It was an unfathomable decision to make. The president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, was presented with a way to possibly end the war in the Pacific which would have dire consequences for thousands or even millions of people. What was worse was that if he chose the lesser of the two evils, it could not guarantee that the war in the Pacific would come to an end. The problem was how to bring about the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan, and the options were to strike with an atomic weapon or to begin setting the stage for a massive Allied invasion that would dwarf the Overlord landings and could cause millions of casualties.
The culmination of the efforts presented in the Manhattan Project had come to fruition with the demonstration in the Trinity test on the morning of 16 July 1945. Much deliberation had been taken as to who would be present for the test. At one point, the War Department had even considered including Japanese officials to demonstrate the destructive capabilities the U.S. now had in it’s possession. This had been scrapped due to worry about possibly failed tests and the suspicion that unless it was demonstrated in full carnage, it would not be appreciated.
Target selection had already been completed by May of 1945, with Kyoto being swapped in favor of Nagasaki at the end of July. Each target had some various form of military significance ranging from headquarter locations to industrial capabilities. Planning and preparations for the attack were complete by 26 July with the U.S.S. Indianapolis’ arrival at Tinian’s North Airfield in the Marianas. In the following days, the U.S. would urge the Japanese to surrender numerous times, including dropping warning leaflets across Kyushu and Honshu.
While hopeful for a rapid resolution through a show of force, the United States was fully aware of the dedication of the Japanese. At the same time the U.S. was planning the atomic strikes—Operation’s Centerboard and Centerboard II—military planners and strategists were also grappling with the massive D-Day landings associated with November’s Operation Downfall. This operation however, was cancelled.
On the morning of 6 August 1945, seven B-29’s took off from North Field and made their way towards to Hiroshima. An air raid siren blasted at 0605 over the city, before an all clear followed at 0719. At 0815, MAJ Thomas Ferebee released Little Boy from the Enola Gay’s bomb bay. Forty-four seconds later, the bomb detonated 1,900 feet above the city of Hiroshima over the Shima Surgical Clinic. With the first bomb deployed and all aircraft safely accounted for, the U.S. ratcheted up it’s rhetoric on unconditional Japanese surrender and prepared for a second atomic bombing run.
Finally, on the morning of 9 August, a formation of six B-29’s took off from Tinian bound for Kokura. However, a delay in arrival coupled with smoke from a large firebombing campaign the night before nearby left the crew of the Bockscar needing to opt for the secondary target of Nagasaki. Like in the Hiroshima bombing, an air raid siren sounded in Nagasaki at 0750, but was followed by an all clear at 0830. The Japanese spotted the instrument carrier and the strike package B-29 at 1053, but ignored them in presumption that they were on a reconnaissance mission. Minutes later at 1101, enough of a break in the clouds allowed CPT Kermit Beahan to drop the Fat Man bomb from Bockscar. The bomb detonated 1,650 feet above a tennis court between two major military industrial targets.
In the days that followed, the U.S. military continued numerous incendiary and firebombing campaigns. However, by 11 August the Japanese had openly approached the U.S. to begin negotiations for a peace treaty. By the time the Japanese surrendered on 15 August, a third bombing target had been selected, and planning for Downfall was close to completion (which included the use of tactical atomic bombs—up to eight).
Death rates from the blast vary between ~130,000 to ~230,000, and subsequent deaths from radiation have occasionally been disputed. In comparison, D-Day estimates from Downfall were anticipated to be between 1.6 and 2.2 million deaths, with as many as 17 million by the end of 1947. The war had finally come to an end...
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