August 6, 1945: Bombing of Hiroshima

In 2002 Studs Terkel interviewed retired General Paul Tibbets about the Hiroshima bombing:


Paul Tibbets:  I think I went to Los Alamos [the Manhattan project HQ] three times, and each time I got to see Dr Oppenheimer working in his own environment. Later, thinking about it, here’s a young man, a brilliant person. And he’s a chain smoker and he drinks cocktails. And he hates fat men. And General Leslie Groves [the general in charge of the Manhattan project], he’s a fat man, and he hates people who smoke and drink. The two of them are the first, original odd couple.

Studs Terkel:  They had a feud, Groves and Oppenheimer?

Paul Tibbets:  Yeah, but neither one of them showed it. Each one of them had a job to do.

Studs Terkel:  Did Oppenheimer tell you about the destructive nature of the bomb?

Paul Tibbets:  No.

Studs Terkel:  How did you know about that?

Paul Tibbets:  From Dr Ramsey. He said the only thing we can tell you about it is, it’s going to explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. I’d never seen 1 lb of TNT blow up. I’d never heard of anybody who’d seen 100 lbs of TNT blow up. All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.

Studs Terkel:  Twenty thousand tons – that’s equivalent to how many planes full of bombs?

Paul Tibbets:  Well, I think the two bombs that we used [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] had more power than all the bombs the air force had used during the war in Europe.

Studs Terkel:  So Ramsey told you about the possibilities.

Paul Tibbets:  Even though it was still theory, whatever those guys told me, that’s what happened. So I was ready to say I wanted to go to war, but I wanted to ask Oppenheimer how to get away from the bomb after we dropped it. I told him that when we had dropped bombs in Europe and North Africa, we’d flown straight ahead after dropping them – which is also the trajectory of the bomb. But what should we do this time? He said, “You can’t fly straight ahead because you’d be right over the top when it blows up and nobody would ever know you were there.” He said I had to turn tangent to the expanding shock wave. I said, “Well, I’ve had some trigonometry, some physics. What is tangency in this case?” He said it was 159 degrees in either direction. “Turn 159 degrees as fast as you can and you’ll be able to put yourself the greatest distance from where the bomb exploded.”

Studs Terkel:  How many seconds did you have to make that turn?

Paul Tibbets:  I had dropped enough practice bombs to realize that the charges would blow around 1,500 ft in the air, so I would have 40 to 42 seconds to turn 159 degrees. I went back to Wendover as quick as I could and took the airplane up. I got myself to 25,000 ft and I practiced turning, steeper, steeper, steeper and I got it where I could pull it round in 40 seconds. The tail was shaking dramatically and I was afraid of it breaking off, but I didn’t quit. That was my goal. And I practiced and practiced until, without even thinking about it, I could do it in between 40 and 42, all the time. So, when that day came….

Studs Terkel:  You got the go-ahead on August 5.




Paul Tibbets:  Yeah. We were in Tinian [the US island base in the Pacific] at the time we got the OK. They had sent this Norwegian to the weather station out on Guam [the US’s westernmost territory] and I had a copy of his report. We said that, based on his forecast, the sixth day of August would be the best day that we could get over Honshu [the island on which Hiroshima stands]. So we did everything that had to be done to get the crews ready to go: airplane loaded, crews briefed, all of the things checked that you have to check before you can fly over enemy territory. General Groves had a brigadier-general who was connected back to Washington DC by a special teletype machine. He stayed close to that thing all the time, notifying people back there, all by code, that we were preparing these airplanes to go any time me after midnight on the sixth. And that’s the way it worked out. We were ready to go at about four o’clock in the afternoon on the fifth and we got word from the president that we were free to go: “Use me as you wish.” They give you a time you’re supposed to drop your bomb on target and that was 9:15 in the morning , but that was Tinian time, one hour later than Japanese time. I told Dutch, “You figure it out what time we have to start after midnight to be over the target at 9 a.m.”

Studs Terkel:  That’d be Sunday morning.’

Paul Tibbets:  Well, we got going down the runway at right about 2:15 a.m. and we took off, we met our rendezvous guys, we made our flight up to what we call the initial point, that would be a geographic position that you could not mistake. Well, of course we had the best one in the world with the rivers and bridges and that big shrine. There was no mistaking what it was.

Studs Terkel:  So you had to have the right navigator to get it on the button.

