Our inside view of Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the second atomic weapon used in wartime, got me reading about the Nagasaki bombing of August 9, 1945, which helped put an end to World War II after six long years of bloodshed.
The story of the Hiroshima bombing, just three days earlier, is better known. The Enola Gay and its pilot, Paul Tibbets (who commanded the 509th Composite Group responsible for nuclear missions), have become familiar names to the public over the years. Fewer people, though, can identify Charles “Chuck” Sweeney as the pilot of the bomber that left Tinian for Japan early on the morning of August 9, accompanied by five other B-29s, including Enola Gay. There was no fighter escort, so as not to draw attention.
Unlike the Hiroshima mission, Sweeney’s flight was tense and plagued by problems. Before leaving, the crew discovered a malfunction in a fuel pump that severely limited their range, and put in doubt whether they’d have enough fuel to return to Tinian. They decided to go anyway. The mood of the second A-bomb flight was far different from the first, recalled Jacob Beser, the only man to fly in the strike plane for both missions. Before Bockscar‘s early morning takeoff, he wrote in a 1988 memoir, “There was a decided absence of the ‘Hollywood Premier’ atmosphere and most everyone was quite subdued.”
Their original target was Kokura. When they arrived, the city was obscured by smoke from the firebombing of Yawata, known as the “Pittsburgh of Japan,” by more than 200 B-29s the night before. (“Kokura’s luck” became a Japanese expression for inadvertently escaping disaster). So Bockscar headed for Nagasaki, which, a generation earlier, had been the setting of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.”
The crew was under orders to drop their bomb only after visually sighting the target, but chose to come in over Nagasaki using radar, as the city was covered with clouds. Finally, a hole broke in the clouds, and bombardier Capt. Kermit Beahan had about half a minute to get a visual sighting before releasing the bomb.
Beser later wrote:
The airplane lurched as the bomb was released, and Sweeney put it into a tight turn to the left to give us some distance from the explosion. In about 45 seconds there was the now familiar bright flash, and the rapidly ascending mushroom cloud. Once again, by the time I got to the window, the city was gone.
John Coster-Mullen, in his 2009 book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, collected other impressions from the crew. Assistant flight engineer Raymond Gallagher was anxious about the rising cloud outside his window, which appeared (although it really wasn’t) to be dangerously close:
I stood up and looked straight down. What I saw was the cloud underneath us. I hollered through my intercom mike to the pilot that if we didn’t get out, we were going to get caught in our own bomb blast.
On the flight back to base, wrote Beser in his memoir, “not much was said on board the airplane. There was none of the euphoria that was evident after the drop at Hiroshima.” In an article published just a few days after the Nagasaki mission, he had written:
As the airplane returned from the target area it was the unanimous opinion of the crew that the end of the war could not be far off, for no nation could possibly stand a rain of destruction such as they had just witnessed.
Whenever asked, as they often were in later years, whether they regretted their mission, some of the Bockscar veterans would get testy. Wrote Beser: “War by its very nature is immoral. Are you any more dead from an Atomic Bomb than from a conventional bomb?”
Sweeney, who died in 2004, also recalled his thoughts on the five-hour flight back to base after dropping the bomb:
As the hours ticked by and we plowed through the moonlit sky, no word of Japanese surrender or even about our mission came over the airwaves. The music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller drifted softly through the airplane. I’m not sure what was going through my crew’s minds, but I began to think ahead to the realization that if the Japanese didn’t surrender, we would be flying more of these missions. The thought left me cold. I was the only one aboard who knew that we were several weeks away from having more bombs.
Filmmaker Michael Puttré interviewed Sweeney extensively for his documentary Nagasaki: The Commander’s Voice: