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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Jacob Beser’s Lecture

In this lecture at Johns Hopkins University, Jacob Beser talks about his early career in the Air Corps in World War II, as well as how he was recruited to the 509th Composite Air Group. He discusses his personal feelings on the morality of the bombs, as well as the situation that lead President Truman to decide to use the atomic bombs. Beser also answers questions on Los Alamos, the targets for the atomic bombings and the idea of dropping a bomb as a warning to the Japanese government. He discusses the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions and his feelings after the fact. Beser also touches on the Japanese-American internment during World War II, which he considers to be one of the largest blots on American democracy.

Date of Interview:
September 1, 1985
Location of the Interview:


Jacob Beser:  The story which we could tell. And one point that Dr. Wittman, though, which I wish you would please keep in mind—and this is true not only in this situation, but any historical event  should be evaluated in the context in which it took place, the context and the times in which it took place. Hopefully we proceed from there and progress. Forty years later, we all had 20/20 hindsight and we also have had access to archives and information that we did not have forty years ago. I can truthfully say that I can support today decisions we made forty years ago, even with all of the new information.

One of the things that really distressed me this summer is that I ran into quite a few Americans in Japan, a so-called peace movement. When I say “so-called peace movement,” not in a derogatory fashion because I think there would be nothing better for the people of the world right now if there was a real coherent peace movement. One where we knew what people stood for, what their objectives were, their aims and how they planned to get from here to there. But I saw what amounted to a ragtag army of disconnected brutes each vying for center stage. Each had its own little show to put on, its own little show to put on, its own little propaganda theme, and working at odds with each other, let alone not heading in a direction which they would like to go.

Just to give you a for instance, what could be more meaningful than to have a child get up in front of a huge audience, a child, six, seven, eight years old, do a little dance and sing a song and say, “I do not want to die.” That makes sense, doesn’t it? “I especially do not want to die in a nuclear holocaust.”

Of course, the kid does not know what a nuclear holocaust means, except somebody said, “This is a word to use.” There is a whole group of these children ranging from six years old to seventeen that I ran into, shepherded by a San Francisco female who has more money than brains and likes headlines. She has this little tax-free foundation, Children as Teachers for Peace. She’s got these twelve kids, and she’s taking them the world, exploiting their youth and their naiveté. She is getting headlines and getting dollars for something from well-meaning people.

But as far as advancing the cause of world peace is concerned, she is not moving it not one micron. There are other people, some as sloppy as I feel tonight. I beg your forgiveness because I have been in a marina all day trying to get a boat ready to face a storm, which they tell me is coming [laughter].

There are some people in that crowd that, my God you could not be on the same block with them, let alone in the same room. The only time they ever got clean was when they were caught in the rain, literally. That guy says to me, “Where do you come from?”

I said, “Baltimore.” Oh, I bike through Baltimore and there was a group of them, Bikers for Peace. Now what does this do for you? It attracts attention to these well-intentioned young men who either have enough money or nothing else to do. They rode bicycles from Seattle to Washington. It is good exercise, they keep their cholesterol down, their weight down, but it is not doing anything. But enough of that.

Let me first share with you a few things that got me into this thing; a little bit what it was like, and then I will tell you one or two little things about my trip this summer. As Dr. Wittman said, if at any point you have a question, up goes the hand and we will stop and try to accommodate. Okay?

On August 6, 1945, at precisely 8:15 in the morning, I was on a B-29, four-engine bomber, which had left the Marianas Islands some seven hours before, cruising at an altitude of thirty-two thousand feet approaching the City of Hiroshima from the southeast.

At 08:15:45, forty-five seconds after the minute, a door was open to a new era in man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. We dropped the bomb at 8:15. About forty five seconds later it went off, at 1820 feet over the city.

I never saw the intact City of Hiroshima. I was working in the back of the aircraft—I will tell you what I was doing in a few moments. When I got to the window, all I saw was this boiling muddy mess with fires continuing to break out on the periphery. As you may or may know, shortly after the explosion a firestorm got started and there was more damage from the firestorm. What the bomb did not damage, the firestorm took out. 

In the spring of 1944, I was working as a project officer and a teacher in Orlando Army Air Base, Orlando, Florida which is now known for Disneyworld. In fact, Disneyworld is situated on the site of one of our satellite air bases, where I trained night fighter observers during the war. I was getting kind of bored with that routine. I had left this campus on December 8, 1941, and gone through various service schools. Hopefully to go to Europe and do a little tit for tat with the Germans who were in the process of massacring my family, but I never got to fulfill that wish.

