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article number 670
article date 06-22-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
All Brains Together—First to Develop the Atom Bomb, Part 13: The Rush to Bomb Nagasaki, August 9, 1945
by William Laurence, Reporter, New York Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: Most articles written at the time mistake the plane that dropped the Nagasaki bomb as the ’Great Artiste.’ This article can explain the discrepancy. The drop was ordered without full preparation (the ’Great Artiste’ was not ready) and you find later in this article.

EDITOR’S NOTE (continued): ". . . But the name does not appear on the body of the great silver ship, with its unusually long, four-bladed, orange-tipped propellers. Instead it carries the number 77 . . . " Of course the name on the plane is not important. The effect of the mission was to end the war.
* * *

From the 1946 book, Dawn Over Zero.

* * *

As I have already mentioned, our second mission had been planned for August 11, but long-range weather forecasts indicated bad weather conditions beginning on that date that might last for a week or more. It is quite possible, though I have no direct knowledge of it, that the forecast of bad weather came all the way from Potsdam.

Be that as it may, the date for the second mission was advanced by two days.

It was not until the evening of Wednesday, August 8, only a few hours before the scheduled take-off, that I was notified by a messenger from General Farrell that I was to go along on that mission as the official reporter. I had almost given up hope, and was in the act of commiserating with a British scientist, Professor William G. Penny, and two others of the American group, who also had expected to go but had had no official word. We must have startled everyone around us by the whoops with which we received the news.

I shall never forget Major Ferebee’s kindness on that occasion. When he heard that I was going, he took me to the supply room and saw to it that I was properly equipped with the paraphernalia carried by fliers on a B-29.

He lent me his personal survival belt, and showed me how the equipment is used. He went with me to the briefing and from there transported me in his jeep to the flying field, where we all stood around talking of this and that until take-off time.

Before long I found myself sitting on a hard metal box in the cramped quarters of the nose of the B-29. It was 3.30 in the morning, and the night outside was dark and not too promising.

I watched Captain Frederick C. Bock, the pilot of our ship, go through the intricate motions of lifting a B-29 off the ground and marveled at the quiet efficiency of this Michigan boy who had majored in philosophy at Chicago University.

I had talked to Captain Bock on the ground and I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place. Man and machine had become one, a modern centaur. All the nine members of the crew were miraculously synthesized before me into a new entity, of which the machine, with its maze of instruments and mechanical brains, was part of a whole.

I soon heard the whir of the propellers and the roar of the four motors. I was in a chariot drawn by the power of eight thousand horses—eight thousand horses with wings.

The second atomic bomb mission to Japan was on its way.

Fatman, atomic bomb for Nagasaki, on trailer.

* * *

WITH the Atomic Bomb Mission to Japan, Thursday August 9.

We are on our way to bomb the homeland of Japan, in a formation equivalent to 2,000, and possibly 4,000, B-29 Superbombers. Actually our flying contingent consists of only three specially designed B-29’s, and two of these carry no bombs.

But our lead plane, about 3,000 feet directly ahead, is on its way with another atomic bomb, the second in three days, concentrating in its active substance an explosive energy equivalent to 20,000, and under favorable conditions 40,000, tons of TNT.

We have several chosen targets. One of these is the great industrial and shipping center of Nagasaki, on the western shore of Kyushu, one of the main islands of the Japanese homeland.

But we shall not know for certain until about half an hour before bombs-away which one of these will be the actual target. That will depend on the weather reports to be sent to us on conditions over the military and industrial centers selected for the second atomic bombing.

I watched the assembly of this man-made meteor during the past two days, and was among the small group of scientists and Army and Navy representatives present at the ritual of its loading in the Superfort last night, against a background of threatening black skies torn open at intervals by great flashes of lightning.

This atomic bomb is different from the bomb used three days ago with such devastating results on Hiroshima.

I saw the atomic substance before it was placed inside the bomb. By itself it is not at all dangerous to handle. It is only under certain conditions, produced in the bomb assembly, that it can be made to yield up its energy, and even then it gives up only a small fraction of its total contents—a fraction, however, large enough to produce the greatest explosion on earth.

