These are frightening numbers — 3,580, 72,000, 226,385, 130,800.
The first is the number of American lives lost December 7, 1941, in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The second is the number of Allied casualties at Iwo Jima and Okinawa during the Spring of 1945. The third is the number of Allied troops who were casualties in the Invasion of Normandy, and the fourth is the number of Japanese soldiers and sailors who died in the name of the Emperor at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
These figures are not presented to intimidate nor to overwhelm, but rather to provide perspective as the world observes the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs, one at Hiroshima and the other at Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.
There has been much debate in the ensuing three quarters of a century as to the necessity of unleashing atomic power in time of war. Seventy five years distant, thoughts and beliefs on the subject have varied. However, for freedom loving people around the globe at the time, the choice seemed clear.
In the 1930s, Japan invaded China for the purpose of stripping its land of iron ore and minerals so that Emperor Hirohito’s empire could build cars, ships, airplanes, and more on the Japanese islands. In response, the U.S. banned shipment of ore and iron to the islands. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese, in anger over this embargo, led a raid against U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, killing or severely wounding 3,580 American soldiers and sailors.
At the same time, across Europe, Adolf Hitler’s German armies began marching into Poland, France, and the rest of the continent, ultimately, as the “Final Solution,” rounding up nearly 14 million Catholics, Jews, physically disabled, and anyone who disagreed with the policies of the regime, placed them in concentration camps and began gassing them to death.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on Japan, and on December 11, against Germany and the Axis powers.
The U.S. then began fighting a two front war, one, in the “west” against the Third Reich and another, in the “east” against the Emperor’s forces of the rising sun.
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Advancing Allied troops across Europe would take some time. Materials, weapons, and men needed to be transported across the Atlantic and assembled in England. On June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of the continent commenced with Operation Overlord, landing troops onshore at Normandy, France, and pushing forward to Berlin. The region was so heavily defended, that it required two months to break out of the French province and start the march toward Germany. In those two months, the Allies suffered 226,385 casualties.
In the meantime, with what ships hadn’t been destroyed in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the Allied Navy began slowly, but progressively, capturing islands the Japanese had overtaken in an effort to block a U.S. incursion onto their homeland.
In February 1945, Allied forces had reached Iwo Jima, a five mile long stretch of volcanic land about 850 miles from Tokyo. It was at this tiny strip of beaches and forested hills, that, on Feb. 23, 1945, the famous flag raising took place, made immortal by the photograph of the Marines and personnel hefting it atop Mount Suribachi.
It required another month before the island was secured and then troops moved on to Okinawa, a thin stretch of volcanic hills roughly 400 miles south of Tokyo.
The Allies landed on its beaches on April 1. More than 118,000 Japanese troops had been stationed there to prevent its capture. By the time the Allies had combed the plush hillsides and neutralized enemy tunnels and bunkers in mid June, combining the two island conflicts, 72,000 Americans, Brits, and Australians had fallen as casualties. The Japanese, who had brought in re-enforcements, lost 130,800, or 93 percent of their total forces committed to stopping an enemy advance on to the mainland.
As the Americans encroached closer, it was discovered that Japanese citizens, including children in school, were being taught how to kill, by firearm or other practice, any intruder. Knowing this, Allied General Curtis LeMay and fellow commanders laid out a plan for an amphibious and aerial assault of the main Japanese islands. The war in Europe had since ended, so all forces could be concentrated on a final attack to defeat the only remaining enemy and bring the Second World War to a close.
With the ferocity Japanese had shown at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it was estimated that such a landing on their homeland shores would result in at least a half million Allied casualties and undoubtedly more on the side of the Emperor. American troops that had just returned to the states from Europe would again be called up to service just as their families were beginning to rest in the security that they would not lose another loved one anytime soon.
President Truman, himself a veteran of World War I, was presented all these facts, and the first atomic detonation of a weapon was demonstrated in July of 1945 above the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico. By splitting an atom of uranium, a single ten foot long 9,700 pound bomb could unleash the equivalent of 12,500 tons of TNT. Temperatures would rise to 4,000 degrees and the shock wave be able to flatten an entire city. Having been informed of its potential, he gave his approval for its use.