In the spring of ‘44, I came up to the Pentagon to see if I could get myself transferred to Europe. I went to the one person in the whole United States Army that can send you anywhere you want to go for any legitimate reason. It was the Adjutant General of the United States Army. I stated my case and told him what I wanted. He said sure, he thought he could take care of me. “Go wait in the outer office.” They sent a Sergeant Major down to the basement of the Pentagon, where all of the personnel records were kept in those days.

About a half hour later this guy comes back. I see they are shaking their heads and they invite me back into the room. General Julio turns to me and says, “I do not understand it, son. For some reason or other, even I cannot touch you. Your records have been flagged for some purpose that I am not even aware of. I suggest that you go back to your station and it will all come out in the wash.” This should have been an indicator to me, at that point in time, that something was in store for me somewhere down the road.

Male Student: What were you teaching then?

Beser: I was teaching communications and electronic procedures to cadres forming new bomb groups to go fight the war. I was a project officer for what was known as the Air Forces Board. New equipment developed in the various university environments was then turned over to companies to mass produce. When it was shipped to the field, it would not always work right and they would write up unsatisfactory reports, and they would come down to us in Florida. As a project officer, I would be assigned the responsibility for a particular piece of equipment at that point of time to solve the problem, get with the company that is building it, get production retrofit kits designed and shipped to the field and make the equipment work. It was interesting. I learned to work on my own to solve problems, and I made a lot of contacts with industry.

Anyhow, I went back to my station in Florida. When I got back there, I discovered that our demonstration bomb group had been selected to go to the Midwest for training on B-29 aircraft and to form the cadre or nucleus of the 313th Bomb Wing to go fly against Japan. This was an internal transfer right on the same base to get into the 9th Group.

I went over to my friend Jim Connolly, who was the Commanding Colonel, of that group and I said, “Jim, I would like to get in your group and go do 29s with you.”

“Fine, come on along.”

So internally they transferred me to the 9th Bomb Group. Then from there we went to Dalhart, Texas, where we re-formed and then we went to Fairmount, Nebraska where we began training in B-29s.

Along the way, training in a B-29 airplane became a very monotonous duty. Flying eight to ten hours a day boring useless holes in the sky, just sitting there doing nothing, is what it amounted to. I was getting used to the fact that here is an airplane that could take ten thousand pounds of bombs and fly five thousand miles and demonstrate that you knew how to do it, and you could do it with bombs at the end of 2500 miles.

So after a few months of that I was a little bored. I went into my friend Jim Connolly again and I said, “Colonel I would like to go to Chicago for a few days R&R, recreation and rest.”

“Fine you can go for three days, but hurry back.” I went for three days and I got into good company. I realized where I was about a week later. Technically I was absent without leave, and I was greeted when I returned by a somewhat irate group executive officer who did not like me anyhow.

Male student: What was your rank?

Beser: First lieutenant. Rather than have me stand a court martial, Colonel Connolly decided for disciplinary reasons he would put me in the 393rd Com Squadron, which was commanded by a Major Tom Plassen, who was a veteran of the Pacific War and landed the first B-17 on Guadalcanal. He knew what war was about and he was a stern disciplinarian and might do me some good. I said fine. I appreciated the fact that they were not going to put me in the brig.

I was in the squadron less than a month when orders came from Washington freezing all personnel in that squadron, nobody in, nobody out. Then they moved the squadron lock, stock and barrel with all their equipment, for “temporary duty,” Wendover Army Airfield Utah. That is a 120 miles west of Salt Lake City and the Bonneville Salt Flats. If the United States ever needed an enema, that is where they would insert the tube, [laughter] that is what a lovely place it was.

We stayed there for a while. We re-formed and formed the 509th Composite Group. We were told that we would not go back to our parent outfit, but we were going to be trained and drop a new weapon, secret. “At the proper time, you will find out what it is all about. But fellows, trust me, if it works, it will bring about a rapid conclusion to the war.”

