About the Episode
In this special season of World War II On Topic, The National WWII Museum will explore J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the history and ramifications of the atomic bomb.
The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was August 6. In this episode, we hear from two extraordinary people who experienced the bombing, albeit from vastly different perspectives. While much has been written and said on the subject, these are firsthand recollections, excerpted from the oral histories given by Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk and Ittsei Nakagawa.
Van Kirk was the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He was the last surviving member of the Enola Gay crew before his death in 2014.
Nakagawa was a Japanese American from California who got stuck in Japan due to the war. He was there, in Hiroshima, on that fateful day and survived to tell his experience.
These oral histories were recorded by the Museum and provide a first-person look into the lives of those who experienced these astonishing and terrifying events.
Topics Covered in this Episode
- The Manhattan Project
- Nuclear Weapons
On the morning of August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
FALLOUT: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World with Author Lesley Blume
This presentation of FALLOUT, which premiered on the Museum’s Facebook page, recounts how John Hersey got the story that no other journalist could—and how he subsequently played a role in ensuring that no nuclear attack has happened since, possibly saving millions of lives.
In 1945 the American intellectual, Norman Cousins, was one of the first to raise terrifying questions for humanity about the successful splitting of the atom.
World War II On Topic is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.
The president reports on the startling developments that seal Japan’s fate.
President Harry S. Truman
We are now prepared to destroy, more rapidly and completely, every productive enterprise the Japanese have in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July the 26th was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.
Hi, I'm Jeremy Collins with the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Today, we’re going to hear from two extraordinary people who lived through the experience of August 6, 1945, over and in Hiroshima. We are going to listen to excerpts of oral histories from Theodore Van Kirk and Ittsei Nakagawa. These personal accounts are a part of our rich collection here at the Museum and provide a firsthand look into the lives of those who experienced these moments.
Van Kirk, who went by Dutch, was the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Nakagawa, a Japanese American from California, was visiting his grandparents in Japan when war broke out. He spent the entire war stranded there, and was in Hiroshima on that fateful day. He survived to share his experiences. But we opened with Van Kirk, who recalls a telephone conversation with pilot Paul Tibbets about a special mission.
Theodore Van Kirk
The thing that Paul Tibbets told me, when we talked on the telephone, I think that he probably told everybody else too, was that, “We’re going to be doing something special. That if it works, it's either going to significantly shorten or end the war.” Now, and that's basically all that he ever told us. But if you get out to Wendover and you are running around there, and now you're being trained to do something that they told you would destroy practically an entire city, and you saw a bunch of people running around that you knew from back in your college days were atomic physicists, if you could not put two and two together and know that we were going to drop an atomic bomb, you are pretty damn stupid.
But if you ever talked about it, you were even more stupid. You never heard the word atomic used in our group and around our organization. You never heard the word nuclear, anything of that type. It was always referred to as the gimmick, the weapon, or something of that type. And if you ever talked about anything nuclear or anything of this type, Paul would probably send you up to the Aleutian Islands, which is his favorite place to send people who talk too much. And he did it indiscriminately.
Now, our lieutenant colonel, our deputy group commander, went home one day with one of our airplanes, and, Christ, showed the airplane to his parents and everything of that type. And you look at our airplanes, it was obvious we're going to do something different. There's only one hookup there instead of the regular bomb bay configuration. And so, obviously, he had violated security and everything at that time. When he came back, he was sent up to the Aleutians.
What sorts of modifications were done to those aircraft?
Theodore Van Kirk
Well, number one, (it was) stripped out. Anything we did not need on the airplane, in order to complete this mission, we took out and threw away. The airplane was about 6,000 pounds lighter because of that. The turrets were all out, for example. Top turret, ball turret, all the turrets were out. The only guns we had were the tail guns. Now, the reason for that is, I guess it was like January, early February, something of that type, we were talking to one of the atomic physicists working on the bomb, and he looked at us and said, I remember it very vividly—something I guess you don't forget—he says, “We think the airplane will be okay if you're nine miles away when the bomb explodes.”
And I can remember looking at the guy and I said, “What the hell do you mean you think?” He says, “I don't know.” He says, “That's our best guess.” He says, “There are some people betting that that's not enough. That it'll have to be 50 miles away.” He says, “Some people are betting you can't get far enough away.” He said, “In which case, you guys are dead.” Made me feel real good.
