Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb

We most often think of Hiroshima as the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War. It wasn’t. It was not until a second atomic bomb was dropped three days later that the Japanese military was forced to accept a surrender. The Nagasaki mission is, however, mostly forgotten, lost in the historical shadow of the Hiroshima bombing–a good thing, perhaps, since it was a string of errors, difficulties, and screw-ups.


In late July 1945, after the successful Trinity test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico, the US began to plan the combat use of its new weapons. Two complete bombs were already available, two more would be ready within weeks, and about one bomb a month would be produced after that.

When the initial list of potential targets for atomic bombs was drawn up, the city of Nagasaki was not on it. (The original list was Yokohama, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Kokura, with Niigata as an alternate.) During the wave of nightly firebombings that wrenched Japan in 1945, Nagasaki was mostly spared–only four small-scale raids were sent against the city. This was not because the city was unimportant: Nagasaki was a port and a shipbuilding center, and also had a large steel mill, an arsenal, and a torpedo factory. But the city presented a difficult target for aerial bombing. Unlike most Japanese cities, which were built on flat plains, Nagasaki was in a bowl-shaped depression, surrounded by hills and separated into sections by tongues of water–all of which made it difficult to bomb at night using radar, and would also limit any damage produced by firebombing. In addition, there was no defined industrial area that could easily be targeted: instead, small factories were scattered randomly all across the city. Nagasaki was also known to have an Allied POW camp nearby, which nobody wanted to hit by accident.

Within days, though, the initial atomic target list was altered. The ancient capitol of Kyoto, though the second-largest city in Japan, was a cultural, religious, and historical center with little military significance, and the political fallout the US would receive from destroying it was not worth the gains. So Kyoto was placed on the “reserved” list: it would not be designated as a target for either atomic or conventional firebombing.

Yokohama was an important industrial center, but it had already been the target of several B-29 firebombings, and the US military wanted an intact untouched city as a target for the atomic bombs, so they could better judge the damage levels that the bomb produced. Yokohama was removed from the list of atomic targets as well.

That left Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata, and on July 24, 1945, these cities were placed with Kyoto on the “reserved” list of cities that would not be hit by the firebomb raids. They would be the atomic targets, “in the priority listed”.

But shortly after that, it was decided that Niigata was too far away from Tinian for a safe delivery of the heavy atomic bomb, and Niigata was dropped from the target list. It was apparently at this time that Nagasaki was added, likely because it was the largest city still available. The targets for the first two atomic missions were now set: for the first mission, the primary target would be Hiroshima with Kokura as secondary, and for the second mission, the primary target would be Kokura with Nagasaki as secondary.

On August 6, the first atomic bombing mission was carried out. It was textbook-perfect. The uranium bomb “Little Boy” destroyed the city of Hiroshima.

The second atomic mission, to Kokura, would not go so well.

Originally, the mission was planned for August 11. But when weather forecasts called for bad conditions, the schedule was moved up two days to August 9. The plutonium bomb “Fat Man” would be carried by the B-29 “Bockscar”, piloted on this mission by Major Charles Sweeney, who had flown an observation plane during the Hiroshima mission. “Bockscar’s” regular pilot, Capt Frederick Bock, would be flying Sweeney’s B-29, called “The Great Artiste”, which would be carrying scientific instruments to measure the bomb blast. A B-29 called “Big Stink” would be carrying photographic and film equipment. The “Enola Gay”, now piloted by Capt George Marquardt, would serve as an advance weather plane over Kokura, while another B-29, “Laggin Dragon”, would fly weather reconnaissance over Nagasaki.

The difficulties began right from the start. On August 8, during routine firebomb raids, four B-29s in a row had crashed on the runways at Tinian during takeoff. The accidents had reinforced an uncomfortable fact: the runways at Tinian were only just barely big enough for a fully-laden B-29 to get airborne. When the “Enola Gay” had taken off for Hiroshima, the Little Boy bomb had been electrically “safed” and the internal cordite charge that set off the bomb had been removed, to prevent an accidental nuclear explosion if the B-29 had crashed on takeoff. The Fat Man bomb aboard “Bockscar” would also be electrically “safed”, but the implosion system used to set off the bomb contained 2.5 tons of explosives. If the plane crashed on takeoff, there would be no nuclear explosion, but the conventional detonation would be enough to cause massive destruction.