The briefing at midnight revealed the extreme care and the tremendous amount of preparation that had gone into every detail of the mission, to make certain that the atomic bomb fully served the purpose for which it was intended.

Each target in turn was shown on detailed maps and in aerial photographs. Every detail of the course was rehearsed—navigation, altitude, weather, where to land in emergencies.

It transpired that the Navy had submarines and rescue craft, known as Dumbos and Superdumbos, stationed at various strategic points in the vicinity of the targets, ready to rescue the fliers if they forced to bail out.

The briefing period ended with another moving prayer by Chaplain Downey:

"Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night. Guard and protect those of us who venture out into the darkness of Thy heaven. Uphold them on Thy wings. Keep them safe both in body and soul and bring them back to us.

"Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts.

"Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world. May we go forward trusting in Thee and knowing we are in Thy presence now and forever. Amen."

We then proceeded to the mess hail for the traditional early morning breakfast before departure on a bombing mission. For many a brave lad this was the last breakfast.

A convoy of trucks took us to the supply building for the special equipment carried on combat missions. This included the Mae West, a parachute, a lifeboat, an oxygen mask, a flak suit, and a survival vest.

We still had a few hours before take-off time, but we all went to the flying field and stood around in little groups or sat in jeeps, talking rather casually about our mission.

Fatman atomic bomb in pit ready to load into the belly of a B-29 destined to deliver it to Japan.

In command is Major Charles W. Sweeney, of North Quincy, Massachusetts. His flagship, carrying the atomic bomb, is named the ’Great Artiste.’

But the name does not appear on the body of the great silver ship, with its unusually long, four-bladed, orange-tipped propellers. Instead it carries the number 77, and someone remarks that it was Red Grange’s winning number on the gridiron.

The co-pilot of our strike ship is First Lieutenant Charles D. Albury, of Miami, Florida. The bombardier, upon whose shoulders rests the responsibility of depositing the atomic bomb square on its target, is Captain Kermit K. Beahan, of Houston, Texas, who is celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday today. The navigator is Captain James F. Pelt, Jr., of Oak Hill, West Virginia.

The lead ship is also carrying Commander Frederick L. Ashworth of the Navy, the “weaponeer,” and Lieutenant Jacob Beeser, of Baltimore, an expert on air-borne radar.

The other two Superfortresses in our formation are instrument planes, carrying special apparatus for measuring the power of the bomb at the time of explosion, high-speed cameras, and other photographic equipment.

Our Superfort is second in line. In addition to Captain Bock, who comes from Greenville, Michigan, its officer personnel are Second Lieutenant Hugh C. Ferguson, of Highland Park, Michigan, pilot; Second Lieutenant Leonard A. Godfrey, of Greenfield, Massachusetts, navigator; and First Lieutenant Charles Levy, of Philadelphia, bombardier.

On the third B-29, commanded by Major James Hopkins, of Palestine, Texas, are two distinguished observers from Britain, whose scientists were important in the development of the atomic bomb.

One of these is Group Captain C. Leonard Cheshire, famous Royal Air Force pilot, a member of the British Military Mission to the United States. The other is Dr. Penny, professor of applied mathematics at London University, one of the group of eminent British scientists at Los Alamos.

Group Captain Cheshire, whose rank is equivalent to that of colonel in the United States Army Air Forces, was designated as an observer of the atomic bomb in action by Winston Churchill when he was still Prime Minister of Britain. He is now the official representative of Prime Mister Attlee.

We took off at 3.50 this morning and headed northwest on a straight line for the Empire. The night was cloudy and threatening, with only a few stars here and there breaking through the overcast. The weather report had predicted storms ahead part of the way, but clear sailing for the final and climactic stages.

We were about an hour away from our base when the storm broke. Our great ship took some heavy dips through the abysmal darkness around us, but it took these dips much more gracefully than a large commercial airliner, producing a sensation more like a glide than a bump, like a great ocean liner riding the waves, except that the air waves were much higher and the rhythmic tempo of the glide much faster.

