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This Day in History: The World War II bombing of Nagasaki

On this day in 1945, Americans drop an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It had been only three days since the bombing of Hiroshima.

Did you know that Nagasaki was not the original target? The intended target was an arsenal near the city of Kokura.   In a twist of fate, American plans were changed by something as simple as the weather—and the stubborn refusal of smoke to drift away from Kokura. Early on August 9, the weather over the city was deemed acceptable, but Kokura was soon covered with smoke and haze. Matters became further complicated when the bomber began to run low on fuel as it circled the area.

A mushroom cloud forms over Nagasaki

It was decided to do one quick pass over Nagasaki before landing at the airfield at Okinawa. The clouds over Nagasaki weren’t too much better, but a break in the clouds allowed Captain Kermit K. Beahan to catch a quick glimpse of the city’s stadium. He had permission to bomb either city, so he decided to drop the bomb on Nagasaki.

One of his crew members later noted: “[T]here was no sense dragging the bomb home or dropping it in the ocean.”

The plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki produced an explosion 40 percent bigger than the uranium one dropped on Hiroshima.

The Department of Energy Office of History and Heritage Resources describes the effects: “Almost everything up to half a mile from ground zero was completely destroyed, including even the earthquake-hardened concrete structures that had sometimes survived at comparable distances at Hiroshima.”

To the extent that some damage was lesser than at Hiroshima, it was because of the steep hills surrounding the city. The force of the explosion was contained somewhat.

By the next day, Japan was ready to surrender on the condition that the “said Declaration does not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.”   President Harry Truman ordered a halt to the atomic attacks while negotiations commenced. On August 12, the United States agreed to accept the surrender, but required that any future government of Japan be established by the “freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”

The Japanese government didn’t answer right away, and conventional bombings resumed. Throughout this time, the United States was preparing a third bomb, just in case it was needed. But it also did something else: The United States began dropping leaflets across Tokyo. The leaflets described the terms that had been offered for ending the war.

Finally, on August 15, the emperor made an announcement on public radio: Japan would surrender.

It had been almost 4 years since the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor. But now World War II was finally coming to an end.

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