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article number 666
article date 05-25-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
All Brains Together—First to Develop the Atom Bomb, Part 12: We Drop One on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945
by William Laurence, Reporter, New York Times

From the 1946 book, Dawn Over Zero.

* * *

From the last article:

As soon as the ’Enola Gay’ and its two companions had taken off, we raced to the communications center . . . No one slept that night. For all we knew, Captain Parsons might not have succeeded in putting the bomb together.

Begin this article:

WE spent agonizing hours through the night. There were many burning questions in our minds, coming in the sort of monotonous, repetitious sequence that one sometimes experiences in a nightmare.

Did Captain Parsons succeed in assembling the bomb? Would the bomb work? Would it live up to expectations?

Would it explode as expected, or would it, God forbid, be a dud, giving our secret away to the enemy?

Would our fliers return safely or would they be forced to bail out in enemy waters?

We remembered what happened to the fliers over Tokyo who fell into enemy hands. The lot of Colonel Tibbets’s fliers would undoubtedly be even worse.

We thought of Captain Parsons and the pistol he had borrowed from Lieutenant Del Genio.

We thought of the four scientists in the group—Professor Alvarez and Professor Bernard Waldman of Notre Dame, brilliant young physicists, and their two graduate-student companions, Lawrence H. Johnston, of Hollywood, who spent à lot of his spare time reading the Bible, and Harold Agnew, of the University of Chicago.

It was a night in purgatory, and as daylight came, the hours dragged along on feet of lead. We all knew what a perfectionist Colonel Tibbets was, and the schedule had called for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, which had been chosen as the primary target, at 9.15, provided the report from the weather plane ahead promised good visibility.

If all went well, we were sure, Colonel Tibbets would reach Hiroshima at 9.15, and by 10 o’clock he should be well out of enemy territory, so that Captain parsons would be able to send General Farrell a message n their code.

And then, exactly at 9.20, came two winged words through the vast distances across the Pacific: “Mission successful!”

On these two words we were transported into the air ourselves. We were flying over Hiroshima, for these two words told us that it was Hiroshima, our primary target, at had been bombed.

Those of us who had watched the test in New Mexico could see the great cloud of fire that we knew was just then rising over the ruins of that city. We were flying back with Colonel Tibbets and his gallant crew, at that time still within range of enemy fIak or fighter planes.

In the barricaded air-conditioned building work went on as usual on the assembly of the second unit for the next mission, scheduled, as stated, for August 11. But the news somehow made the work go faster.

Only in our little island within the larger island, however, could the great story, which I, as a newspaperman, knew was the world’s greatest story, be told. The secret still had to be kept until such time as President Truman announced it to the world, and no one knew when that would be.

B-29 Superfortresses in formation. Years earlier, Albert Einstein predicted that an atom bomb would be too big to deliver, except by ship. The B-29 was able to haul the load.

The 509th communication center was a busy place that morning. Code messages were sent by General Farrell to General Groves for relay to the President, then still at Potsdam; to Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, Commander of the Pacific Strategic Air Forces; to Admiral Nimitz and General LeMay.

Congratulatory messages began coming in a steady stream. In the councils of the mighty, where great decisions were being made, that little island within the tiny island of Tinian became the center of the world.

The news, it is now generally known, hastened Russia’s entry into the war against Japan, at a time when President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee were urging Premier Stalin to come in sooner than the Soviet plans then called for.

Stalin was still holding out for the original date when President Truman told him the news of Hiroshima. Three days later, just as the second bomb was on its way to Nagasaki, Russia was in the war, and two days after that, Japan offered to surrender.

Among the messages came orders from the Chief of staff, General Marshall, to follow the attack with a great barrage of leaflets over Japan urging the Japanese to surrender if they would avoid total obliteration by an avalanche of atomic bombs. Major John F. Moynahan, of Newark, New Jersey, the Public Relations Officer for the 509th, was a busy man that day, preparing texts for translation into Japanese.

As the Enola Gay came nearer to its home base, more detailed messages reached us from Captain Parsons. The news was even better than any of us had dared expect. We knew then that a new day in man’s history had been reached; that no matter what happened, the world we lived in would never be the same again.

