August 6, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, an archives technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
Two American atomic bombs ended World War II in August 1945, and the devastation will be forever remembered. In an instant when the first bomb was dropped, tens of thousands of residents of Hiroshima, Japan were killed by “Little Boy,” the code name for the first atomic bomb used in warfare in world history.
Scientists developed the technology for the atomic weapon during the highly classified project code-named “The Manhattan Project.” U.S. Army Col. Leslie R. Groves oversaw the military’s participation, while civilian scientist Robert Oppenheimer was in charge of the team designing the core details of Little Boy. Facilities for the research were set up in Manhattan, Washington State, Tennessee, and New Mexico. Scientists on the project drew from the earlier work done by physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, both of whom received funding from the U.S. Government in the late 1930s to study enriched uranium in nuclear chain reactions. The enriched uranium-235 was the critical element in creating an explosive fission reaction in nuclear bombs.
The Manhattan Project team agreed on two distinct designs for the atomic bombs. In Little Boy, the first atomic weapon, the fission reaction occurred when two masses of uranium collided together using a gun-type device to form a critical mass that initiated the reaction. In effect, one slug of uranium hit another after firing through a smooth-bore gun barrel. The target was in the shape of a solid spike measuring seven inches long and four inches in diameter. The cylinder fit precisely over the spike as the two collided together creating the highly explosive fission reaction. While the theory of the gun firing concept was not fully tested until the actual bomb dropped on Hiroshima, scientists conducted successful lab tests on a smaller scale that gave them confidence the method would be successful.
The final construction of Little Boy occurred in stages. Various components of the bomb were transported by train from Los Alamos, New Mexico, to San Francisco, California. There, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis shipped the collection of parts to Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean south of Japan, where it arrived on July 26. In order to prevent a catastrophic accident, the target piece of enriched uranium flew separately aboard three C-54 Skymaster transport planes to Tinian Island, where it also arrived on July 26. Upon final assembly, Little Boy weighed 9,700 pounds and measured 10 feet in length and 28 inches in diameter.
Once on Tinian, the officer in charge of Little Boy’s assembly, U.S. Navy Capt. William S. Parsons, decided to forestall the final segment of assembly until the very last moment. He did this in order to prevent a catastrophic accidental detonation caused by an electrical short or crash.
In the early morning hours of August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber named Enola Gay took off from Tinian and proceeded north by northwest toward Japan. The bomber’s primary target was the city of Hiroshima, located on the deltas of southwestern Honshu Island facing the Inland Sea. Hiroshima had a civilian population of almost 300,000 and was a critical military center that included 43,000 soldiers.
The aircraft, piloted by the commander of the 509th Composite Group, Col. Paul Tibbets, flew at low altitude on automatic pilot before climbing to 31,000 feet as it closed in on the target area. At approximately 8:15 a.m. Hiroshima time, the Enola Gay released “Little Boy” over the city. Forty-three seconds later, a massive explosion lit the morning sky as the bomb detonated 1,900 feet above the city, directly over a parade field where soldiers of the Japanese Second Army were doing calisthenics.
Even though the Enola Gay had already flown 11 and a half miles away from the target after dropping its payload, it was rocked by the blast. After the initial shock wave hit the plane, the crew looked back at Hiroshima, and Tibbets recalled that “The city was hidden by that awful cloud . . . boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall.” The force of the explosion was later estimated at 15 kilotons (the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT).
Many Americans viewed the bombing as a necessary means toward an end to the conflict with Japan. When Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was briefed on the bombing, he expressed guarded satisfaction. He, more than any other, understood the power of the weapon he helped produce and the destruction that was unleashed on humanity.
We will never definitively know how many died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima. Some 70,000 people are estimated to have perished as a result of the initial blast, heat, and radiation effects. This included about 20 American airmen who were held as prisoners in the city. By the end of 1945, because of the continuing effects of radioactive fallout and other after effects, including radiation poisoning, the Hiroshima death toll was likely over 100,000. The five-year death total may have even exceeded 200,000, as cancer and other long-term effects are considered.