The troubled Nagasaki bombing mission




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From the diary of Fred Olivi, who was a member of Bockscar's crew: "It was bright bluish color. It took about 45 or 50 seconds to get up to our altitude and then continued on up. ...Somebody hollered in the back: 'The mushroom cloud is coming toward us.' This is where Sweeney took the aircraft and dove it down to the right, full throttle, and I remember looking at the damn thing on our left and I couldn't tell for a while whether it was gaining on us or we were gaining on it." They were still 457 miles from the nearest landing strip, on Okinawa, and sent out a May Day. The plane did make it, gliding much of the way, although one engine died and the plane bounced 25 feet in the air before settling down. It barely missed hitting a row of parked planes that were fully loaded with incendiary bombs and fueled up. Bockscar had made it. Just barely.

Group photo of the crew of the plane "Bockscar," which dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb over Nagasaki. (Three of the crewmembers are not present in this picture.)

Assembling the components of the Fat Man atomic bomb on the island of Tinian.

Fat Man was an implosion device rather than the gun-type of bomb design of Little Boy, making it a much more powerful weapon.

The person in charge of assembling the Fat Man bomb and overseeing it while on board the plane—Bockscar—that dropped the weapon was Commander Frederick L. Ashworth, seen here in front of a Quonset hunt on Tinian. Ashworth was a Navy man, while the plane's pilot, Charles W. Sweeney, was with the Army—which added to the confusion of just who was in charge while they were in flight and waiting at their rendezvous point for two accompanying planes. When the photo plane never showed up, Ashworth wanted Bockscar to proceed directly to the target anyway; Sweeney wanted to wait. Bockscar waited 45 minutes, during which it consumed precious fuel; the photo plane never did show up. So much fuel was wasted that the plane barely had enough to drop the bomb and land at the nearest base afterward. (In fact, at one point it looked like Bockscar would crash into the ocean well before getting to the runway. One crew member remembers wondering how cold the Pacific would be when they ditched.)

When Bockscar finally made it to the target site—the city of Nokumura—it was covered by fog, haze, and possibly a smokescreen created by the Japanese burning of coal tar. The crew had orders to make a visual drop; they tried three times, then gave up and went to their alternate target: Nagasaki. That, too, was covered by clouds, until a gap suddenly appeared. The bombardier released the Fat Man atomic bomb over Nagasaki, and at 12:02 pm on August 9, 1945, it exploded at an altitude of 1,840 feet with a force equal to about 22,000 tons of TNT. Unfortunately, with no photo plane, the only images that were available were those taken with an amateur camera smuggled aboard Bockscar.

Scientists holding the container with the plutonium core that was to be the heart of the Fat Man atomic bomb. Image taken on the island of Tinian, August 1945. At right is physicist Harold M. Agnew, later to become the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The portion of the image showing the container itself had been scratched out by the FBI in 1946, in an effort at secrecy. Now, of course, this photo is declassified, as are all the materials published here.

(Agnew also managed to sneak a camera onto Bockscar, which was used by one of the crew to take the photos of bomb damage. No one on the plane knew how to operate the official camera because the official cameraman was not on the plane.)

Photo from Harold Agnew. All images courtesy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory