Primary Source: Bombing Hiroshima

The debate continues seventy-four years later.

Noel C. Cilker
15 min readAug 6, 2019

Seventy-four years ago today, Colonel Paul Tibbets, piloting the Enola Gay, a B-29 he named after his mother, took off from an airfield on Tinian, a small island in the Northern Marianas. Six other aircraft joined him for weather reconnaissance, scientific measuring, and photographic and video recording. The destination was a six-hour flight away: Hiroshima, an industrial city and manufacturing center for the Japanese military. Should weather interfere, Kokura and Nagasaki were next on the list.

Thirty minutes before arrival, Second Lieutenant Morris Jeppson removed the safety devices, and at 8:15 a.m. local time, Tibbets dropped his payload. At 1,900 feet it detonated. Captain William Parsons, in charge of the mission, said later that “the whole thing was tremendous and awe-inspiring … the men aboard with me gasped ‘My God’”.

It was the first time in history a nuclear device was used on human beings. Less than a month earlier, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of physicists on the Manhattan Project had successfully exploded a test bomb in the New Mexico desert, culminating three years of intense scientific exploration and discovery. The question then became, should this new “superbomb” be used on people?

By July 1945, Japan was in the throes of defeat but hadn’t surrendered. This left incoming president Harry Truman with agonizing options:

  1. Launch a massive land invasion of Japan. This was intensely risky and potentially larger than D-Day in Europe. It all but guaranteed thousands of casualties, if not upwards toward a million military personnel and civilians.
  2. Drop an atomic bomb on an uninhabited location and scare the Japanese into surrendering. But what if the bomb was a dud, or the Japanese moved American prisoners of war to the demonstration site?
  3. Drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city. This would preserve the shock-and-awe quality of the attack and save American soldiers, but thousands of civilians would be killed.

Truman and the rest of war-weary America wanted the war over. What was the best way to do it, and what cost was acceptable to get it done? Keeping in mind that the United States just last week withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, are those reasons and justifications valid today?

The atomic cloud rises 20,000 feet above Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped. (National Archives)

President Roosevelt encourages his Manhattan Project lead.

Three years before Paul Tibbets took off for his target, Brigadier General Leslie Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project, selected J. Robert Oppenheimer, professor at U.C. Berkeley, to lead the secret weapons laboratory. Oppenheimer chose New Mexico as his base and led his team of physicists there to develop the nuclear bomb, culminating with a successful test three years later. President Roosevelt, who was worried about the Nazis developing a nuclear weapon, did what he could to encourage his fledgling, secret organization. On June 29, 1943, the president sent his thanks to Oppenheimer and his colleagues.

My dear Dr. Oppenheimer . . . .

I am writing to you as the leader of one group which is to play a vital role in the months ahead. I know that you and your colleagues are working on a hazardous matter under unusual circumstances. The fact that the outcome of your labors is of such great significance to the nation requires that this program be even more drastically guarded than other highly secret war development. I have therefore given directions that every precaution be taken to insure the security of your project and feel sure that those in charge will see that these orders are carried out. You are fully aware of the reasons why your endeavors and those of your associates must be circumscribed by very special restrictions. Nevertheless, I wish you would express to the scientists assembled with you my deep appreciation of their willingness to undertake the tasks which lie before them in spite of the dangers and the personal sacrifices. I am sure that we can rely on their continued wholehearted and unselfish labors. Whatever the enemy may be planning, American science will be equal to the challenge. With this thought in mind, I send this note of confidence and appreciation.

Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt.

President Truman is informed of the results of the test bomb.

The Manhattan Project was so secretive, not even Harry Truman, President Roosevelt’s vice president, knew of its existence. When Roosevelt died in April 1945 and Truman became President, the new president learned of the weapon and its terrible power, “great enough to destroy the whole world,” he wrote in his diary. Three months later, in the desert of New Mexico, scientists successfully tested the first atomic bomb. On July 25, Truman recorded his thoughts about the immensity of it.

We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.

Anyway we “think” we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling — to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.

President Truman’s diary entry from July 25, 1945. (Truman Presidential Library)

Generals relay the order.

On July 26, 1945, Allied leaders issued the Postdam Declaration, demanding unconditional surrender by Japan. If Japan refused, the Allies threatened “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland”. They did not mention the atomic bomb. When Japan declined to respond, President Truman gave his final approval to use the bomb, writing, “Suggestion approved. Release when ready.” His generals relayed the order.

