The Dawn of the Nuclear Age: From Los Alamos to Hiroshima

The Dawn of the Nuclear Age: From Los Alamos to Hiroshima

Dr. Watson E. Mills writes: “My visits to the key sites where the A-Bomb was perfected at Los Alamos to the place, half-way around the world, where it was first deployed in warfare, has been, for me, a sobering journey. The dome seen in the center of this picture–just above my left shoulder–is where the first chapter in a yet unfinished account of ‘the use of nuclear weapons in warfare’ was written on August of 1945. Here, in this quiet ‘peace park,’ I found my mind returning to those haunting words spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer known as the ‘father’ of the A-Bomb. He reportedly said when he witnessed the initial test at Trinity: ‘We knew the world would not be the same. A few of us laughed, a few cried. But most of us were just silent.’”

 

Part 1, published August 25, examined Los Alamos where the A-Bomb was perfected and the Trinity Site where it was tested. Today, Part 2 will look at the museum where the Enola Gay is on display, the airfield on Tinian Island in the Northern Marianas where that aircraft departed on its flight to Japan, and Peace Park in Hiroshima that marks the spot where the bomb was detonated.

The B-29 that delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Virginia. This huge aviation center is the largest such museum in the world, and I had an opportunity to go there while I was visiting with family in Annadale. When I approached the Enola Gay I was struck by its size. I had imagined that it would be much larger than it actually is given the impact its cargo has had upon the course of human history. The Enola Gay, only 99 feet in length, was named by its pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.

The aircraft is in pristine condition, having been faithfully restored by work that began in 1984. When it was placed on public display in 2003, more than 300,000 staff hours had been invested in its restoration. The aircraft rests on a stand that lifts in about eight feet above floor level. I was able to see clearly the bomb bay doors from which the bomb was released.

During my visit to Guam in 2010, I took a short flight to Saipan which itself played a significant role in World War II. While there I drove my rental car to the ferry docks so I could make the 5-mile voyage to the Tinian Island. This island was seized by the Allies during the Battle of Tinian in late July 1944. Of the 8,500 Japanese garrisoned there, more than 8,000 were killed either in battle, by committing suicide, or by being executed by the Japanese military to avoid capture by the Americans.

Runway on Tinian Island

Once ashore, I rented a moped and headed for the remains of the huge air base the U.S. operated there during WWII. Titian was strategically positioned about 1,500 miles from mainland Japan. So immediately after Tinian was seized, the Allies began construction to enlarge and extend the shorter runways that the Japanese had constructed. These older runways were adequate for smaller fighter aircraft, but they were not nearly long enough for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. This massive enlargement of the existing airfield eventually covered virtually the entire island and was home to 40,000 military personnel during the height of Allied operations. It was to become the largest Allied airbase of the entire war.

Nearly the entire northern end of the island was redesigned to accommodate the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. The area was dubbed “North Field” and ultimately served as the departure point for the Enola Gay. One of the sites here that remains in tact is the loading “pit” where the Hiroshima bomb was hoisted up into the belly of the Enola Gay. The pit is now a memorial and it is preserved under plexiglass panels set in metal framing. The pit was originally constructed to load the A-Bomb into the B-29 because this particular bomb was too delicate to be loaded by conventional means.

Tinain loading pit

The final stop on my journey as I traced the atomic bomb from its origin in Los Alamos to its deployment came on a bright October afternoon when the super-fast electric train I had boarded in Kyoto rolled into the Hiroshima station. Like many European cities, Hiroshima has been entirely rebuilt since 1945. For this reason, the city does not reflect the traditional architecture long associated with Japan. Almost all of its buildings, streets, and overall infrastructure are no more than 75 years old.

The Hiroshima Peace Park is a memorial park in the center of the city located at the epicenter of the attack. The park is dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima as the first city in the world to experience a nuclear attack. Several years ago, I joined the more than one million annual visitors to this park and its many monuments and museums.

The park is located in an open field where many buildings stood before August 6, 1945. The precise epicenter of the explosion is a few hundred feet across the Ota river that defines one side of the park. The bomb, attached to a parachute, exploded about 1,500 feet above the ground. The remains of the building closest to ground zero still stands. Its distinctive dome has become a central symbol that reminds the world of the devastation that results from the use of atomic weapons. In 1996 the “A-Bomb Dome” was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Peace Park

 

At the center of the Peace Park stands a cenotaph that was constructed in 1952. It reflects the shape of an ancient Japanese clay house. Its stated purpose is “to shelter the souls of the victims from the rain.” The monument is inscribed with these words: “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat this evil.” A stone chamber at its center houses the registry of the names of those who perished here, regardless of their nationality. In 2016 the list included more than 303,000 names.

My uncle served in the US Air Force during the Pacific campaign. He was a gunner aboard a B-25, and he flew 22 missions over Tokyo Bay from his base in the Aleutian Islands. My families’ views about the war in general and about the use of nuclear weapons in particular have most certainly been shaped by his fascinating accounts of those dark days. To him, and many others, good and evil were clearly defined during WWII. Setting aside the fact that the Japanese executed an unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor, the view that this horrific attack, in the end, saved countless lives on both sides was, in my family, central to the way we understood the use of the bomb against Japan. Nonetheless, for me, my visit here was an extremely sobering experience. I sat on a wall that runs parallel to the Ota River where I had an unobstructed view of the A-Bomb Dome on the other side. Although no one could ever reasonably expect to accomplish this, I tried to imagine myself living or working here on that fateful day in 1945. What would I have experienced in the last seconds of my life? Light, heat, wind?

A gentle breeze was coming in from the river yet even on this relatively warm day I felt a definite chill and found my throat dry! I could not think of anything to speak into my iPhone’s voice memo file. I could not shake the notion that I was at a place that might preview for all the world what the end of life on this planet might look like. I hope and pray not, I fear so.

The author with the Enola Gay