We did this training. Before we started, while we reorganized, Colonel [Paul] Tibbets, who I met there, gave everybody two weeks off, “With the exception of Lieutenant Beser, and I want to see you in my office in the next fifteen minutes.” So I marched up there and I was ushered into his inner sanctum, and where there was an array of people in front of me. There was a Navy Captain, a Navy Lieutenant Commander, several civilians, and several Air Force people, Army people. They began to question me, interview me as if I had applied to them for a job. Of course I did not know who in the hell they were or what they wanted with me, but it became clear immediately that I was being evaluated for some kind of a job.

Dr. Hal [Robert] Brode of the University of California was one of the civilian. In the course of the interview looked me straight in the eye and he said, “Young man, how do you feel about flying combat?”

I had wings and I had been trained for that, I said, “I do not mind at all. That is what I am here for.”

He said, “That is good.” He said, “We have people that can do the job that we are interested in having you do, but they are too valuable to risk [laughter].” That begins to tell you something, I do not know what, but.

We got along very well. They excused me after about a half hour to wait in the outer office and they closed the door, and they caucused. They came out and got me and congratulated me; I had been hired. I did not even know what the hell I was hired for yet, but I had been hired. I found out a couple days later. I met on the flight line with some of them and we went to this place in their parlance called “Site Y.” It was the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory up on the Mesa behind Santa Fe New, Mexico. There, a whole new world opened. There I got involved in the final development of the electronic fusing of this weapon. I ran a flight test section for them down at Wendover.

Male Student: Can I ask a question?

Beser: Sure.

Male Student: When did you realize that it was not a normal type of bomb? That it was a nuclear bomb?

Beser: My first trip to Los Alamos I was introduced to people. Across the table was Dr. [Niels] Bohr, Dr. [Lise] Meitner, a wheezing Austrian woman with a mustache [misspoke: Meitner was never at Los Alamos] [laughter] and [Enrico] Fermi. Having come from here, these names all meant something to me. I knew these guys were not up there just playing around. I knew what their specialties were, and you put two and two together.

Dr. [Norman] Ramsey, that I was to report to, he was a twenty-two year old genius from Columbia University, or at least he got his PhD when he was twenty-two years old in atomic physics, as they called it in those days. He all but came out and told me what it was, without saying it in so many words. He told me their problems. The big problem was coming up with a reliable electronic fuse. Well, these poor guys were up there on the Hill and they were isolated from the real world. They were trying to reinvent the wheel. In those days when I traveled I had a briefcase that I carried all these secret documents with me that I was responsible for and had a pair of handcuffs on it, one on me and one on the briefcase. If anyone wanted the briefcase, I had to go with. It just so happened I had some information on several pieces of production equipment, which could almost, with minor changes, fill his bill. Yes.

Male Student: Were they looking for how to detonate?

Beser: No, not how to detonate but how to detonate at a given point in space.

Male Student: Right they were trying to figure out how to detonate the bomb—

Beser: Right, right. Dr. Brode’s whole job in life was to figure out the precise altitude to detonate for any given target. He had to know the geography of the target and the atmospheric conditions we expected and then he would tell us how high to set the fuse. Yes.

Female Student: After looking at this and you saw what they were looking for from you, did you at any time want to drop out of it?

Beser: Of course not. I love challenges, and it certainly was not as boring as standing up in front of a classroom of disinterested bird colonels and majors who were getting ready to go fight, and teach them all this new scientific communication theory that they could have cared less about.

We had a long talk and I said, “I know where we can get our hands on these things in a big hurry. At least let us get some and try it.” In the meantime, we sat down and we marked up the schematic diagrams of the things in the book. I had to decide what we were going to do to them. We got on the phone and we had priority one for anything we wanted. The same day that I arrived there, I got back on an airplane in Santa Fe, New Mexico and I flew all night to Dayton, Ohio, right by the Air Force base. Another airplane left Camden, New Jersey, actually Newark, with twenty boxes that were picked up from the RCA factory in Camden. I trucked that to the field, transferred my airplane. We took a shower, had some breakfast and another cup of coffee and another Benzedrine pill and went back to Santa Fe that same day. Within a week, we had modified and were flight-testing these boxes. Yes sir.

Male student: At this time, did you have any idea of the potential that the bomb was?

Beser: No absolutely not, absolutely not. Except what they told us, if it worked it would bring the war to a close. 