To: General Carl Spaatz, Commanding General, United States Army Strategic Air Forces

1. The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. To carry military and civilian scientific personnel from the War Department to observe and record the effects of the explosion of the bomb, additional aircraft will accompany the airplane carrying the bomb. The observing planes will stay several miles distant from the point of impact of the bomb.

2. Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff. . . .

General, G.S.C.
Acting Chief of Staff

General Thomas Handy’s letter to General Carl Spaatz authorizing the dropping of the first atomic bomb, July 25, 1945. (Dept. of Defense)

The pilot who dropped the bomb reflects on the morality of it.

Colonel Paul Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In an interview in 1989, Tibbets described waiting for the explosion and the role of morality in warfare.

When the bomb left the airplane, of course we were 10,000 pounds lighter right to start with. That gave me the opportunity to, in terms of the vernacular, roll the airplane over on its side and pull it around in an unusually steep curve for an airplane of that size and at that altitude. We were at 33,000 feet. But I had practiced this time and time again, and understood how to do it. We did just exactly that very thing.

As I made that turn and leveled that airplane out, my tail gunner sitting in the back says, “Here it comes.” Well, he had seen the explosion before we did. He was the only one that could look directly at it. What he said was, “Here it comes,” meaning, “Here comes the shock wave,” and that’s what we wanted. . . .

I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business. I was instructed to perform a military mission to drop the bomb. That was the thing that I was going to do the best of my ability. Morality, there is no such thing in warfare. I don’t care whether you are dropping atom bombs, or 100-pound bombs, or shooting a rifle. You have got to leave the moral issue out of it.

Col. Paul Tibbets in front of the Enola Gay, 1945.

A German-born priest in Hiroshima recounts the aftermath.

At 8:14 a.m. on August 6, at 1,900 feet above the city, the bomb detonated. Father John Siemes, a German-born Jesuit professor of modern philosophy, was teaching in Tokyo’s Catholic University and living in Hiroshima. He recorded what he saw in the immediate aftermath.

August 6th began in a bright, clear, summer morning. About seven o’clock, there was an air raid alarm which we had heard almost every day and a few planes appeared over the city. No one paid any attention and at about eight o’clock, the all-clear was sounded. . . .

Suddenly — the time is approximately 8:14 — the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light. As I make for the door, it doesn’t occur to me that the light might have something to do with enemy planes. On the way from the window, I hear a moderately loud explosion which seems to come from a distance and, at the same time, the windows are broken in with a loud crash. There has been an interval of perhaps ten seconds since the flash of light. I am sprayed by fragments of glass. The entire window frame has been forced into the room. I realize now that a bomb has burst and I am under the impression that it exploded directly over our house or in the immediate vicinity. . . .

Hurriedly, we get together two stretchers and seven of us rush toward the city. Father Rektor comes along with food and medicine. The closer we get to the city, the greater is the evidence of destruction and the more difficult it is to make our way. The houses at the edge of the city are all severely damaged. Many have collapsed or burned down. Further in, almost all of the dwellings have been damaged by fire. Where the city stood, there is a gigantic burned-out scar. We make our way along the street on the river bank among the burning and smoking ruins. Twice we are forced into the river itself by the heat and smoke at the level of the street.

Frightfully burned people beckon to us. Along the way, there are many dead and dying. On the Misasi Bridge, which leads into the inner city we are met by a long procession of soldiers who have suffered burns. They drag themselves along with the help of staves or are carried by their less severely injured comrades…an endless procession of the unfortunate. . . .

[The next morning] we find both children and take them out of the park: a six-year old boy who was uninjured, and a twelve-year old girl who had been burned about the head, hands and legs, and who had lain for thirty hours without care in the park. The left side of her face and the left eye were completely covered with blood and pus, so that we thought that she had lost the eye. When the wound was later washed, we noted that the eye was intact and that the lids had just become stuck together. . . .

The heat which rose from the center created a whirlwind which was effective in spreading fire throughout the whole city. Those who had been caught beneath the ruins and who could not be freed rapidly, and those who had been caught by the flames, became casualties. As much as six kilometers from the center of the explosion, all houses were damaged and many collapsed and caught fire. Even fifteen kilometers away, windows were broken. It was rumored that the enemy fliers had spread an explosive and incendiary material over the city and then had created the explosion and ignition. A few maintained that they saw the planes drop a parachute which had carried something that exploded at a height of 1,000 meters. The newspapers called the bomb an “atomic bomb” and noted that the force of the blast had resulted from the explosion of uranium atoms, and that gamma rays had been sent out as a result of this, but no one knew anything for certain concerning the nature of the bomb.

Father John Siemes.

A Japanese doctor remembers the horror and silence.