I noticed a strange eerie light coming through the window high above the navigator’s cabin, and as I peered through the dark all around us, I saw a startling phenomenon. The whirling giant propellers had somehow become great luminous disks of blue flame.

The same luminous blue flame appeared on the plexiglass windows in the nose of the ship and on the tips of the giant wings. It looked as though we were riding the whirlwind through space in a chariot of blue fire.

It was, I surmised, a surcharge of static electricity that had accumulated on the tips of the propellers and on the dielectric material in the plastic windows. My thoughts dwelt anxiously on the precious cargo in the invisible ship ahead of us. Was there any danger that this heavy electric tension in the atmosphere all about us might set it off?

I expressed my fears to Captain Bock, who seemed nonchalant and unperturbed at the controls. He quickly reassured me. “It is a familiar phenomenon seen often on ships. I have seen it many times on bombing missions. It is known as St. Elmo’s fire.”

B-29 Superfortresses in flight.

On we went through the night. We soon rode out the storm and our ship was once again sailing on a smooth course straight ahead, on a direct line to the Empire.

Our altimeter showed that we were traveling through space at a height of 17,000 feet. The thermometer registered an outside temperature of 33 degrees below zero Centigrade, about 30 below Fahrenheit. Inside our pressurized cabin the temperature was that of a comfortable air-conditioned room, the pressure corresponding to an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Captain Bock cautioned me, however, to keep my oxygen mask handy in case of emergency. This, he explained, might mean either something going wrong with the pressure equipment inside the ship or a hole made through the cabin by flak.

The first signs of dawn came shortly after five o’clock. Sergeant Ralph D. Curry, of Hoopeston, Illinois, who had been listening steadily on his earphones for radio reports while maintaining a strict radio silence himself, greeted it by rising to his feet and gazing out the window.

“It’s good to see the day,” he told me, “I get a feeling of claustrophobia hemmed in this cabin at night.” He is a typical American youth, looking even younger than his twenty years. It takes no mind-reader to read his thoughts.

“It’s a long way from Hoopeston,” I found myself remarking.

“Yep,” he replied as he busied himself decoding a message from outer space. “Think this atomic bomb will end the war?” he asked hopefully.

“There is a very good chance that this one may do the trick,” I assured him, “but if not, then the next one or
two surely will. Its power is such that no nation can stand up against it very long.”

This is not my own view. I had heard it expressed all around a few hours earlier, before we took off. To anyone who has seen this man-made fireball in action, as I had less than a month ago in the New Mexico desert, this view did not seem overoptimistic.

By 5.50 it is light outside. We have lost our lead ship, but Lieutenant Godfrey, our navigator, informs me that we have arranged for that contingency. We have an assembly point in the sky above the little island of Yakoshima, southeast of Kyushu, at 9.10. We are to circle there and wait for the rest of our formation.

Our genial bombardier, Lieutenant Levy, comes over to invite me to take his front-row seat in the transparent nose of the ship and I accept eagerly. From that vantage point in space, 17,000 feet above the Pacific, one gets a view of hundreds of miles on all sides, horizontally and vertically. At that height the vast ocean below and the sky above seem to merge into one great sphere.

I am on the inside of that firmament, riding above the giant mountains of white cumulus clouds, letting myself be suspended in infinite space.

One hears the whir of the motors behind one, but it soon becomes insignificant against the immensity all around and is before long swallowed by it. There comes a point where space also swallows time and one lives through eternal moments filled with an oppressive loneliness, as though all life had suddenly vanished from the earth and you are the only one left, a lone survivor traveling endlessly through interplanetary space.

My mind soon returns to the mission I am on. Somewhere beyond these vast mountains of white clouds ahead of me lies Japan, the land of our enemy.

In about four hours from now one of its cities, making weapons of war for use against us, will be wiped off the map by the greatest weapon ever made by man. In a fraction of time immeasurable by any clock a whirlwind from the skies will pulverize thousands of its buildings and tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

B-29’s dropping conventional bombs on Japan. "We are on our way to bomb the homeland of Japan, in a formation equivalent to 2,000, and possibly 4,000, B-29 Superbombers."

