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Ray Gallagher and Fred Olivi’s Interview – Part 1

Ray Gallagher and Fred Olivi were both members of the missions responsible for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gallagher flew on both missions, first on the Great Artiste, which was an observer plane, and then on Bockscar, which dropped Fat Man. Fred Olivi was Bockscar’s co-pilot. They are joined by historian and Truman specialist Robert Messer. In this interview, the veterans discuss how they were recruited to and trained for the 509th Composite Group. They talk about what it was like to drop the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, witnessing the mushroom cloud, and their feelings and reflections in the aftermath. Messer weighs in on the moral and practical decision to drop the bomb.

Date of Interview:
August 1, 1988
Location of the Interview:


Announcer: Here is your host and moderator, Milton Rosenberg.

Milton Rosenberg: Our guests tonight all know a great deal about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but from different vantage points, two of them from the vantage point of being up in the air and helping to drop the bombs. They are Fred Olivi, who was the co-pilot of Bockscar. That was the plane that actually delivered the bomb to Nagasaki.

Ray Gallagher was Staff Sergeant both on that flight and on the flight three days earlier, the flight over Hiroshima. He was not on the Enola Gay but on the Great Artiste, which served as an observation plane on that mission.

Our third guest, Robert Messer, probably wasn’t born by that time but is a close student of the history of that period. He is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has done a good deal of writing about Harry Truman and the major decisions he had to make, including the decision to send Fred Olivi and Ray Gallagher and their colleagues off on those particular missions.

Is it the case, as I think I gather from going over some of this material, that you guys did not know about the atom bomb as such, and did not know what you were delivering until just a day or two before?

Fred Olivi: No, not as such as an atom bomb. The word “atomic” never was thrown around. But we knew we were on some important mission, that we had a bomb that could destroy an entire city.

Rosenberg: You were told that “This is a super bomb the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

Olivi: Yes.

Rosenberg: Of course, Fred, you were a separate group pulled out and trained together and in secret for about a year or so. Is that right?

Olivi: Practically, yes.

Rosenberg: What was that training like, Ray Gallagher? Where did it occur? What did they put you through?

Ray Gallagher: Well, the training that we went through was at Wendover, Utah. It was an out of the way field. The only way you could get to it was either by air, by rail or by bus. At any time you disembarked from anything, you were always under the observation of some military personnel. The very few civilians, the only civilians that would be there would be the people that were fortunate enough—the wives that were fortunate enough to live there.

Rosenberg: How did they train you? What kind of special training was required?

Olivi: It was mostly high altitude training, because that is where the bomb was going to be dropped from. We had some secret bases in California that we used to use as bombing ranges. That’s where we would drop our bomb, from 30,000 feet during our practice missions in the desert.

Rosenberg: What would you drop?

Olivi: It would be a dud of some kind.

Rosenberg: A dud.

Olivi: It would not be a dud. It would have some explosives in the bomb, but it was the same configuration as the atomic bomb.

Rosenberg: So after about a year of that, they send you off to the Pacific theater.

Olivi: Right.

Rosenberg: You know that you are there on a special mission. The group actually was the 393rd Bomber Squadron, which was part of the 509th Composite Group. What is a composite group, by the way?

Gallagher: Well, a composite group is a more or less conglomeration of different special groups that are put into a group, and they call it composite. They are masters in what their particular—armament would be one phase of it. Military would be another phase of it. Another phase of it would be mechanical.

Rosenberg: So what was the select bunch? Was it the whole 509th, or just the Bomber Squadron? Which was the special group that went?

Olivi: Well, I think the Bomber Squadron too, but I think also the rest of the 509th had to be included.

Rosenberg: They were also submitted to special training before they went over?

Olivi: I imagine, although we did not know that part of the training program.

Rosenberg: The different parts were separately prepared, then brought together.

Olivi: Right. We were just involved with the flying end of it.

Gallagher: A most interesting part of the question you asked was, Colonel [Paul] Tibbets personally had asked for permission from General [Henry] Arnold, and he was given permission to select people. I as an individual were a group of twenty men that worked with Colonel Tibbets in Florida. When he disembarked from Florida, he tested B-29s, their gun controls in B-29s.

