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The Forgotten Bomb, Part 1
By David H. Lippman
May 2013

Nobody remembers who takes second place.

The first man on the moon? Easy. Neil Armstrong. Second man? It gets a little harder. Buzz Aldrin, but nobody seems to notice except Buzz, who had a nervous breakdown over it.

Or Christopher Columbus. He sailed the ocean blue in 1492, 1493, and 1494. Nobody remembers the second, third, and fourth voyages he made. Or who came after him.

Being the second person or organization to do anything is a sure way to guarantee obscurity. After the Lusitania went down, so did several other merchant ships, the Sussex and the Arabic being two of them. Nobody "remembers" them.


 

The Graf Spee was the first German warship to meet with an untimely end in World War II. The second was the heavy cruiser Blucher, which was torpedoed and sunk by Norwegian coastal emplacements while trying to slip into Oslo Fjord. She flipped over on her side and sank, and Rear Adm. Oskar Kummetz had to swim ashore in his dress uniform to take the city's surrender, much to his discomfort. Kummetz might be the only guy who remembers it.

The same thing is true with scientists and inventors. Alexander Graham Bell reached the Washington patent office on Feb. 14, 1876, an hour or so ahead of his rival in the telephone race, Elisha Gray.

Bell hadn't built his telephone yet. He was merely applying for a patent for his idea on how a phone should work. Gray was applying for a caveat announcing his intention to file a claim for a patent for the same invention within three months. A caveat was a confidential, formal declaration made by an inventor stating his intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. It was designed to prevent the theft of ideas.

Gray's idea for how a phone should work was the solution to how a phone should work. The idea Bell gave in his patent didn't work. He had to change the design. But it was a legitimate patent. Gray's was just a caveat. And Bell was the day's fifth applicant. Gray was the 39th.

So Bell got the patent. Then he developed his telephone, making changes in the design as he went, and made it work.

The result was inevitable: Bell and Gray spent years facing off in court, accusing each other of stealing the invention. Gray's defenders claim that the patent office clerks showed Bell Gray's designs, which enabled the Scotsman to make necessary improvements in his design. Bell's defenders say that story is rubbish.

Either way, it's the same result. The Bell System became a behemoth, Don Ameche got his greatest film role, and Elisha Gray was forgotten, despite a great career as inventor, educator, and founder of Western Electric.


 

Same thing in sports. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown. Which horses finished second in those three races? The 1927 New York Yankees set all kinds of records in winning the American League Pennant. So did the 1961 and 1998 Yankees. Who finished second? The John Birch Society named itself after the "first casualty" of the Cold War. So who was the second casualty? That's what happens when you're second, whether it's a race to an invention, a race to the batting title, or a potato-sack race. If you're not first, you're nothing.

In August 1945, the Japanese city of Nagasaki became a "second," in a manner that would change the face of the world. Only nobody really noticed.

Nagasaki actually held several "firsts." It was the first place in Japan that Westerners established a foothold (the Dutch and Portuguese in the 1600s), the first to have Western churches, the site of the first Western buildings, the first paved roads in Japan, the first telephone lines, and even the first Jewish cemetery. The Urakami Catholic Cathedral, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, with 12,000 parishioners in 1945, was the largest Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Far East. There was and still is a memorial there to a small collection of 20 or so Catholic missionaries and Japanese converts who were executed by the local government. The memorial praises them as martyrs, but apparently the missionaries went outside the "zone of operations" the local shogun assigned them, to find more converts. They were not supposed to go outside of that area, but they did, so the broke the law, and the shogun broke them in two with his Samurai sword.

Famous and not-so-famous people stopped off in Nagasaki on their way to and from Russia and China, including Ulysses S. Grant himself, who planted a ban-yan tree in the neighborhood. Another bunch of people who stopped there for good were the remains of French Marines killed in the Boxer Rebellion, who were lined up in neat Gallic order under stone in the International Cemetery, a short hike from the first Jewish section. The Jews filled that up, built a second one, and then the Bolsheviks took over Russia, and Japan's Jewish community moved up to Kobe and Tokyo.

So this city had its own share of "firsts" for Japan, and it gained three "seconds" on Aug. 9, 1945. That morning, on the island of Tinian, US Army Air Force Maj. Charles Sweeney throttled back on his borrowed B-29 bomber, "Bock's Car," with a full load of high-octane fuel, a broken auxiliary transfer fuel pump (blocking off 600 gallons of high-octane fuel), and a "second," the world's second plutonium bomb.


 

The first one had been tested at Alamagordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, proving to scientists and politicians that the millions spent on the Manhattan Project had not been a waste the atomic bomb did work, and a single bomb would not ignite the atmosphere and destroy all life.

The second bomb was on "Bock's Car." It weighed 10,000 pounds, stood 10 feet, 8 inches long, and it imploded its plutonium by firing 64 detonators simultaneously, firing Plutonium into a central and super-critical mass. It had the destructive power of about 20,000 tons of explosives. It was called "Fat Man," in honor of Winston Churchill. The bomb that had been used on Hiroshima three days before was narrower and smaller, and had originally been called "Thin Man" to honor Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was only 9 feet long, so it got re-named "Little Boy."