Dr. Michihiko Hachiya served as the director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital and lived roughly one mile from the epicenter of the blast. He survived and recorded his experience in his diary.

Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me — and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley.

All over the right side of my body I was cut and bleeding. A large splinter was protruding from a mangled wound in my thigh, and something warm trickled into my mouth. My check was torn, I discovered as I felt it gingerly, with the lower lip laid wide open. Embedded in my neck was a sizable fragment of glass which I matter-of-factly dislodged, and with the detachment of one stunned and shocked I studied it and my blood-stained hand.

[Going out to the street] an overpowering thirst seized me and I begged [my wife] Yaeko-san to find me some water. But there was no water to be found. After a little my strength somewhat returned and we were able to go on.

I was still naked, and although I did not feel the least bit of shame, I was disturbed to realize that modesty had deserted me. On rounding a corner we came upon a soldier standing idly in the street. He had a towel draped across his shoulder, and I asked if he would give it to me to cover my nakedness. The soldier surrendered the towel quite willingly but said not a word. . . .

Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Perhaps they had been in the bath. But then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw — complete silence.

Dr. Michihiko Hachiya and his wife Yaeko-san.

Images of Hiroshima before the bomb.

A pre-war photograph of Hiroshima’s vibrant downtown shopping district near the center of town. (National Archives)
Looking toward the Product Exhibition Hall in Hiroshima. The domed building was almost directly below the detonation, which occurred in mid-air, about 1,900 feet above this spot. (National Archives)
The densely built-up area of Hiroshima along the Motoyasugawa, looking upstream. Ground zero of the atomic bomb was upper right in the photo. (National Archives)
Hiroshima Station, between 1912 and 1945. (Kokusho-kankoukai)

Images of Hiroshima after the bomb.

Civilians gather in front of the ruined Hiroshima Station, months after the bombing. (National Archives)
Streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the wreckage. (National Archives)
A Japanese woman and her child lie on a blanket on the floor of a damaged bank building converted into a hospital, October 6, 1945. (Associated Press)
A man views the huge expanse of ruins left after the explosion. (Associated Press)
A survivor’s skin was burned in a pattern corresponding with that of the kimono she’d been wearing at the time of the blast. (National Archives)
A victim of the blast who received severe burns. (Wikimedia)

Video of Truman’s decision and the aftermath.

Video of President Truman, the leadup to his decision to drop the bomb, and the aftermath. (PBS)

The secretary of war defends the drop.

In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed his secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and others to explore nuclear technology and policy. Stimson then took direct control of the Manhattan Project, authorizing project sites, securing money, and appointing its director. When Truman became President upon Roosevelt’s death, Stimson informed him of the project and held many meetings with him discussing its implications. A year and a half after the bombs had been dropped, Stimson gave an interview in the Daily Telegraph about Truman’s decision.

The ultimate responsibility for the recommendation to the President rested upon me, and I have no desire to veil it. The conclusions of the committee were similar to my own, although I reached mine independently.

I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisers, they must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the Empire. Such an effective shock would save many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese, that it would cost. . . .

In March 1945, our Air Force had launched its first great incendiary raid on the Tokyo area. In this raid more damage was done and more casualties were inflicted than was the case at Hiroshima. Hundreds of bombers took part and hundreds of tons of incendiaries were dropped. Similar successive raids burned out a great part of the urban area of Japan, but the Japanese fought on.

On Aug. 6 one B-29 dropped a single atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war was over.

The bomb thus served exactly the purpose we intended. The peace party was able to take the path of surrender, and the whole weight of the Emperor’s prestige was exerted in favour of peace.

In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and avoiding the enormous losses of human life which otherwise confronted us, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson arrives at the White House for a cabinet meeting, August 1945. (National Archives)

The “father of the atomic bomb” speaks on the reality of the atomic age.

In November 1945, three months after the two nuclear bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project lab in New Mexico, returned to his teaching career. Before he left, he gave a farewell speech to his colleagues.

I think that we have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good that it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature, to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature, to learn, to teach, to understand. I think that if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists, we sell out our heritage, we lose what we have most of value for this time of crisis.

But there is another thing: we are not only scientists; we are men, too. We cannot forget our dependence on our fellow men. I mean not only our material dependence, without which no science would be possible, and without which we could not work; I mean also our deep moral dependence, in that the value of science must lie in the world of men, that all our roots lie there. These are the strongest bonds in the world, stronger than those even that bind us to one another, these are the deepest bonds — that bind us to our fellow men.

The mushroom cloud rises over New Mexico after the first successful test of a nuclear weapon, July 16, 1945. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.