When he left Florida, we all broke up. I was sent to Fairmont, Nebraska with another gentleman. Out of a clear sky one night, we got a telegram: “Report to Wendover, Utah.” The surprising thing about the whole thing was when we got to Wendover, lo and behold if we did not get in the same barracks with all of the friends that we had in Florida, where he had personally requested. But at the time we met there, we had no idea.

Rosenberg: You begin already in this conversation then to get a sense, I think. I am turning to Robert Messer on this, that just as the guys at Los Alamos were very busy pursuing their science and engineering problems in developing the weapon that they knew was feasible, at the same time and over the prior year or two.

At higher military levels, all sorts of people were working out the logistics and the design of the military mission and the issues of personnel selection and training. So that the whole operation really was gathering force over maybe, was it two years or so? Until it came to that moment of truth over Hiroshima.

Robert Messer: At least. These gentlemen may be being a bit modest. They were handpicked. They were good at their jobs, picked by their superior officers. The Manhattan Project, as it was called, employed about 125,000 technicians, and scientists and engineers, everything from machinists on up to nuclear physicists. To bring this all together with the fissionable cores of the bombs, the bomb designs, the detonating mechanisms, and then, if you like, the delivery systems, the planes. Specially designed, specially stripped of their armaments.

Rosenberg: Yeah, these were not ordinary B-29s. They had been rebuilt.

Messer: These were not your run of the mill, off the shelf B-29s. There were only a few of them in existence. Especially trained crews. Only certain men could arm these bombs. It took a couple of dozen men to prepare it for delivery. All of this had to come together at a tiny island in the Pacific, Tinian, on a certain day.

Rosenberg: Now, who held all the strings? There is some major controller of the whole operation. Who is it?

Messer: Well, the overall military commander of the so-called Manhattan Engineering District was Colonel Leslie Groves. His engineering background was the construction of the Pentagon building. He was the military officer.

Rosenberg: He was running the operation at Los Alamos?

Messer: He was the one who picked J. Robert Oppenheimer as the head of that laboratory. He was a coordinator. He was also in charge of security. His superior was the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. He was in charge of what was called S-1, which was the code name for the entire project.

Rosenberg: Was he also then at the top of the pyramid that Fred and Ray were in?

Messer: As the Secretary of War, he was the civilian head of that department. Their immediate commanders would be the operational commanders in the theater of the group and the wing.

Rosenberg: One of the amazing things about this is how secret and how close it was all held. There were then thousands and thousands of people who were involved and had some glimmer of what was going on. Of course, the guys at Los Alamos knew a great deal, as to what the nature of this weapon was.

Messer: Yes. Like most secret projects, there is a need-to-know basis and so it was very compartmentalized, as was mentioned at the top of the show. They knew they were training for a special mission. They knew they had a special bomb. But the details of what it was they were about to drop, they were told about two days before the mission.

Rosenberg: I wonder where we stand in real time. I said that we are two days away from the 43rd anniversary of the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima. But of course, that is American time. It was August 6th, 1945 by our calendar, but it was August 5th in Japan. It is probably only twenty-four hours away or something from the moment at which the bomb was dropped, from the 43rd  anniversary of it.

What are your memories? You were on that mission, of course, Ray. What are your memories of the feelings you all had as you took off?

Gallagher: I often say that everybody is a hero as a group, but as an individual, you could be a coward. I am talking as a coward for the simple reason that a soldier is taught one thing: you got to know when to get in and when to get out. Even getting out of the service, to this day, I walk into a room, I check the room for “How do I get in? How do I get out?” That is the feeling that a soldier feels when you are going to fly. Everybody is around you. Everybody is shaking your hand. Your ground crew is congratulating. You are asking the ground crew, is there anything about the ship that you should know. The engineer is checking the ship out. The pilot walks it out and all things like that.

We all get on and we are all heroes. But then, when you sit in your own little individual spot and you have your own self to think about, even though everybody will help one another, I cannot say without a doubt—or I can say without a doubt, everybody is scared. But as a group, we are brave.

