One Hell of a Big Bang
August 6, 2002 6:31 AM   Subscribe

One Hell of a Big Bang -- Studs Turkel meets Paul Tibbets the pilot of the Enola Gay. It's a great, though-provoking and disturbing interview to read on Hiroshima Day.
posted by LMG (40 comments total)
Thanks for the link. Its a fascinating interview.
posted by davebushe at 7:01 AM on August 6, 2002

Very interesting and disturbing interview. For those that don't have time to read the whole thing, one of the final questions is pretty telling:

ST: One big question. Since September 11, what are your thoughts? People talk about nukes, the hydrogen bomb.
PT: Let's put it this way. I don't know any more about these terrorists than you do, I know nothing. When they bombed the Trade Centre I couldn't believe what was going on. We've fought many enemies at different times. But we knew who they were and where they were. These people, we don't know who they are or where they are. That's the point that bothers me. Because they're gonna strike again, I'll put money on it. And it's going to be damned dramatic. But they're gonna do it in their own sweet time. We've got to get into a position where we can kill the bastards. None of this business of taking them to court, the hell with that. I wouldn't waste five seconds on them.
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:05 AM on August 6, 2002

Whoops....forgot to add my final thought:

Way to fight for freedom, buddy. I'll never know how you can sleep at night.
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:05 AM on August 6, 2002

When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I've ever seen in my life. It was just great.

Oh, that's just terrific.
posted by adampsyche at 7:09 AM on August 6, 2002

I'll never know how you can sleep at night.

I dunno, maybe having saved the lives of a million American servicemen and multiple millions of Japanese (given the casualty rates on other Pacific islands) might have something to do with it.
posted by louie at 7:15 AM on August 6, 2002

Tibbetts has always said that he harbors no remorse for what he did, though other members of the flight crew have been publicly regretful.

I'm more saddened by his other closing comment:

ST: One last thing, when you hear people say, "Let's nuke 'em," "Let's nuke these people," what do you think?

PT: Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: "You've killed so many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there.

That's their tough luck? This is what bothers me about the Afghanistan thing too. It's a "colossal tragedy" that 3000 Americans died on 9/11, but it's "their tough luck" when we bomb the shit out of civilians?
posted by briank at 7:28 AM on August 6, 2002

I think there are different sorts of wars and different kinds of warriors who fight them. This guy is obviously a dyed-in-the-wool, order-followin', superior-trusting, career air force man. If he hadn't flown the Enola Gay, someone else would have. All the better for him that he *can* sleep at night. I can't harbor any anger towards him; the ones to be angry at are the decision makers.

I maintain that dropping the bomb was a mistake. The war was pretty much over when Hiroshima was annhilated, and the Nagasaki bomb was just a kick in the teeth to an already defeated nation. Nuclear weapons are a scourge to the Earth, but we've got them and there's not much that can be done about that now.
posted by xyzzy at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2002 [1 favorite]

"...maybe having saved the lives of a million American servicemen and multiple millions of Japanese..."

I've seen the same arguments over and over for both sides of the question, should we have dropped the bomb? Did we save more lives ultimately? etc. What no one ever addresses is the question that disturbs me. Not "should we have dropped the bomb?", but "why did we drop it on a civilian target?" If we had found a concentrated part of the Japanese army or navy to drop the bomb on, it would have been plenty devastating. Deliberately targeting civilians is one of the dividing lines, as I see it, between warfare and terrorism. Can any military history buffs out there clear this up for me?
posted by tdismukes at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2002

Ufez Jones and Louie above represent the eternal polarities of this debate. Was the bombing a horrifically callous (and perhaps racist) act? Or did killing all those civilians ultimately save the lives of millions?

The unmitigated hellishness of the days after the bombing, with flesh-dripping pain-shocked zombies roaming the ruins, has led me to sympathize with the former position.

Yet was this intrinsically worse than Dresden? (OK, that's the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right argument, but still...)

And there's this, from my wife: Her mother was a young women in a rice-farming village near Tokyo at the time. She, along with every Japanese citizen, was schooled to never surrender. If it came to it, she was to run toward the enemy, pitchfork in hand. To die, of course.