But, anyhow, after that, everything was aimed at getting nine miles away. You could not do it in a regular B-29. With the bomb on board and everything else, all the guns on board, the turrets and all that sort of stuff, you couldn't get that airplane high enough. It wouldn't go fast enough. So you had to go down to a stripped airplane. But very fortunately at that time, the Japanese had no defenses against high-flying airplanes. So we stripped down the airplanes, took all the guns out of it, all the turrets out. Then at the end we put snap open bomb bay doors on. We put fuel injection engines, reversible pitch props. By the time that we were all finished and got our new airplanes built in Omaha, why, we had the best airplanes, I'm sure, in existence. (The) best bombers in existence in the Air Force.
Confidence was high. While the team was preparing to launch an unprecedented mission, they were all waiting for the final go ahead.
Theodore Van Kirk
That Truman had approved the use of the bomb and dropping it at our first opportunity, and that's when the weather was good, happened to be August 6, and everybody wants to know what happened then. They think something very dramatic happened like Hollywood or something. It wasn't like Hollywood. It was just a lot of hard work. I had to take the time we wanted to drop the bomb and work it backwards. There are a lot of people in Hiroshima today who say we dropped the bomb at 8:15, that would be Hiroshima time, because we wanted to get the maximum number of people out in the open. And every time they tell me that, I remind them that the reason we dropped it at 8:15 is because we had no damn lights on our field. We wanted to make sure we got back before dark and everything. And that was the reason for that time selection.
But anyhow, then the day before the mission, that would've been August the 5th, why, they call us together about 10, 11 o'clock in the morning. And we knew this was going to be a very important thing, because (they) had guys with Tommy guns out guarding the briefing hunt and everything like that. And so they get us together and they give us a briefing. Who's going to go on the mission, what their course is going to be, what bombing heading is going to be, all that sort of stuff. And then they tell us to go get some sleep, and they'll call us about 10 o'clock for the final briefing, and the final breakfast, and down to the airplane.
How they expected to tell you you're going to go out and drop the first atomic bomb and then go get some sleep is absolutely beyond me. I know Tibbets didn't sleep. I know (bombardier Thomas) Ferebee didn't sleep. I know I didn't sleep, because we're all three in the same poker game, and I don't even remember who won. But if it was true to course, Tom Ferebee won. That's all I'll say there.
So then we played poker, and finally about 10 o'clock at night, why, they came to get us, and they said the final briefing, and this is where they tell you where all this air sea rescue ships are going to be. And by the way, we had a very elaborate rescue unit, ships all the way along our course, and everything of that type, in case we had to go down. I remember her husband, Tom telling me, he says, “Dutch, make sure where all those damn ships are. I don't want to get my feet wet.” And guess what, they even had a submarine in the Inland Sea, if we had to go down close to Hiroshima, and things like that.
And then that gives the final frequencies for all the radio contacts and everything like that. And then over to the final breakfast. And I'd always remember what we had for the final breakfast, because I hated pineapple fritters. Paul loved them, and we had pineapple fritters for breakfast that morning. And then all down and got our equipment on and down to the airplane.
And we get down to the airplane, and that was our first surprise. Keg lights all lighting up the airplane all over, people interviewing other people, people taking all kind of pictures, and everything like that. And we hadn't expected that. And I emphasize here, that was at the command of the Manhattan Project to record the thing for historical purposes. It was not done by the press. There was no press on the island, anytime, during the dropping of these bombs. Two or three days after the Nagasaki drop, we all flew down to Guam to meet the press, so to speak, because they were not allowed up on Tinian.
And the only guy in the press (who) was allowed up there was Bill Lawrence of The New York Times, who was in on it from the word go, but sworn to secrecy. And he had agreed to it and he couldn't out write about it until it was released by the Manhattan Project. So anyhow, there was a lot of pictures taken, a lot of interviewing and everything of that type. And until, oh, maybe like 2:30, something of that type, we were supposed to take off at 2:45. And finally, it was time to get on the airplane and get rid of the cameras and crank up and go. That's all there was to it.
William “Bill” Lawrence was a journalist who was given access by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves to record the progress of the super-secret Manhattan Project. Before the Trinity test, the first nuclear detonation, hopes were high that this new weapon would end the war. Groves allowed Lawrence to send a brief update to his editors at the Times. He wrote: “It will be an eighth-day wonder. The world will not be the same end.” Soon thereafter, Dutch and the rest of the Enola Gay crew embarked on the historic mission.
Theodore Van Kirk
Took us about six hours and 15 minutes going up and six hours coming back, yep.
What'd you do in that long six-hour period of time?
Theodore Van Kirk
Hey, don't ask me what to do, I was working all the time, for Christ's sake. The navigator was the only guy (who) always worked on an airplane and everything of that type. Because, hey, if you've ever seen my log, if you haven't, I'll send you a copy, but if you've ever seen my log, I'm recording our instrument readings and our location and everything like every 15, 20 minutes. The way navigators got screwed up is they didn't keep up with the airplane. I not only kept up with the airplane, I wanted to be ahead of it and everything like that. So the navigator was always a busy guy on the airplane.
And don't ask me what the other people did. Captain (William) Parsons, Navy Captain Parsons, on a way up to Hiroshima, Parsons and (Morris) Jeppson went back into the bomb bay, took out the... No, and on the bomb. On the bomb, that's number one. Our bomb operated on a simple gun principle. You had a charge of black powder there, it fired a projectile of shaped U-235 into a fixed target of another shaped piece of U-235, created a critical mass and you got an explosion.
Now, the fact we were carrying an atomic bomb didn't bother me, but the fact they were back in the bomb bay fooling around with black powder, that did bother me and this sort of thing. They did that while we stayed at low altitude until we got to Iwo (Jima). And then when we got to Iwo, we made one circle of the island. And Chuck Sweeney was on one wing, George Marquardt was on the other, so we just take off to Japan. And shortly before we reached 10,000 feet, Jeppson went back in the bomb bay, again, took out the red plugs and put in the green or took out the green, that's what it was, took out the green plugs and put in the red plugs. So the circuitry was then connected, and the bomb was now live.
But they had to do that before they could still go back in the bomb bay, when we were at relatively low altitude. And so that's what they did. They had a console sitting there right alongside of me, where they were keeping track of the circuitry of the bomb, the electrical circuitry of the bomb. A lot of green lights on it. I know I said to Parsons one time, I said, and he was Deak Parsons to us on the flight, “Deak,” I said, “what happens if all those green lights go out out and some red lights comes on?” And he says, “We're in a hell of a lot of trouble,” and that sort of thing.
But anyhow, everybody had their thing. Some people didn't have anything to do. Like Tom didn't have anything to do until we got to the target. He took a nap. He slept. Tom could sleep anyplace. That's all I'll tell you about that. Paul was flying the airplane. Bob Lewis was flying the airplane. Bob was also keeping a journal, I think for Bill Lawrence. Everybody had things to do. Flight engineer, (Wyatt) Duzenbury, next to me, is probably the busiest guy there. He was watching his instruments all the time.
Now, what they were doing at back, I don't know. But Jeppson was back there and everything of that type. I guess, probably the same thing Dick Nelson was doing, Dick was reading a whodunnit about a young boxer and that sort of thing, I remember. So everybody had their thing they were doing.
Was there a lot of conversation in the plane? Or...
Theodore Van Kirk
Every once in a while we might, if we had something to say, we'd say it. But we weren't just sitting there trying to make conversation or anything like that. No. No.
It was just a regular mission…
Theodore Van Kirk
Hey, it was not only a regular mission, it was an easy mission. Paul, Tom, and I, all three said, “It was one of the easiest missions we ever flew in our life.” Why? Because everything went exactly according to plan. And when it does, why, it makes a mission seem easy. So now, after we leave Iwo, we're starting our climb, before 10,000, he went back into the bomb bay, as I said, changed the plug, so that the bomb was now live. Continued our climb, and we climbed up to a little over 30,000 feet.
The weather was perfect. I could see the coastline of Japan from, oh, hell, a 100 miles away. I could see the city of Hiroshima from a good 75 miles away, and pick it out. And we went in and we crossed the island Shikoku, we crossed the Inland Sea into a little town just east of Hiroshima, we had picked out as an initial point, turned to a 70 degree heading. We wanted to bomb on a heading at 270, which I remember Tom Ferebee said... The winds from Japan were generally from the west to east, and easiest way to go would've been bomb downwind, with wind at your back. And you're doing it faster. You're getting the hell out of there faster. Tom says, “Hell no, we're going up there to hit the target, not get out of there fast.”
So that's the why we were bombing on the 270 heading. Actually, didn't make any difference. The winds that day were very light out of the south, about 260, as I recall. So it didn't make a lot of difference. We had taken a wind reading just at about every 5,000 feet on the way of our climb up there, so that I could tell Tom just about what the wind was going to be for his bomb site and everything of that type. So up there we hit the initial point, we turned onto the 270 heading, actually 263. And then to bomb the target. We sat on a bomb run for a long time. I'm not sure how long, but I told Tom at one time, I said, “Hey,” I said, “Tom, if we'd ever sat on a bomb run this long over Europe, we wouldn't be here,” because it was that long.
