August 9, 1945. Three days after the first atomic bomb falls on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the U.S. drops a second bomb on Nagasaki.
It’s early April 1945 and World War II rages across the Pacific.
But here on the Japanese island of Okinawa, all is silent.
A company of U.S. Marines trudges up a steep wooded hill. Among them is Private Bill Pierce. The 20-year-old New Yorker blinks sweat from his eyes and scans the jungle for any signs of movement.
Two days ago, more than 1,400 U.S. battleships and landing crafts converged on Okinawa, unleashing a ground force of over 180,000 troops. Bill and his company were sent to the north of the island, dragging an arsenal of 37 mm anti-tank guns. Their objective is to position the artillery pieces high on a mountain ridge to provide cover for the oncoming 29th Marine Regiment.
But as Bill and his company push the weapons up the hill… an explosion of gunfire rips through the forest canopy.
Bill’s company has been spotted by a sniper. His commanding officer barks an order to spread out across the hillside.
Without hesitation, Bill sprints to a piece of artillery… and wheels the weapon into position. Other men in his company set up trip flares around the perimeter. And with their defenses prepared, the marines hold their position, scouring the mangroves for signs of Japanese combatants.
Time passes slowly as day turns into night… Bill feels his eyelids drooping with exhaustion. The danger seems to have passed.
But then a flare is triggered, momentarily lighting up the valley with ghostly phosphorescence. Bill sits upright. There, wading through the swamp toward the American camp is a regiment of roughly 100 Japanese soldiers.
Bill grits his teeth, aims his weapon at the enemy… and unleashes a hail of bullets into the darkness.
The following morning, Bill and his fellow marines will inspect the bodies floating face down in the swamp. To their horror, they will discover that these 100 “soldiers” are actually civilians. The Japanese used these civilian men, women, and children as a decoy while they escaped to higher ground.
On the Pacific front of World War II, the US faced an enemy fully prepared to employ ruthless, guerrilla tactics to avoid defeat. On the island of Okinawa, the Japanese dragged the US into a grueling, and horrific war of attrition. While the Japanese kamikaze pilots scream overhead, the once luscious island transforms into a desolate hellscape of scorched palm trees and mangled corpses. Over the next eighty-one days, more than a quarter of a million lives will be lost – including 12,000 American troops and as many as 100,000 civilians – it will become the bloodiest battle of the War in the Pacific.
By June, U.S. forces will have captured Okinawa. And from there, they intend to launch their final operation of the war: a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland. But the Battle of Okinawa will demonstrate that Japan will only surrender at maximum cost to human life. This consideration will prompt the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, to choose a different path and make a controversial decision that will change the course of history and lead to the complete destruction of two Japanese cities, the last of which was destroyed by atomic bomb on August 9th, 1945.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 9th, 1945: The Bombing of Nagasaki.
It’s April 13th, 1945, in Washington D.C., four months before the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.
President Harry S. Truman sits behind his desk in the White House when there’s a knock on the door. Without looking up from his briefing notes, Truman barks: “come in!” And the door swings open as a slight, white-haired man enters the Oval Office.
Jimmy Byrnes is the Director of the Office of War Mobilization, the man responsible for coordinating all government agencies involved in the war effort. Truman glances up at Byrnes over the top of his spectacles. He raises his eyebrows impatiently as if to say: “whatever you have to tell me, make it quick.”
Today is Truman’s first full day as President, and he’s feeling the pressure. Just yesterday, Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, died of a sudden brain hemorrhage and Truman was thrust without warning into the top job.
He has inherited the presidency at a difficult moment, both for America and for the world. With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, Truman is expected to lead the global effort to rebuild Europe and its shattered economies. Meanwhile, World War II is far from over. The U.S. remains at war with Japan in the Pacific. And now, the task of ending that conflict rests on Truman’s shoulders…
Making matters worse, since taking office yesterday, Truman has learned that there was much his predecessor didn’t tell him about. Roosevelt was a private man; he seems he didn’t even trust his vice-president with critical, confidential military intelligence. So, today, when Jimmy Byrnes begins informing Truman of a top-secret, multi-billion dollar project that’s been in the works for years, Truman is exasperated but not surprised.
But as Byrnes continues speaking about the nature of the project, Truman’s exasperation turns to stunned disbelief. He cuts Byrnes off asking him to repeat what he just said. Byrnes clears his throat and says again: “We have been perfecting an explosive device great enough to destroy the whole world.”
Byrnes is referring to the Manhattan Project, a secretive government program to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. This is the first time Truman has heard about any of it.
A few days later, Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, visits the Oval Office. Stimson hands the President a dossier containing a comprehensive overview of the Manhattan Project. As Truman reads the document, he begins to grasp the full, terrible extent of the atomic bomb's destructive capabilities. Truman quickly realizes that with a weapon this powerful, the US could spare American lives and force Japan into an unconditional surrender.