How many millions of Japanese could have been slaughtered in an Allied invasion? I know the professional historians still argue about this, and I know that now that we can nuke each other, the future looks bleaker and bleaker, but, as far as WWII goes, the image of a pitchfork-wielding Ayako getting shot by a Wisconsin Norwegian (my father-in-law) gives me pause.
posted by kozad at 7:38 AM on August 6, 2002

The fact that anyone has to die like this (whether by The Bomb, or by a Wisconsin Norwegian, or by suicide bombers, or otherwise) is a tragedy in itself. It's perfectly possible that one can live a perfectly happy and content life without murdering others for his or her beliefs; in fact, I'm sure that most people reading this haven't. So why do so many people in the world still believe that it's necessary (cough cough religion cough blind following cough cough)? Aren't there better things to focus on?
posted by The Michael The at 7:54 AM on August 6, 2002

tdismukes: This link makes it look like Truman's decision to drop the bomb was predicated on its being used on a military target. Here's the actual order.

Also, Hiroshima: Was it Necessary? has a lot of interesting info that even a WWII history buff like myself didn't know until I ran across the link.
posted by Cyrano at 7:57 AM on August 6, 2002

Not "should we have dropped the bomb?", but "why did we drop it on a civilian target?" If we had found a concentrated part of the Japanese army or navy to drop the bomb on, it would have been plenty devastating.

I suspect that it was merely because we wanted to cause the maximum amount of devastation possible (the same reason we bombed Tokyo and Dresden to the ground). Back then, the thinking was that when you were at war, you didn't hold back. You used everything you had to maximum effect, and what we had was two atomic bombs.

This mentality has been prevalent for almost all of history, and only changed when we began to realize that atomic bombs could literally destroy civilization.
posted by Silune at 8:04 AM on August 6, 2002

It must be pretty interesting to be one of the main reasons that we created international laws against targetting civilian populations.
posted by botono9 at 8:08 AM on August 6, 2002

> "why did we drop it on a civilian target?"

A page or two from Cyrano's link is a memo on target evaluation. Some reasons for picking an urban area: making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized and avoid[ing] undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

By the way, I'm reading Rhodes right now - a chilling book, yet highly recommended.
posted by thijsk at 8:16 AM on August 6, 2002

I'm not sure it is fair to criticize our nation's desperate actions to end a terrible war, yet I can't shake the feeling of karma: the next time a nuke is used in aggression, will it be against us?
posted by drstrangelove at 8:18 AM on August 6, 2002

On a side-note, I think it's great that Studs Terkel is still doing tremendous journalism like this at the age of 90. He outclasses a legion of journalists less than half his age.
posted by kerplunk at 8:19 AM on August 6, 2002

tdismukes: Deliberately targeting civilians is one of the dividing lines, as I see it, between warfare and terrorism. Can any military history buffs out there clear this up for me?

The reason for this is simple: deliberately doing horrific damage to civilian targets during wartime tends to end conflicts where the respective militaries are at something of a stalemate. Consequently, we get things like Sherman's March to the Sea during the Civil War and the use of the atomic bomb during the Second World War.

Is it a terrorist action? Sure. Can it save lives? Arguably. Is it then justified? It's the last question that bothers me. I'm sure you'd get different answers from a serviceman stationed in the Pacific Theater and a citizen of Hiroshima.

I find reading accounts from air corps servicemen to be a dark fascination, whether real (as above) or fictionalized (can't find a better link for this). There's something about the comparatively detached perspective being in a plane affords that really gets under my skin. That link goes to James Dickey's "The Firebombing", which opens with a quote from Job: "Or hast thou an arm like God?" Dickey's answer is an discomfiting "yes". I wonder how common his attitude is.
posted by amery at 8:27 AM on August 6, 2002

When I look at this list of WW2 civilian casualties I really have to admire the nerve of the Japanese or the Germans to criticise the targeting of civilians or the use of atomic weapons which they were both trying to develop.
posted by Mack Twain at 9:01 AM on August 6, 2002

Back then, the thinking was that when you were at war, you didn't hold back.

I would disagree with that as a primary reason for picking Hiroshima as a target. Kyoto would have been a much more devastating blow to the Japanese. It was the intellectual (and spiritual) center of Japan.

For a time, Kyoto was the number one target, but was crossed off the list (by Truman?) preceisly because it would have been too much of a blow to the Japanese psyche.

Hiroshima was the #2 target and was chosen for a number of reasons, including the fact that it had not endured a previous bombing campaign. It would be much easier for the US to gauge the effects of the bomb here.

Don't forget, it's not just the Japanese we were trying to impress. The whole world (esp. the Soviet Union) was watching.
posted by ahughey at 9:20 AM on August 6, 2002

Am I the only one who got shivers at the thought that the true motivation for the bombing was something akin to the "nuke 'em!" mentality that Turkel expresses late in the interview?

I've come to the conclusion, over the years, that Hiroshima was a tragic but "okay" thing. Such xenophobia and bloodlust gives me pause, however.
posted by Marquis at 9:51 AM on August 6, 2002

One point, at least, was highly exaggerated. The explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb, generally stated as 20 kilotons. This is approximately equivalent to a single bombing group's total tonnage over the course of multiple years; total bomb tonnage dropped by the allies (which is only roughly equivalent to blast power -- but for comparison purposes) was around 300,000 tons (according to a written source I have). So, the two atomic bombs together represented around 10% of the allied bombing of Europe over the course of the war; certainly not more. Given average bomber capacities of the day, that represented perhaps a quarter of a million sorties, and thousands of casualties to deliver that tonnage.

Worth reading for perspective is Firebombs over Tokyo, from last month's Atlantic {only available for pay}, about the destruction caused by napalm bombing of Japanese cities including the capital. Ranking casualties we have Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Nagasaki; the Tokyo bombs were delivered by

And a new report suggests Japan was close to developing its own A-bomb, closer than had been thought (context).
posted by dhartung at 9:52 AM on August 6, 2002

For a time, Kyoto was the number one target, but was
crossed off the list (by Truman?)

I'm currently reading David McCullough's pulitzer prize winning biography Truman, and it did imply that it was Truman who crossed kyoto off the list, and the number one target before that was tokyo, also ruled out by truman.

Hiroshima was picked because it was the center of war production, the majority of the people were directly involved in the war effort.

Truman OK'd the bomb in the believe that it would save lives, American and Japanese.
posted by Mick at 10:06 AM on August 6, 2002

A-bomb survivor accounts: 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by xowie at 10:42 AM on August 6, 2002

This interview brings into perspective the fact that today's morality is convenient because of technology. A war without civilian casualties is now conceivable (though still not assurable yet) but was not in the 1940's. Today it is tempting (and easy) to question the morality of decisions made in a war like WWII where civilian deaths were enormous, but their choices were different and the minds of people who lived through that time were defined by those limitations. I am certain that, if smart bombs were not available, we'd not be saying "we can't defend ourselves because we don't have smartbombs to prevent civilian deaths." Instead, we still be saying "hit 'em with whatever we got!" The difference between now and WWII is that it is convenient to put a moral face on our end of the war because we have the technology to do it.
posted by plaino at 11:12 AM on August 6, 2002 [2 favorites]

Lord, I love the historical revisionism that rears its ugly head about this time every year.

Does anyone remember the impeachment hearings after the war ended in 1948? When it was discovered that President Truman could have ended the war as early as 1945? Imagine! We had a secret weapon we had invested $1 million dollars developing! Had Truman just given the OK to use it, we might not have lost a million Allied lives and a larger number of Japanese civilian and miliary lives caused by the Second D-Day invasions that began in September 1945!! Imagine trading those 2.5 million lives for just 20-30,000! No wonder he was thrown out of office!

[As a side note to Mack Twain's comment, I wonder what the Chinese and Koreans think every year when the Japanese whine and moan about civilian casualties.]
posted by darren at 12:23 PM on August 6, 2002 [1 favorite]

All this illustrates why the study of history is so fascinating. What did the decision makers know? What were their motivations? Was it justified? Probably the only meaningful context to view the event within is that of the times themselves - I've worked with a number of WWII vets over the years. Not a one of them felt the action unjustified. As an alternative to carpet incendiary bombing it is arguable that in some ways the atom bomb may have been more humane in terms of casualties produced, a horrific thought, I realize.