Colonel Tibbets flashed word that he would land at three o’clock, and we knew that, coming from Colonel Tibbets, the message meant three o’clock, and not five minutes past. So the officers and men of the crews who were to go on the following missions, the only ones who had been told the secret, gathered early at Colonel Tibbet’s hard-stand (the particular spot on an airfield on which a flier parks his plane) to wait for his arrival.

Shortly before three we saw the Enola Gay approaching from the north. It was a thing of beauty to behold between the blue Pacific and the clear blue sky, its great silver body shimmering in the sun. We glanced at our watches to time its landing.

It was exactly three o’clock on the afternoon of Monday, August 6, 1945, Marianas time. The first successful atomic bomb mission had come to an end after a round-trip flight of 3,000 miles in an elapsed time of twelve hours and fifteen minutes.

As Colonel Tibbets stepped from the Enola Gay, looking even younger than his thirty years, he was greeted by General Spaatz and many other high-ranking officers from Guam and all over the Marianas.

Colonel Tibbets receives the Distinguished Service Cross from General "Tooey" Spaatz.

In the name of the President, General Spaatz pinned the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest medal that could be given without Congressional authority, on Colonel Tibbets’s flying overalls, as his crew stood in line behind him, surrounded by a circle of men who looked upon them as they might on beings who had just arrived from Mars.

The citation read by General Spaatz was in part as follows:

“Flying a B-29 on a daring day strike on Hiroshima, Honshu, carrying for the first time a type of bomb totally new to modern warfare, he successfully dropped his bomb upon reaching the target city,” with the result that “tremendous damage was done to the city.”

This single attack, the citation added, “was the culmination of many months of tireless effort, training and organization unique in AAF history, during which he [Colonel Tibbets] constantly coped with new problems in precision bombing and engineering.”

Washington and Potsdam were calling frantically for more details, and there was no time lost in getting the fliers to the Quonset that served as the 509th Officers’ Club for interrogation. As the fliers were questioned one by one, the story sounded more and more fantastic and awesome, more terrifying than any horror tale in fiction, more like something out of the pages of Dante.

Immediately after the interrogation, at which I took copious notes, I made a beeline for a typewriter. The news, of course, was still top secret, but it was my job to prepare everything I had seen and heard in the form of a news story, give it to Major Moynahan for a preliminary censoring, and then send it to General Groves, who would lock it up in his safe, stamped “Top Secret,” to remain there until the news had been officially announced by the President.

I finished my story that same afternoon and it was forwarded that evening to Guam, whence it was to be relayed to Washington. It was no little shock to me, on returning to Washington a month later, to learn that neither that story nor subsequent stories I had written about Hiroshima had ever reached their destination. What happened I do not know to this day.

Since no complete account of the bombing of Hiroshima has ever been published, I herewith reproduce parts of the original lost story, datelined “An Advanced Air Base in the Pacific, Monday, August 6:

The first atomic bomb ever used in warfare, a small, man-made fireball exploding with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT, dropped from a B-29, today wiped out the great Japanese industrial and military center of Hiroshima.

At exactly 9.15 this morning Hiroshima stood out under the clear blue sky. One tenth of a millionth of a second later, a time imperceptible by any clock, it had been swallowed by a cloud of swirling fire as though it had never existed. The best watches made by man still registered 9.15.

If any air-raid wardens below became aware of the approach of the great silver ship high overhead, they gave no sign of it. No flak. No alarm of any kind. The 400,000 inhabitants of Hiroshima, it appeared, were going about their business as usual.

Generally, our B-29s roamed freely over Japan with little opposition.

The Enola Gay reached the main island of Japan at 8.50 and headed toward its I.P., the initial point of its straight course to the target. It reached this point at 9.11. Major Thomas W. Ferebee, of Mocksville, North Carolina, the bombardier, Captain Theodore J. (“Dutch”) Van Kirk, of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the navigator, and Sergeant Joe A. Stiborik, of Taylor, Texas, the radar operator, here began their final few minutes of co-ordinated teamwork, a job of synchronization fearful and wonderful to contemplate.

The Enola Gay had a four-minute run on a perfectly open target. Major Ferebee manipulated the cross hairs in his bomb-sight until the target was at the intersection between his course line and his rate line. The great moment had come. He synchronized on Hiroshima and let go.

The great bomb-bay doors of the Enola Gay swung open. The inert mass suspended in the interior came to life, freed itself, leaped out. Down toward earth it hurtled until it reached a predetermined point above the ground. There its delicately adjusted mechanisms went into action. Eternal seconds passed.

Those inside the Enola Gay first saw a little pin-point of light, purplish red. In an instant the pin-point grew into a giant ball of purple fire, a half mile in diameter.

The great fireball suddenly exploded into a huge mass of swirling flames and purple clouds. Out of it came gigantic concentric white rings of fog, as though the earth itself was blowing mighty smoke rings.

The mass seemed to hesitate for a brief instant. Suddenly out of the swirling purple clouds came a huge white column of smoke. Up it went, higher, ever higher, until it reached ten thousand feet.

Then came another phase. The ten-thousand-foot column suddenly grew into a giant mushroom, with tremendous clouds of dust swirling about its base for a distance of three miles.

The mushroom kept rising, growing to tremendous heights before the dumfounded eyes of those who watched it from the Enola Gay and the other B-29’s that followed along as instrument and photographic planes. It kept climbing upward until it reached a height of 45,000 to 50,000 feet, breaking into several layers of a creamy white mass with a purplish tinge, distinguishable from the white clouds through which it penetrated.

The Hiroshima blast.

Colonel Tibbets, Major Ferebee, and Captain Lewis forgot in the first instant to put on the colored glasses that had been supplied to each member of the crew before departure. They were blinded by the dazzling light of several suns rolled into one. “Everything just turned white in front of me,” said Colonel Tibbets. “It felt as though a burst of flak had hit you in the face from a distance of thirty feet.”

Along with the flash, one of the two greatest flashes ever seen on earth, came a blast that was heard for hundreds of miles around. It reverberated from the hills surrounding Hiroshima east and west. Both the original blast and the echo hit the Enola Gay and made it tremble, though it was several miles away from the scene by the time the blast reached it.

The men in the Enola Gay could still see the great column of swirling dust and smoke at a distance of more than four hundred statute miles. “It was solid enough to walk on,” one of the crew members said.

Said Captain Robert A. Lewis, co-pilot: “Even when the plane was going in the opposite direction, the flames were still terrific. The area of the town looked as though it was torn apart. I have never seen anything like it—never seen anything like it.

"When we turned our ship we could observe results, there in front of our eyes was without a doubt the greatest explosion man had ever seen. The city was nine-tenths covered with a smoke column that in less than three minutes had reached 30,000 feet.

"We were struck dumb at the sight. It far exceeded all our expectations. Even though we had expected something terrific, what we saw made us feel that we were Buck Rogers twenty-fifth-century warriors.

"The cloud still kept growing larger even after an hour, when we were some 270 miles away from the target. The pillar of smoke had reached 40,000 feet, way above our altitude. It kept changing its weird colors until we lost sight of it.”

Here is how Captain Parsons reported it immediately on his return:

“It was a terrific spectacle. The huge dust cloud covered everything. The base of the lower part of the mushroom, a mass of purplish-gray dust about three miles in diameter, was all boiling—the entire area was boiling.

"A huge white cloud got separated from the top of the mushroom and went upward. Then a second white cloud rose into the air and started chasing the first one. The mushroom top was also boiling, a seething turbulent mass. The mushroom smoke reached our altitude; then another mushroom came up, also very turbulent.

"There was also another column of smoke off to one side, different in character from the main mass, at a forty-five-degree angle from the ground. It looked as though it was coming from a huge burning fire, and seemed to settle back to earth again.

"The purple clouds and flames were whirling around. It seemed as though the whole town got pulverized.

“If the Japs say a meteor has hit them, we can tell them we have more where this one came from.”

B-29 Flight Engineer’s Station.

Before the Enola Gay took off, I asked Captain Lewis to keep a log of the flight for me and he wrote it in the form of a letter to “Mom and Dad” in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Here are some of his entries:

"At forty-five minutes out of our base everyone is at work. Colonel Tibbets has been hard at work with the usual tasks that belong to the pilot of a B-29. Captain Van Kirk, navigator, and Sergeant Stiborik, radar operator, are in continuous conversation (on the interphone), as they are shooting bearings on the northern Marianas and making radar wind runs.