Paul Tibbets:  The airplane has a bomb sight connected to the autopilot and the bombardier puts figures in there for where he wants to be when he drops the weapon, and that’s transmitted to the airplane. We always took into account what would happen if we had a failure and the bomb bay doors didn’t open; we had a manual release put in each airplane so it was right down by the bombardier and he could pull on that. And the guys in the airplanes that followed us to drop the instruments needed to know when it was going to go. We were told not to use the radio, but, hell, I had to. I told them I would say, “One minute out,” “Thirty seconds out,” “Twenty seconds” and “Ten” and then I’d count, “Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four seconds”, which would give them a time to drop their cargo. They knew what was going on because they knew where we were. And that’s exactly the way it worked; it was absolutely perfect. After we got the airplanes in formation I crawled into the tunnel and went back to tell the men, I said, “You know what we’re doing today?” They said, “Well, yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission.” I said, “Yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission, but it’s a little bit special.” My tail gunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert. He said, “Colonel, we wouldn’t be playing with atoms today, would we?” I said, “Bob, you’ve got it just exactly right.” So I went back up in the front end and I told the navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, in turn. I said, “OK, this is an atom bomb we’re dropping.” They listened intently but I didn’t see any change in their faces or anything else. Those guys were no idiots. We’d been fiddling round with the most peculiar-shaped things we’d ever seen. So we’re coming down. We get to that point where I say “one second” and by the time I’d got that second out of my mouth the airplane had lurched, because 10,000 lbs had come out of the front. I’m in this turn now, tight as I can get it, that helps me hold my altitude and helps me hold my airspeed and everything else all the way round. When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just great. I tell people I tasted it. “Well,” they say, “what do you mean?” When I was a child, if you had a cavity in your tooth the dentist put some mixture of some cotton or whatever it was and lead into your teeth and pounded them in with a hammer. I learned that if Ihad a spoon of ice-cream and touched one of those teeth I got this electrolysis and I got the taste of lead out of it. And I knew right away what it was. OK, we’re all going. We had been briefed to stay off the radios: “Don’t say a damn word, what we do is we make this turn, we’re going to get out of here as fast as we can.” I want to get out over the sea of Japan because I know they can’t find me over there. With that done we’re home free. Then Tom Ferebee has to fill out his bombardier’s report and Dutch, the navigator, has to fill out a log. Tom is working on his log and says, “Dutch, what time were we over the target?” And Dutch says, “Nine-fifteen plus 15 seconds.” Ferebee says: “What lousy navigating. Fifteen seconds off!”

Studs Terkel:  Did you hear an explosion?

Paul Tibbets:  Oh yeah. The shockwave was coming up at us after we turned. And the tail gunner said, “Here it comes.” About the time he said that, we got this kick in the ass. I had accelerometers installed in all airplanes to record the magnitude of the bomb. It hit us with two and a half G. Next day, when we got figures from the scientists on what they had learned from all the things, they said, “When that bomb exploded, your airplane was 10 and half miles away from it.”

Studs Terkel:  Did you see that mushroom cloud?

Paul Tibbets:  You see all kinds of mushroom clouds, but they were made with different types of bombs. The Hiroshima bomb did not make a mushroom. It was what I call a stringer. It just came up. It was black as hell and it had light and colors and white in it and grey color in it and the top was like afolded-up Christmas tree.

Studs Terkel:  Do you have any idea what happened down below?

Paul Tibbets:  Pandemonium! I think it’s best stated by one of the historians, who said: “In one micro-second, the city of Hiroshima didn’t exist.”

Go here to read the rest of the interview.




One of the eyewitnesses to the bomb on the ground was German Jesuit Father Johannes Siemes, who survived and who aided in the relief efforts:


None of us in those days heard a single outburst against the Americans on the part of the Japanese, nor was there any evidence of a vengeful spirit*. The Japanese suffered this terrible blow as part of the fortunes of war…something to be borne without complaint. During this war, I have noted relatively little hatred toward the Allies on the part of the people themselves, although the press has taken occasion to stir up such feelings.

After the victories at the beginning of the war, the enemy was rather looked down upon, but when the Allied Offensive gathered momentum and especially after the advent of the majestic B-29’s the technical skill of America became an object of wonder and admiration. The following anecdote shows the spirit of the Japanese: A few days after the atomic bombing, the Secretary of the University came to us asserting that the Japanese were ready to destroy San Francisco by means of a equally effective bomb. It is dubious that he himself believed what he told us. He merely wanted to impress upon us foreigners that the Japanese were capable of similar discoveries. In his nationalistic pride, he talked himself into believing this. The Japanese also intimated that the principle of the new bomb was a Japanese discovery. It was only lack of raw materials, they said, which prevented its construction. In the meantime, the Germans were said to have carried the discovery to a further stage and were about to initiate such bombing. The Americans were reputed to have learned the secret from the Germans and they had then brought the bomb to a stage of industrial completion.

We have discussed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb. Some consider it in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civil population. Others were of the view that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers and that the bomb itself was an effective for tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical to us that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever the good that might result ? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?

Go here to The War Times Journal to read the rest of Father Siemes’ observations on Hiroshima.

Published in: on August 6, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on August 6, 1945: Bombing of Hiroshima  
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