One thing's for sure - the Marines readying to board ships from Okinawa to invade the home islands thanked God for the bomb- and whether the estimates of potential US casualties from invasion were more accurate at 200,000 or 1 million makes no difference. This was war & war is hell - geopolitical considerations nothwithstanding.
posted by Pressed Rat at 12:28 PM on August 6, 2002

It's a "colossal tragedy" that 3000 Americans died on 9/11, but it's "their tough luck" when we bomb the shit out of civilians?

And so it was that America took a wrong turn on its way to the moral high road...

We discussed Studs' most recent book a few months back. One of the most moving pieces included in the book was an interview with a woman named Hideko "Tammy" Snider, who was a young girl living one mile from the epicenter of the bomb's impact. Absolutely chilling... I wished when I read the book that I could make everyone I'd ever heard say "bomb them back to the Stone Age" read Ms. Snider's story.

I was just searching the web to see if I could find the text, and I can't. But I have just found a link to a RealAudio archive of a Chicago public radio discussion between Studs and Tammy Snider, "about how the 9/11 attacks brought her back to the horror of August 6th, 1945." It's 31 minutes long; it takes them about 10 minutes to get back to Hiroshima the day of the bombing. It does not have the impact of the written piece, but is still remarkable, and sobering.

Ms. Snider herself has also published a book called One Sunny Day: A Child's Memories of Hiroshima.
posted by Sapphireblue at 12:35 PM on August 6, 2002 [1 favorite]

Oh, and let's not forget the context of sentiment towards Japan and "the targeting of civilians" concerns raised above. One could benefit from reading Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" where Japanese troops systematically slaugtered upwards of 300,000 of the civilian population of Nanking in 1937, often using them for bayonet practice. Japanese papers of the day carried running commentary, like box scores, on Japanese officers' contest to see who could decapitate the most Chinese civilians with a single sword-stroke, ala Lt. Fujiko - 103; Lt. Masimoto - 108, with pictures of the smiling contestants.

I have no sympathy for historical revisionism in the face of barbarity like that fostered by the Japanese army & the bushido code. I'd have pulled the bombbay lever myself, gladly.
posted by Pressed Rat at 12:37 PM on August 6, 2002

Sorry, darren, I'm redundant - didn't check your link before I posted.
posted by Pressed Rat at 12:43 PM on August 6, 2002

darren: Since when, exactly, was history rewritten so as to throw Truman out of office? He decided not to run in 1952, the main factors being Korea, the firing of MacArthur and, one could argue, attacks by Joseph McCarthy which Truman failed to deflect.
posted by raysmj at 12:55 PM on August 6, 2002

The BBC has an article with comments from the current mayor of Hiroshima:

"Just like the phrase 'history repeats itself,' threats and possibilities of nuclear wars and use of nuclear weapons are growing as the memory of Hiroshima starts to fade," he said.

"I strongly urge President Bush to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki... to see for himself what nuclear arms do to humankind."

Unfortunately, I think the mayor's warnings are falling on deaf ears, considering the intimate relationship between the nuclear weapons industry and the Bush Administration.
posted by homunculus at 12:56 PM on August 6, 2002

After 9.11 it would have been the simple, easy thing to drop a nuke on Afghanistan - but we didn't. Because we have the technology to be able to not do that now. You cannot apply the state of the world in 1945 to today's technology no matter how hard you try. This man can sleep knowing he put the nail in the coffin of the most horrible war ever.

There are some elements of history that have been ignored or whitewashed (the contribution of Blacks and Native Americans to the WWII cause, for example) but blatant revisionism is lame.
posted by owillis at 1:08 PM on August 6, 2002

the main factors being Korea, the firing of MacArthur and, one could argue, attacks by Joseph McCarthy which Truman failed to deflect.

According to a hand written dated note signed by Truman, he decided not to run long before either of thse 3 events.
posted by Mick at 1:29 PM on August 6, 2002

plaino - "A war without civilian casualties is now conceivable (though still not assurable yet) but was not in the 1940's."

