Twists of fate made Nagasaki a target for an atomic bomb 75 years ago (2022)

At two minutes past 11 o’clock in the morning on August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb exploded over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. At that moment, Kazumi Yamada, a 12-year-old paper boy, was finishing up his deliveries and on his way home. Earlier that morning, some friends had gone to a local swimming hole, but Yamada had work to do and did not go with them. Yamada survived the attack on Nagasaki; his friends died from their injuries shortly after the bomb fell.

Such a commonplace choice, to go for a swim versus delivering newspapers, hardly seems like a life or death decision—but that day, it turned out to be. The story of August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki is full of similar moments: near misses and twists of fate that led up to the devastation of the Japanese port, which came close to never becoming the site of the world’s second and last nuclear attack.

Target selection

In spring 1945, the U.S. military was considering different targets for the first deployment of the atomic bomb that summer. Between April and June, military leaders generated a long list of Japanese cities using three criteria: First, the cities needed to be large, wider than three miles with sizable populations; second, they needed to have “high strategic value,” meaning military installations of some kind; and third, they needed to have escaped the U.S.’s ongoing firebombing campaign begun in March 1945.

Very few areas met all the qualifications; among them were Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. By the end of May 1945, these cities had become the finalists, with Kyoto and Hiroshima being the two primary targets. American B-29s would not firebomb those areas. An intact city would better demonstrate the destructive capacity of the atomic bombs. (Vestiges of the atomic bomb have faded in a now vibrant Hiroshima.)

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Port city

Nagasaki is nestled between two mountains on the western coast of Kyushu, one of Japan’s five main islands. It’s one of Japan’s oldest port cities and one of the first open to Western trade. Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived there in the 16th century, introducing Catholicism to the city. The faith became popular despite opposition from the emperor, who expelled the foreign missionaries and persecuted local Catholics. Nagasaki’s faithful continued to worship in secret, publicly reclaiming their faith when Japan fully opened up to the West in the 19th century.

Because of its excellent harbor and successful history as an open port, Nagasaki developed a robust shipbuilding industry and thrived as a trading center. During World War II, the city manufactured weapons for the Japanese military. Two munitions factories were located there: the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works.

Despite the presence of military targets, Nagasaki was not selected as one of the U.S. target cities in May 1945. It had been on an earlier list in April but had been dropped. The city’s hilly geography and the presence of a POW camp made it a less than ideal target for the atomic bomb, and U.S. officials had four candidate cities that suited their purposes.

Last on the list

Then in early June, Nagasaki’s fortunes changed. U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wanted Kyoto removed from the target list, on the grounds that the city was too culturally significant to the Japanese to be destroyed. Some say his personal fondness for the city—he visited in the 1920s and may have honeymooned there—was the real reason he appealed to President Harry Truman to remove Kyoto from the list.

A replacement was not selected until the day before the official strike orders were issued. On July 24, 1945, a hand-written notation—“and Nagasaki”—appears on a draft of the strike order. It was officially added on July 25. The port city sat at the bottom of the list, its fourth-place position giving it the lowest rank.

August 9, 1945

Atomic bombs needed to be sited visually rather than relying on radar, which made clear skies necessary. After the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the United States planned to drop the next atomic weapon on August 10, but an extended cloudy forecast meant they had to move more quickly. They switched the attack to August 9, hastily assembled the egg-shaped plutonium bomb “Fat Man,” and loaded it into the B-29 bomber Bockscar. The mission took off from Tinian Island at 3:47 A.M. and flew toward Kokura, the intended target.

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Also located on the island of Kyushu, Kokura had been selected because the Japanese Imperial Army’s massive arsenal was there. Bockscar arrived at Kokura around 10 o’clock in the morning, but visibility over the city was poor. Searching for a window in the clouds, the plane circled the city three times, but Kokura never clearly came into view. Around 10:45, the team abandoned Kokura and flew south toward Nagasaki.

When Kazumi Yamada was headed home after his paper route on August 9, second-grader Matsuyoshi Ikeda was at school with his classmates, and 11-year-old Sachiko Matsuo was sheltering with her family outside of town. Earlier that week, her father had evacuated the family because he believed an American attack was coming. Sachiko and some family members were growing restless in the hills and wanted to head home, but her father insisted they stay before he left to go to work in the city that morning.

At 11:02 A.M., their morning was broken by a blinding white flash in the sky. The plutonium bomb dropped by the United States unleashed more than 21 kilotons of firepower, ripping through Nagasaki and killing as many as 70,000 people almost instantly. Ikeda was only one of 47 survivors from his elementary school; 1,400 students were killed, and 50 others were missing. (This book explores how five teenagers survived Nagasaki.)

Thousands more people would die in the coming days and weeks from their injuries and the ravages of radiation poisoning. Matsuo’s father was one of them; she watched him succumb as his hair fell out and his body grew weaker. He died a week after the attack.

The hillsides surrounding Nagasaki contained much of the bomb’s fury, limiting physical devastation to the neighborhoods within the valley. While military targets were damaged and destroyed, the civilian areas close to ground zero were devastated: The bomb consumed people’s homes, local hospitals, colleges and schools, and sacred spaces such as the Sanno Shinto Shrine and the Urakami Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church.

