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Uncle Leonard and Fat Man

August means a continuation of summer fun to many or the start of school again for others.

Whenever the first days of August arrive I think of Uncle Leonard. Actually, Leonard Roy Ward was my great uncle, Mother's side. He was born at the dawn of the twentieth century and by the time Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II, Leonard had lived several lifetimes full of adventure as a gambler and rodeo cowboy.

He was something of a lovable rapscallion, who unabashedly cheated at cards with his seven year old niece, my mother, until her piggy bank lay cracked open and empty. He took the pennies, nickels, and dimes then absconded down the road to the next rodeo while his niece learned a life long hard lesson about gambling.

When too many injuries dragged him from the saddle he took contracting jobs in the Pacific; first on Midway, then in November, 1941 he moved on to Wake Island for double pay. More than 1,200 hundred civilian workers and 450 or so Marines and Navy men were left without further support when the Japanese Navy besieged Wake Island for three weeks in December, 1941, finally overrunning the atoll a day and a half before Christmas. Leonard was luckier than many of the other fellows, surviving another year on Wake then two and a half more years as a slave laborer in Japan. A group of Wake Island prisoners who started out at about 250 in number built a dam high in the hills of Fukuoka; a job comparable to the bridge on the River Kwai construction of film fame. The dam got built but the American civilian POWs died by the score. By the early summer of 1945 a couple dozen of those Wake Islanders, including Leonard Ward, ended up in another prison camp on Koyagi Island in Nagasaki Bay.

Maybe it's the alliteration of August and A-Bomb, but those two always equate for me when the eighth month rolls around. Many of the POW survivors of slave labor in Japan who I spoke with decades later still swore that the A-bombs saved their lives. They had been told by their captors during the early summer of 1945 that they (the POWs) would be used as human shields if American troops invaded the homeland.

We're one year shy of seven decades since those atomic bombs were dropped. The events surrounding the Hiroshima bombing have been incredibly well chronicled, but Nagasaki has dwindled into an afterthought, even in the US, where everything in the world seems to need to center around America and Americans. Keeping with that tradition here's a largely U.S. centric view of how and why that second atomic bombing run ended up over Nagasaki, beginning in the wee hours of the morning, around 2:45am.

While American POWs slept on Koyagi Island in Nagasaki Bay, and in other POW camps nearby, seven hundred fifty miles to the south on Tinian Island, Major Chuck Sweeney guided a B-29 Superfortress called Bockscar down the runway. In the bomb bay lay a 10,000 pound explosive nicknamed “Fat Man.” Inside it was a circle of sixty-four detonators ready to drive pieces of plutonium together into a supercritical mass of atomic implosion.

Eight hundred gallons of aviation fuel sloshed uselessly in one of Bockscar’s tanks because of a faulty fuel pump. As the B-29 sped down the 8,000 foot runway Sweeney remembered seeing other overloaded bombers, with lesser engine problems, crash and disintegrate, but Bockscar’s wheels hopped off the runway, bumped again, then lifted off.

By 3am Bockscar climbed steadily as it headed north. The mission’s weaponeer, Navy Lt. Commander Fred Ashworth, crawled out of the bomb bay’s tight hatch to find his assistant, Lt. Barnes, manning “Fat Man’s” black control box.

“Changed the green plugs to red,” Ashworth said.

Lt. Barnes nodded. He sat at a table beside radioman Abe Spitzer.

Spitzer studied the dials and lights on the control box, but his eyes kept returning to a slowly blinking red light. Ashworth called Sweeney in the cockpit. “What’s our altitude, Major?”

“15,000 and climbing.”

“Good,” Ashworth said. “We can’t drop below 5,000.”

“Or what?” Spitzer looked at Barnes who stared at the blinking red bulb.

“Same thing that happens if that blinker speeds up too much.”

At 7am prisoners on Koyagi Island were already at work hand digging hillside tunnels the Japanese intended to turn into seemingly impenetrable bomb shelters. One injured Wake Islander rode a jury-rigged stationary bicycle inside the prison camp's hospital building. The spinning pedals ran a machine that separated rice from its husks.

Before the hour was up a B-29 was spotted high over Nagasaki. Air raid sirens went off, but in the hillside tunnel on Koyagi the prisoners went on shoveling loose dirt into rail carts. The aircraft may have been one of the weather planes sent out earlier to scout the backup targets for Bockscar that day.

Around ten after eight, Bockscar reached its rendezvous point over Yakushima Island. Right away Major Sweeney spotted one of his observation planes, The Great Artiste. Fred Bock captained her that morning, his crew having switched B-29s with Sweeney.

Three days earlier Sweeney had flown The Great Artiste alongside the Enola Gay over Hiroshima. Transferring all the scientific equipment from one plane to another was too much trouble, so for Special Mission #16 Sweeney’s crew simply swapped aircraft with Bock and his men.

There was no sign of Major Jim Hopkins and his B-29, The Big Stink, carrying a team of scientific observers. Sweeney had been given two main orders: Wait no more than fifteen minutes at the rendezvous point and make sure of a visual sighting before dropping the bomb.

Sweeney circled above Yakushima while he called Captain Marquardt on one of the weather planes, The Up an’ Atom. “Three-tenths cloud cover at Kokura,” Marquardt reported.

The city of Kokura was the primary target that August 9th morning. Sweeney continued circling while radioing his other weather plane, The Laggin Dragon, over Nagasaki. “Hazy, clearing rapidly,” Captain Charles McKnight told him. “Twenty percent cloud coverage. Wind: two hundred fifty degrees at fifty knots.”

