Texan dropped the bomb that ended the war
apt. Kermit K. Beahan of Houston tossed and turned the night of Aug. 8, 1945 knowing that the next day, which also happened to be his twenty-seventh birthday, he might be called upon to drop the second atom bomb on Japan.
The bloody 11-week battle for Okinawa, that ended in June 1945 with 49,000 Allied casualties, showed defeat had not diminished the fanatical determination of the Japanese to fight to the death. For “Operation Olympic,” the invasion of the home islands scheduled for November, the Pentagon estimate of a million Americans killed and wounded was realistic if not conservative.
President Truman was in Germany for a meeting with Churchill and Stalin, when U.S. scientists staged the first successful test of an atom bomb in the New Mexico desert on Jul. 16. The Allies issued an ultimatum ten days later demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. Receiving no response, Truman authorized an atomic attack.
Capt. Kermit K. Beahan of Houston had a front-row seat at Hiroshima on Aug. 6. From the window of an observer plane, he watched “Little Boy” incinerate the city and 92,000 inhabitants.
Beahan presumed the terrifying demonstration of the doomsday device would take the starch out of the Japanese. The relief he felt at the prospect of immediate peace was mixed with disappointment at missing the opportunity to test the skills he had worked months to develop. But he doubted that he would get the chance to drop a second bomb.
The former refinery worker, who had attended Rice on a football scholarship, ranked high on the list of U.S. bombardiers. Beahan’s biggest fans were the members of his B-29 crew, who bragged he “could hit a nickel from six miles up.”
Meanwhile, President Truman urged Tokyo not to ignore the horrendous lesson of Hiroshima. “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on earth.”
But the ruling clique in Japan stubbornly refused to heed the warning. The true scope of the devastation at Hiroshima was hidden not only from the people but also the parliament and most military leaders.
Enemy intransigence dictated a second dose of disaster. As “Fat Man” was being loaded, a member of the ground crew who spent his childhood in the Shantung province of China scribbled a personal message on the bomb. “To the people of Japan,” he wrote with tears in his eyes, “from my friends in China.”
The pilot made three passes over Kokura, the primary target, in a vain attempt to find an opening in the pea-soup overcast. Flying onto Nagasaki, he arrived with barely enough fuel for a single run.
In the second B-29 sent along on the mission, the radioman asked a New York Times reporter, “Think this atomic bomb will end the war?”
The journalist expressed a mutual hope just as someone shouted, “There she goes!” Plainly visible was “Fat Boy” descending lazily toward its doomed destination.
In the lead aircraft, bombardier Beahan collapsed in a state of nervous exhaustion after performing his historic chore with detached efficiency.
The civilian newsman reported in a dispatch cleared weeks later for publication, “The bluish-green light illuminated the entire sky. A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail. This was followed by four more blasts in rapid succession, each resounding like the boom of cannon fire hitting us from all directions.”
On the ground nearly 100,000 residents of Nagasaki perished in the explosion and the firestorm that followed. Twelve hours later, pilots could still see the raging inferno from a distance of 200 miles.
The next day the Japanese government requested a clarification that revealed its warped priorities. Did unconditional capitulation mean Emperor Hirohito had to give up his throne? Told that matter would be decided by his subjects, the Japanese formally surrendered four days later on Aug. 14.
In late September, Capt. Beahan was treated to a hero’s homecoming at the Houston airport by family, friends and local news media. His proud parents were quoted as saying it was “wonderful he was chosen to drop the atomic bomb.”
And did Harry Truman lose any sleep after ordering the annihilation of two Japanese cities? “It was a question of saving hundreds of thousands of American lives,” the plain-spoken ex-president said in a 1965 interview. “I could not worry about what history would say about my personal morality. I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right.”
Four years before his death in 1989, Kermit Beahan recalled what he saw gazing down on Nagasaki: “It looked like a picture of hell. The ground itself was covered by a rolling black smoke. I was told the area would be destroyed, but I didn’t know the meaning of an atomic bomb.”
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