As the conversation goes back and forth in the ship, you are checking this, you are checking that. But then the lull comes along. You are airborne. You get to your cruising altitude. You are not at your bombing altitude. You are at your cruising altitude. Things become quiet.

Rosenberg: You took off from the island of Tinian. What time in the morning on the Hiroshima mission?

Messer: It was before dawn, 2:30, something like that.

Gallagher: No, we got down in the flight landing at 2:30.

Messer: Yeah, yeah.

Gallagher: I think we took off a few hours after that.

Messer: Yeah.

Rosenberg: Now, Fred, were you on the Hiroshima mission as well then?

Olivi: No, I was not. I was pre-empted because they had to have some scientific observers on board. So I did not go on that mission.

Rosenberg: They were the guys who were on the plane, the Great Artiste.

Olivi: Yes, yes.

Rosenberg: That carried Ray Gallagher as well.

Olivi: Yes, yes.

Gallagher: They were given a privilege. They were extended the privilege of flying with the bomb. They must have played—with not realizing what they did with the bomb—but they must have played an awful important part in that.

Rosenberg: There are three B-29s in the mission.

Olivi: Yes.

Rosenberg: The Enola Gay carrying the weapon, which was Little Boy. That was the name, the informal name, for that atomic bomb.

Gallagher: Yeah.

Rosenberg: There was your plane, the Great Artiste, which was the observation plane. And what was the third one?

Gallagher: Do you know? I do not remember the third.

Rosenberg: There was a third plane.

Messer: There was just a number.

Rosenberg: It did not have a name?

Messer: 91.

Rosenberg: But its function was to do what?

Gallagher: 91. Its function was, as we approached the target, five minutes before bombs away, they were to take off to the left, go about ten miles or so out, come back around, and they were to take pictures of the bomb after it had exploded.

Rosenberg: So that was the photographic plane, so to speak.

Gallagher: Yes, it was the photographic ship.

Rosenberg: You all reconnoitered over Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima.

Gallagher: At Iwo Jima, yes, at about 6:00 in the morning.

Rosenberg: Then from there on, directly over into Japan.

Gallagher: We went directly to Japan.

Rosenberg: Roughly, what time is it when you come over Hiroshima?

Gallagher: Well, they say that the bomb, the explosion happened about 8:16. The bomb run itself took about four minutes and, well, it is about the time. I would say a little past 8:15 is when it happened.

Rosenberg: Take it from that moment. The bomb has dropped. Of course, it was dropped from the Enola Gay under Colonel Tibbets’ command. Then what? What did you see? What did you feel? What happened?

Gallagher: We were instructed that as soon as the Enola Gay, Colonel Tibbets’ bomb doors opened, our doors were to open. When his bomb was released, the instruments, which we carried aboard our ship, were to be dropped. He was to take an immediate turn to the left. We were to turn to the right and go 180 degrees around to completely back away from the bomb. We were told at our briefing that we would feel the explosion of the bomb, which we did. They said that we would be hit three times from shock waves, and they were not wrong. These men were extremely intelligent men.

Rosenberg: Then the great experience I gather, from what I have read and heard, is the surprise, the awe, you all felt at the appearance of the great cloud.

Gallagher: It seemed like the Earth just opened up and started to send a cloud. That that which was down on the ground became nothing. As if you had years ago just taken a bushel of ashes and thrown it on the ground. It just completely covered a coating of black over the ground.

Rosenberg: So you could see the city devastated even up in the air?

Gallagher: You did not see the city. You just seen the disappearance of it.

Rosenberg: The disappearance of the city, yeah.

Gallagher: It just disappeared.

Rosenberg: So you knew, even then, how much destruction had been wrought?

Gallagher: Actually as a soldier, you do not look at destruction. You are only looking for one thing. Again, it is that selfish feeling. Is there anything there that is going to hurt us? Bravely enough, we feel now there was nothing down there that could come up to us, so now we begin to circle. We start to observe this awful cloud with all its color. In the center is just a big ball of fire.

Rosenberg: The cloud rising, coming up to meet you.

