Secrecy, 43 Seconds and Searing Light: The Dropping of Little Boy : War: Ace pilot Tibbets flew a B-29 mission that shook the world and leveled Hiroshima. But it took another A-bomb to convince Hirohito.


It was the lights that first attracted him. All those lights. All those cameramen. And just one plane on the runway.

Very curious, thought Warrant Officer Kizo Imai, a fugitive Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle of Tinian until his countrymen could return and defeat the Americans. Ironic, too. He had helped build this very runway when it was Japanese.

“OK, fellows, cut those lights,” said an officer. “We gotta be going.”

The plane Imai watched on Aug. 6, 1945, was a B-29 named Enola Gay. It had been named for the mother of the 30-year-old pilot, Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets. Tibbets had been air-struck since age 12, when he flew in the back seat of an old barnstormer biplane dropping candy bars as a promotional gimmick.


Now he was flying the world’s second atom bomb to Hiroshima, Japan.

Tibbets, and the plane, had been handpicked. His commandant, Gen. H.H. (Hap) Arnold, called him “the best damned pilot in the [Army] Air Force.” He had led the first U.S. bombing raid in Europe, flown Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to lead the invasion of North Africa and, in September, 1944, was put in command of a mysterious unit called the 509th Composite Group, hidden behind barbed wire and armed guards at the remote Wendover training base on the Utah-Nevada border.

A physics major in college, Tibbets was briefed on atomic fission. But few of the 509th’s 1,700 men knew much except that they flew all over the country and even the Caribbean dropping bulbous 10-ton somethings they called “pumpkins” before making a sharp 155-degree turn and high-tailing it away.

One such dummy bomb knocked a 10-foot-deep hole near Calipatria, Calif., just north of the Mexican border, which was quickly filled by Army bulldozers.

A pilot who flew his B-29 home and showed his father around was promptly exiled to the Aleutian Islands.


The huge silver B-29, shaped like one of Gen. Curtis LeMay’s cigars, had a troubled beginning. Test-flown in 1942, its engines had a tendency to catch fire.

Originally, the B-29s were based in China. They had to make six round trips over the Himalayan “hump” from India to bring in enough fuel for one raid on Japan. The results from high altitude were disappointing.


When LeMay, who had devised tactics in Europe that made U.S. bombers into flying machine-gun nests, took command of the 21st Bomber Command in January, 1945, he changed methods. To the dismay of his crews, he stripped the B-29s of all but the tail gun and sent them off loaded with incendiaries at low altitude. It worked.

Starting March 9 with a fire raid on Tokyo, the planes systematically torched Japan’s wood-and-paper cities. Kobe, the size of Baltimore, was 55% destroyed. Tokyo, 50%; Osaka, 35%; Kofu, 78%; Okayama, Hitachi. . . .

Thirteen million Japanese were homeless, and people were starving on a diet of 1,300 calories a day.

The oil from the Dutch East Indies, Japan’s prize goal in starting the war, had been cut off by the U.S. submarine blockade and the carrier planes of Adm. William (Bull) Halsey. In 1945, Japan managed to produce 11,060 planes but only five tanks. The only arms production to show an increase was of spears.

Japan was defeated but would not quit. The suicidal defense of Okinawa that spring in which a garrison of 100,000 troops was annihilated showed the Japanese would fight to the death in the name of Emperor Hirohito rather than surrender.

Operation Downfall, a two-phase invasion of Japan’s Home Islands under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was to begin Nov. 1.

Eleven Army and three Marine divisions were to land on Kyushu in phase one, Operation Olympic. A second landing, Coronet, on Honshu, would begin Dec. 1. Estimates were 100,000 Americans killed in the two landings alone. MacArthur estimated that if the Japanese took to the hills, guerrilla war would cost 1 million U.S. casualties and take 10 years.

A number of air generals and admirals argued for continuing the blockade until Japan simply collapsed without an invasion.

But the planners in Washington decided the blockade would take too long and had not yet forced surrender in any case. And, besides, there was a new, decisive weapon at hand: the atomic bomb.