I had responsibility in the building of a combat organization for training operators, for maintaining equipment, and for getting my own proficiency up, my own state of training. That took me a couple of eighteen, twenty hour days, about seven a week for a couple of months. To top it off, I went to Cuba in January and February of 1944 so we could get experience in long range over water operations, since we were going to be based on an island 1500 miles from Japan, which had recently been won. When we first started, it had not been won yet, the Japanese still held the island [Tinian]. That is how wars are fought and planned: everything is going to succeed, because if it does not you are not going to win. We take this out and we bring this group in and we operate out of here and we do this and we do that. Okay.

We got overseas in May of 1945. The first thing they did to us over there, they said, “You need some operational training,” and they sent us to Lead Crew School. None of us had been shot at recently, I had never been shot at, but some of the other fellows hadn’t been shot at in two years, so you have to get some of that too. So we had some shakedown missions with conventional weaponry against some bypassed islands, targets.

Our first trip out there was to the Japanese Naval Base at Truk, T-r-u-k. I do not know how many of you are familiar with it, but it was bypassed. It was not in [General Douglas] MacArthur’s plan to occupy Truk, but we skipped it and went on ahead to the Philippines. We were briefed to go to Truk that night. Intelligence Officer stood in front of us with a stick and a map and told us that”You are going to go down this lagoon on such and such a heading, and you will be at seventeen thousand feet, and this place has been bypassed for a year now. There is nothing left on that island that can fire up to your flight altitude.”

There is only one thing wrong with that. That guy had never been there. He was reading out of a briefing book. He did not know the facts. The minute we open the bomb bay doors as we are heading down that lagoon to bomb, it was like the Fourth of July. At night, you can see the big ring of fire come out of anti-aircraft rifle and a red-hot shell looping out of that thing, and every one looks like it is coming right at you. If you have never had that experience why it is a real thrill, I will tell you [laughter]. We giggled, and laughed, it got hot and cold. The only thing flashing through my mind was, “Wouldn’t my mother be worried if she knew where I was right now?” That is how crazy it is. You had a question?

Male Student: Did you have a backup group in case you guys didn’t make it? Was there anybody else training for this mission?

Beser: For me? Well, yeah they had his people, Dr. Brode’s group was there and they had people, they were too valuable to risk but I guess if I had gotten hurt, they would have pulled one of the men. Sometimes you do not want to play your star pitcher on Saturday because you want to bring a big crowd to the Sunday double header, so you keep him on the bench a while.

Then on the 16th of July of 1945, there was a test conducted outside of Alamogordo Air Base, which is called Trinity Test. For the first time in history, a full-scale atomic weapon was detonated. It was done on a static tower under controlled circumstances, but never in freefall at the end of a thirty thousand foot drop. It was a configuration that they planned to use the most of, because the fissionable material in it was easier to produce.

Male Student: Is this the test that is so hotly contested now, where troops were—?

Beser: No, no, no you are talking about 1955 in Nevada. Yeah, that was Greentree.

Male Student: Yeah, it was.

Beser: Greentree.

Male Student: Did the public know about it?

Beser: I am sorry?

Male Student: Did the American public know about Trinity?

Beser: The American public did not know about this test. It does now. It did right after it happened because you could read newspapers in San Francisco 400 miles away that morning, momentarily, anyhow. The test was highly successful, even though it was a controlled test.

One thing happened that worried us. We had two airplanes in our group back there for the test and they were supposed to be positioned approximately the same position we would be after we dropped it. Because of the weather and other delays, they were about ten miles further away than we would have liked them to be. So we did not get that piece of data—what would be the effect on a dropping aircraft? Just one more hazard for the delivery crew.

At the same time, there was a conference going on at Potsdam, Germany. The war in Europe had wound down. They were trying to extract the promise from Mr. Stalin for some help in the Far East and they were divvying up the rest of Europe. I do not know if that was the first or second mistake that we made, as the war began to wind down. The other two mistakes were the way we sat there and divvied up Europe, rather than contesting it right at the point where we could have done something about it.

Or course, the other mistake was that because of the insolubility of the problem, we recognized that postwar control of nuclear weapons was going to be a problem. But we tabled that issue until after the war. I really do believe that in some respects now—of course this is 20/20 hindsight again. As I said again, that was a mistake, we should have said something. Later on, we should have said something.

Male Student: When do you think Churchill knew about it?

Beser: Churchill was there from the beginning because he had a separate project going which ran out of money. We brought all their people. That was how quite a compromise came about. This fellow Klaus Fuchs, this Austrian refugee, was working at Harwell in England. We brought him over to Los Alamos and gave him all the answers. He promptly took back and sold—he did not even sell them, he just dumped and gave them away. Yes.

