Touching the Sun, 75 Years Ago

Last summer, I had a chance to stop in at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and, while the collection is impressive and even has a Space Shuttle, the centerpiece is and probably always will be the Enola Gay.

Every military history buff is of course familiar with the plane. I, perhaps, more so than others as I have studied Col. Paul Warfield Tibbets, coming close enough in North Carolina to his flight suit to see the sweat stains on the collar, and long ago meeting Enola Gay navigator Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk in Georgia before his death. VanKirk thought that dropping the bomb saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the end, ironically most of them Japanese.

The sentiment was repeated when I spoke a few years ago to navigator Russell Gackenbach, who flew on the Hiroshima photographic plane, Necessary Evil, on that fateful day. Like VanKirk, he too has passed.

It is hard not to look at the sheer size of that “aluminum overcast” and feel a sense of spooky unease about the hell that B-29 unleashed once upon a time. Talk about touching history.

One of the most curious facets of my visit to the Enola Gay was to note that it was teeming with crowds of Japanese tourists, many in their teens, all eager to get a look at the plane.

While Al Jazeera argues the Hiroshima bomb is a war crime, I’ve talked about that subject before in past posts and tend to side with VanKirk and Gackenbach as other alternatives seemed more deadly for all concerned in the long run.

Speaking of the long run, most of the nation’s five-star admirals and generals later went on record against the use of the A-bomb. Here is what the two top admirals in the Pacific had to say on its use:

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet stated in a public address given at the Washington Monument on October 5, 1945:

The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war.  . . . [Nimitz also stated: “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan. . . .”]

In a private 1946 letter to Walter Michels of the Association of Philadelphia Scientists, Nimitz observed that “the decision to employ the atomic bomb on Japanese cities was made on a level higher than that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander U.S. Third Fleet, stated publicly in 1946:

The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it. . . . [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . . . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.

Professor of History at Notre Dame, Father Wilson Miscamble, weighs in on the subject with the opinion that dropping the bomb shortened the war and saved countless lives — on both sides.

Prof. Miscamble is not speaking off the cuff. His 2007 book, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima and the Cold War was published by Cambridge University Press and received the Harry S. Truman Book Award in 2008. He subsequently published The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs and the Defeat of Japan in 2011.

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