(Tribune News Service) — For the first time Friday, Joseph P. Sweeney climbed into the “Bockscar” bomber that dropped the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki and changed the course of world history.
Sweeney has a personal tie to the plane. On Aug. 9, 1945, his father, pilot Charles W. Sweeney, led an Army Air Forces B-29 aircrew on a mission that dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, leading to an end of World War II and ushering in the nuclear age.
As the 70th anniversary of that day approaches, Sweeney admitted to getting a little misty eyed.
“I spent 10 years in the Marine Corps and Marines,” said Sweeney, 55, both a former Marine and retired colonel in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. “We don’t cry, but sometimes our eyes sweat a little bit….It sent a chill up my spine just to think that he sat here as a young 25-year-old.”
Two World War II-era atomic bomb weapons sit next to the silver bomber at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, silent artifacts of an American victory in a brutal war in the Pacific and Europe that killed millions and defeated Japan and Germany.
The atomic bombing of Nagasaki was the second targeted at Japan, killing an estimated 70,000 people, according to National World War II Museum figures. The plutonium-fueled weapon dubbed “Fat Man” exploded with the force of about 20,000 tons of dynamite in an air burst about 1,800 feet above the city, flattening buildings and searing the ground and sky in a devastating nuclear blast.
When the bomb exploded, a Bockscar crew member said it felt like the bomber was “being beaten with a telephone pole,” a museum narrative says.
Three days earlier, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, eventually killing 140,000, according to the National World War II Museum figures.
Japan surrendered within days of the attack on Nagasaki.
Many survivors were afflicted with the lingering health effects of radiation for years.
“This is war, and it’s truly horrific either way,” said Jeff Underwood, an historian with the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “It’s almost unimaginable for us to think about in the 21st century, but that’s what the world was like in 1944-45.”
Fire bombing missions of hundreds of bombers against Japan were just as destructive, with one raid over Tokyo claiming 120,000 deaths, Underwood said. The war claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans and more than 60 million people worldwide.
The B-29 and the atomic bomb
The Bockscar’s mission itself was the culmination of years of thousands of American scientists and engineers working on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb in secret out of fears Germany might do it first, historians say.
Four-engine B-29s such as the Bockscar, flown to the museum in 1961, were the biggest U.S. bombers with the longest range in World War II. The specially built “Silverplate” B-29s were stripped of extra armor to carry the 10,000-pound atomic weapons, Underwood said.
The Enola Gay and the Bockscar flew from the Pacific island of Tinian, captured in a bloody and hard-fought island-hopping campaign as American forces pressed toward the home islands of Japan.
Sweeney, who presented a lecture Friday at the museum about the Bockscar mission, traveled from his Milton, Mass., home with his son, Joseph Jr., a 22-year-old recent college graduate who aims to pilot jets in the New Hampshire Air National Guard.
Charles W. Sweeney, who died in 2004, was the only pilot who flew both missions. He piloted the B-29 “Great Artiste” to Hiroshima on a photographic and scientific mission to study the first bomb blast.
Joseph Sweeney said his father never wavered in his belief that dropping the bombs was the right decision to force Japan to surrender.
“He spoke openly about it for years and years and years,” Sweeney said. “He was a military man on a military mission. The president ordered it to happen. “
Years of bloody warfare had finally ended in Europe and North Africa by May 1945 but raged on in the Pacific despite chances for Japan to surrender, Sweeney said Friday. “It took the atomic bombs to get them to stop fighting,” he said.
The debate continues
Underwood thinks the alternative to dropping the bombs would have been much worse for Americans, because Japan showed no indication it would surrender.
Operation Olympic was a November 1945 invasion plan with estimates of Allied casualties from 250,000 to 1 million, with greater losses projected for the Japanese, he said.
Albert L Sessler of Kettering, who was a 20-year-old Army medic in the Pacific theater in 1945, said he is “eternally grateful” to President Harry S. Truman for dropping the bomb.
Sessler, now 90, said his division of soldiers would have been called on to invade the Japanese island of Honshu in March 1946 if the Pacific nation had not surrendered.
“We knew the war wasn’t going to be over until it was over or we had to pull that invasion,” said Sessler, a retired patent attorney.
Sessler credits Truman with saving “millions of lives because from everything we heard after the war, the Japanese, if it had come to an invasion, would have fought to the last man, woman or child with everything they had. There would have been immense casualties on their side as well as ours.”
Not everyone agrees.
Martin Fleck is security program director with the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that advocates the elimination of more than 15,000 nuclear weapons around the world.
“The dominant narrative in the United States about the decision to use the atomic bombs is being challenged pretty strongly these days, and we welcome that,” he said Friday. “Crediting the atomic bombings with ending World War II is questionable if you consider that something over 20 cities had been substantially destroyed in Japan by the time the atomic bomb came along.
“World War II was a long, brutal and brutish war where open season was declared on civilians so much of what happened in World War II, in my opinion, was not justified,” he said.
Fleck said he wouldn’t “re-litigate” if using the atomic bomb was the right decision in the 1945. But he said the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan just prior to dropping the second atomic bomb “had a much greater influence on decision-making in Japan about whether or not to surrender.”
“The lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that we don’t ever want to see another city flattened like that from a nuclear weapon,” he said.
©2015 the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.