Terminal, the last conference of the wartime Allies, began July 16, 1945, in Potsdam, outside Berlin. A major result was the Potsdam Declaration, outlining surrender terms to Japan. It left ambiguous a primary bone of contention, particularly among the Americans: the fate of Hirohito.

The declaration called for “unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces.” The emperor-god head of state was not mentioned. “The alternative,” the declaration went on, “is prompt and utter destruction.” The atom bomb was not mentioned, either.

The Japanese already had sent feelers to Moscow to see if Russia would act as a middleman in peace negotiations. Tokyo did not know Stalin had pledged at the Yalta Conference in February to attack Japan within three months of Germany’s defeat.

Japanese Prime Minister Baron Kantaro Suzuki, whose Cabinet was divided on whether to fight on, replied to the declaration using the word mokusatsu . The Americans interpreted this as “to ignore.” But it could have also been read as “no comment,” which might have hinted at a more compliant response.

But by then the components of Little Boy, a gun-type bomb using Uranium 235, had already arrived at Tinian, the vast B-29 base 1,200 miles south of Tokyo.

Since its capture in 1944, Tinian had become a mammoth fixed aircraft carrier. Its six 10-lane runways could launch a B-29 every 15 seconds. The 509th settled in, surrounded by an air of mystery.

Tail gunner Sgt. Robert Caron of Tibbets’ crew amused himself by stealing lumber from the Officers’ Club to make a porch for his Quonset hut. Flight Engineer Sgt. Wyatt Duzenbury hunted Japanese at night, looking for souvenirs. Navigator Capt. Theodore Van Kirk and Maj. Thomas Ferebee, the bombardier, played poker when not dropping last-minute “pumpkins” into the Pacific.

The Target Committee, headed by Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, who had directed the Manhattan Project that created the bomb, had drawn up a list of cities. The criteria were that it be a military and-or industrial city and one unscathed by bombing so that the effects of a nuclear explosion could be evaluated.

The problem was that much of Japanese manufacturing was scattered piecemeal through residential areas.

The amount of lethal radiation from a bomb was an uncertain quantity to scientists, but the bomb was to go off at 1,850 feet, so, it was believed, it would kill by blast, not rays.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos facility that designed the weapon, figured on 20,000 killed, assuming the populace was in shelters.

Hiroshima, a military town of 280,000 civilians and 43,000 soldiers--and 23 American POWs in the city’s castle--had been hit by two bombs from four carrier planes and once by a single B-29. Four people were killed.

LeMay had intentionally left it unscathed. It was target No. 1, with Niigata and Kokura Arsenal alternates if Hiroshima was unfeasible because of weather. (The bombing would have to be visual, not by radar, to assess the results. On Aug. 4, Nagasaki was subbed for Niigata due to weather.)

The next day, Tibbets summoned the base sign painter from a softball game to paint his mother’s name on B-29 No. 82.

Little Boy was gingerly winched into the bomb bay. It was 10-feet, 6-inches long, 29 inches in diameter and 9,700 pounds, about 92 pounds of it U-235 produced in ounces per day at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Capt. William Parsons, a Navy ordnance expert, had decided to arm the bomb in flight lest it explode in a takeoff crash.

Each man was issued a cyanide capsule. Radar Specialist Lt. Jacob Beser--Little Boy’s trigger was set off by radar transmitters geared to precise altitude--was given the frequencies on rice paper so he could eat them if facing capture.

“All set, Dooz?” Tibbets asked his 32-year-old flight engineer, a one-time tree surgeon who thought the cargo looked like a tree trunk.

“All set, colonel.”

“Dimples eight-two from north Tinian tower,” radioed the traffic controller. “Take off to the east on Runway A for Able.”

At 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets gunned his overloaded bomber.

“I never saw a plane use that much runway,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Farrell, Groves’ deputy on the island. “I thought Tibbets was never going to pull it off.”

In his tail cubbyhole, gunner Caron in his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap asked: “Colonel, are we carrying a chemist’s nightmare?”

“Not exactly,” Tibbets replied.

“How about a physicist’s nightmare?” he asked, taking a wild guess.

