An image burned into my memory 68 years ago is still vivid. It was VE Day – 8 May, 1945.
The Germans had surrendered and there was joy and celebration in the streets.
People were hugging and kissing those they knew and some they didn’t., but what I remember most vividly amid all of the rejoicing was a solitary figure… my friend’s father… staggering as if in a daze – clutching the telegram that said his son and my best friend’s brother, Bob, had been killed in the battle to take Okinawa.
Okinawa had shown that the invasion of Japan would be a bloodbath – for both sides. The joy of VE Day evaporated as we received news that 65,000 of our troops had been killed or wounded – as well as more than 100,000 of the enemy – invading one small Japanese island.
In spite of the bombings and progressive losses the Japanese military leadership refused to surrender. The general belief was that they would fight to the last man. Our boys would be coming home from Europe only to be sent to die in the Pacific.
A sense of doom settled over the land until a piece in the newspapers announced that a ‘super bomb’ had been dropped on Japan. The next day we learned about Hiroshima. Suddenly the spectre of predicted losses vanished. We had a bomb that left them no choice. Less than a month later the Japanese surrendered.
As a pilot in the Air Force I flew bombing missions over both North Korea and Vietnam and was assigned to SAC bombers for 16 years – frequently in charge of weapons that were a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
In actual warfare the motivation for bombing was inevitably based on the idea that we were destroying the means that would eventually be used to kill our fellow fighting men – either on the ground, on the sea or in the air.
Cold War strategy differed from the hot wars in that it was preventative rather than protective. At the conclusion of my book ‘Jet Age Man: SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Early Cold War’ I offer the following:
“Armageddon was a possibility we didn’t talk or think about. Thinking the unthinkable was, in fact, impossible. No mind could grasp or comprehend the innate insanity, which is why it was an effective deterrent. LeMay’s brilliance was that he knew the unthinkable would never happen…”
I don’t recall a single conversation about what we were really doing. On the conscious level it was an exercise in procedure. We managed a weapons system that our government had entrusted to us to master, without error, in such a manner and in such a way as no system of such consequence had been managed before or since.
Saburo Sakai – the renowned WWII Japanese ace – once pointed out that the US had dropped leaflets warning Hiroshima of the bombing, yet Paul Tibbets, Commander of the Enola Gay, went in with just two unarmed B-29s and no fighter escort. Tibbets, Sakai maintained, was a great hero.
‘Hero’ may be understated. On balance and as horrible as it indeed was, the bombing of Hiroshima prevented an estimated million lives from being lost in an invasion of the Japanese homeland, which of course does not include the tens of millions of unborn children and grandchildren whose ancestors would have perished on Japan’s rocky shores.
Earl J. McGill, Lt. Col USAF (ret)