Gallagher: Coming up, but we have cleared the cloud. Colonel Tibbets starts to circle, and we are behind him and we are circling with him. We are at a distance. The most, not surprising, but the most excited about it were these three scientists that were with us.

Rosenberg: Who were they? Do you remember?

Gallagher: No, I just know that they were from out of California and made it.

Rosenberg: I wonder if Bob Messer knows who they were.

Messer: On the observer plane, no. The Navy Commander [Deak] Parsons was aboard the Enola Gay. He was in charge of a lot of the technical aspects of arming the bomb. It had to be armed in flight after take-off, the final connections made. There were a number of scientific personnel there, some famous names in American science who helped assemble the bomb on Tinian. Then, as Mr. Gallagher said, had the privilege of flying on a combat mission. That was not normal procedure.

Rosenberg: Robert Oppenheimer, either reports it himself or it is reported of him, that at the test at Los Alamos—that is the Trinity Test, is it not?

Messer: Trinity, yes.

Rosenberg: That when the bomb exploded he said to himself, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am Shiva the destroyer,” or something of the sort.

Messer: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Rosenberg: There we are. Exactly, which is a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita. He was awed by what he had achieved in the making of the bomb, leading that project. Once you guys got back, you learned the extent of the devastation, did you not?

Gallagher: Well, we did not really learn of the extent, because there was no way of coming to any conclusion as to what actually was destroyed, the account as far as the total destruction. They could not know until about a day later, in which they sent an observation plane over to take pictures.

Rosenberg: The basic question I have in mind, though, not only for Ray Gallagher, but as you and as Fred Olivi, as you both remember the spirit of the place and the feelings of the people involved. Was there elation in camp? Or was there something else in the following days, when the extent of your achievement of devastation became clear?

Olivi: I think there was some serious thinking about what was done, as far as the damage to the city was concerned. It was such an awesome thing that it just was mind-boggling, that is all. I think for myself, it was something that I will never forget the rest of my life.

Rosenberg: But there was not a lot of whooping and hollering down at the officer’s bar in Tinian?

Olivi: No, there was none of that whatsoever that I can recall.

Rosenberg: Or at the Staff Sergeant’s bar?

Gallagher: No.

Rosenberg: They still had separate clubs for the officers and the enlisted men.

Olivi: Yes, we did.

Gallagher: They did. If I could add a little humor to the situation, the best part of it would be after the interrogation, they would allow the crews to meet with the medical forces and they would look you over. But in looking you over, they had about the best liquor that the government ever could buy, and they would give you your quantity of liquor.

Olivi: Our rations.

Gallagher: Your ration, which was two shots. That would be enough because from that point on, you would go right to sleep.

Messer: Farther away from the scene, cruising the North Atlantic in the cruiser Augusta, where the President was, there was precisely that. The sailors in the war room, when the word was announced of the Hiroshima attack, did precisely that. Whooping it up, cheering.

Rosenberg: Because it meant to them, “The war is over and we are saved from the assault on Japan, which would cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.”

Messer: Certainly, that was the specter that was haunting any service man in any part of the world at that time.

Rosenberg: Paul Fussell, distinguished American literary figure, has recently written a book. It is his collected essays. What is it titled exactly?

Messer: Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.

Rosenberg: Thank God for the Atomic Bomb. The lead essay is about the decision to drop the bomb. He writes it from the point of view of a guy now in his middle sixties who was a lieutenant in the European theater. That war was over. He was back in the United States, being trained for the Japanese invasion.

Messer: He was an infantryman, so he would have been in the assault waves.

Rosenberg: He expected to die in the assault upon Japan. So that is the kind of celebration we had, from people who thought they had been redeemed.

Messer: That sense of relief and yeah, redemption. That is a good word.

Rosenberg: A crucial question, and I raise it now as we dash away for some commercials, which is more than overdue. A crucial question is, why the second mission? How did the participants feel about doing the Nagasaki mission when the point had already been made, or had it, by the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima? Here is where the crucial figure of Harry Truman becomes very important, and the scholarship is rather mixed.