Unbroken

In the 75 years since the attack, Nagasaki has been rebuilt and is once again a flourishing port. Memorials to those lost on August 9, 1945, can be found all over the city. At the Shiroyama Elementary School, a plaque bears the names of Matsuyoshi Ikeda’s fallen classmates.

Descended from Japanese Catholics who were forced to hide their faith, Sachiko Matsuo would later say how witnessing the destruction of the city and of Urakami Cathedral, located just 1,600 feet from ground zero, was devastating. Today the house of worship has been restored, and masses are said there to remember the fallen of August 9, 1945.

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The Sanno Shinto Shrine, located about half a mile from the hypocenter, was reduced to ash by the bomb. Burned black and split open, the camphor trees outside it initially were believed lost—but a few years after the blast, new growth began to appear. Today these camphor trees are thriving with a thick canopy of healthy green leaves and tangled branches.

Factors as mercurial as the weather—or where the U.S. Secretary of War vacationed—shaped the destiny of Nagasaki and the people living there. The city’s hibakusha (the Japanese term for survivors of the atomic bombs) have endured a lifetime of obstacles because of choices far beyond their control. (Hiroshima's survivors struggle with memories of the nuclear attack.)

The hibakushas’ lives since that August day, however, have been driven by their own choices. Much like the camphor trees outside the Sanno Shrine, they have come back to life over the past 75 years to tell their stories of that day. Like the trees, the survivors are living examples of both the horrors of nuclear war and the power of resilience.

Amy Briggs is executive editor of National Geographic History magazine and cohost of the podcast Overheard at National Geographic.

Hiroki Kobayashi is a Tokyo based photographer who concentrates on cultural issues and is a regular contributor to National Geographic.

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FAQs

Why was Nagasaki chosen as a target for the atomic bomb? ›

However, Nagasaki was originally chosen as the third target for atomic bombing because its population was much smaller than those of Hiroshima and Kokura, which was the second target. Also, a prisoner of war camp was there.

What was the original target of the Nagasaki bomb? ›

As a matter of chance, the original target was another city in Japan, known for its military arsenal: Kokura. Today, people in Japan still refer to “the luck of Kokura” on how the city was spared.

What were the targets of the atomic bombs? ›

The United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict. Manhattan Project: United Kingdom.

Were Nagasaki and Hiroshima a primary target? ›

By the end of May 1945, these cities had become the finalists, with Kyoto and Hiroshima being the two primary targets. American B-29s would not firebomb those areas. An intact city would better demonstrate the destructive capacity of the atomic bombs. (Vestiges of the atomic bomb have faded in a now vibrant Hiroshima.)

Why did the Americans target Hiroshima and Nagasaki? ›

While President Truman had hoped for a purely military target, some advisers believed that bombing an urban area might break the fighting will of the Japanese people. Hiroshima was a major port and a military headquarters, and therefore a strategic target.

Was Japan warned about the atomic bomb? ›

Leaflets dropped on cities in Japan warning civilians about the atomic bomb, dropped c. August 6, 1945.

What is the best explanation for why the United States decided to target Hiroshima? ›

What is the best explanation for why the United States decided to target Hiroshima? It was a center of communications, military command, and supply point for the Japanese army. It would have few casualties because it was nearly destroyed by previous bombings.

Why was the decision made to use the atomic bomb on Japan quizlet? ›

Truman's decision to order the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was based largely on the desire to end the war quickly with the fewest number of casualties possible.

How far off target was the Nagasaki bomb? ›

The damage was less extensive, since the blast was boxed in by the river valley and partly to the fact that the bomb was dropped about 2 miles off target.

What was the next target after Nagasaki? ›

On August 13, 1945—four days after the bombing of Nagasaki—two military officials had a phone conversation about how many more bombs to detonate over Japan and when. According to the declassified conversation, there was a third bomb set to be dropped on August 19th.

How many people were killed in Nagasaki? ›

The explosion immediately killed an estimated 80,000 people; tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure. Three days later, a second B-29 dropped another A-bomb on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 people.

Who made the final decision to drop the atomic bombs? ›

In recent years historians and policy analysts have questioned President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. For President Truman, the decision was a clear-cut one. In 1945, America was weary of war.

Was Nagasaki the second target? ›

As the B-29 bomber Bockscar headed to its initial target of Kokura on the morning of August 9 1945, thick haze and smoke forced it to switch at the last minute to Nagasaki, a second target. The United States said the bombings hastened Japan's surrender and prevented the need for a US invasion of Japan.

Why President Harry S Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II? ›

Truman did not seek to destroy Japanese culture or people; the goal was to destroy Japan's ability to make war. So, on the morning of August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped the world's first atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

How is Nagasaki today? ›

Just like Hiroshima, Nagasaki is perfectly safe for people to live in today. Not only is Nagasaki safe, but it is a lovely city as well. The city had a notable foreign (largely Dutch) influence from the early 1600s onwards. Architectural treasures such as the bridge pictured above still dot the city.