But at this moment no one yet knows which one of the several cities chosen as targets is to be annihilated. The final choice lies with destiny.

The winds over Japan will make the decision. If they carry heavy clouds over our primary target, that city will be saved, at least for the time being. None of its inhabitants will ever know that the wind of a benevolent destiny had passed over their heads.

But that same wind will doom another city.

Our weather planes ahead of us are on their way to find out where the wind blows. Half an hour before target time we shall know what the winds have decided.

Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March on Bataan.

Captain Bock informs me that we are about to start our climb to bombing altitude. He manipulates a few knobs on his control panel to the right of him and I alternately watch the white clouds and ocean below me and the altimeter on the bombardier’s panel.

We reached our altitude at nine o’clock. We were then over Japanese waters, close to their mainland. Lieutenant Godfrey motioned to me to look through his radarscope. Before me was the outline of our assembly point. We shall soon meet our strike ship and proceed on the final stage of our journey.

We reached Yakoshima at 9.12 and there, about 4,000 feet ahead of us, was the ’Great Artiste’ with its precious load. I saw Lieutenant Godfrey and Sergeant Curry strap on their parachutes, and I decided to do likewise.

We started circling. The little towns on the coastline were heedless of our presence. We kept on circling, waiting for the third ship in our formation.

It was 9.56 when we began heading for the coastline. The code messages sent us by our weather scouts and deciphered by Sergeant Curry informed us that both the primary and the secondary targets were clearly visible. The winds of destiny seemed to favor certain Japanese cities that must remain nameless.

We circled about them again and again and found no opening in the thick umbrella of clouds that covered them. Destiny chose Nagasaki as the ultimate target.

We had been circling for some time when we noticed black puffs of smoke coming through the white clouds directly at us. There were fifteen bursts of flak in rapid succession, all too low.

Captain Bock changed his course. There soon followed eight more bursts of flak, right up to our altitude, but this time they were too far to the left.

While most Japanese flak was inaccurate, some B-29’s were hit.

We flew southward down the channel and at 11.33 crossed the coastline and headed straight for Nagasaki about one hundred miles to the west. Here again we circled until we found an opening in the clouds. It was 12.01, and the goal of our mission had arrived.

We heard the prearranged signal on our radio, put on our arc welders’ glasses, and watched tensely the maneuverings of the strike ship about half a mile in front of us.

“There she goes!” someone said.

Out of the belly of the Great Artiste what looked like a black object went downward.

Captain Bock swung around to get out of range; but even though we were turning away in the opposite direction, and despite the fact that it was broad daylight in our cabin, all of us became aware of a giant flash that broke through the dark barrier of our arc welders’ lenses and flooded our cabin with intense light.

After the first flash we removed our glasses, but the light lingered on, a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky all around.

A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail. This was followed by four more blasts in rapid succession, each resounding like the boom of cannon hitting our plane from all directions.

Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth, belching forth enormous white smoke rings.

Next they saw a giant pillar of purple fire, 10,000 feet high, shooting skyward with enormous speed.

By the time our ship had made another turn in the direction of the atomic explosion, the pillar of purple fire had reached the level of our altitude. Only about forty-five seconds had passed.

Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.

At one stage of its evolution, covering millions of years in terms of seconds, the entity assumed the form of a giant square totem pole, with its base about three miles long, tapering off to about a mile at the top. Its bottom was brown, its center amber, its top white. But it was a living totem pole, carved with many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.

12.01 over Nagasaki. Atomic blast in early stages.

Then, just when it appeared as though the thing had settled down into a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet.

The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upward and then descending earthward, a thousand geysers rolled into one. It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that ‘held it down.

In a few seconds the mushroom top had freed itself from its gigantic stem and floated upward with tremendous speed, its momentum carrying it into the stratosphere to a height of about 60,000 feet.