I know that Robert Messer has been trying to disentangle the evidence and try to get the proper storyline unfolded as to how the decisions were made. So we will turn to that and to the flight on which Fred Olivi was co-pilot, the flight that delivered the second atomic weapon, Fat Man, to Nagasaki. Directly back to Fred Olivi, Ray Gallagher and Robert Messer after we pause for this.

Announcer: WGN Radio Chicago. You are listening to Extension 720. Once again, your host Milt Rosenberg.

Rosenberg: Our guests tonight in this very special program are Fred Olivi, who was co-pilot on the plane Bockscar that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, Ray Gallagher, who served as a Staff Sergeant on both that flight and on the earlier flight of the ship just behind the Enola Gay on the Hiroshima run. And Robert Messer, who has studied these matters and studied the crucial role of Harry Truman and the men about him in making the important decisions of that time, and is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In fact, Bob Messer, it seems to me that we have to backtrack just a bit and talk about the original decision to drop the bomb. As you know, better than I do, there has been a great postwar controversy waged by historians and by various military men as well as to how that decision was made and whether that decision was the correct one.

To end the war as quickly as possible was utterly desirable. The nuclear weapon, the first atomic weapon, put us in a position to do that. But it has been argued there was another way to do it. You could have told the Japanese, “Look, we have this weapon. We are now going to blow up some unoccupied Polynesian archipelago, such and such by name. We invite you to come or send representatives and see us do it. Then we warn you, once you see the full potency of this new weapon, that unless you surrender within a stated short period of time, we will drop this bomb on the Japanese homeland.” There were some who advocated doing it that way, were there not?

Messer: Yes, there were alternatives discussed, particularly in an advisory committee called the Interim Committee, which made its report on June 1, 1945, two months before the bomb was actually dropped. They considered various alternatives: a so-called bloodless demonstration on an uninhabited part of Japan perhaps, or a high altitude air burst above Tokyo Bay.

They rejected those on technical grounds, on a concern from their point of view, wasting a very precious material. There was not much plutonium in the world at that time to use on bombs. Their perspective and their recommendations to the President were: “Combat use without warning against an industrial target surrounded by civilian housing.” Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki fit that bill.

Rosenberg: Was the original recommendation, “And do it again very soon thereafter”?

Messer: No. Now operational control of the timing, the sequence of the bombs, was left to the local commanders due to weather conditions. There is no order from Truman signed by Truman. But the order, the written order, which General Spaatz insisted upon, that it be a written order, directs him to use the special bombs—there were only two ready to be used—“as soon as weather permits after August 3rd.” Beyond that. there was no further instruction.

Rosenberg: But use them both.

Messer: Well, there are only two. It just says “special bombs,” “special units.”

Rosenberg: I once asked Margaret Truman on this program during the first year that I did this program. I did not quite know how to do it. I still do not, but I knew even less then. I once being a real smarty-pants, as we came towards some commercials—we had had an interesting conversation about her father.

I said “Now, Mrs. Daniel, one other thing I want to ask you is this famous comment of your father, when he bragged that he had never lost a night’s sleep over the decision to drop the original atomic bombs. That really does surprise me. I hope you can elaborate on that right after these words,” the usual way of hustling into commercials.

She had been responsive and pleasant during the first fifteen minutes of conversation. When we came back after those commercials, I repeated the same question in the same effort to smart and show offy style. And said, “I never did understand that statement of your father’s, as I told you. Perhaps you are now ready to explain.”

She said, “What is to explain?”

I began to fluster. I repeated the question.

She said, “He meant just what he said. Do you have any other questions?”

She froze me and for the rest of the hour, we did one hour before I bailed out. She just refused to talk at all. She was furious with me for raising that rather obvious journalistic question.

Is it really true that Harry Truman never really lost sleep over it?

Messer: I do not know.

Rosenberg: I can ask you, if not Margaret Truman then.

Messer: But she was her father’s daughter.

Rosenberg: Sure she was.

Messer: In the sense that had he been sitting there, he would have said much the same thing. He usually cut people off who raised any discussion of the decision. What is interesting is his after-the-fact comments compared with his own personal private writings at the time. He did ruminate.

