The Nagasaki bombing mission: excused by “just NOT following orders”

The thought process that never happened on August 9, 1945:

“Well, let’s see here. The reserve fuel tank pump was broken before take-off, and we knew it, so we were supposed to call off the mission then. Next, we failed to rendezvous over Yakushima with one of the crucial planes in the mission. At the primary target of Kokura we encountered cloud cover and flak. Now we are so dangerously low on fuel that there’s a good chance we’re going to lose the bomb and our lives by ditching in the Pacific. If we carry out the mission at the secondary target, and survive, there’s a good chance we’ll be court-martialed for not following orders to abort the mission if troubles like these arose. Hmmm. Let’s just spare Nagasaki, get back to base safely, and hope this war is over soon before we have to drop the second bomb.”

Unfortunately, the commanding officers of Bockscar, the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, were eager to not look like failures after the “success” of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima three days earlier. The full story is told in the article “The harrowing story of the Nagasaki bombing mission“ (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, August 4, 2015). After encountering the many troubles listed above, the plane went to the secondary target, Nagasaki, and the pilot determined to drop the bomb by radar through the cloud cover, against specific orders to drop it only with a clear view of the target. “Fortunately,” there was an opening in the clouds over the Urakami district, which was not the intended target over the center of the city. They hastily decided to drop the bomb there, then headed toward Okinawa for an emergency landing. They approached Okinawa with empty fuel tanks, expecting they would have to ditch in the ocean and die. The crew was literally willing to die rather than return as “failures” compared to their colleagues who had flown on the Enola Gay. In this regard, they were much like the fictional Major T.J. King Kong in Dr. Strangelove who carried out a suicide mission in order to start WWIII.

Slim Pickens as Major T. J. "King" Kong in Dr. Strangelove

However, there was one further consideration weighing heavily on the minds of the crew. They were told that if the mission had to be aborted, they should not attempt to land with the weapon. There was concern about how the bomber would handle a landing with the extra weight. The crew worried that it might detonate on landing. It had to be dumped at sea, but this requirement placed an unreasonable burden on them. Who would want to be responsible for the decision to waste this expensive new weapon? The pressure to complete the mission was enormous. Seen in this light, the fault should be put on the higher officers and the president who let the mission go ahead in unsettled weather with a typhoon approaching. Since it had been so important to not fail, the wise thing to do, from a strategic perspective (to say nothing of the moral perspective), was to delay the mission until ideal conditions returned. If that delay had occurred, the Soviet entry into the war on August 9th would have led to the same surrender that occurred on August 15th. Instead of rushing ahead, it's always better to wait and see how things play out--to give peace a chance, so to speak.

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