Journalist and Author based in London, England

The Times, Financial Times, Newsweek, Independent on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Spear's, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Oldie, Spectator Business...

Explosion over Hiroshima

Paul Tibbets stands infront of the Enola Gay, the B29 bomber that delivered the atomic bomb to Hirioshima in Japan on August 6, 1945.

Bomb of "Little Boy" type

Other book reviews

Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima

Stephen Walker

 

The day a family turned to ashes

 

Some of the citizens of the doomed city of Hiroshima clapped and cheered when they saw a couple of parachutes floating down from the sky. They thought a US bomber had been shot down. In fact, the parachutes carried blast-gauge canisters dropped by the observation plane accompanying the Enola Gay. It was perhaps 30 seconds before the atom bomb would explode about 2,000ft above the city: an altitude calculated to cause maximum damage.

 

The temperature at burst point reached 60 million degrees Centigrade in the first billionth of a second. The flash in the first second was followed by a shockwave that destroyed almost 60,000 buildings and killed at least 50,000 people instantly.

 

Thirty minutes later, a firestorm began that built gradually throughout that day and destroyed what remained of the city, because nine out of 10 of the city's buildings, including all its private dwellings, were made of wood. So-called "black rain", laden with radioactive dust, fell over part of the city for three hours. Parched citizens "opened their mouths to the downpour and drank it, gleefully, willingly, desperately, to quench a terrible thirst".

 

No previous book has attempted to tell the story of Hiroshima from both sides. Stephen Walker has interviewed 21 Americans and 21 Japanese for this account of the countdown to the explosion and its immediate aftermath. He never misses an intriguing detail. For example, the victims of Hiroshima included 23,000 Korean forced labourers and 23 American PoWs (two of whom were lynched following the explosion).

 

The bombing mission was no easy operation. For several months, its commander, Colonel Paul Tibbetts, trained to throw a B-29 into a 60-degree diving turn for exactly 28 seconds, building up its speed to 350 miles per hour: "The whole ship would scream and shudder on the very edge of a stall, every rivet groaning and bucking under an extreme form of aerodynamic torture. Get it wrong by a few degrees, pull a little too hard on the controls and the wing would rip off."

As always, it is the quirky human details that resonate the most: the blind teenager who "saw" the flash of the Trinity bomb test while being driven through the New Mexico desert; the survivor who was in the basement of his concrete office building only 100 yards from the epicentre of the blast; the soldier who found two charcoal sticks fused together - his wife and baby daughter - on the ground of what had been his family home and who took their bones back to his barracks in a handkerchief.

 

This is an utterly gripping work of micro-history. To say that the Enola Gay's mission was a perilous enterprise is a massive understatement. If the first bomb had accidentally exploded on take-off from Tinian Island, the US would have lost not only the plutonium core for its second device but also its Pacific operations base against Japan, not to mention the Manhattan Project scientists. For the crew of the Enola Gay, there was the risk of arming the bomb in mid-flight, the need to conduct the operation with expert precision and the acrobatic manoeuvre required to avoid being caught in the mushroom cloud and shockwave.

 

Walker makes the science comprehensible but, more important, reminds us this was a dangerous combat mission. In doing so, he proves himself to be a master of dramatic tension. Although he writes with compassion about the victims of Hiroshima - both those who were obliterated and those who survived - we are left in no doubt that this coastal city would otherwise have been at the forefront of fanatical and bloody resistance to a US invasion. Thus, it can be argued that the dropping of the A-bomb saved many thousands of Japanese as well as American lives.