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A fateful countdown

By Bob D'Angelo

 


It has been 75 years since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a shocking event that brought an abrupt end to World War II.


It was also a weapon of deterrence. Having "the bomb," the United States believed, would help prevent full-scale wars in the future. Even when other countries produced their own nuclear weapons, restraint was the norm.


The 116 days between the time Harry S Truman became the 33rd president and the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Japan is the focus of the fast-paced book, "Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days that Changed the World" (2020; Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster; hardback; $30; 313 pages).


Written by "Fox News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace, with help from Associated Press journalist Mitch Weiss, this book is a page-turner full of drama, backbiting and pathos.

Wallace got the idea for the book from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in February 2019. Pelosi had invited Wallace and several other news anchors to Sam Rayburn's famous "Board of Education" room in the Capitol and explained it was where Truman called the White House when an urgent message was left for him. Truman would learn on that April day in 1945 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died in Warm Springs, Georgia.


The idea for a book began percolating in Wallace's mind, and soon he and Weiss, with the help of researcher Lori Crim, had created a compelling narrative.


From a historical standpoint, the reader is not going to learn anything new about the actual bombing and Truman's agonizing decision. However, Wallace guides the reader through the 116 days with a timeline that becomes more dramatic with each passing day.


What makes this book enjoyable is how Wallace digs into the human aspect of the event. The narrative is told through the eyes of several people, like Ruth Sisson, who worked in the defense plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Sisson longed for the war to end so her boyfriend, Lawrence Huddleston, could return home safely from Germany.


Sisson was a cubicle operator in front of a calutron -- a machine that used an electromagnetic process to enrich uranium. Sisson was helping to build "Little Boy," the first A-bomb, but was blissfully ignorant about what she was doing. "Ruth monitored an essential step for building atomic bombs, but nobody told her that," Wallace writes.


There was tension between Paul Tibbets Jr., who would pilot the B-29 Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945, and drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima; and Robert Lewis, who believed he and his crew should have had the honors.


Tibbets was a "serious, by-the-book commander," Wallace writes, while Lewis was "a loudmouth," a street kid who "settled disputes with his fists" and gravitated toward the underdog. Both maintained an uneasy relationship.


Scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Don Hornig, who were stationed at Los Alamos, New Mexico, are also profiled.


The most compelling -- and tragic -- story revolves around Hideko Tamura, who was 10 and living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. Her life as she knew it "was blown away in an instant," Wallace writes. "Blown away like the house around her."


But the child followed the instructions ingrained in her mind by her mother, Kimiko -- "Get out. Go to the river." Hideko survived; her mother did not.


Another vignette described the experience of William Laurence, a New York Times reporter who flew on the plane that would bomb Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. The second bomb -- called "Fat Man" -- had one-and-a-half times more power than "Little Boy," and killed more than 40,000 persons instantly.


Laurence wrote 10 stories by late 1945 about the bombing raid and would win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.


One of the more dramatic episodes concerned the arming of the bomb. "Little Boy" was not live when the Enola Gay took off for Japan. That task fell to crew members Morris Jeppson and William "Deak" Parsons, who opened the bomb-bay hatch and lowered themselves onto a catwalk. "It was noisy, drafty, and dark," Wallace writes.


And dangerous.


Slowly, carefully, Parsons armed the bomb, and only then did the Enola Gay climb to cruising altitude. There was no margin for error, Wallace writes. If one of the men had slipped on the catwalk or made a mistake, the bomb could have exploded -- or one or both of the men could have fallen from the plane and into the ocean.


Of all the drama surrounding the atomic bomb, this might have been the tensest moment.


The postscript revisits some of the book's main characters. Ruth Sisson and Lawrence Huddleston were married in November 1945. Huddleston in 1971 and suffered from ulcers and PTSD throughout his postwar life. Ruth is 94, and while grateful for living a good life, she still carries some guilt about the role she had in building the bomb.


Tibbets went to his grave believing the United States had done the right thing in dropping the bomb, Wallace writes. He insisted that while the destruction in Japan was horrific, the American lives saved as a result of his mission counterbalanced the aftermath of the weapon of mass destruction.


Lewis, who famously wrote in his log, "My God, what have we done," was bitter about the way Tibbets treated him, Wallace writes. But Lewis said he did not regret participating in the mission, even though the images haunted him. "If I live a hundred years, I'll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind," he wrote in his log.


Hideko Tamura lived with the stigma of surviving the attack. "Survivors were not celebrated as heroes," Wallace wrote. She attempted suicide at age 17 by throwing herself in front of an oncoming train but was thwarted when an elderly man did the same thing a few yards up the track, causing the train to stop.


Tamura would later travel to the United States and earned a degree in sociology in 1953. In a twist of irony, Tamura's granddaughter was born Aug. 6, 2007 -- 62 years to the day after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.


"Countdown to 1945" is a fast read and an absorbing one. Wallace and Weiss do not bog the reader down with an avalanche of details but provide enough to present a compelling look at a controversial day in American and military history.


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