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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas

Lots of ironies and happenstance surrounded the delivery of the first atomic bomb. FDR backed the beginning of the Manhattan Project without the knowledge of Congress using money off the books. Max Tibbetts, a pilot with an impeccable record who had been the first to fly a B-17 on a bombing raid across the English Channel and was in charge of flight testing the B-29, a plane that had killed its first test pilot and was thought by some to be too dangerous to fly, almost didn’t get the job to drop the bomb. In an interview he admitted he had gotten into trouble in high school for a backseat “dalliance” with a girl. Had he forgotten about it or lied about it he would not have been chosen. They were looking for someone who could be totally honest. Because of that his name would be forever enshrined with the bomb and Hiroshima, a city he had never heard of.

Use of the bomb was never a certainty. Neils Bohr, one of the scientists working on the project, thought science belonged to the world and wanted to open up the research to everyone. A laudable thought but in 1944? To the Germans and Japanese?

Thomas focuses mainly on two participants to get differing POV: Colonel Tibbetts as he prepared the 393 Bombing Group for the mission over Japan; and Officer Yokoyama in charge of the anti-aircraft guns on the hills surrounding Hiroshima. I had always been under the assumption that Hiroshima was primarily a civilian target targeted simply because after General LeMay’s firebombing of Japan there were few cities left to bomb. But, apparently Hiroshima was home to several military industrial sites producing many weapons, although by this stage of the war raw materials were in such short supply they were barely operating. Hiroshima, was highly vulnerable to air attack. All a bomber need do was drop its load within the bowl to be almost certain of causing damage. Apart from a single kidney-shaped hill in the eastern sector of the city, about half a mile long and two hundred feet high, Hiroshima was uniformly exposed to the spreading energy that big bombs generate. Structurally—like San Francisco in the earthquake and fire of 1906—Hiroshima was built to burn. Ninety percent of its houses were made of wood. Large groups of dwellings were clustered together. The Japanese had rationalized the fall of the Marianas and other Pacific Japanese bases by saying it was a strategic withdrawal to lure the Americans closer to the Homeland where they could be more easily destroyed.

In the U.S. secrecy surrounded all preparations for the atomic bomb development and attack. "Many thousands of man-hours and dollars had been spent on tapping telephones, secretly opening letters, collecting details of extramarital affairs, homosexual tendencies, and political affiliations. The dossiers represented the most thorough secret investigation until then carried out in the name of the U.S. government.

I still remain a bit astonished at the naive faith everyone had in the bomb. They really had no idea whether it would work and if it did, what the results might be. How far from the center would radioactivity extend, what would be the effects of the blinding flash, were just a couple of the many questions they had. The extraordinary secrecy probably had as much to do with their fear the bomb might not work as it did that it would work.

The United States, to this date, remains the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in war.
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