But at that instant another mushroom, smaller in size than the first one, began emerging out of the pillar. It was as though the decapitated monster was growing a new head.

As the first mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flowerlike form, its giant petals curving downward, creamy white outside, rose-colored inside. It still retained that shape when we last gazed at it from a distance of about two hundred miles.

The boiling pillar of many colors could also be seen at that distance, a giant mountain of jumbled rainbows, in travail. Much living substance had gone into those rainbows.

The quivering top of the pillar was protruding to a great height through the white clouds, giving the appearance of a monstrous prehistoric creature with a ruff around its neck, a fleecy ruff extending in all directions, as far as the eye could see.

12.01 over Nagasaki. Atomic blast with mushroom top.

* * *

We are now on our way to Okinawa to refuel. Our fuel supply is quite low, but with good luck we should have enough to get us there.

We are much concerned, however, about No. 77, the Great Artiste. As the carrier of the bomb, it started with less fuel than we did. We are praying that its gallant men have not been forced down, and that they did not fall into the hands of the enemy.

It has certainly been a nip-and-tuck affair all the way and we are far from being out of the woods yet. From the time we reached Yakoshima, fate started playing a grim game with us, a fantastic Mephistophelean chess game.

There was at least one occasion on this journey when I said to myself: “Well, old fellow, this may be the last story you’ll ever cover,” and then, to my own surprise, I found myself unperturbed by the thought. If this was to be my last, could anyone wish for a better?

Our troubles at Yakoshima started when the third plane in our group, which was to make the official photographs of the bombing, did not join us within the expected time limit. We circled and circled, endlessly it seemed, around the little island. More than forty-five minutes had passed when our lead ship decided not to wait any longer.

The weather planes, half an hour ahead of us, had signaled good visibility over the primary as well as the secondary target. But here a malevolent destiny had contrived to delay our arrival over that city by more than three quarters of an hour.

When we got to our primary target the weather had changed and thick clouds covered the target. We had located the city by radar, but the orders were to make only a visual drop, which has the advantage of greater accuracy. This meant circling until we found an opening through the clouds over the selected target area.

Round and round in wide circles went the Great artiste. Round and round went our ship close behind. But the city remained hidden from our view. All we needed was a small peephole through the white curtain stretching for miles below us, but the curtain remained impenetrable. Vapor was matched against man’s mightiest weapon.

Aerial View: Nagasaki after bombing.

Since what was at stake was the ending of the war as quickly as possible, turning back for another try the following morning might mean prolonging the war by at least one day, and every day the war went on meant the loss of many lives.

And too much time had passed since the weather plane’s report on the visibility over the secondary target. The chances were therefore about even that it was by then no better than over the primary.

The dogged determination with which the lead plane kept circling over the latter indicated a decision that it was wiser under the circumstances to continue to look for an opening over the better of the two targets.

This, of course, could go on only until a certain level of the fuel supply was reached. If at that point no opening came, we would have to try our luck with the secondary target.

It was while we were still circling over the primary that the Japs opened fire. They seemed to be aiming at us rather than at the lead plane. Several bursts came pretty close. By that time we were making our third run over the target and had flown over the Empire for about two hours.

Just after we had got out of the range of the flak, we noticed a squadron of twenty-one Jap fighter planes emerging from the clouds, spiraling upward toward us. Thinking of these Jap fighter planes in retrospect, they seem more dangerous than they did during those moments when they were actually threatening us.

Death seems to recede in time the closer one comes to it in space. Conversely, it seems to recede in space the closer one comes to it in time. That is why, as one grows older, one gradually learns to accept the fact of approaching death with equanimity.

Nagasaki. Reinforced concrete chimney one-fourth mile from explosion. This stack was approximately 100 feet high and 8 feet in diameter.

We had surmised that a shortage of gasoline and the approach of the Jap fighter planes had led Major Sweeney and Commander Ashworth to proceed to the secondary target.

A careful check of our fuel supply indicated that Major Sweeney had only enough gasoline for one run on the target, and that if the bomb was not dropped, thus lightening the load, there would not be enough fuel left to take him back to Okinawa, which was to be used as the emergency landing field.

