The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima, Plus 76 years

Seventy five years ago today the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy gun-type atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people died, sources vary.

It has been a now 11 year and counting tradition of the Chicagoboyz blog to commemorate this bombing and the events immediately after.  Today’s post will speak of the anniversary and share forgotten history from before & after the event.  Per the wikipedia article:

The bomb was dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., commander of the 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Forces and Captain Robert A. Lewis. It exploded with an energy of approximately 15 kilotons of TNT (63 TJ) and caused widespread death and destruction throughout the city.

This act set in motion historical events that lead to the surrender of Imperial Japan, the start of the nuclear age and the Cold War with the Soviet Union that ended in 1989.  Yet for all of the event’s importance we, seventy six years, on know less about it’s real history than the myths that arose in Cold War propaganda afterwards.

Enola Gay: The Story of the Most Historic Boeing B-29

The fully restored in 2003 B-29 Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

To begin with, Hiroshima was very much a military target.   The Imperial Japanese Army’s Second Army headquarters and staff were destroyed as an organization by Little Boy in Hiroshima.[1]  It was the second most important headquarters in the home islands. It was in charge of defending all of western and southern Japan from American invasion.  Only the First Army in Tokyo was higher  in the Japanese Army and the First was responsible for upper Japan.  The Second Army’s destruction crippled preparations for the Japanese defense of Kyushu from the impending American “Operation Olympic” assault.

Little Boy - Wikipedia
The “Little Boy” fission bomb was a “gun-type” atomic bomb that detonated with 15 kilotons of force. It was a far more aerodynamic bomb, and hence more accurate, than the “Fat Man” bomb that destroyed Nagasaki on 9 Aug 1945.

Second Army H.Q. operations center with, all the planning documents, was very close to the hypocenter of the Little Boy detonation. While Garrison troops at Mount Futaba, manning the main H.Q. survived in a badly damaged building. The staff officers planning the Second Army defense of Kyushu at the operation center all died when the bomb hit.  [2]

Nor was that the only major military installation of strategic importance destroyed in Hiroshima.

Hiroshima fell into the area the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) controlled after the Japanese surrender.  To them fell the responsibility of demilitarizing Japanese forces there, including the IJA’s chemical weapons.  Okunojima island in Hiroshima prefecture was one of the major production facilities for IJA chemical agents and the BCOF conducted “Operation Lewisite” to dispose of these munitions.  [3]  The report stated, among other things:

 “ 8. Moto Machi Depot in Hiroshima City was an Army Supply Depot to which vesicants were shipped in 200 kg containers from the Tadanoumi Factory. This installation was destroyed by the atomic bomb. No records of its activities are available in Hiroshima Prefecture. One 200 kg container of mustard gas was removed from these premises on 9 Sept 1946. This container is believed to have survived the atomic bomb burst because it was stored two feet below the earth’s surface. The container was ruptured, allowing vapours to escape, which led to discovery of same. [4]

and from slightly later in the report:

 As clearly stated in item (8) of the above, the Army Installation in the central part of Hiroshima to which vesicants (Yperite and Lewisite) had been shipped had been destroyed by the atomic bombing. Judging from these findings it may be possible that some chemical weapons were released to the environment from the military facilities on ground at the time they were destroyed by the atomic bombing and the survivors were exposed to P-11-206 5 poison gases to a smaller or larger extent. There was no drinking water and they had to drink rain water which fell heavily soon after the atomic bombing. It is highly possible that the rainwater was also contaminated by various toxic substances including chemical weapons. These effects combined with the irradiation by atomic radiation are difficult to quantify accurately at present, many years after atomic bombings. But if all these adverse effects were ascribed solely to the ionizing radiation, the effects of radiation may be overestimated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In using the Hiroshima and Nagasaki data for establishing radiation standard in peaceful uses of atomic energy, we should keep these possibilities of over-estimation in mind. According to Mr. Hatsuichi Murakami , ex-director of the Okunojima Chemical Weapons Museum, soon after the atomic bombing, some chemical weapons leaked into the sea from the facility on Okunojima and many fish were dead and floating on the water and washed to the shore. Normally, such contaminated dead fish are not consumed, but because of the extreme shortage of food at that time they were distributed in Hiroshima Prefecture. What effects it might have had is difficult to estimate (23)

So let be clear on something here based upon the above. The atomic destruction of various wartime facilities in Hiroshima released various toxic substances, mutagenic or carcinogenic agents such as benzopyrene, heavy metals, chemical warfare agents and other radioactive substances. The collapse of food & water distribution meant Hiroshima survivors were drinking heavily contaminated water and eating fish kills from that contaminated water. [5]

The Japanese government has been counting everyone who died promptly after the bombing and anyone dying of cancer since then as being killed by the atomic bomb. Yet someone who had their insides burnt out via ingested lewisite contaminated fish absolutely did not die from the atomic bomb.  Nor did someone who got cancer from non-radiation chemical poisoning.