But when Truman looks up at Stimson, his war secretary's face is solemn. Stimson explains his reservations about using the bomb, telling Truman that it would radically alter the international order and set a dangerous new precedent for modern warfare.
Truman appreciates Stimson's caution. And he agrees that the atomic bomb should be a last resort; that a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland is still the preferable course of action.
Truman is confident America has Japan on its heels. The campaign in the Pacific is largely going as planned. After capturing the volcanic outcrop of Iwo Jima last month, the Americans have now arrived at the final hurdle before reaching the Japanese mainland, the island of Okinawa. Surely, Truman hopes, Japan’s resolve will soon crumble.
But the weeks turn into months as the Battle of Okinawa rages on with no end in sight. Already, more than 10,000 American troops have been slaughtered, as wave after wave of kamikaze pilots crash into US battleships. Eventually, it becomes clear to Truman that Japan will continue fighting down to the very last man.
On June 18th, as the Battle of Okinawa draws to a bloody close, Truman calls a meeting with the top military brass to decide what to do once they take Okinawa. The Army's Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, makes a strong case for a ground invasion of Japan. Some of the other chiefs exchange doubtful glances. They believe Okinawa is an ominous preview of what a ground invasion would look like, long, terrible, and bloody.
But General Marshall is persistent. He surveys the room beneath his stern eyebrows and growls: "it is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war." But then, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy speaks up. McCloy suggests by giving Japan an ultimatum: surrender or America will use its nuclear weapons.
A somber hush falls over the room. Everybody agrees that an extraordinary show of force is required to compel Japan to stop fighting. But the atomic bomb would cause mass destruction on an unprecedented scale. Truman and his advisors know they need to cripple Japan’s means of waging war. But the country’s main munitions factories and military bases are located in cities, where millions of civilians live and work. Dropping the atomic bomb might hasten the end of the conflict. But victory by these means would come at a tremendous cost to civilian life.
But Truman doesn’t have to make the decision today. The atomic bomb has not yet been tested. There’s no way to know if the bomb even works. The final decision will have to wait until those tests are carried out.
And the following month, Truman will head to Potsdam in Germany to meet with other Allied leaders and negotiate the post-war peace. It's there that Truman will learn that the atomic bomb test was successful. Shortly after, Truman will issue an ultimatum to Japan: “surrender or face prompt and utter destruction.” But no surrender will come. And within days, Truman will approve a directive that gives the military authority to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities as soon as weather permits, and as soon as the bombs are ready, with no further presidential approval required. This controversial order will bring World War II to its dramatic, and horrifying end.
It’s Sunday, August 5th, 1945, on an island of Tinian in the South Pacific; four days before the bombing of Nagasaki.
U.S. Air Force captain Robert Lewis watches as a group of military officials carry a cylindrical metal device out of an aircraft hangar. Robert has been informed that the device is something called an “atomic bomb” – one of two that has been prepared by American scientists for use against Japan. Nicknamed “Little Boy”, the bomb resembles an elongated trash can with four metal fins. Robert has never seen anything like it; nor does he have any idea of the bomb’s destructive capabilities. He is simply following orders.
Robert watches with curiosity as the officials use a hydraulic lift to load the bomb into the belly of a B-29 bomber, plane’s name, Enola Gay, is stamped on the side of the aircraft in huge black letters, chosen in honor of the pilot’s mother.
And then at midnight, the 12-man crew of the Enola Gay attends a final briefing. Robert listens intently and scribbles notes as his commanders lay out the details of the night's mission. They are given two potential targets. The primary is Hiroshima, home to a major Japanese military base. But if weather conditions are poor, crew is instructed to hit the city of Kokura instead, where one of Japan’s largest weapons arsenals is located.
Meanwhile… at that same moment, a U.S. Navy battleship, Augusta, cuts through the deep blue waters of the mid-Atlantic. Below deck, inside the mess hall, President Harry S. Truman kneels in prayer. Truman is on his way back to Washington from Potsdam, where he issued his ultimatum to the Japanese.
The President knows the bombing mission will move forward tonight. He hasn’t been able to concentrate on anything else all day. Now, while he anxiously awaits news, Truman attends Sunday prayers. He closes his eyes and bows his head as the priest leads a group recitation, saying: “Faith of our fathers, we will strive to win all nations unto Thee. And through the truth that comes from God, mankind shall then indeed be free.”
Back on Tinian, Robert Lewis straps into the co-pilot’s seat on board his B-29 bomber. Alongside him, Captain Paul W. Tibbets. Tibbets sparks the engine and taxis forward onto the runway. When they receive the official “go”, Tibbets pulls the throttle, and at 2:45 AM. the Enola Gay leaves the ground.
Conditions remain normal as the B-29 cruises north across the Pacific. When dawn breaks, the skies are clear. So Tibbets notifies the crew via intercom that he’s about to head for their primary target, Hiroshima.
