“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.
The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these were the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, on witnessing the world’s first successful nuclear test.
The project began with a letter from physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”. The “Trinity” test culminated in the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equal to the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.
President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, Harry Truman immediately sworn in, as the new President. Ten days later he was fully briefed on the Manhattan project, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.
Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. To deploy an atomic bomb.
The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.
So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy” as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named for the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant. Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.
Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar” was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.
Three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.
Kokura was the primary target on this day in 1945, but local weather reduced visibility. Bockscar crisscrossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop. Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, while Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on Japanese fighter direction radio bands.
In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.
The 10,000-pound, 10-foot 8-inch weapon was released at 28,900-feet. 43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650-feet, a circle of 64 detonators simultaneously exploded, compacting a plutonium ball and combining separate hearts of beryllium and polonium thus ejecting hordes of neutrons into the supercritical mass. Nuclei within countless fuel atoms were thus split in a cascading effect known as induced nuclear fission, exploding outward with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000. 70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.
Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.
Nazi Germany was in fact working on a nuclear weapon, though the program never made it past the experimental stage. That one critical failure put the Third Reich behind in the arms race. How different would the world be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas, painted on their sides.