Male Student: Did you observe the test at Trinity?

Beser: No. I am coming to that point. Yes.

Male Student: Did you ever recognize one person as being responsible for the atom bomb and then subsequent dropping of Hiroshima, who would you point out? And do you feel responsibility yourself for this deed? Or do you feel like you are more like a cog in the wheel?

Beser: For this misdeed, did you say?

Male Student: For this deed.

Beser: Oh, for this deed. See, I thought you said misdeed, I was going to come right at you.

Male Student: This deed.

Beser: No. It was the man that made the decision, always faced issues head on, and he said, “The buck stops here.” His name is Harry Truman, probably the greatest President we ever had.

Male Student: As far as the atomic bomb, was it [Albert] Einstein or [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who was the person that—

Beser: A lot of people contributed to it. Dr. Meitner, Dr. [Otto] Hahn in Germany demonstrated in the laboratory the fission experiment. Said that what had been described theoretically by Bohr and others can really be made to work. Some people say that Einstein and his mathematics back in 1912 laid out the fundamental expression, which defined the boundaries of the problem and therefore was a fundamental building block on which everything else was built. I do not understand the mathematics of it sufficiently to tell you or to give you a good answer to that. It was not a single person.

Male Student: What did Oppenheimer do?

Beser: Oppenheimer administered the laboratory at Los Alamos, and Oppenheimer mitigated many decisions. He was the final say and the referee. You must remember, when people get that kind of stature that Oppenheimer and Teller and Bohr and all, they are not just theoretical physicists anymore, but they are politicians too. There is the school of this one and the school of that one. Even in post-Biblical history, we had commentators on the Bible, you know, from this school and that school, they could not agree. Dissertations and many volumes long about the same phrase in the original text of the Bible.

Theoretical science is the same way. I guess if you want to say who really nailed it, it was Hahn and Meitner, of Germany. It was a whole evolutionary thing which started way back and had to be pushed to a conclusion. That conclusion that we pushed it to was accelerated over what my guess is, if nature had taken its course, it probably would have been another ten years. Because of the war and the infusion of dollars and effort, we were able to accelerate it. It was done in a period of two and a half years, really.

The Germans were working on it and they took a little different tack than we did, starting from the same starting points. They ran out of gas, ran into a brick wall. The Japanese had an effort going too. The Japanese that was the head of that effort had studied with the same people that were running the program in this country and he knew the way they thought. But he did not have the resources given to him or any of the personnel to really get from here to there.

Let me continue for a few minutes. Once the Potsdam Declaration was made and the ultimatum given to Japan, “Cease and desist and get out now unconditionally,” or, in so many words, “Something terrible is going to happen to you.” The Japanese took a few days to get the answer back. And it never came back directly but indirectly, said, “Thanks but no thanks, we will continue our war.” We received our go-ahead.

Male Student: May I interrupt you? I think the point you are making right now is pretty much unknown.

Beser: Is what?

Male Student: Unknown.

Beser: Oh, I do not think so. There was one point that I do not think anybody really understood at the time, and it has only been in the last year that I have been able to dig this out of some archival material, is that the Japanese decision-making process and this is interesting, was not an immediate yes/no overnight type thing like we could do in this country or like the British could do. The British could get an answer in three days. Roosevelt could get all the people together in the White House and come up with an answer in four hours if he had to.

The Japanese do not work that way. There is a compartmentalizing of authority and communications and it pyramids up to the Emperor, to the Mikado, and then he has to digest it and acquiesce. Then it flows back down and then it gets put into action. Complicate that with antagonisms between the various branches of the military that existed in Japan and the politicians. So expecting a twenty-four hour answer from the Japanese was really totally unrealistic.

Now, we waited long enough, and finally the answer that came back, came back indirectly by NHK, the Japanese radio station, that “We cannot accept your conditions, we are not giving up unconditionally.” What they did not tell us was at the same time, Prince Konoe had gone to Russia, was trying to get the Russians to intervene because they had a non-aggression pact with Russia. Russia was their friend, just like she was a friend of Hitler just long enough to chew up Poland. They should have learned from that lesson, and they did not. The Japanese Ambassador in Geneva had been talking to Allen Dulles, who was the head of our intelligence apparatus, and his brother John Foster [Dulles]. But the left hand did not tell the right hand what was going on.

