In the early morning of August 9, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress named “Bockscar” lifted off from Tinian, in the Northern Marianas Islands, and began flying in the direction of Japan. During its flight, the airplane was carrying the latest, deadliest weapon of the age—an atomic bomb. In particular, Bockscar was hauling a killing machine called “Fat Man.” Weighing in at approximately 10,000 pounds, the 60-inch diameter device was designed to create an explosion equivalent to around 22 kilotons of TNT. This apocalyptic super-weapon would eventually be dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing many tens-of-thousands of ill-fated city-dwellers. Yet, Nagasaki was not the intended target of Bockscar’s bomb. In fact, Bockscar and “Fat Man” hovered around an entirely different city for around an hour before the airplane made its fateful detour to the secondary target, Nagasaki.
When Bockscar originally took off from Tinian, the crew’s intention was to drop their atomic payload on Kokura, which was a major arsenal city and industrial hub in Japan. They successfully reached the city, which, like Nagasaki, was on the island of Kyushu, but they found that the area around Kokura was hidden from view by a dense layer of clouds, as well as some smoke. Hoping for an opening to appear in the weather, the bomber circled the region for just under an hour. Despite this, nature refused to give the airmen a glimpse of the city. The weaponeer of the aircraft, Commander Frederick Ashworth, wrote of this in his return report for the operation, stating, “Received weather reports and made decision to attack primary target [Kokura]. Arrived in target area 0900552. Target about 3/10 cloud with some haze and heavy smoke. Made 3 runs on primary but each time target was obscured by haze and smoke. After fifty minutes decided to attack secondary [Nagasaki]” (National Security Archives document exhibit 072b). With that momentous decision, Kokura was spared and Nagasaki was doomed. Never before has the salvation of a city been so indebted to weather and smog.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribute: (Nagasaki, Japan under atomic bomb attack / U.S. Army A.A.F. photo dated [9 August 1945], [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Library of Congress).