So Fat Man, the second plutonium bomb, winged its way toward Japan, to launch the second atomic attack in history. That's two "seconds," for folks who are counting.

The primary target for Fat Man was the Japanese city of Kokura. You won't find it on a map, but it wasn't destroyed. It's at the northeastern corner of Kyushu, but it's not an independent city any more. It was united with other semi-large cities in the area like Yawata to become "Kita-Kyushu," a sort of mega-city.

Bock's Car was not even Sweeney's first choice of plane. He normally flew "The Great Artiste." But that plane had been rigged up for the Hiroshima attack as a flying scientific lab, with machinery to measure that explosion. Sweeney flew that mission, making the Nagasaki attack his second atomic bomb mission.

So in order to deliver Fat Man on target, Sweeney swapped machines with Maj. Fred C. Bock, and flew Bock's Car instead. History books produced later on the raid would mistakenly identify The Great Artiste as Sweeney's plane on the Nagasaki mission. More "seconds."

When Bock's Car got to Japan, things continued to go wrong. They had to circle for 40 minutes, gulping gas, waiting for one of the observer planes to show up. Finally, they headed for Kokura. The crew donned their welder's goggles, set up the cameras, opened bomb bay doors, and Bombardier Kermit Beahan looked through his Norden bombsight to find the Kokura arsenal, his target.

It wasn't there. He saw the river next to the arsenal, but not the arsenal. Industrial smoke and haze obscured the target. Beahan was under strict orders: bomb the arsenal, and do so visually. No drop.

So Sweeney swung his bomber around again for a second try. This time, the Japanese were alert, and they greeted Bock's Car with anti-aircraft fire and scrambled fighters to chase the B-29s. With flak around them, fighters beneath them, and fuel low, Beahan tried again. No luck. There was not enough fuel to get back to Tinian or the emergency field at Iwo Jima. They'd have to go to Okinawa.

Sweeney made the decision ... staying over Kokura would be dangerous. They had to go straight to Okinawa. However, that route would take them over the secondary target: Nagasaki. So they headed for Nagasaki, the day's "second" choice. The third "second" for Nagasaki.

Short of fuel, Sweeney and his escorts rumbled south to Nagasaki, and their droning engines and silvery metal alerted ground observers, who set off air raid alarms the background music of World War II at 10:55 a.m. Bock's Car flew in, crew exhausted, unsure if they could reach Okinawa. They had fuel for one pass over the city. Anything else, and they'd have to ditch both bomb and plane. Sweeney asked the Cdr. Fred Ashworth, Navy commander in charge of the mission for permission to drop by radar, since they could only make one pass. Cdr. Ashworth and Sweeney talked it over, Ashworth mulled it over, and decided to disobey orders. "Go ahead and drop it by radar, if you can't do it visually," he said.


 

Bock's Car flew across the Urakami Valley, closing in ... and suddenly the cloud cover broke. Beahan saw a hole in the clouds. "I'll take it," he said, five seconds to drop time. He asked for a correction to the right, got it, and put his cross hairs on a race track beneath him. He punched the button.

"Bombs away," Beahan yelled. Then he corrected himself, "Bomb away." Fat Man fell tumbling to earth, internal switches set on and off by barometric pressure. The bomb could not go off too close to Bock's Car. At 1,540 feet over the city, Fat Man's internal switches set off the detonators, which in turn triggered an implosion, which in turn set off alpha rays of beryllium and polonium.That in turn set off a bluish-white flash, a tremendous roar, a crushing blast wave, searing heat, which incinerated an oval-shaped section of Nagasaki 2.3 by 1.9 miles wide.

At the precise moment the bluish-white flash went off, Sigeyoshi Morimoto, sitting directly below Bock's Car, was telling his wife a horrific story. Morimoto made anti-aircraft kites for the Army. He had gone up to Hiroshima to buy paint, and had miraculously survived that atomic bomb. He made his way back home to Nagasaki, and had just walked in the door. Morimoto was telling his wife that he feared Nagasaki would be the next target, and was describing the bomb. He said, "First there is a great blue flash ..." That was as far as he got. Fat Man's blue flash lit up the room. Morimoto flung his wife and infant child into the cellar, amid what sounded like an earthquake.

Fat Man blew apart the Urakami Cathedral, sending its towers flying, killing the 30 people inside making confessions in advance of the Feast of the Assumption. The bomb also blasted all 118 convicts and guards at the Branch Prison, everyone in the incoming train at Urakami Station, sent a purple-blue mushroom cloud into the sky over Nagasaki, blasted trees to their stumps, killed 30 nuns working on the cathedral's orphanage farm, and hurled American POW Jack Madison into the bottom of a coal mine pit where he was working as a slave laborer.

The flash and mushroom cloud were seen as far away as Shanghai (reflected by clouds) by young Jim Ballard, an Australian boy being held as a civilian internee.

