[This essay has been adapted from chapters 1 and 2 of Susan Southard’s new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, with the kind permission of Viking.]
Korean and Chinese workers, prisoners of war, and mobilized adults and students had returned to their work sites; some dug or repaired shelters, others piled sandbags against the windows of City Hall for protection against machine-gun fire. In the Mitsubishi sports field, bamboo spear drills in preparation for an invasion had just concluded. Classes had resumed at Nagasaki Medical College. Streetcars meandered through the city.
Hundreds of people injured in the air raids just over a week earlier continued to be treated in Nagasaki’s hospitals, and at the tuberculosis hospital in the northern Urakami Valley, staff members served a late breakfast to their patients. One doctor, trained in German, thought to himself, Im Westen nichts neues (All quiet on the western front). In the concrete-lined shelter near Suwa Shrine that served as the Nagasaki Prefecture Air Defense Headquarters, Governor Nagano had just begun his meeting with Nagasaki police leaders about an evacuation plan. The sun was hot, and the high-pitched, rhythmic song of cicadas vibrated throughout the city.
Six miles above, the two B-29s approached Nagasaki. Major Sweeney and his crew could hardly believe what they saw: Nagasaki, too, was invisible beneath high clouds. This presented a serious problem. Sweeney’s orders were to drop the bomb only after visual sighting of the aiming point — the center of the old city, east of Nagasaki Harbor. Now, however, a visual sighting would likely require numerous passes over the city, which was no longer possible due to fuel loss: Not only had a fuel transfer pump failed before takeoff, rendering six hundred gallons of fuel inaccessible, but more fuel than expected had been consumed waiting at the rendezvous point and while circling over Kokura.
Bockscar now had only enough fuel to pass over Nagasaki once and still make it back for an emergency landing at the American air base on Okinawa. Further, Sweeney and his weaponeer, Navy commander Fred Ashworth, knew that not using the bomb on Japan might require dumping it into the sea to prevent a nuclear explosion upon landing. Against orders, they made the split-second decision to drop the bomb by radar.
Air raid alarms did not sound in the city — presumably because Nagasaki’s air raid defense personnel did not observe the planes in time or did not recognize the immediate threat of only two planes flying at such a high altitude. When antiaircraft soldiers on Mount Kompira finally spotted the planes, they jumped into trenches to aim their weapons but didn’t have time to fire; even if they had, their guns could not have reached the U.S. planes.
Several minutes earlier, some citizens had heard a brief radio announcement that two B-29s had been seen flying west over Shimabara Peninsula. When they heard the planes approaching, or saw them glistening high in the sky, they called out to warn others and threw themselves into air raid shelters, onto the ground, or beneath beds and desks inside houses, schools, and workplaces. A doctor just about to perform a pneumothorax procedure heard the distant sound of planes, pulled the needle out of his patient, and dived for cover. Most of Nagasaki’s residents, however, had no warning.
By this time, the crews on both planes were wearing protective welders’ glasses so dark that they could barely see their own hands. Captain Kermit Beahan, Bockscar’s bombardier, activated the tone signal that opened the bomb bay doors and indicated 30 seconds until release. Five seconds later, he noticed a hole in the clouds and made a visual identification of Nagasaki.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” he yelled. He released the bomb. The instrument plane simultaneously discharged three parachutes, each attached to metal canisters containing cylindrical radiosondes to measure blast pressure and relay data back to the aircraft. Ten thousand pounds lighter, Bockscar lurched upward, the bomb bay doors closed, and Sweeney turned the plane an intense 155 degrees to the left to get away from the impending blast. Read more