RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Radiation wasn’t what killed so many people when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs in World War II, according to a retired military officer.
In a special presentation at Meadowlark Senior Center on Jan. 17, retired Lt. Col. Gary Hoe told about the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which soon led to the Japanese surrender, ending World War II. Of course, dropping another devastating bomb on Nagasaki a few days later didn’t hurt the Land of the Rising Sun’s decision, either.
But as costly as those bombs were, in terms of deaths, paving the way for those bombs to be dropped was also costly: The U.S. and its allies had to conquer Iwo Jima and Okinawa, both of which stood below the path of the bomber Enola Gay.
Most folks know New Mexico played a role in the end of the war, with the bombs developed in Los Alamos and an atomic bomb tested at the Trinity Site near White Sands on July 16, 1945. But Hoe was able to “complete” the story, explaining how the U.S. really didn’t need to take those small islands in the Pacific — Iwo Jima, which had two air bases on it, and Okinawa — had it not been for the flight path of the bombers that summer.
In fact, Hoe said, the costs were exorbitant: almost 19,000 American servicemen were killed during the battles for those tiny islands.
Other tidbits gleaned from his 90-minute presentation:
• Although the U.S. had been racing Hitler to build an atomic bomb, Germany surrendered before the bombs were dropped.
• B-29 pilots in the 509th Composite Group were trained for this mission at Wendover AFB, on the Utah-Nevada border, dropping “pumpkin bombs,” but not told what they were training for.
• It took 18 months to “collect” the critical-mass Uranium 235 material at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory, during which time, Hoe said, 15 percent of the electrical power in the U.S. was needed for that procedure;
• The U.S. had only enough uranium for a bomb and a half, but enough plutonium for four bombs — and that “half” uranium bomb was tested on July 16, 1945;
• There were a dozen men in the crew of the Enola Gay, which was named the night before the bombing raid by pilot Paul Tibbetts, in honor of his mother;
• The bomb had been delivered on July 26 to Tinian Island, which was a massive B-29 base with four runways, by the cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was sunk July 30 by a Japanese torpedo, resulting in the loss of 879 lives;
• Days later, when Nagasaki was bombed, Kokura had been the original target, but at the time was “socked in” by inclement weather;
• It took the atomic bomb 43 seconds to fall 37,000 feet before it was detonated;
• The Enola Gay is in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.;
• You can see a B-29 Superfortress, identical to the Enola Gay, at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, where Hoe spends time as a docent.
Dispelling a long-held belief, he said it wasn’t radiation that claimed thousands of lives in Hiroshima — it was the heat from the bomb.
Many of the 75,000 dead Japanese had been virtually “vaporized from the heat, if they were under it,” he said. The 6-ton atomic bomb had detonated about 1,800 feet over the ground.
But for residents about two miles beyond the bomb’s path, second-degree burns were all that had been suffered, thus survivable.
“There’s no residual radiation there today,” he said. “We were lied to by the government. They wanted to scare us, pay taxes to keep us safe in the Cold War.”
Hoe had some other numbers: The U.S. built 69,000 nuclear weapons, testing about 1,000 of them underground. (Hoe had been a technical director of nuclear tests in Nevada and a chief of the U.S. Air Force Nuclear Safety Office; he later worked at Sandia National Labs, retiring for good in 2010.)
The USSR had built about 73,000 nuclear weapons, he added, but thanks to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons of 1968, each nation has about 4,500 nukes today.