Dr. Wittman: May I interrupt you?

Beser: Sure.

Dr. Wittman: This historical fact that some of you may not know: at this time Japan was not at war with Russia.

Beser: I said it, they had a non-aggression pact.

Dr. Wittman: But I do not know if that sunk in, because most people did not—

Beser: In Potsdam we tried to get them to do something. We were given the go-ahead as of the first of August, and then it was a question of waiting for the weather. Fifteen of us were assigned on the aircraft. The weather was clear for the night of the 5th and 6th and we were briefed to go and we went. Three aircraft went up an hour before us to look at three possible targets. The targets had been selected by the Joint Target Study Committee, of which I was part. Yes.

Male Student: Why Hiroshima? Why that area?

Beser: Hiroshima was a large center, an industrial center relatively untouched by the war and a communications control center established there for the defense of Japan in the event of an invasion. It was a very fine military target.

Male Student: Could you have taken out communications or disassembled that city with conventional warfare?

Beser: No. Not to the extent that we did it. Conventional warfare—it hurts my pride to say this—strategic bombing in World War II was the most overrated thing that we did. Because I was part of it for a long time and a strong advocate of it. If you look at the yields on a cost-effective basis, nothing is better than even a one, two billion dollar weapon that we used for effectiveness.

Germany’s production rate at the end of World War II was some ten times higher than it was at the beginning of the war. There were two exceptions there that hurt them. One was POLs – petroleum, oil, lubricants – and the other was ball bearings. We paid one hell of a price to knock that ball bearings, with names like Regensburg, Schweinberg, where we lost hundreds of bombers and thousands of crew members to knock out factory sites that were not as big as this complex of buildings here. They paid a terrible price for that.

It is going to bring me to another point, I am going to tell you in a few minutes about what difference does it really make if you are in a war. You use the best weapons you have.

We sent three aircraft up to survey three targets, the weather over three targets. We were briefed for Hiroshima, our primary. We got our weather reports when we got up to Iwo Jima, which was two-thirds of the way up. Hiroshima was wide open and we made the decision on the airplane, that was where we were going. Yes sir.

Male Student: What were the other two targets?

Beser: Kokura and Niigata.

Female Student: What was that?

Beser: Niigata. N-i-g-a-t-a. Kokura was on the northeast corner of Kyushu a big industrial city. It is still there. I have a picture, a slide at home. I went on the bullet train from Hiroshima to Fukuoka and just before you get into Fukuoka, it stops momentarily in Kokura and I took a picture of it. Yes.

Male Student: Were there available, what people might describe as purely military targets, that weren’t part of the urban complexes that were possible targets for the bomb?

Beser: Well, let us put it this way. In World War II, the urban complex, especially in Japan, more so than in Europe, became a solid military target because Japan relied very heavily on home industry to supplement its factories. All of the feeders that normally would have been from little factories several hundred miles away were made in the homes right there in the city. Today, as highly industrialized as Japan is, it still has a very high percentage of home industry. Yes.

Male Student: Why not just pick out barren land somewhere in Japan and demonstrate the power of this bomb?

Beser: That was considered—a test, a demonstration. But now suppose you had a party and you invited fifty people, and the guest of honor never showed. That party would be a bust, wouldn’t it? Supposed we invited the world to witness this test and the thing fizzled?

Male Student: What would have been lost? We had more than one bomb.

Beser: What would be lost? The integrity of your threat is gone. In the atmosphere in which you are operating, the ability to carry out your threat is paramount. You do not win a war by just threatening to do things and then go “poof.” In the back there, yes.

Male Student: What if the bomb had fizzled over Hiroshima? 

Beser: The rest of the world would not have known about it. It would have been a high order explosion anyhow, because the way the bomb was rigged, it would go into a self-destruct mode with conventional high explosives, detonated by conventional means.

Male Student:    [inaudible]

Beser: Nobody would have known the difference, that is all. It was just a big damn bomb dropped there, and it messed up a few buildings.

Male Student: What if it had fizzled out over barren land?

Beser: What?

Male Student: If it had fizzled out over barren land—what do you mean, invite the world to see it?

Beser: To give a demonstration to Japan, we would have to say, “All right, a hundred miles off your coast at such and such a time, we are going to detonate something, a weapon, we want you to see.” We suggest, and we could tell them by name, who should be their witnesses. We knew who their scientific community was. “Let them tell you. And your military leadership should see it.” Just like when we had our test at Alamogordo, fortunately we were able to control the attendance and there were people writing autobiographies today who are still mad because they were not invited to see it.

