21 Surprising Facts About the Atomic Bomb Attacks on Japan

RealClear Staff


Seventy years later, the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain, thankfully, the only time nuclear weapons have been used in active warfare. Some of what happened will amaze you, including the man who survived both attacks.

21. The Enola Gay Was Named After the Pilot's Mother

The Enola Gay was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber plane which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. It was piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, a 30-year-old colonel from Illinois. He named the plane in tribute to his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.

20. The 1st Target Was Decided an Hour Before the Drop

The good weather conditions over Hiroshima sealed the city's fate.That was determined by a weather plane that buzzed over Hiroshima. On the ground, a yellow alert rings out for 22 minutes. Many civilians ignore it, unperturbed by the familiar sight of a single B-29 plane flying over the city. The weather plane sends a coded message to Enola Gay, advising that Hiroshima is to be the primary target. Tibbets notifies his crew over the intercom and the plane sets course.

19. 60 million degrees

That was the Fahrenheit temperature in Hiroshima at ground zero upon detonation.

18. Up to 246,000 Dead

Up to 166,000 were killed in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki died as a result of the two atomic bomb drops. About half were killed on the first day; the rest died of horrific injuries caused by radiation poisoning in the days, weeks and months that followed.


17. 'My God, What Have We Done?'

That's what Enola Gay crewman Captain Robert A. Lewis said, and later recorded in his notebook, after the bomb was dropped.

Radar operator Joe Stiborik remembered the crew sitting in stunned silence on the return flight. The only words he recollected hearing were Lewis's "My God, what have we done." He explained, "I was dumbfounded. Remember, nobody had ever seen what an A-bomb could do before. Here was a whole damn town nearly as big as Dallas, one minute all in good shape and the next minute disappeared and covered with fires and smoke. ... There was almost no talk I can remember on our trip back to the base. It was just too much to express in words, I guess. We were all in a kind of state of shock. I think the foremost thing in all our minds was that this thing was going to bring an end to the war and we tried to look at it that way."

16. The Bomb Was Armed in Mid-Air

At the hangar on Tinian Island, where the bomb was delivered by the USS Indianapolis, Little Boy is wheeled carefully out of its hanger and toward the Enola Gay. But Captain William "Deak" Parsons, an atomic ballistics expert, is concerned.

Two B-29 planes have exploded on take-off in the last 24 hours. If the B-29 carrying Little Boy explodes, the consequences could be catastrophic. He takes a radical decision – both he and his colleague, Lieutenant Morris Jeppson, will arm the bomb in the air. It is a feat not attempted outside a laboratory. 

15. Nagasaki Was a Secondary Target

The Enola Gay participated in the second atomic attack as the weather reconnaissance aircraft for the primary target of Kokura. Clouds and drifting smoke resulted in Nagasaki being bombed instead.


14. The Plane That Dropped the 2nd Bomb Was Names 'Bockscar'

The B-29 that dropped the "Fat Man" bomb on Nagasaki was under the command of  Captain Frederick C. Bock. The name "Bockscar" is a pun on his name.

13. Most of the Men Who Delivered the Bomb Were Already Dead When the Bomb Was Dropped

The parts for the atomic bomb were delivered to the island of Tinian by the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser which picked up the parts in San Francisco, stopped by Pearl Harbor and advanced on to Tinian. But after dropping the parts off, the Indianapolis was sunk by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine on July 30. Because its mission was secret, the loss of the Indianapolis wasn't discovered for almost four days. Of the 1,196 crewmen, about 300 went down with the ship and about 575 died while in the water -- many by shark attacks. It is believed to be the largest attack by sharks on humans in history. Only 317 survived to hear about the bombings.

12. A Honeymoon Helped Kyoto Escape Destruction

The beautiful Japanese city of Kyoto was initially considered for the second bomb, but -- as legend has it -- Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked for it to be removed from the target list because he'd been there on his honeymoon.

11. The Enola Gay Crew Had Cyanide Tablets

If the mission failed, they were not to be taken alive.

10. The 2 Bombs Were Completely Different

The Aug. 6 bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was named “Little Boy,” and it was uranium-based. The Aug. 9 bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was named “Fat Man,” and it was plutonium-based. Little Boy” was about 10 feet long and weighed more than four metric tons. “Fat Man” was even bigger, at about 11.5 feet long and 4.5 tons.

9. This Man Survived Both Bomb Attacks

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was a 39-year-old businessman who lived in Nagasaki. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on business for his employer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries when the city was bombed at 8:15 am, on August 6, 1945.  The explosion ruptured his eardrums, blinded him temporarily, and left him with serious burns over the left side of the top half of his body.

He returned to Nagasaki the following day, and despite his wounds, he returned to work on August 9, the day of the second atomic bombing. That morning he was telling his supervisor how one bomb had destroyed the city, to which his supervisor told him that he was crazy, and at that moment the Nagasaki bomb detonated. He was not injured in that explosion.

Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer on January 4, 2010, at the age of 93.

8. The Father of the Bomb Campaigned Against Nuclear Proliferation

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the key figure of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb in the New Mexico desert, said the detonation of the bombs reminded him of words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." After the war he became a chief advisor to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and an arms race with the Soviet Union. After provoking the ire of many politicians with his outspoken opinions during the Second Red Scare, he had his security clearance revoked. He continued his anti-nuclear work until his death in 1967 of throat cancer at age 62.

7. Truman Was Prepared to Drop More Bombs

U.S. President Harry Truman knew an invasion of Tokyo would cause massive U.S. casualties. With the new nuclear technology, he was prepared to use it. "It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East," he said in a news release after the bombing of Hiroshima. "If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."

6. Emperor Hirohito's Surrender on Radio Was the 1st Time His Voice Was Heard Publicly

That's right, in power since 1926, Hirohito allowed a recording of the his surrender speech to be broadcast over the radio on August 15, 1945 (the first time the Emperor was heard on the radio by the Japanese people). He spoke in classical Japanese, making it difficult for some citizens to fully comprehend what he is saying. Despite two devastating attacks on the country, many people are shocked – the Japanese Empire has maintained it would be more noble to endure annihilation than surrender to the enemy. Japan’s war minister had attempted suicide and dies the following day. Many thought the emperor would order the mass suicide of all citizens rather than surrender. He did not.

5. Nagasaki and Hiroshima Are Not Radioactive Today

That's because the bombs were exploded a couple of thousand feet above the cities instead of detonating on the ground. 

4. A Witness to the Hiroshima Attack Won the Boston Marathon

Shigeki Tanaka was 13 and living 20 miles from Hiroshima when he saw the bombing. Six years later, he became the first Japanese person to win the Boston Marathon, The victory in 1951 was a landmark moment in restoring the war-shattered country's dignity and honor. After World War II, Japanese athletes were barred from the 1948 Summer Olympics in London and from all major international competitions around the world. 

3. A Bonsai Tree Planted in 1626 Survived the Hiroshima Attack

The nursery that housed the tree was less than two miles from the bomb blast site. It now resides in Washington, D.C. at the National Arboretum.

2. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Is One of the Most Moving Places in the World

Located in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, in central Hiroshima, it is not only dedicated to documenting the World War II atomic bombing, but has the additional aim of promoting world peace. Visited by a million people a year, it's surprisingly a place of hope and well worth the long train ride from Tokyo.

1. Paper Lanterns Signify the Afterlife

The thousands of colorful paper lanterns released on the city's Motoyasu River symbolized the spiritual journey of those killed by the bomb.



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