The atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945 -- and, by most accounts, ended World War II -- are nothing if not controversial. It's a subject fraught with emotions and politics, such that the only people really qualified to weigh in were those who were there. The late, great writer Studs Terkel interviewed the pilot of the Enola Gay (named for the pilot's mother), which dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima. The whole interview is here, but these are my favorite excerpts:
ST: Did Oppenheimer tell you about the destructive nature of the bomb?
ST: How did you know about that?
PT: From Dr Ramsey. He said the only thing we can tell you about it is, it's going to explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. I'd never seen 1lb of TNT blow up. I'd never heard of anybody who'd seen 100lbs of TNT blow up. All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.
ST: Twenty thousand tons - that's equivalent to how many planes full of bombs?
PT: Well, I think the two bombs that we used [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] had more power than all the bombs the air force had used during the war on Europe.
ST: So Ramsey told you about the possibilities.
PT: Even though it was still theory, whatever those guys told me, that's what happened. So I was ready to say I wanted to go to war, but I wanted to ask Oppenheimer how to get away from the bomb after we dropped it. I told him that when we had dropped bombs in Europe and North Africa, we'd flown straight ahead after dropping them - which is also the trajectory of the bomb. But what should we do this time? He said, "You can't fly straight ahead because you'd be right over the top when it blows up and nobody would ever know you were there." He said I had to turn tangent to the expanding shockwave. I said, "Well, I've had some trigonometry, some physics. What is tangency in this case?" He said it was 159 degrees in either direction. "Turn 159 degrees as fast as you can and you'll be able to put yourself the greatest distance from where the bomb exploded."
After we got the airplanes in formation I crawled into the tunnel and went back to tell the men, I said, "You know what we're doing today?" They said, "Well, yeah, we're going on a bombing mission." I said, "Yeah, we're going on a bombing mission, but it's a little bit special." My tailgunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert. He said, "Colonel, we wouldn't be playing with atoms today, would we?" I said, "Bob, you've got it just exactly right." So I went back up in the front end and I told the navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, in turn. I said, "OK, this is an atom bomb we're dropping." They listened intently but I didn't see any change in their faces or anything else. Those guys were no idiots. We'd been fiddling round with the most peculiar-shaped things we'd ever seen.
So we're coming down. We get to that point where I say "one second" and by the time I'd got that second out of my mouth the airplane had lurched, because 10,000lbs had come out of the front. I'm in this turn now, tight as I can get it, that helps me hold my altitude and helps me hold my airspeed and everything else all the way round. When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I've ever seen in my life. It was just great.
OK, we're all going. We had been briefed to stay off the radios: "Don't say a damn word, what we do is we make this turn, we're going to get out of here as fast as we can." I want to get out over the sea of Japan because I know they can't find me over there. With that done we're home free. Then Tom Ferebee has to fill out his bombardier's report and Dutch, the navigator, has to fill out a log. Tom is working on his log and says, "Dutch, what time were we over the target?" And Dutch says, "Nine-fifteen plus 15 seconds." Ferebee says: "What lousy navigating. Fifteen seconds off!"
ST: Did you hear an explosion?
PT: Oh yeah. The shockwave was coming up at us after we turned. And the tailgunner said, "Here it comes." About the time he said that, we got this kick in the ass. I had accelerometers installed in all airplanes to record the magnitude of the bomb. It hit us with two and a half G. Next day, when we got figures from the scientists on what they had learned from all the things, they said, "When that bomb exploded, your airplane was 10 and half miles away from it."
ST: Did you see that mushroom cloud?
PT: You see all kinds of mushroom clouds, but they were made with different types of bombs. The Hiroshima bomb did not make a mushroom. It was what I call a stringer. It just came up. It was black as hell, and it had light and colours and white in it and grey colour in it and the top was like a folded-up Christmas tree.
ST: Do you have any idea what happened down below?
PT: Pandemonium! I think it's best stated by one of the historians, who said: "In one micro-second, the city of Hiroshima didn't exist."