"At 4.20 Dutch Van Kirk sends me word that we will be at Iwo Jima at 5.25, so we’ll just have to check on him to see if he is right.

"The Colonel, better known as “Old Bull,” shows signs of a tough day, with all he had to do to get this mission off. He is deserving of a few winks, so I’ll have a bite to eat and look after “George” (the automatic pilot).

"At 4.30 we saw signs of a late moon in the east. I think everyone will feel relieved when we have left our bomb with the Japs and get half way home. Or, better still, all the way home.

"The first signs of dawn came to us at 5.00 o’clock, and that also is a nice sight after having spent the previous thirty minutes dodging large cumulus clouds.

"It looks at this time (5.51) that we will have clear sailing for a long spell. Tom Ferebee has been very quiet and methinks he is mentally back in the midwest part of old U. S. A.

"It is 5.52 and we are only a few miles from Iwo Jima. We are beginning to climb to a new altitude, at which we will remain until we are about one hour away from the Empire.

"After leaving Iwo we began to pick up some low strata and before very long we were flying on top of an undercast. At 7.10 1he undercast began to break up just a little, but, outside of a high thin cirrus and the low stuff, it is a very beautiful day. We are now about two hours from Bombs Away.

"At 7.30 Captain Parsons has put the final touches on his assembly job. We are now loaded. The bomb is now alive. It is a funny feeling knowing it is right in back of you. Knock wood.

"We started our second climb to our final altitude at 7.40. Well, folks, it won’t be long now.

"We have now set the automatic pilot for the last time until Bombs Away. I have checked with all concerned and all stations report satisfactorily.

"We have reached proper altitude and at 8.30 Dick Nelson (Radio operator, of Los Angeles, California) received a report from the weather plane (that left an hour ahead of us) that our primary is the best target, so, with everything going well so far, we will make a bomb run on Hiroshima right now, as we are now only twenty-five miles from the Empire, and everyone has a big hopeful look on his face.

"It is 8.50. Not long now, folks.

"As we are approaching our primary, Ferebee, Van Kirk, and Stiborik are coming into their own, while the Colonel and I are standing by and are giving the boys what they want."

At this point Captain Lewis jotted down: “There will be a short intermission (in the diary) while we bomb our target.”

The next entry read:

“My God!”

B-29 cockpit.

A reconnaissance mission that flew over Hiroshima five hours after the bombing came back with the report that the city was still hidden under a tremendous cloud of smoke and dust that rose to a height of 45,000 feet.

It was not until twenty-eight hours had passed that the first pictures could be taken. They revealed that Hiroshima had been practically wiped off the map in a manner more devastating than if it had been bit by an earthquake of the first magnitude.

Veteran B-29 pilots who had participated in the largest raids on Tokyo and other Japanese cities, as well as in the great raids in the final stages of the war in Europe, agreed that nothing even approaching the effects of the atomic bomb had ever been observed by any of them. Experienced reconnaissance fliers who had visited scenes of bombing raids soon after they were made reported that never before had they seen a target so completely hidden by smoke and dust five hours following a raid.

Along with preparations to give the Japanese militarists a second taste of atomic bombing, should they fail to heed the lesson of the first, measures were also taken, as I have said, to inform the Japanese people of what was in store for them unless they petitioned their Emperor to end the war.

The following is the text of a leaflet dropped by the millions over Japan:


"America asks that you take immediate heed of what we say on this leaflet.

"We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2,000 of our giant B-29’s can carry on a single mission. This awful fact is one for you to ponder and we solemnly assure you it is grimly accurate.

"We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city.

"Before using this bomb to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, we ask that you now petition the Emperor to end the war.

"Our President has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender. We urge that you accept these consequences and begin the work of building a new, better, and peace-loving Japan.

"You should take steps now to cease military resistance. Otherwise, we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war."

Hiroshima at 9.15: Air view before bombing.
Hiroshima at 9.15: Air view after bombing.

* * *

I WAS in the barricaded, air-conditioned building, early on the morning of Tuesday, August 7, watching the atomists at work on the assembly of the second atomic bomb, when an excited voice over the shortwaves trumpeted the news that President Truman had announced the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

The world’s greatest secret had at last been told.

