Saturday, August 05, 2006

BOOK: Stephen Walker, "Shockwave"

Stephen Walker: Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima. John Murray, 2005. 0719567734. xv + 352 pp.

I noticed this one in the bookstore in early August last year, around the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which I guess is a part of the publisher's marketing strategy rather than a coincidence. Anyway, I was just in the process of reading Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb (see my post of a few weeks ago), and thus was in the mood to buy another atomic bomb book. It wasn't a bad read, but nothing terribly exciting either.

This book describes the main events related to the atomic bomb in the three weeks from the Trinity test (the first successful nuclear explosion, with the same bomb design that was later used against Nagasaki) to the Hiroshima bombing. The emphasis (and indeed the main concept around which the book is written) is on following the chronological course of events quite strictly, showing what the various actors involved in the story were doing at a certain time, even if this means jumping around from one location to another fairly frequently. We see the Trinity test, follow the preparations of the 509th Composite Group (i.e. the airmen that eventually carried the bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in their base on the island of Tinian, and finally accompany them on their mission over Hiroshima. On Tinian, the group was given the best accommodation available (pp. 83–4). They practiced endlessly the unusual manoeuvres that would be required to drop the atomic bomb: the bomb would be thrown from a high altitude, and the airplane would take a steep plunge immediately afterwards to gain speed with which to fly sufficiently far away from the explosion (p. 93). Tibbets, the commander of the group, was big on secrecy: “As well as his own private air force, Tibbets had his own private gestapo—the term is his own—and its thirty-odd agents prowled around the windy air base, eavesdropping on conversations” (p. 94) — people with loose tongues were packed off to Alaska for the rest of the war. Apart from that, Tibbets didn't much care what his men were doing as long as they were competent at their jobs: “He turned a blind eye to the bootleg whiskey, the irate fathers of unmarried daughters, the flood of police complaints about bar brawls and inebriated drivers, even the antics one notorious night in a Salt Lake City hotel when a naked redhead was observed running down a corridor pursued by a bunch of his drunken pilots.” (Pp. 94–5.)

At the same time we see a bit of the diplomatic activity that was going on during those weeks; the Potsdam conference was in progress, with the U.S., Britain and China demanding unconditional surrender of Japan (p. 157); as for the Japanese, they were divided: some insisted on defending the country to the last man, or committing suicide if further defense was impossible (pp. 99–100); others wanted to surrender and end the war, but couldn't accept unconditional surrender that would leave no guarantees that the allies would retain the emperor in his position as the head of state. At the time, the Soviet Union and Japan were still neutral to each other, and the Japanese tried to put out peace feelers via the Soviet Union, hoping that the Soviets might be able to influence the Anglo-Americans and persuade them to stop insisting on the unconditional surrender on Japan (pp. 40–41). But the Japanese hopes were in vain; the Americans, who weren't yet quite sure if the atomic bomb would work (and thus shorten the war), were planning an invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945, and asked the Soviets to help them by declaring war on Japan and keeping the Japanese army in China busy. The Soviets were keen to do this — it would give them more influence in East Asia after all — and so weren't in the least interested in helping the Japanese surrender early and on terms favourable to Japan (p. 158). Therefore they stalled and kept the Japanese ambassador waiting while the Potsdam conference was in progress. After that the ultimatum demanding unconditional surrender was issued to Japan, and although the Japanese tried to persist in their diplomatic efforts, these were now useless (pp. 159–60).

In addition to all that, the book also shows the events from the perspective of the inhabitants of Hiroshima; the author interviewed several survivors and shows some scenes from their lives in the last few days before the bomb and in the first few hours after the explosion.

To my list of hateful characters involved in the atomic bomb story (see my post on Rhodes' books), which so far chiefly included LeMay and Teller, I must now add several others, particularly the crews of the bombers that actually carried the bomb to Hiroshima (or accompanied the bomber carrying the bomb), as most of them didn't seem to show the slightest regret over what they had done. Not only at the time these events were taking place — one can understand that after several years of increasingly bitter warfare (cf. pp. 137, 293), with its hardships and incessant propaganda, even a decent person may end up being somewhat unfeeling and bloodthirsty; but these airmen seem to have mostly retained the same attitude in later years as well, when one would expect some sober reflection to set in that could make them realize that what they had done was, after all, a regrettable and horrible thing. The leader of the group (and pilot of Enola Gay, the plane that carried the bomb), Paul Tibbets, seems particularly disagreeable in this respect. See e.g. pp. 253, 261–2, and especially 317–8. One of the few humane comments is the one by Robert Shumard, assistant engineer on the Enola Gay, on the mushroom cloud, which had been described by others as beautiful: “ ‘There was nothing but death in that cloud. All those Japanese souls ascending to Heaven.’ ” (P. 262.)

Most of the U.S. military leaders as well as the public at large were quite happy that the bomb had been used and that it was so successful (p. 293). Marshall was among the few exceptions, warning “they should guard against too much gratification: the Japanese must have suffered huge casualties” (p. 293). Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy also opposed it (pp. 143–4). And Leo Szilard, the physicist who had done so much to start and encourage the development of the atomic bomb in 1939: “Immediately after the Nagasaki bomb, in a move that directly challenged the current of opinion, Szilard organized a collection for the survivors of both cities.” (P. 312.) Truman, however, never regretted his decision to order the bombs to be used (pp. 312–3).