Whether or not he lost sleep is another question, but he did worry about what this would mean. He talked about machines being ahead of morals by some centuries. That we may be termites on this planet and if we bore too deeply into it, there may be a reckoning. So he knew that he was grappling with forces of nature and of man’s creation that he alluded to Biblical prophecy, in terms of the destruction of the world. That did not prevent him from going ahead and issuing the order.

Rosenberg: Oppenheimer quotes the Hindu scriptures. Truman quotes Biblical prophecy. They are equally awed and equally troubled. By the time you guys began to learn about what had been achieved and what you were delivering, did you have the same sorts of conscious thoughts?

Olivi: No, I did not have any conscious thoughts about this thing. As far as I was concerned, it was something that we had been trained for and it was something that had to be carried out.

Rosenberg: The military man’s sense of mission.

Olivi: That is right, the sense of duty.

Rosenberg: Let us go back then, to the second mission, Nagasaki. Now, you were on the plane that delivered it. We have already heard that there was a lot of special trouble on that mission, in getting it off the ground and making the delivery. What was the nature of the trouble?

Olivi: Originally, our primary target was Kokura.

Rosenberg: Another Japanese city.

Olivi: That is right. Prior to our going to the primary targets, weather ships were sent out ahead of our takeoff from Tinian to report the condition of the weather over the cities as they saw it when they were there. As we were going up to the Empire, they radioed back the information to us, saying that everything was CAV or CAVU—in aviation lingo, saying that it was clear. But when we got there, the situation had changed and that necessitated that we make three bomb runs over Kokura because the cloud coverage was nine-tenths, from our figuring. We had strict orders to drop this thing visually, not by radar, because they wanted to make sure that we dropped the bomb on the primary target, as it should have been.

Rosenberg: The target over Hiroshima was really the center of the city. The same, I suppose, was true for the Kokura plan.

Olivi: Yes.

Rosenberg: You decided not to go in on Kokura.

Olivi: Because of the cloud coverage.

Rosenberg: So then the alternative available target, as laid out in the original plan, was Nagasaki.

Olivi: That was the secondary target.

Rosenberg: On to Nagasaki, not very far away, I gather.

Olivi: No, about an hour away, forty-five minutes to an hour away.

Rosenberg: Ray has described the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima. What is the comparable narrative with regard to the Nagasaki?

Olivi: We went up to Nagasaki. We had problems on our way to Nagasaki because at that time we found out that we could not transfer 600 gallons of gasoline from the rear bomb bay up to our transfer tanks into the wings. This necessitated that the engineer make some calculation as to how much gas we had to get to our secondary target, which was Nagasaki. It was decided there was enough gasoline to get to Nagasaki, but it was just one bomb run. We had to do it on the original bomb run. 

We went on our way to Nagasaki. We got over the city and again, the cloud coverage there was not what it was reported to be at the time. So we were on radar. They started this radar run, the bomb run, on radar. It was on our radar run until the last twenty-five, thirty seconds when Captain [Kermit] Beahan, the bombardier, said, “I could see it, I could see it.” Then, of course, the radar run was relinquished and it was turned over to the bombardier. He took over in a matter of thirty-five or forty seconds. He got the bombsite set up, and then we dropped the bomb.

Rosenberg: Once you dropped the bomb, what did you see? We have heard from Ray what the visual aspect was from the observation plane. You had cloud cover below you?

Olivi: Yes, we did.

Rosenberg: It was not good visibility, but were you aware of the same nuclear cloud rising?

Olivi: Yes. It took about forty-five seconds for the cloud to come to us and past us after the bomb was dropped.

Rosenberg: It enveloped you, did it?

Olivi: No, we stayed away from it because the minute we dropped the bomb, we turned to our left hand bank. We made a 180-degree bank to get away from the actual explosion of the bomb. If we had continued in a straight line, we would have been directly over the explosion, which they did not want us to do. We made our 180-degree turn and went the other way.

Rosenberg: And headed right back to the base?

Olivi: No, we stayed in the area.

Rosenberg: To observe?

Olivi: To observe. Of course, when I looked down, I could not see anything but a lot of smoke and a lot of dust. I could not see very much of the city, but I could see this cloud coming up and it came up to our altitude and shot past our altitude. Inside the center of the core of the mushroom was this boiling cauldron of salmon-colored pink flame that was in it.