And by this time Tom was flying the airplane. It's an automatic pilot. He's flying the airplane. And in the videotape we make, why, Paul says, “He was sitting there chewing on his cigar saying, ‘There's not a thing I can do. It's going right down the line.”’ Well, that's a lie, because Tom didn't even smoke cigars back in those days, and this sort of thing. But he did say, “It's going right down the line. We're right on target,” and everything of that type.
So we went in and suddenly you felt the plane surge, because 9,800 pounds had left all of a sudden. And immediately Paul switched off the autopilot and started to go into the turn, to get away from it, 160 degrees to the right, steep as you can make it. And they pushed the throttles all forward, put the nose down to get speed to go away.
And a lot of people will say to us, “Does that maneuver have a name?” And I said, “I don't know whether it does, but I always call it getting the hell away from the bomb,” and that sort of thing. So we kept going in that direction out there, and 43 seconds until the bomb actually reached its altitude, at which it exploded, everybody in the airplane sitting there, if they don't have a watch, they're counting, “1,001, 1,002.” And I think we had concluded that it was a dud, because it seemed to be a long 43 seconds, let me put it that way. And suddenly there was a bright flash in the airplane from the bomb exploding. So we knew the bomb exploded. So we kept going away from it and that sort of thing.
And very shortly thereafter, why, the first shockwave hit the airplane. And later I found it was measured at about two and a half to three Gs. That doesn't seem like a bunch to a fighter pilot, but if you're in a B-29 at 30,000 feet, it seems like a lot. And the sound was worse than in the shockwave, because it sounded like a piece of sheet metal snapping, if you have a piece of sheet metal or something of that type. Somebody on the airplane called out “Flak.” I don't know who it was. And (Robert) Caron, the tail gunner says, “Oh, no,” he says, “it wasn't flak.” He says, “It was a shockwave, and here comes another one.” And then the second one, a reflection shockwave, hit us, less intensity than the first one.
So after we were certain we weren't going to get more shock waves, we take a look at what had happened. The first thing you saw was a large white cloud up over the target. And this large white cloud was up well above our altitude already. I'd estimate it was up to maybe 45,000 already. And down the base of that cloud, the entire city was covered with thick black smoke, dust, anything that was kicked up by the blast. And it was obvious we're not going to be able to make any visual observation down there.
So we flew a little bit. A lot of people say we circled the city. We did not circle the city. We flew a little bit in the southeast quadrant of the city. It was quite evident we were not going to be able to make any visual observation. So we just turned around and went home.
Little Boy, as the bomb was called, detonated with the equivalent blast force of 15 kilotons of TNT. The Enola Gay returned safely to its base on Tinian, the mission taking approximately 12 hours.
Nakagawa, who attended school in Hiroshima, had gone to a factory in the city that morning. It was seemingly a normal day, but the scene in Hiroshima would soon be transformed, as one survivor would put it, to a “living hell on Earth.”
I happened to experience (the bombing) because I was going to school in Hiroshima, and most of the schools were concentrated in the city. And the interesting part about Hiroshima is that it'd never been bombed before. Of all the, let's see, four or five years that the war took place, it didn't have any exposure to bombing. Except we used to see a lot of planes pass by, but it was relatively free from any kind of a bombing. And of course, as everybody knows, on August 6 at 8:15 in the morning, I had the experience of being right in the midst of a nuclear, or they call it an atomic bomb then.
And I think about it, going back at that day, it was just like a normal day. Nobody knew something like this was going to happen. So I just went on my merry way to school. But that day was especially interesting to me, because I had a barter of shoes, which I never had for a long time, and in exchange I had some, I think, it was some rice or something, I don't know exactly. So it was kind of an interesting day. And I went on my merry way, and got to the factory, where most of the students had to work. And when I say factory, I mean, this was a wooden structure that looked like it was converted to a factory with mechanical lathe and all sorts of metal pieces that needed to be, I guess, what do you call? Cut to pieces and the makings of whatever military equipment that was used for.
And I never knew exactly what was being made at that time. But it was kind of interesting going to the factory. Usually it was a clear day, except I noticed that there was an air raid that came on. And when the first air raid came on, we thought we should all take cover. But with one B-29 flying in the air, I guess, they thought that it wasn't anything important to continue on with this air raid siren. So they stopped that air raid warning. And so everybody went, again, out of the shelters and moved along for wherever they were going. And when I finally reached the factory, I went inside to exchange the shoes and the rice or wheat or whatever I had for an exchange.
