As I stood and read one of the plaques in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, a myriad of emotions ran through my mind; part of which imagined myself there on the 6th August 1945. It was early in the morning; people were starting their day, thinking of what they had to do, how their relatives were and many just normal musings. Little did they know that an airplane was moving inexorably towards them high in the sky; the most important airplane in a group of three.
Truly if they had seen the vapors trails, they may well not have been too perturbed, for the skies had witnessed many American planes, and this was a small group and most probably weather planes. What damage could they do to a city?
Inside the primary airplane a group of young men were about to open a new chapter in the history of warfare, indeed in the history of the world. The airplane that was approaching Hiroshima that morning was called the Enola Gay, and it carried only one bomb, Little Boy, an atomic bomb. Colonel Paul Tibbets was the captain of the airplane, and he stated in an interview years later that the morning was sunny and perfectly clear, so it was easy to see the city beneath them. Finding the bridges that demarked their primary target was therefore very easy and made the dropping of the bomb almost routine. Once the bomb was dropped, the airplane was quickly moved out of the confines of the valley until those on board felt the bomb’s blasts, indicating that it had detonated at six hundred meters above the city. That was a relief, as nobody had really known if it would, such had been the haste to move from primary tests to the deployment of the first atomic weapon used against an enemy city.
As the shock waves passed, Colonel Tibbets banked the airplane around to fly back over the city. He wanted to report to his superiors what had actually happened, as this was a completely new challenge and all evidence would be of extreme importance to the scientists that were continuing to work on further developments. Tibbets stated that the scenes that they saw were such a shock as the “city that they had seen so clearly in the sunlight a few minutes before was now an ugly smudge. It had completely disappeared under this awful blanket of smoke and fire.”
I have seen video footage of the aftermath of the bombing and the devastation was incredible, in fact, difficult to imagine today. So many people died instantly in the firestorm and many others died later as a direct result of the effects of radiation poisoning. So many lives lost in a few seconds. Lives that had been contemplating the day, possibly even looking up unconcernedly at the sight of that particular airplane.
What must the men in the airplane have thought as they flew back over the city that they had just destroyed? Tibbets stated that it was such a harrowing sight that even Dante “would have been terrified,” but that consideration was probably offset by the elation of completing the mission and tempered with the need to leave Japanese airspace and return to base safely before they could be intercepted. They may also have been excited at having brought such damage to the enemy, but I walked around the Peace Park wondering what the crew must have felt over the course of the following years. Did they continue to feel combat elated or were there recriminations?
Paul Tibbets died recently at the age of ninety-two and stated unequivocally before his death that “he never lost a night’s sleep over the apocalyptic mission,” and that ought to satisfy my curiosity. But somehow it does not. For I remain convinced that although those men were doing their duty, that they were unaware of the full magnitude of the bomb that they were delivering into the heart of their enemy, they still saw the direct consequences of the bomb that exploded, and they must have felt a sense of responsibility for having caused the death of so many civilians. I remain convinced that it is a rare human being who cannot find sympathy for the deaths of others, and the more so if that human being provoked those deaths.
Nothing could ever return those who died to life, and I am not at all willing to accuse the young men who dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. What I am wondering is: did they ever feel regret for what they had done? Did they ever pray for the souls of those that they had killed in the quiet and anonymity of their local place of worship? And what did they feel about the possibility of further bombings when they saw what they had done to Hiroshima? Were they perhaps concerned enough to advocate that governments invest the inventive skills of their citizens into peaceful purposes rather than not? What I have read about Colonel Paul Tibbets to date suggests that none of these questions can be answered in the affirmative. But I dare to hope.