Male Student: How many bombs were there at that time? How many were available to use?

Beser: We had two on the island. There was a third in the pipeline.

Male Student: In the pipeline?

Beser: Yeah and there would not have been anymore for about six to eight months. We could not squander one, I can tell you that right now. Yes.

Male Student: At the beginning of your talk, you alluded to the fact Germany was slaughtering your family.

Beser: Yes.

Male Student: Okay. Do you feel—?

Beser:  I didn’t allude to it, I told you they were.

Male Student: Would you have felt that this bomb would be designed to drop in Europe—would you have been as enthusiastic, more or less?

Beser: More. I had only seen secondhand the terrible things the Japanese had done. But the Germans got me where it hurt.

You want me to tell you what happened when we dropped the bomb? It was a very uneventful flight.

Dr. Wittman: I think it is really important for all of you to understand the civilian population, not involved, the American civilian population had developed through a system of what we know as propaganda, a hatred, an absolute hatred for the enemy. It is most incredible in our lifetimes that that has been chopped down.

Beser: That is part of the national mindset that leadership tries to establish when you are attacked. We have a blot on our history in this country as a democracy that we will never outlive. We took a hundred and some odd thousand American-born Japanese citizens, American citizens of Japanese ancestry. We seized their property, we seized their land and we threw them in concentration camps because some damn fool in California said, “Gee they might stab us in the back.” No test of allegiance.

Male Student: Some of those people fought in the First World War.

Beser:  That is right. And they begged to fight in this war against their own people. In this war, they had a tremendous record. You have a Senator from Hawaii anyway, he has one arm. The other one got blown off in Italy. When you are right you are right, when you are wrong, in this country you are damn well wrong. This was a blot in our history that will never happen again, at least in my mind.

Anyhow, let me tell you what happened on that mission. I think that is what I came here for. I appreciate all your questions.

It was a textbook mission. Everything went according to plan, timing was perfect, and we dropped the weapon. Of course, the rest is history. Three days later, I was on another airplane on not so dreamy a mission. It was the biggest foul-up there ever was, but we got back alive and that is all that counts.

We went to our alternate target because Kokura was smoked in. The city of Yawata got melted in with Fukuoka, and that is why I could not find it on the map, when I first got to Japan this summer. I wanted to go over there. Yawata was the Pittsburgh of Japan. A megalopolis set in, and Fukuoka was the next town over and then Kokura and they all melded into really one.

Of course, the Japanese gave up after that. Now we waited three days and here again, was a judgment call, not fully realizing that the Japanese decision-making process could not have operated overnight. This again is hindsight. We look at things in this country and in our own context, and we just do not understand why people do not do things our way, that is all. It is not always the way that other people do things.

The results, of course, were very bizarre. One airplane, one bomb, one city. As I said earlier, I never saw the intact City of Hiroshima. I never saw the intact City of Nagasaki. I got to the window, they were gone. The casualty rates were high, although when I was over there this summer, they have scaled them way back. They had no accurate census, especially in Hiroshima, because they were moving people around Japan because of the bombings in other cities. They would move some in, they moved a lot out to the country, so they really did not know what they had.

They had a lot of military there. There was a huge Army command center there. It was in the old Shogun Palace, which got blown to smithereens. I was in the reconstructed Palace a couple weeks ago. The casualties were from blast and burns and radiation. Eighty-five percent of the survivors within three thousand feet of the explosion suffered some form of radiation disease.

This is something that people ask. Didn’t we know, didn’t we anticipate? We did not know the extent. We did anticipate that anybody within a radius of several hundred feet would be hurt badly by radiation, but they would also either be blown to hell or burned. So as a separate entity, and as a prolonged aftereffect, we were a little naïve.

I do not know if I have the material with me now—I got my hands on some more archival material. I have a benefactor in a Japanese news agency in Washington. They are doing a rather intensive study of this whole subject. Kyodo News Agency, which is like the AP in Japan, and he has turned over copies of a lot of these documents, for my own edification. There were all kinds of things that we were naïve about, but one of them was radiation.

