Harry Truman took over as the US President on 8th May 1945 after Franklin D Roosevelt succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage earlier that day. Truman was not close to the late president and one item of information passed to him must have been pretty shocking. The USA had just produced the world’s first atomic bomb.
These days we all know what nuclear weapons are, but I wonder if the truth about this deadly weapon sunk into Truman when he first heard it. At the time the US and its allies were faced with organising an invasion of Japan which had declined all offers to surrender and so Truman had to take a long hard look at the alternative.
The atom bomb had been created by the top-secret Manhattan project based in Los Alamos headed by Robert Oppenheimer. Two types of bomb had been devised, one code named Little Boy and another more complicated but also more powerful design, Fat Boy. Colonel Paul Tibbets of the US Air Force was tasked to put together a combat group able to deliver the bombs to their targets on the Japanese mainland. The 509th Composite Group was created in December 1944 and the group began training with specialist bombardiers to drop the bombs.
A committee was organised to choose the bombing targets and the result included five possible cities; Kokura (now Kitakyushu), Hiroshima, Yokohama, Niigata, and Kyoto.
Prior to the bombing of Japan, leaflets had been dropped on the population warning them of the attacks and to leave the cities. The leaflet dropping was suspended prior to the atom bombs for the same reason that the US did not attempt a demonstration bombing. They wanted to shock the population into surrendering and it was also possible that the bomb, being an entirely new device, might fail or just not explode.
Truman noted this in his diary: This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Secretary 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 [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.
On the 6th August 1945 Colonel Paul Tibbets took off in an aircraft named after his mother, Enola Gay and began his mission. Ahead of him was another aircraft for weather reconnaissance and behind him was another to film the resulting explosion.
It was a bright sunny morning when Tibbets started his bomb run and then passed control to his bombardier, Major Thomas Ferebee. The bomb was released at 08:15 in the morning and according to Wikipedia, Little Boy took 44.4 seconds to fall from the aircraft flying at about 31,000 feet to a detonation height of about 1,900 feet above the city Enola Gay travelled 11.5 miles before it felt the shock waves from the blast.
The bomb detonated directly over the Shima Surgical Clinic. The radius of total destruction was about 1 mile with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles
Enola Gay stayed over the target area for two minutes and was ten miles away when the bomb detonated. Only Tibbets, Parsons, and Ferebee knew of the nature of the weapon; the others on the bomber were only told to expect a blinding flash and had been issued with black goggles. They must all have been shocked by the nature of the blast and the resulting mushroom cloud.
I remember seeing an interview with Paul Tibbets on some old documentary many years ago. He seemed at ease with what he had done. He was an Air Force officer and had followed the orders of his Commander in Chief, the President and seemed content to leave the moral questions with Mr Truman. Truman was of course famous for having a sign on his desk which read the buck stops here!
Down on the ground at Hiroshima, 70,000 people were killed by the blast and the firestorm that followed. Another 70,000 were injured and of course many people died later from either their injures or from radiation. At 7.30 that morning the air raid siren had sounded the all clear so many people were emerging from bomb shelters, although what protection those shelters would have given is debateable. Having said that, some people survived close to the blast who were in reinforced concrete basement buildings.
The Japanese still declined to surrender and only did so after a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. General Curtis LeMay ordered Paul Tibbets to return to the USA to collect another Fat Man bomb although Truman had given strict instructions that only he himself could give orders for them to be used. In any event, the earliest that another bomb could be made ready was the 18th August.
Four years later the Soviet Union exploded their first atom bomb and the USA pressed ahead with the development of the hydrogen bomb, apparently a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. Today, in 2022 nine nations have nuclear weapons although so far the only ones used in anger have been the two used on Japan in 1945.
Has the world come close to nuclear war? Well, the one time that comes to mind was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. President Kennedy stood firm when the Soviets decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba and initiated a naval blockade. Soviet leader Mr Khrushchev backed down but even so, Kennedy was under constant pressure from people like Curtis LeMay to invade Cuba. It has since been revealed that the Soviets in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, which are another name for the class of weapons used on Hiroshima. So if the USA had invaded, things could have ended in tragedy.
I’m not quite sure what set me off on the subject of nuclear weapons. It’s not a cheerful subject so I think I might just lighten things up a little by going from fact to fiction.
A number of cinema films about atomic weapons come to mind. Fail Safe is a film I haven’t seen for years until I caught it recently on TV. A computer error accidentally sends orders to a US bomber detailing them to attack Moscow. Various measures are taken to recall the bomber but all fail. The Soviets are advised and the President must deal with not only this but some of his generals who feel this is a good opportunity to attack the Soviets. Tension runs high throughout the film and Henry Fonda as the President averts a nuclear war but at a terrible price.
Doctor Strangelove is a film with a similar premise but plays as a black comedy. Peter Sellers plays multiple roles as the President, his scientific advisor Doctor Strangelove and a British air force officer.
The Fourth Protocol is a film from the novel by Frederick Forsyth. Both the book and the film build the tension nicely. It is about an attempt by the Soviets to destroy NATO by exploding an atom bomb in the UK and blaming the Americans. Michael Caine is an M15 officer at odds with his new boss when his report about a possible nuclear weapon being built in the UK are ignored. Fortunately, others higher up believe Caine and he is given the tools to track down the Soviet bomber.
I mentioned a few weeks ago about how computer technology can really date a film and another example has to be War Games. It’s another film with green text, floppy discs and dial up internet but actually it’s a pretty good film. A young lad played by Matthew Broderick routinely hacks into internet accounts in his quest for new computer games. He thinks he has found one but unfortunately, the computer at the other end of the phone isn’t playing a game and World War III could be about to start.
When I was a schoolkid, one of my favourite comics was The Incredible Hulk. Scientist Dr Bruce Banner is accidentally exposed to gamma rays during an atomic test. The resulting radiation mutates Bruce into an incredible green skinned giant who becomes known as the Hulk every time Bruce gets angry about something. The tag line for the 1970’s TV series was Bill Bixby as Bruce saying ‘Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.’ In recent years there have been a spate of films based on the comic heroes created by Marvel Comics and The Hulk was of course one of them. They all suffer in my opinion from being heavy on Computer Generated Images and light on everything else although the Hulk sequel, The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner had its moments until it too became top heavy with boring CGI action.
You picked out some fantastic movies (except the Hulk, that wasn’t my thing even though I liked the old TV show). Hope you’re having a good weekend, Steve!
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Yes, wasn’t crazy about the Hulk either. The film started off well then just degenerated into a load of CGI codswallop.
Its been a cold weekend so far in the UK. Hope you’re having better weather over there. Best wishes Priscilla
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