Late that night, technicians from Los Alamos began preparing the bomb. Fat Man was shaped like an egg, five feet in diameter and eleven feet long, with a large box fin at the tail. It was painted bright yellow-orange, with black rubberized paint sealing all the seams. On the nose was the stenciled initials JANCFU, a joke from somebody on the crew: it stood for “Joint Army Navy Civilian Fuck Up”.

Fat Man

“Bockscar” was scheduled for a 3:30 AM takeoff on August 9, but a problem appeared: one of the fuel pumps in a reserve tank was not working. It was too late to fix the pump or drain the tank, so 640 gallons of fuel now became unusable dead weight. “Bockscar” took off 17 minutes late, at 3:47 AM.

The mission plan called for “Bockscar” to make the six-hour flight to Japan alone, then rendezvous with the instrument planes “The Great Artiste” and “Big Stink” over the tiny island of Yakushima. When Sweeney got there, “The Great Artiste” was waiting for him, but “Big Stink” was nowhere in sight. The two B-29s circled over Yakushima for 45 minutes, but “Big Stink” never showed. (It turned out that her pilot had been flying at the wrong altitude and course.) Already an hour late, “Bockscar” and “The Great Artiste” flew on to Kokura, half an hour away.

The delay was crucial. “Enola Gay”, circling over Kokura, had reported the weather clear. But over the next hour, as “Bockscar” waited unsuccessfully for its rendezvous, the clouds had begun to thicken, and smoke began blowing in from the nearby city of Yahata, which had been firebombed the night before and was still burning. By the time “Bockscar” and “The Great Artiste” reached Kokura, the city was socked in. Sweeney had been given strict orders that he was only to drop the bomb visually, and was not to carry out a radar approach. For nearly an hour, the two B-29’s circled the city, but could see nothing.

Now Sweeney and his weaponeer, Navy Commander Frederick Ashworth (who was in actual command of the mission) had to make a crucial decision. It was 10:45 AM and “Bockscar” had already been in the air for seven hours. Fuel was beginning to get low (and the 640-gallons in the reserve tank remained unavailable because of the broken pump). Anti-aircraft bursts began appearing near them, and they could not see enough of the city for a visual bomb run. The decision was made to leave Kokura and head to the secondary target, Nagasaki, 15 minutes away.

Now their problems worsened. Calculations made on the way indicated that they already did not have enough fuel to reach the designated emergency landing field at Iwo Jima, and would have to land at Okinawa instead. When they got to Nagasaki, they found that it too was covered by clouds. As they circled, Sweeney and Ashworth first decided that they would scrub the mission and return to Okinawa, jettisoning the Fat Man into the Pacific. Then Ashworth decided to make just one bomb run over Nagasaki and to, despite their orders, aim the bomb by radar if they could not carry out a visual drop. At the last second, the bombardier spotted the city through a break in the clouds, and dropped the bomb at 11:02 AM. Fat Man exploded about a mile off-target. Estimates of the deaths ranged from 35,000 to 87,000. At least eight Allied POWs are known to have died in the explosion.

The B-29s could not stay to watch. “Bockscar” now had less than two hours of fuel remaining, and turned for Okinawa. When the plane reached the airfield at 1:20 PM, Sweeney found that his radio was not working and he was unable to contact the control tower for landing instructions–just as one of his four engines cut out for lack of fuel. While his crew fired emergency flares as a warning, Sweeney came in for a landing anyway. Turning hard to miss a group of parked B-24s at the end of the runway, “Bockscar” skidded to a stop just as a second engine ran out of gas. Exhausted, Sweeney and his crew piled out of the plane. When they finally returned to Tinian at 10 PM that night, there were, in contrast to the “Enola Gay’s” flight three days before, no film crews and no celebration. In the United States, the lead news story that day was the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan.

The final screw-up of the second atomic mission, though, was still to come. After the bombing of Hiroshima, the Army Air Force had decided to wage psychological warfare against the Japanese civilians by dropping leaflets on several Japanese cities, including Kokura and Nagasaki, warning them that their city was a potential A-bomb target. But in the confusion that accompanied the rescheduling of the second atomic mission from August 11 to August 9, nobody had informed the PsyOps officers of the change. The leaflets warning of a possible atomic attack were, therefore, dutifully dropped over Nagasaki on August 10, the day after Fat Man had destroyed the city.

After the war ended, “Bockscar” suffered another indignity. In some of the press accounts of the mission, confusion over which pilot was flying what plane led to mistaken reports that it was “The Great Artiste” that carried Fat Man to Nagasaki, an error that would be repeated in published histories for years afterwards.

Today, the B-29 “Bockscar” is on display at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH.

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