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Planning for that mission was then turned over to a former Iowan. Paul Tibbets was born at Quincy, Ill., but spent much of his childhood in Des Moines or on the farm of his mother, Enola Gay, outside of Glidden.
Tibbets was enrolled in a military academy near Alton, Ill., at the age of 13 and, after graduation, accepted as an aviation cadet with the Army Air Corps. He qualified as pilot in the B-17 bomber, and was named Squadron Commander. After combat missions over two continents, Tibbets had shown such a proficient skill that he was asked to serve as a test pilot for the B-29 bomber, the largest to that time ever built. Showing the same acumen, he was selected as Commander of the 509th Composite Group and tasked with planning the logistics of the mission to drop the atomic bomb.
The 509th picked up their shiny new bomber form the Martin Aircraft Assembly Plant in Omaha and flew it, along with accompanying observation planes, to Tinian, a minuscule speck of an island near Guam. It was far enough from Japan not to be reached by the enemy, but close enough that a B-29 could take off, drop a bomb load over Tokyo, and return to base safely.
On July 26, the cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis, delivered the atomic bomb, titled “Little Boy,” to the island and it was prepared for flight. As Tibbets watched while the “gadget,” as it was known, was mounted in a specially designed bomb bay, he looked up at his aircraft and saw only the number 82 on its nose. Convinced that a plane of this unique a role in history needed a unique name, he thought about his pleasant days on the farm that his mother so valiantly ran, and had the words “Enola Gay” painted just below the pilot’s cockpit window.
At 2:45 in the morning August 6, 1945, Tibbets and his crew of 11 lifted off the runway for the flight to Hiroshima, an industrial city 330 miles southwest of Tokyo.
The atomic bomb, weighing five tons, hung under the belly of the aircraft and Tibbets carefully navigated the plane to 31,000 feet above the target city. Looking at his watch, the Little Boy was released from the bomb bay at 8:15 in the morning, Hiroshima time. Forty five seconds later, at 1,890 feet above the target, the force of forty million pounds of TNT spread fire across the city and boiled a mushroom cloud more than 50,000 feet in height.
Tibbets banked the plane into a sixty degree dive to achieve maximum escape speed and the shock wave struck the crew sixty seconds after detonation. The crew was jolted, but even from five miles up, could see a layer of fire and then blackness beneath it.
Having beheld a sight they described as “brighter than ten suns,” the Enola Gay banked away and finished its four thousand mile round trip flight uneventfully. Opening his journal after the mission for debriefing, the mission’s co-pilot, Robert Lewis- who had been so overwhelmed by the site that he forgot what he wrote- found he had jotted the words for posterity, “My God, what have we done?”
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When informed of the mission’s success, President Truman responded, “This is the greatest thing in history.”
That “greatest thing” had instantly incinerated or severely burned to death an estimated 100,000 people. When the Japanese Emperor refused to surrender, three days later, on Aug. 9, another atomic bomb, this time with nearly twice the power of the first, was released above the city of Nagasaki. With a combined death toll of almost 175,000 soldiers, civilians, and children, the Emperor sued for peace and began negotiations for the end of the war.
It still is argued whether the use of atomic technology was justified to bring about a conclusion to the deadliest conflict in human history. The author of this guest column met and knew Tibbets, as well as Fred Olivi, co-pilot of the plane that dropped the second bomb, and each had no question in their mind as to the subject. Tibbets would always say, up to his passing away in 2007, that he had no regrets and that its purpose was to bring the Empire to its knees, and it did so. Olivi agreed of his own mission, convinced to his death in 2004, that an invasion of the mainland would have been a bloodbath much worse.
As I write this column, I recall standing affront his shiny casket as it was lowered into the ground in south suburban Chicago, then glancing over to the hundreds of slightly wrinkled, silver haired men in suits and uniform, and wondered how many of them Remember them all, and their devotion to freedom and American independence, as we mark this historic 75th anniversary.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.