It was a curious sensation to stand there right at the very heart of things, knowing that all the world was just then being electrified, as it were, with the very energy of the substance a few feet away from the radio. Strangely enough, the men who were just then assembling the bomb, who had been in on the secret for a long time, listened with the eagerness of those hearing a startling piece of news for the first time.

It was shocking at first to hear terms such as “atomic energy,” “uranium 235,” “atomic bomb,” come out openly on the radio. These words had been strictly taboo. They were never uttered even in a whisper.

One always talked about such things in code. There were always animated conversations about “barber shops” and “pigs,” or we called numbers, like a quarterback calling signals, or the letter of the alphabet.

For me the broadcast had an added meaning. The world’s greatest story was being broadcast, and mine had been the honor, unique in the history of journalism, of preparing the War Department’s official press releases for world-wide distribution. No greater honor could have come to any newspaperman, or anyone else for that matter.

More than ten years ago the editor of a popular periodical circulated a questionnaire among newspapermen asking them to conceive an event in the indefinite future that they would consider “the world’s greatest story.” My answer was: “The discovery of means for harnessing atomic energy.” And here I was, watching an atomic bomb being put together. And the day after tomorrow I was expecting to accompany it to Japan to see it in action.

Being close to it and watching it as it was being fashioned into a living thing, so exquisitely shaped that any sculptor would be proud to have created it, one somehow crossed the borderline between reality and non-reality and felt oneself in the presence of the supranatural.

Could it be that this innocent-looking object, so beautifully designed, so safe to handle, could in much less time than it takes to wink an eye, annihilate an entire city and its population?

Could that comparatively little thing produce the flash of many suns and make the earth tremble for many miles?

Hiroshima. Looking east from Red Cross hospital, one mile from explosion.
Damage in Hiroshima.

Even those who had worked with it for many months never got quite used to the awe and wonder of it. The human mind is simply not conditioned to think in such dimensions. You knew it as a fact because your senses told you so; you could explain it on the basis of the Einstein equation as definitely proved by exact laboratory experiments; but it still remained beyond the grasp of one’s comprehension.

This feeling of incredulity was demonstrated some time after the Nagasaki bombing when General Spaatz visited the bomb-assembly building. Dr. Charles P. Baker of Cornell University was showing him and several other high-ranking air officers how the bomb was put together. Among other things he showed them the case in which the active material for the Nagasaki bomb had been carried.

General Spaatz carefully examined the dimensions of the inside of the case. “Of course,” he said, “the atoms in the material carried in here served as a fuse that set off the atoms of the air over Nagasaki.”

“Oh no, General!” said Dr. Baker, somewhat taken aback, “the explosion came entirely from the material carried in this case.”

“Young man,” said General Spaatz, “you may believe it. I don’t.”

The announcement of the news about Hiroshima was indeed welcome to the members of the 509th Group, from Colonel Tibbets down to the ground crews. They had been taking a beating for months about the 509th “winning the war,” and it was now their turn. A long poem, entitled “Atomic Might,” signed by Sergeant Harry Barnard, was mimeographed and widely circulated. Here are some stanzas as samples:

It was the 6th of August, that much we knew,
When the boys took off in the morning dew.
Feeling nervous, sick and ill at ease
They flew at the heart of the Japanese,
With a thunderous blast, a blinding light,
And the 509th’s atomic might.

From out the air the secret fell
And created below a scene of hell.
Never before in time’s fast flight
Has there been displayed such a sight
As the thunderous blast, the blinding light,
Of the 509th’s atomic might.

From pole to pole, around the earth,
Folks now knew of our powerful worth,
With the thunderous blast, the blinding light,
Of the 509th’s atomic might.

The members of the crew of the Enola Gay were, of course, paid particular homage. It was interesting to listen to Major Ferebee, the bombardier, answer questions about how he had dropped the bomb.

His answer would be: “I dropped it exactly thirteen and a half feet northeast of the aiming point.”

Or he would say: “Our orders said to bomb the target at 9.15 a.m. I looked at my watch. It was 9.15. I pulled the release. The bomb hit the target. That’s all.”

Major Ferebee had more than fifty missions over Europe to his credit and was reputed to be one of the best bombardiers in the air forces.

Hiroshima. One mile south of the explosion.
From near at hand, Hiroshima appears as a toy city ruthlessly trampled on.
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