One person that comes across as one of the more decent and humane characters in this book is Henry Stimson, who was the U.S. secretary of war during most of the WW2 (p. 43). He made efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution that could guarantee the Japanese that their monarchy will be preserved if they surrender, and the war might be ended without the use of the atomic bomb (p. 73); but in the end, he was overruled by Truman and his secretary of state, Jimmy Byrnes (pp. 140–1). A more successful effort of his was to have Kyoto removed from the list of targets for the atomic bomb (pp. 114–5).

There's an interesting discussion on how the use of the atomic bombs was practically a necessity once they had been invented (pp. 143–5). They weren't really necessary to destroy Japanese cities, as conventional bombing was already doing this very successfully; but something as shocking as the atomic bomb was needed to get the Japanese to surrender without an invasion of Japan by land forces (p. 144). Besides, after all the resources that had been used to develop the bomb, not using it seemed unthinkable to many, including Truman (p. 145). In addition to shocking the Japanese, the bomb was also hoped to impress the Soviets; the last weeks of WW2 were also the first weeks of the cold war (pp. 144–5).

The author is quite good at weaving all sorts of little details into his narrative. For example, at the Trinity test, the scientists present were not only wearing sunglasses but even sun cream (p. 60).

A certain military unit stationed in the desert of New Mexico “generally lived a life so cut off from the rest of the civilized world that each of them would one day receive a Good Conduct Medal for the lowest rate of venereal disease in the army” (p. 24).

Oppenheimer “once read all six volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a single transcontinental train journey” (p. 31). His wife Kitty was apparently a cousin of Keitel, the German field marshal (p. 32).

General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was addicted to chocolate (p. 31).

Apparently, LeMay (actually Walker spells this ‘Le May’) had a very curious nickname: “General Curtis ‘Iron Ass’ Le May” (p. 83). I don't remember seeing this in Rhodes' books, but now I see that it's mentioned in the Wikipedia page about LeMay. Truly, some things come pre-pornolized. :-)

There's an interesting description of the mechanism that triggered the explosion of the bomb once it reached a certain altitude on pp. 176–7.

The crews of the airplanes flying the Hiroshima mission were provided with cyanide capsules in case they were shot down and captured by the Japanese (p. 207). The navy also had “a string of submarines and aircaft” ready for the event of an emergency landing at sea (p. 199).

As is well known, the Hiroshima bomb contained uranium; on detonation, chemical explosives would shoot a small blob of uranium into a larger blob, so that together they would exceed critical mass and the nuclear explosion would begin. Obviously, this created a risk of explosion if the two blobs happened to come together prematurely for any reason, e.g. in the case of a plane accident. Harold Agnew, one of the scientists involved in the mission, commented: “ ‘That weapon was completely unsafe. If the plane had to stop in a hurry, that slug would have gone right in.’ ” (P. 210.) The bomb could also be set off by sea water if the plane had to ditch (p. 237).

Moments after the explosion, “Tibbets experienced a peculiar tingling sensation in his teeth—and the distinct taste of lead on his tongue. His fillings, he later learned, were interacting with the bomb's radiation.” (P. 259.)

A number of people survived the explosion itself but died after a few minutes of a zombie-like existence: “It did not look like a human being. It looked monstrous. Every part of its body was black, its arms, its head, its legs, its grotesquely swollen face. Its eyes protruded horribly like golf balls. It had no nose or hair. Its mouth gaped open like a huge hole. Its black lips were half the size of its face. [. . .] Black rags hung from its arms and torso. [. . .] they were burned flesh.” (Pp. 266–7.) P. 271 contains some numbers and statistics that quantify the destruction caused by the bomb.

Due to some unexplained mixup, messages sent from the Tinian air base to general Groves in Washington were delayed so much that he received no information about the progress of the mission until several hours after the explosion (pp. 212, 273–4)

On the Japanese side, the news was slow to spread too. Of course all communications between Hiroshima and the rest of Japan were severed immediately. A radio announcer in Hiroshima was interrupted in the middle of a sentence: “three large enemy planes proceeding” (p. 249); a second later, a control operator in Tokyo noticed that “the Hiroshima station had gone off the air” (p. 278). The first journalist to report on the explosion sent his first report by phone from a nearby town several hours after the bomb struck (p. 279).

It is often said that the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of 20 kilotons. But the correct figure is actually lower (13 KT according to the Wikipedia); the overstatement is due to a mistaken assumption that the bomb was equivalent to the one used in the Trinity test (which did yield 20 kilotons); p. 29. The Trinity design was used over Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.

Apparently Groves had been very good at keeping the secrets about his work from his family. His wife and daughter were “ ‘just as surprised as the Japs when Dick's bomb was dropped’ ” and Groves' name was mentioned on the ratio (p. 296).

Even after Nagasaki, some of Japan's leaders were refusing to consider a surrender: “ ‘Would it not be wondrous,’ said General Anami, the war minister, ‘for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?’ ” (P. 307.) Needless to say, the civillian members of the cabined disagreed. Fortunately, the Emperor now decided to support them and thus Japan was finally able to surrender. Which is probably a good thing, for Groves was getting ready to drop a third atomic bomb over Tokyo around August 17th (p. 308).

There's a blurb from Gitta Sereny on the back cover: “Remarkable. I have been waiting for this book for sixty years”. In fact, seeing how obsessed she usually is with questions of morality and guilt, I'm almost surprised that she herself hasn't yet written some book about the use of the atomic bombs :-)

Some potentially interesting books mentioned in the bibliography:

  • James F. Byrnes: All in one Lifetime. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958. The memoirs of Jimmy Byrnes, Truman's foreign minister.
  • Frank W. Chinnock: Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1969.
  • Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.
  • Henry M. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy: On Active Service in Peace and War. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947.
  • Ronald Takaki: Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. New York: Little, Brown, 1995.


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