We cannot and will never know with certainty how many people in Hiroshima died of radiation poisoning or from radiation caused cancer.

Such is the reality of “Fog of War,” even seventy six years after the event.


Note & Sources:

[1] Page 426 in Stanley Weintraub’s, THE LAST GREAT VICTORY: The End of World War II, July/August 1945, Dutton Adult; 1st edition (July 1, 1995) ISBN-10:‎ 0525936874, ISBN-13:‎ 978-0525936879

[2] Page 431, Weintraub, THE LAST GREAT VICTORY

[3] Disposal Report, Chemical Munitions, Operation Lewisite, BCOF OCCUPATION ZONE JAPAN, 8 May 1946 to 30 November 1946.

[4 ] My research partner Ryan Crierie found that quote from the BCOF report on-line via a posting from Prof. Yoshiaki Yoshimi of Chuo University in Tokyo in December 2019.

[5] Y. Nishiwaki, H. Kawai, N. Shono, S. Fujita, H. Matsuoka, S. Fujiwara, and T. Hosoda, “Uncertainties under Emergency Conditions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and Bikini Accident in 1954” 1 Institut für Medizinische Physik, Universität Wien, Vienna, Austria; 2 Atomic Energy Research Institute of Kinki University, Osaka, Japan; 3 Hiroshima Jogakuin University, Hiroshima, Japan; 4 Department of Statistics, Radiation Effects Research Foundation, Hiroshima, Japan; 5 Earth Simulator Research and Development Center, Japan Atomic Energy Research

[6] The link below is to a list of all previous Chicagoboyz columns on this subject:

Happy VJ-Day, Plus 75 Years.


17 thoughts on “The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima, Plus 76 years”

  1. My Grandfather served in WWI with Harry Truman (Field Artillery). Their only big battle was the Meuse Argonne. They went into battle in late September 1918 only 6 weeks before armistice day. The battle was tough one with the Germans putting up fierce resistance. Truman, who was a Captain, later said he was most proud of getting through without losing a man. Imagine battle deaths so close to the end of the conflict!
    Truman must have been thinking the same way when he authorized use of the A bomb. The war had to end and end as soon as possible. The A bomb saved both allied and Japanese lives.

  2. Honor where due, but Captain Harry was in the Field Artillery. Gunners could and did die, but it was almost always the PBI who were slaughtered–by artillery.

    According to my ever-handy Army Almanac (GPO, 1950), some 10k US Army cannoneers were wounded, and 1100 KIA from April 1917 to Dec 1918. The same figures for Infantry are 195k and 34k. Third were Engineers (7500/900).

    His and your grandfather’s division was the 35th, which had battle deaths of 1300 and wounded not mortally 6000, which pretty much puts them in the median of US Army divisions in combat in WWI. (No losses by arm easily found–by me anyway.)

    I’m sure my suggestions are nothing new to this group, but Richard Frank’s “Downfall” is a great history, and Paul Fussell’s Thank God for the Atomic Bomb is a great memoir.

    Cousin Eddie

  3. Some interesting numbers I dug out a few years back:

    Hiroshima — population in 1945 pre-bombing – 343,000; population recently 1,199,000; population has more than tripled, despite the aftermath of the bombing.

    Nagaskai — population in 1945 pre-bombing 260,000; population recently 500,000; population has about doubled since the bombing.

    Detroit — population in 1945 1,736,000; population now 700,000; a million people exited the city – no bombing required.

    Left wing government is less dramatic than nuclear bombing. But, given time, it creates much more permanent damage.

  4. Far be it from me to doubt the wisdom of dropping the bomb. One of my grandfathers hadn’t yet finished his service time, so was shipped from Europe back to the States, across the country to the West Coast, to prep for the invasion. I’m certainly not going to wish things had happened differently, if those guys didn’t.
    That being said, I think that the fear of nuclear annihilation was a further factor along with the depression and the war in “the greatest generation” basically dropping the ball in raising their kids. We blame the baby boomers for so much, but their parents, as a whole though not all as individuals, really checked out after all that trauma…

  5. I have recently been cleaning out the piles of stuff in my basement. I found some papers from my father’s service during WWII. One item I found was a copy of ship’s bulletin dated August 15, 1945. It was the transport he was on crossing the Pacific. It announced the end of the war. They took him to India where he spent 9 months doing paperwork.. He came home in 1946. he had married my mother in August 1944. I was born on 1947. I guess I owe my life to the bomb.

  6. My dad was a Chinese immigrant in a time when Chinese were very literally not legally considered human beings. Up until 1943 when the law changed and we became people [there is a very long story behind that] even though he was not considered human under American law, he was a food service supervisor at Lowry Army Air Force Base in Denver. He was also 30 years old when we “became” people. Which is awful old to start being an infantryman. Despite being overage and in a thoroughly draft deferred job, he enlisted.

    Ended up in the 71st Infantry Division under Patton. His company went the farthest east of any army unit in Europe. A couple of days before the German surrender, they liberated the last concentration camp in German hands [Gunzkirchen subcamp of Matthausen]. His unit was scheduled to be returned to the US, re-equipped with more modern equipment, and deployed to invade Japan. I suspect that the dropping of the atomic bombs saved his life, and made me possible some years later.

    Incidentally, he was granted citizenship based on his military service. I did it the easy way, being born here.

    Subotai Bahadur

  7. Very interesting stories. One false note in the great George MacDonald Fraser memoir of his service with the PBI in Burma is near the end, when he says that if he and his mates had known how awful the A-Bomb was they might have preferred to keep fighting the old way. I don’t buy it. (Quartered Safe Out Here).

    My father was a late-war bomber pilot in the Med. Among his photo scrapbooks are a couple of him and some fellow officers at the Pyramids–he has them all identified but the only name I recall is Wong, who is Chinese-American. Clearly.

    I’m a Boomer, and I’d put my money on the Greatest Gen against whatever young people today think they’ve accomplished.

    Cousin Eddie

  8. I’m not noticing the ritual prostrations and rending of garments seeking forgiveness that I’ve seen before. Has it actually reduced or have I managed to cut myself off from the purveyors of such guff?

    My father too was in line for the big show. Ironically, he latter had a minor role in the decision to keep the Japanese films of the Bataan Death March classified to avoid unpleasant friction with our new allies in the Great War against communism.

  9. A friend of mine was an Army pathologist in Korea. They deal with a number of diseases endemic to Korea. One was Korean Hemorrhagic Fever. It turns out that the Japanese had done experiments on POWs and learned quite about this disease. All records of the war crime level experiments were suppressed after the war, just as the poison gas info was. He said a lot of GIs died because we did not have that information.

  10. After basic training, in 1944 my dad was assigned to an Engineering Maintenance Company at Camp White, Oregon. From there they were shipped to California, issued tropical gear, then boarded a train without being told their destination. The train’s windows were covered on the outside and they were forbidden to uncover the windows or get off the train. Several days later they found themselves in New Jersey. None of them knew what was going on but he surmised that it was a ruse to throw off Japanese spies. Shortly after they made the 15-day crossing to England then D-Day+3.

  11. The experiments I’ve heard of in the German concentration camps were childishly crude. The Japanese programs like Unit 731 were much more systematic and, if anything, more monstrous.

  12. @Timbotoo– yes, but doesn’t he conclude that it was wrong and fighting on might have been an acceptable option? I only recall that much because it was against a strong current of veterans’ apologia. (Don’t get me wrong. The A-Bombs did the job, and none of the alternatives offered a quick decision.)

    The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were victims of militarist racists. In Tokyo.

    Cousin Eddie

  13. I think it takes a very ahistorical view to condemn the nuclear attacks.
    Sadly, context rarely matters in the 21st century.

  14. 2 comments on an excellent post

    1 look at photos of Tokyo after the February bombings. The look at Hiroshima. Now decide which city was more thoroughly destroyed. I think it’s a tie.

    2 I think everyone should read Paul fussell’s essay “thank God for the atomic bomb”

    The “thank God…” title cones from William Manchester’s book “goodbye darkness”

    After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—a staggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese—and you thank God for the atomic bomb.

    Manchester had been severely wounded and was still on Okinawa on Aug 6

  15. I wonder if forcing Japan’s surrender without an A-bomb
    would have been possible with better strategy earlier in
    the war. Specifically, if the Allies prioritized the destruction
    of the Japanese merchant fleet.

    Only 4% of carrier air sorties were made against this target,
    yet this sank 16% of them, torpedoes were lousy for much
    of the war, there were limited number of submarines built,
    and surface ships never really targeted it.

    It seems that instead of using huge amounts of resources on
    duplicate Central & SW Pacific offensives, a single axis of
    advance plus a massive offensive against Japan’s supply lines
    could have strangled that country much faster.

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