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It Happened Seventy Years Ago Today

Map showing Japan, Iwo Jima  & the Mariana Islands
Map showing Japan, Iwo Jima & the Mariana Islands (US Public Domain)

This August 15 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I have a connection to the anniversary, although somewhat small by comparison to the many who were much closer than I was to the historical event.

In October, 1984, a month after the release of my first book, Two Wings and a Prayer (my collection of first-person stories from 60 different Allied air force veterans during World War II), my wife and I were invited to the 40th Bomb Group reunion in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. By the way, one of the stories from my collection was from my father, Jack Wyatt, an engine-airframe mechanic with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1941-1945.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed putting together the war accounts from Brits, Canadians, and Americans: either by face-to-face interviews, phone interviews, or letter writing. No email back then. Three of the stories were from members of the 40th Bomb Group who flew out of the Pacific Theatre of Operations in their struggle against the Japanese. One of these airmen, Jim O’Keefe, from Larkspur, California, invited us to the reunion. We accepted, gladly. My wife, Bonnie, and I had a great time, and being the only Canadians in the gathering of a couple hundred, we were treated as celebrities. We loved it, of course.

So, what was the 40th Bomb Group?

Consisting of four squadrons, the 25th, 44th, 45th, and 395th, the 40th Bomb Group was designated a very heavy (VH) bomber group within the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Formed in the spring of 1941 and first used in submarine patrol over the Caribbean flying Douglas B-18’s, the 40th didn’t actually start dropping bombs until it was based in Chakulia, India in early 1944. By then they were deploying the “Billion Dollar Bomber,” the long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The first mission took them to the rail yards at Bangkok, Thailand, a thousand miles away. Over the next few months, they followed up with other raids on Japanese-controlled territory before moving their base of operations to Hsinching, China.

The B-29 that the 40th Bomb Group used was a monster: the largest and heaviest mass-produced airplane in the world up to that time, at a cost of $780,000 in 1945 dollars to construct. With an overwhelming wingspan of 141 feet, it could carry a bombload of 20,000 pounds. It had pressurized cabins for its crew of 11, remote-controlled guns, and four 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engines each capable of more than 2,000 horsepower, the most powerful in aviation. The propellers for them were more than 16 feet in diameter.

Colonel Paul Tibbets
Colonel Paul Tibbets before leaving for the world's first atomic strike, 1945 (US Public Domain)

In April, 1945, the 40th was ordered to its new base on Tinian Island, part of the Mariana Islands, where nearby Saipan and Guam were also used for more B-29 Superfortress outfits. Tinian was a unique tropical island. Twelve miles long and six miles wide, it was the largest operational airfield in the world, containing four 8,500-foot runways on North Field used by four bomber groups belonging to the 313th Bomb Wing; and two the same size on West Field, the latter two used by the 40th and three other groups in the 58th Bomb Wing. Up until the first week of August, the 40th Bomb Group and the others bombed several Japanese cities--mostly with incendiaries--while taking the killer 3,000-mile round trips over the Pacific from the Marianas that lasted about fifteen hours. If not for strong coffee and Benzedrine, the crews would not have made it.

In May, a new bomber outfit joined the 313th on North Field: the 509th Composite Group. Everything about this new bomber group seemed to be hush-hush, according to those in the 40th. They figured something was up. Then a few months later, their suspicions were confirmed: In the darkness of 02:45 hours, August 6, a B-29 Superfortress marked with the name Enola Gay and piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, left North Field under maximum load. Escorted by five other B-29’s, Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan nearly seven hours later. The 9,000-pound bomb produced 20,000 tons of TNT. The detonation and following firestorm killed approximately 90,000-100,000 people. To make matters worse for the Japanese empire, two days later, August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

Hiroshima, Japan
Hiroshima, Japan, following the 1945 atomic bomb strike (US Public Domain)

On the morning of August 9, the 509th Composite struck again. A B-29 called Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped another nuclear bomb: this one on Nagasaki, while two other B-29’s rode shotgun. Codenamed “Fat Man,” it had a plutonium core with the same power as “Little Boy,” although heavier at 10,000 pounds. About 40,000-50,000 were killed: less than Hiroshima because Nagasaki was surrounded by hills, while Hiroshima was relatively flat and more spread out. A few days later, August 15, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito surrendered on national radio, finally putting an end to not only the Pacific war but also World War II, since Germany had surrendered three months earlier.

Now, seventy years later, we come to the on-going great debate: Did the Americans have to drop the bomb? Let’s look at the numbers…

In early 1945, the American High Command in the Pacific--who knew nothing about the atomic bomb being tested under the secretive Manhattan Project--had already written up plans for the amphibious invasion of Japan, a large-scale landing on the southern-most island of Kyushu. Scheduled date: November 1, 1945. Identified by the codename of “Downfall,” the plans were laid out in two parts. First, there would be Operation Olympic, followed up by Operation Coronet for the spring of 1946.

The Americans knew without any doubt that the Japanese would defend their country to the last soldier and civilian. The Battle for Iwo Jima earlier in 1945 was an excellent example to prove that point. Despite many defeats up to August, 1945, the Japanese still had 10,000 kamikaze aircraft, six aircraft carriers, four cruisers, one battleship, dozens of midget submarines off the assembly line, and an army of 900,000 fanatical fighting men. The Americans up to August, 1945 had lost 400,000 personnel all told on all fronts around the globe. At least that number or more was the projected American loss of life if Japan had to be invaded. In fact, back home, American assembly lines had already manufactured half a million Purple Heart Medals (for those wounded or killed in action) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion. Meanwhile, Japanese losses were expected to be into the millions, after having already lost two million in global action: a lot more than the combined missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

North Field, Tinian
North Field, Tinian, after the Hiroshima strike, showing left to right, Big Stink, The Great Artiste, and Enola Gay of the 509th Composite Group (US Public Domain)

We should also keep in mind that Japanese and German scientists were working on their own versions of  atomic bomb. Japan was still a few years off, but Germany was getting close. If either one of the Axis countries had beaten us to the bomb, they would have dropped it on us. Luckily, the Americans were further ahead, helped along by a number of Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project, some who had left Europe once Hitler took power in Germany.

Concerning the 40th Bomb Group, I asked a few of their vets over the years if they thought the atomic strikes on Japan were warranted. One of them told me that although the 40th Bomb Group had contributed mightily to the war effort, it was the atomic bomb that put an immediate stop to the war, plain and simple.

But the best reply was from someone who said, with full intent: “I don’t remember the Japanese ever apologizing for Pearl Harbor.”

FYI--The 40th Bomb Group’s World War II record is as follows: 70 combat missions, 25,343 combat hours, 9,200 tons of bombs dropped on enemy targets, 46 ½ enemy planes destroyed, 22 probably destroyed, and 64 damaged. The cost: 32 B-29’s lost in combat, 53 men killed, 26 wounded and 134 missing.


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