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Bockscar, the End of WWII and What Might Have Been

Last updated on June 8, 2022

Everybody (well, mostly everybody) knows the name of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945 (Enola Gay), but ask almost anybody the name of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and you’ll get one of two responses –

1) It was the Enola Gay, or
2) A blank stare

Shall we change that? Yes, let’s.

The airplane, a B-29 Superfortress, was called Bockscar and it dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

End of story? Well, it could have been different if only the weather had been different and an accompanying plane had arrived as scheduled.

The mission to drop the second atomic bomb was to be carried out by three planes. Bockscar, the deliverer, was piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney and the crew of another B-29, The Great Artiste. Their original plane (The Great Artiste) was designated to be the observation and instrumentation support plane while a third B-29, dubbed The Big Stink, was to be the photographic aircraft.

On that morning at 3:45 a.m. Bockscar took off from the North Field of the island of Tinian loaded down with its explosive cargo. Sweeney was to rendezvous with the other two planes near Yakushima Island and then proceed to the primary target, Kokura. Bockscar and The Great Artiste circled at the rendezvous point for 15 minutes waiting for The Big Stink. The third plane didn’t arrive after 15 minutes or even thirty minutes, at which time the two planes set out for Kokura, which was thirty minutes away. By the time that Bockscar and The Great Artiste arrived in Kokura weather had become a factor, with clouds covering 70% of the aiming point, making targeting next to impossible. Sweeney stayed and circled the city for the next 50 minutes, with Japanese fighters climbing to intercept the planes near the end of that time. After burning so much fuel Sweeney made the decision to try for the secondary target, Nagasaki.

Clouds also covered Nagasaki, but with the aide of radar and a small opening in the clouds allowed the bombardier to see enough of the city to identify a target. They dropped Fat Man at 11:01 a.m. and it exploded 43 seconds later with a blast yield equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT at an altitude of 1,650 feet (503 meters) above ground, approximately 1.5 miles (2.5 km) northwest of the planned aiming point. 60% of Nagasaki was destroyed and approximately 40,000 people were killed in the explosion. Japan surrendered six days later.

The Big Stink did finally arrive, though. The airplane’s commander, Group Operations Officer Major James I. Hopkins, had ordered Dr. Robert Serber, a scientist working with the Manhattan Project, to leave the plane after he’d forgotten his parachute. The problem was that Serber was the only person on board who knew how to use the high-speed camera that would take photographs of the explosion, so delays mounted until finally Hopkins had to be instructed over the radio how to operate the camera. As photographic history shows, they showed up just in time near Nagasaki.

Of course the crazy thing here are the alternate possibilities a man not forgetting his parachute could have set in motion. Nagasaki never would have been an Atomic Age touchstone and we would have referred to the “two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Kokura”. Crazier things have happened, of course, but 40,000 people would have been alive in Nagasaki if things had been different.

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