“He gave me a really funny look,” Caron recalled, and said: ‘That’s about it.’ ”


Seven B-29s in all made up Operation Centerboard. One was standing by on Iwo Jima, an island captured in February at the cost of almost 6,000 Marine lives, in case Enola Gay broke down. Over Iwo Jima, Tibbets formed into a V as two observer and instrument bombers joined him. Up ahead, three weather planes scouted the targets.

One of the observers was Harold Agnew, a physicist at Los Alamos. He was the only one who also had been present at Enrico Fermi’s historic squash court in Chicago in 1942, when man’s first controlled nuclear reaction produced about enough energy to light a cigarette.

He had come full circle, from spark to bomb.

“I had lost a lot of friends in the Pacific war,” Agnew said. “Some New Mexico National Guardsmen had been on the Bataan Death March. I had a chip on my shoulder.”

Cruising at 205 knots, Tibbets got the weather report for Hiroshima: A 10-mile hole in the clouds over the city. “Advice: Bomb primary.”

Tibbets began climbing. At 31,600 feet, he turned to 264 degrees and slowed to 200 knots. Ahead, clearly visible, was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, Ferebee’s aiming point.

“She’s yours, Tom,” Tibbets said to the bombardier, veteran of 63 combat missions in Europe.

“I’ve got it,” Ferebee replied.

The observer planes veered off. At 0815:17 Ferebee called: “Bomb away!” Co-pilot Capt. Robert Lewis, taking notes, wrote: “There will be a slight intermission while we bomb our target.”

Little Boy first fell broadside, then headed nose-down toward the city. Tibbets threw his plane into a power dive. The bomb was to explode in 43 seconds. Lt. Morris Jepson, assistant armorer, counted off. At 43, he thought: “It’s a dud.” Then a light of incredible intensity filled the plane.


Air raid alarms had sounded at 0700 when a U.S. plane flew over to assess the weather, but nothing had happened. So when the sirens went off again for another plane high in the blue, Hiroshima kept on its way to work.

The promise of a warm, sunny day ended at 0816:02 just 1,850 feet above the courtyard of Dr. Karo Shima’s clinic, 550 feet southeast of Aioi Bridge.

A white light hotter than any sun, hot enough to burn human shadows into the pavement before disintegrating them to nothingness, enveloped Hiroshima.

Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, the flier who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been in Hiroshima the day before. He returned the day after, stunned at the charred graveyard of 100,000 of his countrymen.

“My God, what have we done?” wrote Lewis as Enola Gay flew homeward.

The stunned Supreme War Guidance Council in Tokyo was not sure.

Yoshio Nishina, Japan’s leading physicist who had done some preliminary work for his own country’s atom bomb, visited Hiroshima on Aug. 7. Yes, President Harry S. Truman’s announcement was correct. Only a nuclear bomb could have done this.

On Aug. 9, a second bomb, twin of the plutonium weapon tested in New Mexico in July, was dropped by Maj. Charles W. Sweeny’s borrowed Bock’s Car. As many as 165,000 people were killed outright or died of radiation poisoning over years to come. More than 186,000 are now classified as victims of Hiroshima.

The two bombs Groves thought were enough to convince Japan to surrender had been dropped. Still, the War Council was equally split whether to continue the war--one counter-argument to those who say the second bomb was unnecessary. The impasse was all the more remarkable considering Russia had attacked in Manchuria with overwhelming force the day before.

Nonetheless, the council adopted its “fundamental policy” that anticipated the “honorable death of 100 million.”

Gen. Sadao Araki declared: “If we could have 3 million bamboo spears, we would be able to conquer Russia easily.”

But deep in his bomb shelter under the Imperial Palace, Hirohito had had enough. “The time must come when we must bear the unbearable,” he said.

Groups of die-hard soldiers revolted and tried to stop Hirohito’s recorded announcement of capitulation. They were suppressed.

On Sept. 2, on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan signed the documents ending World War II.


Several days later, a Navy freighter carrying grain docked at what was left of Nagasaki. “The place looked like it had been hit by a giant blowtorch,” said Fred Dutton, a junior engineering officer.

The governor of the province asked the ship’s officers to dinner at his undamaged palace outside the city.

“He had been educated in the U.S.,” Dutton recalled. “We didn’t talk about the bomb. He was just pleased there would be no more killing.”