On its 75th anniversary, the Telegraph’s Jonathan Holmes recalls the first atomic bombing, its aftermath, and asks whether it could happen again.
JULY 16, 1945
It is 5.30am, and the sky is suddenly bright in the New Mexico desert.
“The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun,” writes General Thomas Farrell, deputy commander of the Manhattan Project – a secret team in Los Alamos dedicated to creating the atom bomb.
Four hours after the “Trinity” test, the first nuclear detonation in history, a ship leaves bound for the south-west Pacific. On board is Little Boy, the second ever nuclear bomb.
AUGUST 6, 1945
That night, the people of Hiroshima feel safe. They’ve grown used to American B-29 bombers passing overhead and have nicknamed them “Mr B.” They have never heard of the atom bomb. They do not know that Hiroshima has deliberately been spared conventional bombing so its devastating effects will be clear.
It took J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, a week to sketch Little Boy on a blackboard. He explained: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.” Yet the bomb, which cost US$2 billion to develop, was barely more sophisticated than a medieval cannon.
The technology developed quickly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and massive weapons, thousands of times more powerful, emerged. The creative spiral was only averted by bans and treaties that are now decaying. There are at present around 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, down from 70,000 in 1986.
How does Little Boy compare to their power? Sharon Squassoni, a global security expert at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says: “There’s just no comparison, the shift in our nuclear arsenal is astounding.”
The trend for “tactical” weapons doesn’t make us safer. Seth Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, adds: “The overall trend has been away from mass destruction to precision, reducing collateral damage. However, the argument goes that precision actually makes it more likely that we might use them.”
New weapons are on the horizon, from hypersonic delivery systems designed to evade missile shields to high-altitude strikes that disable communication networks. However, the simplicity of gun-type devices like Little Boy mean they are perfect for terrorists to make their own.
There is no reason why a modern-day remake of Little Boy would be any less powerful, says Squassoni. The hard part has been done. Creating the bomb was difficult. Recreating it isn’t.
AUGUST 7, 1945
In the days afterwards, the explosion is named “pikadon” (flash-bang) by survivors. But those closest to the epicentre only call it “pika.” They do not remember the boom, only the flare — then silence. Survivors have been left with an unforgettable image. “That beautiful cloud!” recalled one. “I have never seen anything so magnificent in my life!”
The “mushroom cloud” becomes the bomb’s trademark. This wasn’t just an act of war, it was a media event. As Enola Gay’s crew returns to base, tail gunner Bob Caron snaps a picture of the cloud. His will be the only official photograph successfully developed.
An information war begins. Officials in Japan claim the damage is minimal. In Hiroshima, “fake news” proliferates among the survivors. Some have heard the city will be uninhabitable for 75 years. There are rumours that Los Angeles has been destroyed in retaliation. But America wants the truth known. Leaflets are dropped featuring Caron’s snapshot.
Seventy-five years later the atomic information war still rages, but online. Donald Trump once tweeted that he had a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than Kim Jong Un.
“When you have the leaders of countries issuing nuclear threats on (Twitter), that’s a serious development,” says Squassoni.
AUGUST 9, 1945
It is a cloudy day in Nagasaki when 40,000 people are blasted into memory by a bomb called Fat Man.
Meanwhile, in Hiroshima, many survivors are now in Dr. Hachiya’s hospital. They start vomiting. The doctor wonders whether “the new weapon (threw) off a poison gas or perhaps some deadly germ?”
Eleven days after the blast, more baffling symptoms emerge. People develop speckles on their skin, then die. Another mystery: epilation.
“Unconsciously, I grabbed some of my hair and pulled … The amount that came out made me feel sick,” Dr. Hachiya writes in his diary.
“The idea was to explode the damned thing,” recalled Hymer Friedell of the Manhattan Project. “We weren’t terribly concerned with the radiation.”
Dr. Hachiya notes that the closer the survivors were to the blast centre, the more likely they were to develop these symptoms, placing each on a map. The value of this does not go unnoticed.
James Forrestal, the navy secretary, tells president Harry Truman that survivors offer “a unique opportunity for the study of the medical and biological effects of radiation.” A legion of scientists descends on Japan. The survivors are to be studied, not necessarily treated.
By 1950, 130,000 were enrolled in what is known as the “Life Span Study.” It forms the world’s largest bank of knowledge on radiation and has helped to develop safe medical uses, such as CAT scans and X-rays. Now the survey is focusing on the next generation, tracking survivors’ children.
Yet even as they became central to scientific progress, the survivors faced ignorance. Many “hibakusha” (person affected by a bomb) found themselves outcasts. “Some people didn’t want to go near them because they were ‘infected,’ ” says Takuo Takigawa, director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
Hibakusha were banned from public baths, for fear of contaminating the water. People refused to employ them. It is only now that their contribution is being recognized. They helped to shine a light, even as they were left in the dark.
It is difficult to put a number on those killed in 1945, but estimates suggest more than 200,000. The rumours that Hiroshima would be uninhabitable proved false. Along with Nagasaki, it is now thriving. Despite fears over radiation, many citizens chose to stay and rebuild their homes. The city has a population of more than 2 million.
But the threat has not passed. Every year since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets a “Doomsday Clock” to indicate how near we are to annihilation. This year it ticked to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we have ever been. They point to the breakdown of arms control treaties; a worsening of relations between the great powers and climate change.
“The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape,” it warned. “Any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage.”
After 75 years, the blast has faded in the public consciousness. Nuclear weapons now have to compete with other threats, from artificial intelligence to designer viruses that would make coronavirus balk.
Simply, we are no longer afraid of the atom bomb. Then again, neither were the people of Hiroshima.
Little Boy’s final destination is still not set. There are three potential targets: Hiroshima, Kokura and Nagasaki. The final decision will be based on weather conditions.
For the first time, the crew of the B-29, named Enola Gay, is told what they will be carrying. Capt. William “Deak” Parsons informs them that it will cause the most furious explosion since creation; it might crack the Earth’s crust. In Hiroshima, it is a clear night full of shooting stars.
Enola Gay takes off. In Colonel Paul Tibbets’s pocket are cyanide capsules, one for each crew member, in case of capture. They still do not know where they are heading.
Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, a physician at the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, finishes his air raid duty. There is nothing to report.
“The hour was early; the morning still, warm, and beautiful,” Dr. Hachiya notes in his diary. High above, a weather plane passes over the city. Only now is the target set.
On board Enola Gay, a tone warns the crew to brace themselves. Citizens of Hiroshima hear nothing but a distant thrum. There is no siren.
The fireball is hotter than the sun. Everything within a mile is vaporized. A quarter of the 350,000 residents are killed instantly.
Hiroshima was known as the “City of Water.” Now it is a city of fire. Naked survivors, the patterns of their clothes burned into their backs, wander through the inferno. Many die in reservoirs or drown in the a river. Black rain falls from the sky. Hiroshima is now, in a word repeated by survivors, “hell.”