realized how limited my knowledge was of the Enola Gay and decided to learn more about it.

While I watched and read several documentaries and articles about Enola Gay and Hiroshima, the most fascinating and informative source—by far—that I consulted was the book Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. The book sank its hooks into me in such a way that I have not been able to get it out of my mind. So I figured it might help me process these thoughts if I write them out and share them with you. I’m not trying to make an argument and have no coherent theme, but merely would like to share some thoughts, observations, and historical information. (To keep this from being too long to read at once, I’ll break it up into three parts.)

One facet of the book that fascinated me was its publication date. The book came out in 1977, which places it closer to the events it describes than to the present day. Not only were most of the central figures interviewed for the book, but they were actually alive when it was printed and may have even read it. So even though it describes history that was written three decades after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the book was more current events than ancient history. It would be like a book written today that tells the story of something that happened in 1984. ‘Eight-four seems more like it falls into the category of memories rather than history; so was this book upon its release.

Before doing this research, I had always thought of WWII as mostly a fight against Hitler and the Nazis. Sure, I knew about Mussolini and Italy, and about Japan and the attack at Pearl Harbor, but I’d considered them more like the supporting cast. Once the war ended in Europe, it seemed to me like it had to inevitably fizzle out in Japan. I’d thought of Japan as not being a real threat and wondered why they had even continued to fight. I learned two things that shed light on this situation: First, the war was far from over after Germany and Italy capitulated; the war with Japan continued to cause thousands of casualties. Second, the historical Japanese mindset made surrender nearly impossible for them.

That second reality was a major reason that Japan held on. It goes back to the ancient samurai mentality of death before surrender. This was not just some macho rah-rah malarkey like it is in Hollywood movies, but was actually a serious matter of honor. We’ve all heard of the kamikaze pilots that crashed their planes into their enemies’ vessels, but that approach was not limited to only suicide fliers. In fact it was a great honor to die while killing the enemy, and the entire nation was expected to adopt this mindset. I was disturbed to learn that the kamikazes had their underwater counterparts in human torpedoes. These were torpedoes that were like miniature submarines—aquatic missiles with their self-destructing navigators on board. These kaiten, like kamikazes, were zealous soldiers eager to die while killing their enemies. There were even suicide boats and suicide divers—also known as human mines. Rather than being some lunatic fringe, these groups were a common part of the Japanese military in the last couple years of the war.

The determination to die before surrendering was exacerbated further by two factors. One was Japanese emperor worship, and the other was the information blackout that the Japanese government imposed on the public. The emperor was believed to be divine, and the Japanese believed that if they surrendered, they would be required to forsake their emperor. This was one of the greatest sticking points in their discussions about ending the war: dismantling the power of the emperor was considered absolutely nonnegotiable. Secondly, as hard as it is to believe looking back from our vantage point, even after the surrender of Germany and Italy, the Japanese population believed they were winning the war. The public was deceived by their leaders—who knew otherwise—that victory was certain to be theirs if they simply refused to give up. When Tokyo was devastated by bombings, the severity of the destruction was hidden from those outside the city in an effort to keep morale high. Even the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hidden from public knowledge.

Back to Japan being a real threat even post-Europe: Because of their refusal to surrender and their determination to die in battle, the war in Japan continued to claim lives—on both sides—by the thousands. In fact this is why it was argued that the United States should use the atomic bomb. In an effort to force the war to an end, it seemed that a full-scale invasion of Japan was inevitable. At a time when the trauma and tragedy of the Normandy beaches were still raw, American forces faced the prospect of losing a million more soldiers in the invasion of Japan. A million. I cannot begin to comprehend such carnage. In the rooms where men with the power to make these decisions debated the next course of action, it seemed there were two choices: drop atomic bombs on Japan, killing untold thousands of Japanese, or launch an invasion which would result in the deaths of a million Americans and still kill untold thousands of Japanese.

Japan’s leaders were warned that they must surrender or face such destruction as history had never seen. They were also told they could keep their emperor. Unfortunately, this communication was interpreted by their leaders as a sign that the United States was weakening and could no longer continue to fight. They dug their heels in deeper and prepared for the expected American invasion.

So the crew of the Enola Gay was given their order: Weather permitting, on the morning of August 6, 1945, they were to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Japan.

Next time: Enola Gay’s bomb: what it was and what it did.

Published in: on February 2, 2016 at 12:40 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent, Nathan! Very thoughtful, with some perspectives that had never occurred to me. I’m looking forward to the next two installments.

  2. Thanks Dad! Glad to see you’re well enough to read again!

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