Why was Nagasaki important? ›

The terrain and smaller size of Nagasaki reduced the destruction of life and property as compared to that of the atomic bomb explosion over Hiroshima, although the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was significantly more powerful. About 40 percent of the city's buildings were completely destroyed or severely damaged.

Was the US justified in dropping the atomic bomb? ›

The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was justified at the time as being moral – in order to bring about a more rapid victory and prevent the deaths of more Americans. However, it was clearly not moral to use this weapon knowing that it would kill civilians and destroy the urban milieu.

What were the reasons for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan? ›

Truman stated that his decision to drop the bomb was purely military. A Normandy-type amphibious landing would have cost an estimated million casualties. Truman believed that the bombs saved Japanese lives as well. Prolonging the war was not an option for the President.

What did the pilot say after dropping the atomic bomb? ›

As the city disappeared under a mushroom cloud, Captain Robert Lewis – co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the weapon – wrote in his log “My God, what have we done?” Three days later the U.S. released another atom bomb on Nagasaki, devastating the city and ushering in the nuclear age.

What cities would be nuked first? ›

The cities that would most likely be attacked are Washington, New York City and Los Angeles. Using a van or SUV, the device could easily be delivered to the heart of a city and detonated. The effects and response planning from a nuclear blast are determined using statics from Washington, the most likely target.

Would Japan have surrendered without the atomic bomb? ›

However, the overwhelming historical evidence from American and Japanese archives indicates that Japan would have surrendered that August, even if atomic bombs had not been used — and documents prove that President Truman and his closest advisors knew it.

Why did the American Select Hiroshima as the city on which to drop the first atomic bomb Brainly? ›

U.S. strategists wanted to flatten an entire city with a single atomic bomb: Hiroshima was the right size. The name Hiroshima is so tied to the atomic bomb that it's hard to imagine there were other possible targets.

Why did the United States drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 quizlet? ›

The bombing took place after the United States had issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum to Japan on July 26th that threatened prompt and utter destruction if the Japanese did not surrender. Emperor Hirohito of Japan ignored the ultimatum, which led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs.

What are 3 reasons why the US used the atomic bomb on Japan? ›

Summary of Possible Reasons:
  • Ending the war early while minimizing casualties.
  • Justifying the expenses of the Manhattan Project (creating the bomb)
  • Simply using the bomb because it existed and to test its effects.
  • Impressing the Soviet Union.
  • A response to Pearl Harbor.
  • Forcing Japan to surrender.

What result did dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki bring about? ›

On August 9, 1945, a second atom bomb is dropped on Japan by the United States, at Nagasaki, resulting finally in Japan's unconditional surrender.

What were the two arguments on dropping the atomic bomb? ›

Supporters of the bombings generally believe that they prevented an invasion of the Japanese mainland, saving more lives than they took by doing so. Opponents contend, among other arguments, that the bombings were unnecessary to win the war or that they constituted a war crime or genocide.

How many miles will a nuclear bomb destroy? ›

The volume the weapon's energy spreads into varies as the cube of the distance, but the destroyed area varies at the square of the distance. Thus 1 bomb with a yield of 1 megaton would destroy 80 square miles. While 8 bombs, each with a yield of 125 kilotons, would destroy 160 square miles.

How far of a radius does a nuclear bomb effect? ›

The air blast from a 1 KT detonation could cause 50% mortality from flying glass shards, to individuals within an approximate radius of 300 yards (275 m). This radius increases to approximately 0.3 miles (590 m) for a 10 KT detonation. up to millions of degrees.

What is the biggest bomb in the world? ›

#1: Tsar Bomba (1961)

Initially, it was designed as a 100,000 kiloton bomb, but its yield was cut to half its potential by the Soviet Union. Tsar Bomba's mushroom cloud breached through the stratosphere to reach a height of over 37 miles (60km), roughly six times the flying height of commercial aircraft.

Why was Hiroshima chosen as a target? ›

Historians say the United States picked it as a suitable target because of its size and landscape, and carefully avoided fire bombing the city ahead of time so American officials could accurately assess the impact of the atomic attack.

Why was Tokyo not targeted with an atomic bomb? ›

The U.S. likely did not target Tokyo for the atomic bomb strikes as it was the seat of the Emperor and the location of much of the high ranking military officers. These are precisely the people you do not want to kill if you want to negotiate a surrender, as they are the people you would be negotiating with.

What are 3 reasons why the US used the atomic bomb on Japan? ›

Summary of Possible Reasons:
  • Ending the war early while minimizing casualties.
  • Justifying the expenses of the Manhattan Project (creating the bomb)
  • Simply using the bomb because it existed and to test its effects.
  • Impressing the Soviet Union.
  • A response to Pearl Harbor.
  • Forcing Japan to surrender.

What is the best explanation for why the United States decided to target Hiroshima? ›

What is the best explanation for why the United States decided to target Hiroshima? It was a center of communications, military command, and supply point for the Japanese army. It would have few casualties because it was nearly destroyed by previous bombings.

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