When you look at what one airplane and one bomb did, and you consider that at Hiroshima it would have taken 220 aircrafts. Somebody asked me about conventional bombing. 1200 tons of incendiaries, 400 tons of high explosives, 500 tons of anti-personnel fragmentation bombs, for a total bomb load of 2100 tons to do what this little 12,000 pound ash pan did. Okay. Somebody asked me a question before.

At Nagasaki, it would have taken 125 B-29s or an equivalent mixed load of 1200 tons to do what we did there. Results were due to target size and configuration differences. While the yield of the bomb may have been higher at Nagasaki, the destructive effect was not quite the same.

Now, you proponents of conventional bombing, let us see what we did in Tokyo. One night we sent 279 aircraft over Tokyo and 1667 tons. The city had a population density of a 130,000 people in a square mile, and I think it is higher today. There is nothing like Tokyo. We destroyed 15.8 square miles of that city that night. 83,600 people were killed or missing, according to Japanese figures. Total injuries were 102,000. One night mortality rate was 5300 to the square mile, and the total causality density was 11,800 to the square mile. You are talking about potent things when you talk about conventional bombing also.

Now, you say that one form of bombing over another is immoral, and I say baloney. I say war by its very nature is immoral. If you are going to prolong a war by using a lesser weapon, that is an immorality. But I do not see any special immoralities where it comes to using the best weapon to get it over with in a hurry.

If any of you know people who were in London, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Tokyo, any of the big cities that got blitzed in World War II when the bombers started coming over at four in the afternoon and they finally left at seven the next morning, believe me, what we did to the Japanese in this instance was merciful, absolutely merciful. It was over in an instant. The firestorm at Hiroshima was an unfortunate aftereffect, but it was typical of what happened in many other cities. It could not happen in Nagasaki, and the destruction there was not quite as total, although it was quite pretty bad, believe me.

Now, as I said several times through this thing, that hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking is easy and it’s usually pretty good. I started out saying, you must look at this in the context of the times that it took place and the people involved and the pressures on them and the problems that had to be solved, why we did things the way we did.

It is no fiction, there was an invasion of Japan planned, scheduled, and ready to implement at the time we bombed. I was on the island of Tinian in the Marianas and I saw kid Marines, younger than your baby brothers, every day wading ashore on these off landing craft, practicing for what they were going to do up there. I saw freighters unloading thousands of tons of supplies. We had three base hospitals set up on our island for the treatment of wounded evacuees.

The name of the game was to bring the war to a speedy conclusion and to minimize if you could total casualties. The Japanese Navy at that point was somewhat ineffective. Their Air Force was on a very effective suicidal plan. Anybody ever hear of Kamikaze, the Divine Wind? Talk to some Japanese kid that had his funeral already, and something happened and the damned thing did not work and he got out alive, like I did. I talked to one of those kids. He was not very happy about his mission either. There were five million Japanese troops available, two million at home, two million in Manchuria in nearby China. There were a million scattered around the rest of the Pacific.

These people had demonstrated a will to fight to the death. They did not know the word surrender. It was an honor to die for the Emperor. The topography of the main islands was ideal for the defenders and was very poor for the attacker. There was no terrain that would allow for maneuvering such as we were able to do in Normandy and in the European campaigns. It is a very small coastal plain. Japan is a very mountainous—they are volcanic islands. It is very mountainous and it would have been a bloodbath.

We had planned to invade on the first of November, Kyushu, the northwestern most island, a diversionary move on the lower part of Kyushu. Of course, if 300,000 kids to be written off—they were to be set ashore to pull the main elements of Japanese resistance away from the Tokyo plain, get them over there on the west.  Then once that happened, then we were going to go in on the Tokyo plain, where there was a little bit more room for maneuvering. We had three million troops ready to throw in there and some 3,000 aircraft.

Now your name is Harry Truman, you are President of the United States, and you have to make a decision. What would you do? Now, what were some of the things he had to look at? Minimize our own causalities. You have to destroy the enemies will to resist. Use your best weapons. I mean, that is fundamental. What were some of the other factors that were involved? You want to win the peace. You want to destroy them, but not totally so. You want to crush them, but leave enough desire for them to survive and leave you something to work with to rebuild the country when it is all over.

We tried diplomacy to convince them to quit—at least, it was defined as diplomacy in those days. Summitry, if you will. We got together all our big leaders, and said, “All you have to do is surrender and get rid of your warlords, and we will stop bombing you. We will call off our war that you started.”

Copyright 1985 Joseph Papalia. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Joseph Papalia. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.