A war without civilian casualties is unfortunately still not technologically possible. What is possible, now as then, is war without deliberately targeting the civilian population. Judging from Truman's diary entry that Cyrano linked to, Truman had that intention originally, but apparently changed his mind by the time the order was given. Thanks to those who offered possible rationales behind the changed decision. I still would like to see some analysis of the possibilities that existed for using the bomb against a purely military target.

pressedrat & darren & anyone else who justifies targeting Japanese civilians based on the atrocities committed against other civilian populations by the Japanese military.

This kind of demonization of all members of a particular group based on the actions of certain members of that group leads to a pretty much endless spiral of violence anywhere in the world. "Israeli soldiers killed some of our children - lets kill some Israeli children." "Palestinian terrorists killed some of our children - lets shoot into a crowd with Palestinian children in it." "Protestants attacked some of ours, lets blow up some Protestant kids." "IRA bombers lets..." "US bombs hit our village, lets ..." Guess what, folks, the victims here are people who are innocent of the crimes you're avenging. Hiroshima was full of men, women, children and babies who not only weren't involved in the rape of Nanking, but didn't even know it took place. If you want to make a case that ultimately more lives were saved than were lost by dropping the bomb, then go ahead. Just don't try to say that this group of innocents deserved to be slaughtered because of what happened to that group of innocents.

raysmj "Since when, exactly, was history rewritten..."

I believe darren was postulating a hypothetical alternate world where Truman decided not to drop the bomb, and examining the consequences thereof. I wish someone would examine the alternate world where he decided to drop it on the Japanese army or navy.
posted by tdismukes at 2:35 PM on August 6, 2002

I wish someone would examine the alternate world where he decided to drop it on the Japanese army or navy.

What Navy? By August 1945 every Japanese ship larger than a destroyer had been sunk or damaged to the point of harmlessness, yet large portions of the Japanese government were still talking about fighting to the last man instead of surrendering.

Was bombing Nagasaki necessary? Maybe, maybe not. With the Russians declaring war on the 8th, it's possible that standing back and letting the Japanese think about things would have ended in their surrender. But I think it's pretty clear that Hiroshima ended up saving lives on all sides of the conflict.
posted by jaek at 5:51 PM on August 6, 2002

Resuscitate the Test Ban
posted by homunculus at 9:39 PM on August 6, 2002

It is possible that one way out of the spiral of violence that you describe is a demonstration of the capacity to cause truly horrific destruction, and the will to use it. In other words: "We have destroyed two of your cities to demonstrate our ability to obliterate your entire culture. Not just your ships, planes, buildings and some of your people. Everything. In mere minutes. Now lay down you arms. Or else..."

By modern standards, this is a horrifying thought experiment. However, we wind up facing horrible decisions all the time. On a possibly related tangent, I had read some speculation that Tokyo and Kyoto were marked off the list of possible targets because they wanted to leave the government (or what remained of it by that point in the war) intact so that it could tender a surrender. The assumption being that if the emperor were dead, then nobody could have given orders for the population to stand down.


For me, the fact that we said "Or else" is actually a hallmark of what a great nation / culture we are. There were others involved in that war who might have just kept going.


Here's an interesting question - what would we have done if the emperor had said no? Would we have kept hitting them (I know we only had 2 bombs initially), or would we have called it off and declared a permanent embargo on them?
posted by Irontom at 8:00 PM on August 8, 2002

Actually, Irontom, the article says there was a third that Tibbets was mobilized to retrieve just as the surrender came down.
posted by NortonDC at 5:51 AM on August 9, 2002

I wonder is the decisionmakers at the time would have considered dropping an atomic bomb on Germany had they not already surrendered. I do not think they would have.
posted by thirteen at 8:32 AM on August 9, 2002

I dunno, maybe having saved the lives of a million American servicemen and multiple millions of Japanese

That is such a myth. Winston Churchill made up the number of 1 million servicemen dying, when earlier, exaggerated statistical evidence had pegged it around 500,000.

Not to mention the fact that the whole thing could have been avoided.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:06 PM on August 9, 2002

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