At 8:30am an all clear signal ended the air raid alert in Nagasaki. Twenty minutes later Sweeney’s radio crackled and he heard Major Hopkins call from The Big Stink, “Chuck, where the hell are you?”

Sweeney did not respond to Hopkins, but, instead, muttered, “We can’t wait any longer.” Bockscar and The Great Artiste headed for Kokura.

Abe Spitzer’s eyes popped when he swung away from his radio to check on Lt. Barnes. The red light on “Fat Man's” control box started flashing wildly.

“Jesus!” Barnes stuck a screwdriver into the corner of the box. Ashworth moved in alongside and they tore the cover off. “How the hell did that happen?” Ashworth asked, then said, “If it’s the timing fuses we’ve got less than a minute.”

Spitzer grabbed for his parachute. Sweat beaded on Barnes and Ashworth’s foreheads.

They ran their fingers frantically over the wiring, retracing all their connections. Spitzer gaped at his watch. Forty five seconds raced by. Fifty. Fifty-five. A minute.

“That’s it!” Barnes pointed at two small rotary switches. “They’re backwards.”

“Quick!” Spitzer tried to shout, but the exclamation stuck in the back of his throat.

Barnes jerked wires from the two switches and reversed them. Spitzer let out an audible sigh. “I just fuckin’ wet my flight suit.”

As Barnes re-covered the control box, Ashworth grabbed the radio headset and calmly explained the problem to Sweeney. “It’s okay now,” he concluded.

At 9:20am navigator Jim Van Pelt assured Sweeney that Bockscar and The Great Artiste were precisely 30,000 feet over Kokura. Bombardier Kermit Beahan tried to look through his sights. “What happened to seventy percent visibility? We got heavy clouds.”

“I can see that,” Sweeney hollered.

“Got industrial haze,” Beahan added. “Smoke blowin’ in. Where’s that coming from?”

Co-pilot Fred Olivi answered. “Yamata got fire bombed last night, probably comin’ in from there.”

Tail gunner Dehart called Sweeney, “Flak wide.”

Sergeant Ray Gallagher reported, “Fighters, nine o’clock.”

“That’s just haze,” another voice bombarded Sweeney’s headset.

Sweeney turned Bockscar in a wide circle over the target, then another.

The circles went on until 10:20am when bombardier Beahan said, “Target in sight.” Then, in the next instant, “No, clouds.” Beahan shook his head. “Can’t get a visual.”

Another voice called in, “Fighters on the radar.”

After ten minutes of circling in the clouds, Bockscar and The Great Artiste turned for their secondary target: Nagasaki. Seven minutes later flight engineer John Kuharek called Sweeney, “We got 600 gallons in the auxiliary tanks that won’t transfer to the main tank.”

At 10:55 navigator Van Pelt told Sweeney, “This is it, Nagasaki.”

Beahan called out, “I can’t see. Ninety percent cloud cover.”

“Well,” Sweeney hesitated, “we can’t go on to Niigata.”

“Too far.” Lt. Olivi concurred.

Kuharek said, “Barely enough fuel to put her down at Okinawa.”

Ashworth listened on the radio from next to the bomb bay. He had been with “Fat Man” since it was tested in the States. Fourteen hours earlier he’d watched the “Fat Man” hoisted onto Bockscar from a hole in the runway no bigger than a grave. “Orders are to bring it back if we can’t get a visual,” he said.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll land your ‘Fat Man’ at Okinawa,” Sweeney shot back.

“I don’t wanta ditch in the East China sea,” Olivi put in.

Spitzer heard him and bobbed his head.

“We could drop it by radar,” Ashworth gave in.

“Are you sure we’re on Nagasaki?” Sweeney asked Van Pelt.

“Yes, sir,” the navigator replied.

“Alright,” Sweeney nodded, “we’re droppin’ on radar.”

Two minutes before eleven Sweeney told the crew, “Thirty seconds.”

Spitzer let out another sigh over the radio. He wasn’t sure if it was relief or anxiety.

Beahan yelled into his mike, “I’ve got a hole! I see it! I can see the target.”

The Great Artiste dropped three parachutes carrying scientific instruments. One also contained a letter addressed to Professor Ryukichi Sagane who had studied at the University of California with three of the physicists who’d helped build the bomb. Their message urged Dr. Sagane to tell the Japanese public of the danger of this weapon of mass destruction.

Beahan released “Fat Man.”

“Bombs away!”

Above Nagasaki the sky flashed red, then yellow, and a blinding white.

The radius of immediate and total destruction was approximately one mile. Fires killed almost all plant and animal life for another mile. Estimates for immediate human deaths vary drastically, from somewhere around 25,000 to 75,000.

One American and 24 Australian POWs were situated within the city limits. All survived, most likely due to the thick concrete cells they were imprisoned in.

Witnesses on Koyagi Island said that the sun disappeared at 11am, but they jerked their hands in front of their eyes as shields nonetheless. Some reported a rippling black line slicing through the air just above the waters of Nagasaki Bay. A hot gust singed cheeks on Koyagi. An orange, red, and purple ball puffed out into a gigantic globe over the city as a second burst of intense heat whipped POW faces on Koyagi. An earsplitting roar raced across the bay along with an underwater surge that shot ferry boats out of the water.

At the prison hospital, windows exploded inward, glass shattering into fragments hardly larger than grains of sand, but no one sustained serious injury. Many of the Wake Islanders who survived dreadful POW conditions long enough to witness the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki also survived postwar life for decades to come, including Uncle Leonard.

At least one of those Wake Islanders is still around in 2014.

One Comment

  1. heilig September 3, 2014

    This was a great read (as is usual for MacDonald). Thanks for writing it.

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