He just saw the cloud. People closer to the scene saw horror. Like Fujie Urata, who watched the black cloud rise over the mountains near her, and scores of wounded survivors fleeing past, many naked, all bleeding and covered with blisters and black dust. Her sister Tatsue saw a woman lying in the road with two babies, all burned, asking passersby to take her dying children with them.

Sadako Moriyama saw children who had been chasing dragonflies a moment before now lying naked, burned, and twitching. Some survived due to luck, like Fujie Urata, who had a mountain between her and the radiation, or Dutch Ensign Jolly, a POW, who saw one of Sweeney's escorting B-29 passing over head, dropping scientific measuring instruments by parachute. He instinctively plunged under a table and survived, but his buddies did not.

Up above, the B-29 crews mechanically photographed the results. Tail gunner Pappy DeHart had a movie-camera. Shock waves battered an shook the planes, and Assistant Engineer Sgt. Ray Gallagher shouted to Sweeney, "Major, let's get the hell out of here." Sweeney pulled away in a turn, just as co-pilot Capt. Don Allbury said to Beahan, "Well, Bea, there's 100,000 Japanese you just killed." Beahan had no answer. He was mesmerized by the blast.

One observer had the ability and duty to record the horror. New York Times reporter William Laurence, riding in The Great Artiste,watched the giant mushroom cloud seem to break free of its stem and be replaced by a new one. It looked to him like a decapitated monster growing a new head, "a living thing, a new species of being, born right before incredulous eyes." Sweeney headed south, lighter in load, crew relaxed, fuel dwindling. With 300 gallons to go, they headed for Yontan Field at Okinawa. When they came in, Sweeney filled the air with emergency radio messages, but nobody noticed. The field was busy readying P-38s and B-25s for tactical strikes on China and Japan.

Sweeney had no time for foolishness or to circle. He shot off emergency flares, but nobody noticed. He bellowed, "Mayday, mayday, I want any tower on Okinawa," and nobody noticed. He fired off 24 multi-colored flares the signal for dead and wounded on board and nobody noticed.


 

It's tough when you're second.

Finally, the Yontan tower figured it out. Planes in the circuit over the main runway broke formation and peeled off to let Sweeney land. The plane hit the runway at 120 mph, bounced into the air, and then the two outboard engines quit cold. Bock's Car veered to the left, nearly hit a line of B-24s, and Sweeney threw his propellers into reverse. That slowed Bock's Car down and he finally cut engines.

The plane's crew was silent. The only noise was the wail of sirens as jeeps and ambulances raced up. Someone opened the door and a rescue man yelled, "Where are the dead and wounded?"

"Back there," Sweeney said, pointing toward Japan.

He was right. Nagasaki was an inferno. Survivors were streaming out of the valley. Most were dying, along with half the city's medical personnel, and they fell, begging for water, and died.

Some of the survivors, like Morimoto, were victims for the second time. Kenshi Hirata had been a Hiroshima accountant. He found his wife dead, his house crushed flat. He took the ashes to the city of her birth, reaching Nagasaki just in time for the second atomic bomb. Dr. Tsuneo of the Nagasaki Medical College, who had survived Hiroshima without a scratch, and gone home to recuperate, was killed in his room at the college.

Madison climbed out of his coal pit to find two broken ribs and his head bleeding, and the mushroom cloud swirling overhead, a B-29 camera plane circling it.

Fires raged across the Urakami Valley, but as the afternoon drew on, Nagasaki was covered with a light rain that consisted of black droplets. The black was dust and debris from the mushroom cloud condensing, and the rain put out some of the fires, while streaking the faces of survivors.

The destruction was complete: Every building within 1,000 acres of the bomb's detonation point blasted, except those of heavily reinforced concrete. The Mitsubishi steel complex, which had provided Japan with cannon, torpedoes, and fighter aircraft for nearly a decade of war, was turned into a skeleton. Eighteen schools were rubble. All the city's trolley cars were torn apart. So were all the fire trucks, phone lines, water mains, and hospitals. And still the survivors trekked out blindly (in some cases, literally), burned, hairless, vomiting and dying.

At least they had leadership. Prefectural Governor Nagano took his duties seriously, and before Bock's Car came rumbling over, had heard a report from Takejiro Nishioka, publisher of the newspaper Minyu, about Hiroshima. Nishioka had survived that disaster, suffered burns, and had come home to describe the horrors he had seen. Nishioka said the announcement of the attack was a "blue light."

When Nagano saw the blue light of Fat Man illuminate his room, he took shelter immediately, and lived to lead his city's recovery. There wasn't much he could do. He rounded up work crews, who cleared the railway tracks, so that trains could bring food in and wounded out to the Omura naval hospital 28 miles away.

Aware that decomposing bodies in summer heat made for disease, he ordered mass cremations as soon as possible. Families were already doing so anyway, on their own, rather than dump them on anonymous piles.

By twilight, Nagasaki was a burning sea of rubble, covered with smoke, with hordes of people seeking shelter from the fires on the sides of hills, burned skin hanging off, too exhausted to move or care.

Great Pacific War is back in stock!

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 web site and works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J.