WWII highlights from the Truman Library’s archives and collections
Marching to Victory: The Bombing of Hiroshima
August 6, 1945
At 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber opened its bay doors over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and released a solitary bomb. Forty-four seconds later, it exploded 1,900 feet above the city. This single explosion brought the Second World War into its final phase and revealed to the world a new and devastating weapon.
Today, visitors to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum’s digital archives can open a window onto the bomb and Hiroshima’s fate through a remarkable series of photographs archived there.
These images reveal the incredible power of the atomic bomb.
One photograph contained in the Robert A. Lovett papers documents Little Boy, the weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists working for the Manhattan Project designed this and other atomic bombs at a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Little Boy was ten feet long, 9,000 pounds in weight, and contained uranium-235 with the explosive potential of 20,000 tons of TNT. The revolutionary power of bombs like Little Boy sparked debate in U.S. military circles and President Harry Truman’s cabinet about the use of the bomb.
The operation fell to a twelve-man B-29 crew led by Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr., who piloted a plane named after his mother. Among the photographs in the Truman archives is this shot of the Enola Gay with the copied autographs of Tibbets and crew members.
Other photographs depict Little Boy’s devastating effects on Hiroshima. In one sense, Little Boy was a failure. After the crew of the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, only a small amount of its uranium fissioned, but the resulting explosion leveled 5.4 square miles of the city and killed over 100,000 soldiers and civilians. In two images from a scrapbook owned by Postmaster General Robert E. Hannegan, mountains loom over a desolate landscape of building shells and telephone poles. Just a few scattered humans can be made out among the ruins.
These photographs starkly document the bomb and its effects. Other images in the Truman Library’s collections, however, testify to the spirit of the tiny figures barely visible in the 1945 shots. Four years after the attack, the Japanese government designated Hiroshima a City of Peace and began funding reconstruction and memorial-building efforts. Whereas photographs from August 1945 show a ruined landscape, images taken eighteen years later depict Peace Memorial Park—built on the site of the explosion’s hypocenter and a site of peace conferences to this day—and acres of homes and businesses. In the wake of the devastating attack, the surviving residents of Hiroshima rebuilt their historic city and dedicated it to peace.
But all of that was in the future in early August 1945. Not even the shocking destruction wrought on Hiroshima convinced the Japanese government to surrender. For more information on the events of the war’s final weeks, follow this blog series and visit the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
EDITOR’S NOTE: No known written record exists in which Harry Truman explicitly ordered the use of atomic weapons against Japan. The closest thing to such a document is a hand-written order, addressed to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in which Truman authorized the release of a public statement about the use of the bomb. It was written on July 31, 1945, while Truman was attending the Potsdam Conference in Germany. In effect, this served as final authorization for the deployment of the atomic bomb, though the expression “release when ready” refers to the public statement. [From the Atomic Bomb gallery at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum]
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Marching to Victory
70 years ago, World War II ended under President Truman’s decisive leadership. Now, follow key events from the war’s final months with the Truman Library Institute’s series, “Marching to Victory: WWII Highlights from the Truman Library’s Archives and Collections.” The 25-part blog series opens the vaults at Truman’s presidential library to share eyewitness accounts and historic artifacts related to major conflicts and monumental victories – from the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of Dachau to the unconditional surrender of Japan.
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Contributed by Will Hickox. Will is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written for The New York Times and contributed to several digital history projects.