Robert looks through the cockpit window. The Enola Gay is traveling at over three hundred miles per hour at a height of more than 30,000 feet. But there’s barely a cloud in the sky. When the city of Hiroshima comes into focus, Robert sees it instantly; quiet and still in the early morning light…
The Enola Gay’s bombardier, Thomas Ferebee takes aim in his sights. Once he’s locked in his target Ferebee opens the bomb bay doors. And just before 8:15 AM, Ferebee releases Little Boy from its constraints, and the atomic bomb drops from the sky.
The sudden weight loss causes the plane to jump violently. Captain Tibbets wrenches the yoke to the right, forcing the Enola Gay into a sharp bank. He knows he has less than a minute to move very clear of the coming explosion.
45 seconds later, the aircraft is filled with a blinding white light. For a moment, there’s an eerie silence, followed by a sudden jolt and a low rattling vibration as the first shock wave hits the plane. Robert peers through the window. Moments earlier there had been a city; now there’s nothing but a huge mushrooming cloud of smoke and debris.
Robert stares in awe. He wonders how many civilians have been killed by the blast. With trembling hands, Robert opens his logbook and scribbles: “My God, what have we done?”
Sixteen hours later, President Truman is eating lunch on board the Augusta when a naval officer hurries into the mess hall, clutching a telegram. He hands the message to the President. It reads: “Hiroshima bombed… Results clear cut and successful in all respects. Visible effects greater than in any test.”
The president is told of the catastrophic fallout at Hiroshima, including the severe death toll. But he doesn’t intervene to stop a second bombing that might be planned. A few moments later, from his office on board the ship, the President issues a statement to the people of the United States:
"Truman: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy… it was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July the 26th was issued at Potsdam, their leaders can't play rejected that ultimatum if they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.”
But surrender does not immediately come.
And so, three days later, another B-29 bomber will take off from Tinian, carrying the second bomb nicknamed “Fat Man”. The crew will embark on their primary target of Kokura, but poor weather and technical difficulties will force them to switch targets. At the last minute, the plane will reroute and gun for a different location, a port city in the south of Japan: Nagasaki.
It’s almost 11 AM on Thursday, August 9th, 1945, in the city of Nagasaki.
15-year-old Michie Hattori is sitting in a classroom at school when the lesson is interrupted by an air raid siren. Over the last year or so, air raids have become a fact of life. Michie is accustomed to seeing American B-29 bombers darken the skies as part of the U.S. bombing campaign of the Japanese mainland.
So when Michie’s schoolteacher shepherds the class through the yard and into the nearby bomb shelter, Michie isn’t too worried. Often, the sirens are false alarms. Some of Michie’s friends are dawdling in the yard, laughing, and joking around. As she heads to the shelter, Michie smiles and shakes her head with amused exasperation.
But then, suddenly, there’s a blinding flash of white light.
A split second later, the air becomes screamingly hot. A powerful force lifts Michie off her feet and throws her against the wall of the shelter. Then everything goes black.
When Michie comes to, she wakes to a world on fire. Blinking, she stumbles out of the shelter. She slowly becomes aware of a stinging sensation, like a thousand needles simultaneously pricking her skin.
Michie wanders, dazed, back toward the school but it's no longer there. Nor are the surrounding houses, or the larger buildings beyond them; it’s as if Nagasaki had been wiped from the face of the earth.
Michie gazes around, expressionless, disbelieving. She doesn’t understand what’s happened to her city, to her friends and family. All she knows is that the world will never be the same.
The next day, the Japanese Emperor will override his military advisors and accept terms of surrender, bringing World War II to a close. Still, for decades, historians will debate whether the bombing of Nagasaki was necessary. Most agree that Hiroshima was an imperative action that hastened the end of the war. But many will argue that Nagasaki was avoidable; that the United States had already demonstrated its nuclear capabilities, and that if Truman had called off Nagasaki, Japan still would have surrendered. But Truman always stood by his decision. In his lifetime, he wrote: "I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right."
The atomic bomb - “Fat Man” - detonated over Nagasaki with the equivalent force of 22,000 tons of TNT. But the bomb was packed with only just over 16 kilograms of plutonium. It exploded with double the force of the Hiroshima bomb, which was formulated with uranium. “Fat Man” was dropped off target too, landing several miles from the intended impact site. 40,000 people were killed instantly, the majority of them civilians. Many more soon died from radiation poisoning. The total death toll is estimated to be around 80,000 people.
But while the decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have ended one conflict, it will soon usher in a new one. Following the bombing of Nagasaki, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union will begin in earnest, as both rival powers enter into a dangerous nuclear arms race with potentially catastrophic implications for humankind. The nuclear strike on Nagasaki will herald the end of one dark chapter and the dawn of a terrifying new one. In age defined by the fear of nuclear war that began after the U.S. dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki, on August 9th, 1945.
Next on History Daily. August 10th, 1993. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton Music
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.