ST: Do you ever have any second thoughts about the bomb?
PT: Second thoughts? No. Studs, look. Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That's what I believe in and that's what I work for. Number two, I'd had so much experience with airplanes... I'd had jobs where there was no particular direction about how you do it and then of course I put this thing together with my own thoughts on how it should be because when I got the directive I was to be self-supporting at all times.
On the way to the target I was thinking: I can't think of any mistakes I've made. Maybe I did make a mistake: maybe I was too damned assured. At 29 years of age I was so shot in the ass with confidence I didn't think there was anything I couldn't do. Of course, that applied to airplanes and people. So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we'd be doing that I thought, yes, we're going to kill a lot of people, but by God we're going to save a lot of lives. We won't have to invade [Japan].
ST: One last thing, when you hear people say, "Let's nuke 'em," "Let's nuke these people," what do you think?
PT: Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: "You've killed so many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there.
Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk - Navigator of the Enola Gay
The day before the mission we sat through briefings on Tinian island where they told us who was assigned to which plane, and we ran through what we were going to do. About 2pm we were told to get some sleep. But I don't know how they expected to tell us we were dropping the first atomic bomb on Japan and then expect us to sleep. I didn't get a wink. Nor did most of the others. But at 10pm we had to get up again because we were flying at 2.45am.
They briefed us that the weather was good, but they were sending weather observation planes up so we would have the best information on targeting Hiroshima. We had a final breakfast and then went down to the plane shortly after midnight. There was a lot of picture-taking and interviewing going on - by the military - and it was a relief to get in the Enola Gay about an hour before we took off.
We flew in low over Iwo Jima while the bomb crew checked and armed Little Boy (the uranium bomb) and once we cleared the island we began climbing to our bombing altitude of just over 30,000 feet. It was perfectly clear and I was just doing all the things I'd always done as a navigator - plotting our course, getting fixes to make sure we were on course and reading the drifts so we knew the wind speed. As we flew over an inland sea I could make out the city of Hiroshima from miles away - my first thought was 'That's the target, now let's bomb the damn thing'. But it was quiet in the sky. I'd flown 58 missions over Europe and Africa - and I said to one of the boys that if we'd sat in the sky for so long over there we'd have been blown out of the air.
Once we verified the target, I went in the back and just sat down. The next thing I felt was 94,000lbs of bomb leaving the aircraft - there was a huge surge and we immediately banked into a right hand turn and lost about 2,000 feet. We'd been told that if we were eight miles away when the thing went off, we'd probably be ok - so we wanted to put as much distance as possible between us and the blast. All of us - except the pilot - were wearing dark goggles, but we still saw a flash - a bit like a camera bulb going off in the plane.
There was a great jolt on the aircraft and we were thrown off the floor. Someone called out 'flak' but of course it was the shockwave from the bomb. The tail-gunner later said he saw it coming towards us - a bit like the haze you see over a car park on a hot day, but moving forwards at great speed. We turned to look back at Hiroshima and already there was a huge white cloud reaching up more than 42,000 feet. At the base you could see nothing but thick black dust and debris - it looked like a pot of hot oil down there.
We were pleased that the bomb had exploded as planned and later we got to talking about what it meant for the war. We concluded that it would be over - that not even the most obstinate, uncaring leaders could refuse to surrender after this.
In the weeks afterwards, I actually flew back to Japan with some US scientists and some Japanese from their atomic program.
We flew low over Hiroshima but could not land anywhere and eventually landed at Nagasaki. We didn't hide the fact that we were American and many people turned their faces away from us. But where we stayed we were made very welcome and I think people were glad that the war had ended.
Ms. Akiko Takakura, who was less than 1,000 feet from Ground Zero in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped
Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away.
For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn't even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air. It was really hard to breathe. Maybe because the fire burned all the oxygen, I don't know. I could not open my eyes enough because of the smoke, which was everywhere. Not only me but everyone felt the same. And my parts were covered with holes.