Remembering the Bomb, Forgetting Why

This past Wednesday morning at 8:15 AM in Hiroshima, Japan, it was partly cloudy and 78 degrees with light winds. Visibility was about 10 miles. A bell softly rang in the immaculately kept Peace Memorial Park, remembering the moment in 1945 when the atomic age was born. The anniversary is marked in a similar manner every year with tens of thousands of people from all over the world joining in the solemn ceremony.

The dwindling number of survivors come forward each year and tell their tales of horror about that day. It's almost as if they are re-living something that happened just recently, so vivid and emotional are the memories. Most of the survivors (many refer to them as "victims") were young children in 1945. Many lost their parents in the blast. They say they come to bear witness so that there will be no more Hiroshimas.

Exactly 63 years earlier, weather conditions were eerily similar when Colonel Paul Tibbets, commander of the 509th Composite Group and pilot of a plane he named after his mother -- the Enola Gay -- flew over Hiroshima's Aioi Bridge and began to bank his aircraft.

Just as Tibbets started his turn, the B-29 lurched violently as 10,000 pounds of American technical, industrial, and scientific ingenuity fell out of the bomb bay almost exactly on schedule (navigator Captain Theodore Van Kirk's calculations of time over target was 15 seconds off). Little Boy, they called it, in an ironic juxtaposition to its massive bulk. It was a gun-type nuclear bomb -- a crude, primitive, inefficient device by our standards. And for all the effort, money, time, and brainpower that went into designing it, Little Boy was simplicity incarnate.

A hollow bullet of highly enriched uranium 235 was placed at one end of a long tube with a larger mass of enriched uranium at the other end. The larger cylinder of nuclear material was barely "subcritical" -- that is, needing just a bit more in order to start a chain reaction and cause an explosion.

When Little Boy hit 1900 feet above Hiroshima (it had drifted about 800 feet from the target), the uranium bullet fired down the barrel and impacted the cylinder perfectly. For two millionths of a second, the mass that used to be Little Boy became as hot as the sun. This heat so thoroughly eliminated humans directly below the blast, all that could be seen afterwards were shadow-like outlines of people on the concrete.

The blast -- equivalent to about 13,000 tons of TNT -- literally scoured out the center of the city and the resulting fires took care of most of the rest. About 70,000 people perished within hours of the blast with another 70,000 dying before the end of 1945.

Three days later --63 years ago today-- history would repeat itself over the city of Nagasaki. This time, a plutonium bomb was used, increasing the efficiency of the device dramatically. Due to some topographical quirks (there were no large hills as in Hiroshima to focus the blast effect), the casualty rate was lower. Still, Fat Man managed to kill more than 40,000 that day and another 40,000 before that fateful year faded into history.

How could we have done it? Much of the world to this day asks the question, "Wasn't there another, less cruel way to end the war?"