We soon lost sight of the fighters. Either their range was short, or they turned back because they believed they had accomplished their mission by chasing us off an important military target.

Since we had been circling over that city for a long time without dropping any bombs, and since our formation consisted of only two planes, they may have believed that our mission was merely for reconnaissance. The lesson of Hiroshima had apparently not yet sunk in.

On we went to Nagasaki, a prayer in everyone’s heart for a change in luck. Our radar soon told us that we were approaching the city, and the nearer we came, the greater grew our dejection. Our nemesis had got there ahead of us. Nagasaki, too, was hidden under a curtain of clouds.

Would we drop the bomb by radar if we could not find an opening on the first and only possible run, and thus risk being ‘way off the mark, or would we continue looking for an opening until we had only enough gas left to reach our naval rescue craft in Japanese waters?

Maybe we would go even farther—keep on looking for an opening until the last drop and then bail out over enemy territory. What were the misfortunes, or lives, of a handful of men in two B-29’s against the chance of shortening the war by several days?

Like my friend Luiz Alvarez, I had an AGO (Adjutant General’s Office) card on my person specifying that it was “valid only if captured by the enemy,” and informing the enemy that I was entitled to the privileges of a colonel. I said to myself: “Any minute now you may become a colonel!”

It was up to Major Sweeney and Commander Ashworth to make the decision, and they would have to make it fast. I could almost hear them discussing the matter quietly at that very moment. In that plane ahead of us two brave men were just then weighing our fate, and their own, in the balance. And knowing that they were men of stout heart and resolute courage, I felt I knew what their decision would be.

We were then approaching the end of the first run. In a few minutes we would know the answer. The clouds below were still as impenetrable as ever.

And then, at the very last minute, there came an opening. For a few brief moments the city of Nagasaki stood out clearly in broad noontime daylight. They were Nagasaki’s last brief moments under the sun.

Our watches stood at noon. The seconds ticked away. One, two, three. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty. Fifty. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine—

It was 12.01 over Nagasaki.

Nagasaki. Industrial valley over which bomb was exploded.
Nagasaki. Riveted steel stack toppled over by explosion one-half mile away. Note broken anchor bolts.

After we had circled the area that a little while before had been the site of the city of Nagasaki, we headed south for Okinawa, carefully husbanding our precious fuel. When we reached the coast we had flown over the Empire for fully three hours and seventeen minutes, longer by far than any other mission over the land of the enemy.

We landed in Okinawa this afternoon, our tanks nearly empty, and there, to our great relief, was No. 77. On landing, two of its motors stopped dead halfway down the runway for lack of fuel.

When approaching Okinawa, Major Sweeney had signaled that he was coming in for an emergency landing without circling the field. To get immediate clearance be sent down the proper flare, which, however, failed to work.

So his crew shot off all the flares in the B-29 vocabulary, including the one signifying “wounded aboard.” They were met by all the emergency paraphernalia and personnel on the field—ambulances, crash wagons, doctors, Red Cross workers, and priests.

While we were refueling we learned that Russia had this day entered the war against Japan.

We landed at our base camp at 10.25 tonight and found that General Farrell, Colonel Tibbets, and their staffs had been sweating it out on our account for many anxious hours.

Whereas they had received first word from the Hiroshima mission five minutes after it was due, hours had gone by without hearing a word from us. In fact, the first message they had received was from the photographic plane, which had lost us. It wanted to know whether No .77 had “aborted,” meaning whether it had been forced down.

“We could only pray,” General Farrell said, “that if it had aborted, it had dropped into the ocean rather than on Japan. We didn’t feel our people were particularly welcome in Japan at that time.”

They went to luncheon (General Farrell promptly lost his), then returned to the communications center and sweated it out some more. Time dragged on. Then shortly after noon they heard the instruments click and words of the operator:

“Stand by for a message from No. 77!”

Nagasaki. Life goes on in ramshackle shanties built out of rubble.
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