And meanwhile, all these students that were supposed to be there were outside looking at this parachute that was coming down from the sky here. And at that moment, I guess nobody knew what it was there for, but the first thing was a flash. And I was fortunately inside the building, but it got very black and dust and so forth, and it was just like the Earth was breaking up and everybody was just maybe going to hell, whatever it was. It was just absolutely hard to experience something like this.
And when it all settled, I was completely lost, just like I am right now, didn't know exactly what was happening. But when I got out of this building, I noticed that I was somehow having blood all over my clothes and so forth, but I couldn't even hardly remember exactly what took place in those... It almost felt like it was an instant, and yet it was… felt so long. But first thing that everybody was thinking was, well, “What is this?” And when you got out, I saw all my student friends that mostly were outside looking at this parachute and so forth, and I couldn't even recognize them, because they were black, and they had soot and everything else around them. And it was just complete chaos.
And it looked almost like the whole Earth was just crumbling. But as time went on, everybody wanted to know what was going on. And the first thing they thought about was, “Well, maybe there's someone that we could get together and see what's happening.” But it was so chaotic that everybody thought they could have a little get together, but that was impossible. Everybody didn't know what was going on. So it didn't take too long, but everybody says, “The only way that they're going to feel safe is to just get away from this place and head for home,” because there was nothing else to do.
Nakagawa would miraculously make it home after the blast uninjured. But his memory of the event is forever clouded. Only after applying to be an atomic survivor in 1987 would a witness reveal why Ittsei had been covered in blood, despite no injuries. After the blast, he saved people by pulling them from the rubble of the factory. One of those survivors would later become a councilman and serve as a witness to Nakagawa's story.
President Truman, in his address to the nation, 16 hours after the blast, said, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid manyfold, and the end is not yet.” An initial postwar report by the US Army Corps of Engineers estimated that approximately 66,000 people in Hiroshima died in the initial blast. An August 1945 Gallup Poll found an overwhelming 85% of American adults supported the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this support would wane over the years.
Theodore Van Kirk
In my opinion, anybody who really understands the history of that period has to conclude that it saved lives overall. Now, if you were living within the city of Hiroshima or the city of Nagasaki at that particular time, it is tough for you to accept that you gave your life or your father's life or your parents' life or whatever for the good of your country. But that's what every soldier was doing out fighting it, whether he was killed by a rifle bullet or an atomic blast. But in essence, there were a lot of people killed there, but they were killed for the overall good, because many, many, many thousands of additional people would've been killed. Most of them would've been Japanese, number one.
And I'm not talking even in the event of invasion; I don't know how many people would've been killed or wounded if we've had to invade Japan. But I saw the hospitals they were building in the Marianas there, all over the Marianas, on Tinian, on Saipan, all over. And if we'd ever filled all those hospitals, it would've been a gory mess. That's all I can say.
The debate continues today. Hearing from those who were there through these oral histories gives us insight into these extraordinary events.
So it's not an easy story to tell. When I think about it, I see so many things in my mind that I don't know which is more important to tell you about. I'll have a nightmare tonight probably (after) telling you all about what I experienced and so forth, and it's still unbelievable for me. I shouldn't be here at this time.
Think I know the answer, but just out of curiosity, did you happen to notice the mushroom cloud?
No. Only thing I experienced is the rain. The cloud is something that you don't see. I mean, it's all black, and it's all heat. I think the mushroom cloud is only time when you see it from a distance.
I just wondered if you... Well, I'm sure there's—
But I'm just only telling you just a little side of it.
Yeah, no, but it's important. And I'm glad that you shared your experiences with me, and thank you for letting me come and talk to you about this—
—because I know it's not easy.
It is not easy. But what my concern is, what's going to happen from now? And it's always been in my mind that, who was wrong? Who was right? You're right in terms of ending the war early, but was it right to kill the innocent people? Because I think in the declaration of, what do you call, war agreement or war treaty or whatever it is, I don't think it's intended to kill any civilians and kids and so forth. But you see, when you look at it, I didn't see a leaflet. They say there was a leaflet; I don't think anybody that I've talked to or seen, never saw anything like that, warning you.
Thank you for listening. Be sure to catch our next week's episode where our historians, Jason Dawsey and John Curatola, will discuss the wider effects and lasting legacies of the atomic bomb. You won't want to miss it. You can catch that episode on August 14 at nationalww2museum.org/podcasts. That is nationalww, the number 2, museum.org/podcasts. Don't forget to check out the events tab on our homepage at nationalww2museum.org as well to catch riveting conversations and lectures in real time.
This series is made possible by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation, which supports content like this from The National WorldWII Museum in New Orleans. Please remember to rate and subscribe. I'm Jeremy Collins, signing off.