Dropping the Bomb (Part 2)

The crew of the Enola Gay had spent nearly a year preparing for this mission. It was so top-secret that most of them did not even know what they were training for until the plane approached Japan early in the morning on August 6. To show you how naïve I am about the machines of war, I’d always pictured the Enola Gay and its mission being like bombing flights as they’re portrayed in movies. On the big screen, a single pilot takes off from an aircraft carrier and flies a few minutes at top speed until he’s over his target. Then he looks at a computer screen on his dashboard, pushes a button, and the bombs casually drop from his aircraft like a bird pooping in midflight. It’s all very Luke Skywalkery.

In reality, the Enola Gay had a whole crew where each man had his job. The leader of the mission, Paul Tibbets, flew the plane. He’s the one who named the plane Enola Gay, after his mother. But the bomb itself was actually dropped by the bombardier, Tom Ferebee, whose sole job was to watch through his bombsight and release the bomb as they flew over the Aioi Bridge. And that only happened after flying for several hours to get from their island airfield to the Japanese mainland; after dropping the bomb, they had to turn around and make the long flight back.

The bomb itself, dubbed “Little Boy,” was itself a wonder of science. To prevent an accidental explosion, the active elements were kept apart from each other until the moment of detonation. These pieces were secretly shipped aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which—unbeknownst to nearly all of its crew—carried the tools of nuclear warfare aboard their ship as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and headed out into the Pacific. After delivering the bomb parts, on their return journey they were spotted by a Japanese submarine and attacked with six torpedoes. The ship sank in about 12 minutes, killing 900 American sailors. It is still the worst naval disaster in U.S. history. By the way, I just found out that a movie about the Indianapolis, starting Nicholas Cage, is set to be released this spring.

Since B-29s routinely crashed on takeoff, the decision was made to complete the assembling of Little Boy while the Enola Gay was airborne, thus eliminating the risk of a nuclear explosion on the base. Col. Tibbets drove the plane all the way to the end of the runway before lifting off literally at the last second, scaring his crew but giving his aircraft the best chance of getting airborne. The bomb they carried was so heavy, in fact, that after releasing it over Hiroshima, the sudden reduction in weight caused the plane to lurch 10 feet higher in the air.

A weather plane scouted the air over Hiroshima and reported that it was clear. The bomb’s assembly was completed and Tibbets flew over the unsuspecting city. Don’t get me wrong—this was a nation at war and they expected air raids. The city was virtually untouched by the Allied bombers. They had no way of knowing that they had been spared because they were targeted for a nuclear attack, and military scientists wanted an intact city for more accurate measurements of atomic destruction. Hiroshima had in fact had an air raid alarm less than an hour before the Enola Gay’s approach, but by 8:15 the city streets were again filled with people. Some of them spotted the approaching plane, but when an air raid came the skies were darkened by a legion of bombers. This was just one plane flying high overhead, probably just passing through. The only other planes nearby were an American weather plane and a plane that had observers to record scientific data.

Ferebee gained the bridge in his bombsight and released the atomic bomb, and Little Boy began its 43-second descent. That 43 seconds haunts me. It has to be one of the strangest 43 seconds in human history. The decision had already been made and gravity hurtled the bomb toward its target. There was no going back: at this point an atomic explosion was inevitable unless the bomb’s triggering mechanism misfired. And yet no one below could have even suspected what was about to happen to their city. Using conventional bombs, it would have taken 2,000 fully loaded bombers to equal the power of this one bomb—notice that’s not 2,000 bombs: it’s 2,000 airplanes loaded with bombs. But this was just one bomb dropped from a single plane. There was no way for any of Hiroshima’s residents to anticipate what would happen next. For 43 long seconds Little Boy plummeted toward the earth, in a way its own kind of kamikaze: it would utterly destroy itself in order to utterly destroy the city of Hiroshima.

This bomb was totally unlike any other bomb in many ways—not just in its power. This was not a bomb that would crash into the ground and explode on impact. If you’ve seen photos of Hiroshima after the bomb, you may have noticed that there is no crater in the ground. Usually bombing raids left behind craters in the earth filled with rubble and bodies. But the ground in post-bomb Hiroshima is flat. That’s because the detonation of the U-235 weapon was unique.

The bomb was equipped with radar that sent signals to the ground; these signals bounced back to tell the bomb how far it was from the surface. When it was roughly one-third of a mile from the ground, the radar sensor alerted a firing mechanism inside Little Boy. It was like a gun being fired inside the housing of the bomb. One of the elements transported by the ill-fated Indianapolis fired down a shaft toward the other one. When they collided at exactly 8:15 a.m., nuclear destruction was unleashed on a city of about 240,000 people.

What happened next was not an event of gunpowder and smoke. Instead it was like the sun itself, for a brief moment, appeared right there in the city. There was a bright flash of light, of such intensity that it blinded people for miles around. Then unimaginable heat seared the city—the heat from the initial blast was actually hotter than the surface of the sun. Miles away, victims were instantly sunburned. A firestorm instantly enveloped the city. And then came two rounds of shockwaves: the force of the detonation was so powerful that it sent out shockwaves like the clichéd stone tossed in a pond. These ringed waves consisted of air that had been compressed so forcefully by the blast that it was actually visible. The waves traveled faster than the speed of sound and crumbled the city for miles in every direction. After the Enola Gay had dropped the bomb, it made an abrupt U-turn to fly back the way it came. It was several miles away when the shockwaves came, but they were so massive and powerful that they smacked the plane as if a giant had landed a quick succession of two uppercuts on the belly of the plane.

All of this happened in mere seconds. Before anyone was even aware that a monstrous bomb had fallen on the city, 80,000 people were dead or mortally wounded. No one knows exactly how many people died because many of them were instantly vaporized. Others turned completely to carbon in a fraction of a second. As more people continued to burn to death and suffocate under the rubble, the city which had enjoyed a clear morning sky just moments before fell under a blanket of darkness from the infamous mushroom cloud. A shocked throng stumbled around, not sure where to go since hell on earth seemed to stretch out in every direction around them. Many went down to the river seeking relief; many of them died there. When rescue boats arrived to help survivors, they were severely hampered because the river was clogged with dead bodies. Then it began to rain. The scorched survivors thirstily lapped up the rain before they realized it was black. They were drinking radiation, and within days it would result in many more deaths.

The Enola Gay arrived back at the airfield to a great celebration. They were convinced they had just ended the Second World War.

Next time: Nagasaki and ethical considerations. Also, I decided to add a fourth part which will look at some bizarre developments that came about in later years.

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Published in: on February 3, 2016 at 12:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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