Rosenberg: I have a picture right here of the second atomic bomber crew, that is how it is labeled, and you two guys are in it. There is Second Lieutenant Fred Olivi and there is Staff Sergeant Ray Gallagher. Both as handsome then as the two of you are now, although you look like you have put on two or three years since that time.

Olivi: Yes.

Rosenberg: Who are the other guys on this picture?

Olivi: You know the enlisted men so you can—

Gallagher: The one gentleman is a Master Sergeant [John D.] Kuharek. He is the engineer. The second gentleman would be Staff Sergeant [Albert] DeHart. He was our tail gunner. He was a lone man. When I say a lone man, once we were in the air, we become pressurized and he was away in the end. All his observation is from what we see coming for and towards us. Fred is the next one. The next gentleman next to him is Ed Buckley. The gentleman has passed away now, a very wonderful man. He was our radar operator. The next gentleman is Captain Beahan. He was our bombardier. I am sure he went up in rank before he left the service. He dropped the bomb. The next gentleman is Captain [Charles] Sweeney.

Olivi: Major Sweeney.

Gallagher: Major Sweeney, who came out of the service, as Fred has said, in the capacity of a Major General. He was our pilot. The next gentleman is myself. The next gentleman is ournavigator, [James] Van Pelt. Very little is said about Mr. Van Pelt, but he did wonders in the trip. He brought us there. He brought us through all the clouds.

Rosenberg: Now this picture was taken on August 11th, two days after the Nagasaki run. You all look fairly contented. You are all smiling. Were you smiling on the inside that day, do you think?

Olivi: I do not think we were smiling as such, but I think we were aware of what we had done.

Rosenberg: By this time, it was clear just how potent those weapons were.

Olivi: Yes, it was to me.

Gallagher: Again the words, “What we had done.” Again, as a soldier, you are thinking of, “You are not going to have to fight anymore. You are going to go home.” Being away from home for a long time goes through a soldier’s mind. In my mind, it was three years. In other people’s mind, they were prisoners. They were going to come home.

So really, unfortunately, but in these years you think about it. But in those years, you did not think about the poor people that were on the ground that had to take all that we gave them. I say that with an open heart for the simple reason that now as years have come on us, we realize the number and death. We have lost our own loved ones and we realize what death is. But at that time, you are realizing, “Could we have killed this monster now and could we have gotten rid of it?” And which we did.

Rosenberg: What does contemporary scholarship reveal, Bob, on the Japanese side of all of this? Before August 6th or their August 5th, were they in fact, as some contend, already considering surrender? Or were they dug in to fight the great battle of the invasion of Japan?

Messer: They were deadlocked at the political level. The Supreme War Cabinet was deadlocked three to three, three for ending the war. They never used the word “surrender” – “finding a way to end the war.” Three for prolonging the war through an invasion for one last glorious stand at the home islands.

Incredibly, the Hiroshima bomb—an event that is often never even mentioned in this context [is] the Declaration of War by the Soviet Union on Japan. This was their [Japan’s] last hope for a negotiated peace. They were looking for the good offices of the Soviet Union, which happens [Soviet declaration of war on Japan] on the 8th of August between the two bombings. The Nagasaki bomb changed no votes in that political body, the Supreme War Cabinet.

Rosenberg: You mean after the Nagasaki bombing, they were still deadlocked three against three?

Messer: Correct. It made it possible for the unprecedented, unheard of event of the Emperor, who was not a political figure, he was more a religious figure, to intervene and insist that a way be found to end the war, “To endure the unendurable.”

Rosenberg: That was his phrase, was it not?

Messer: “Suffer the insufferable.” That was the sort of poetic way he put it in his broadcast to the people, the first time they had ever heard his voice. That was a more emotional moment than the news that the war was ending. That broadcast was recorded, and some young Army officers attempted to steal that recording. They killed the commander of the Imperial Guard in the Imperial Palace in an attempted coup. This was after everything has happened that we have talked about. So there were diehard fanatics.

Rosenberg: That was a coup to prevent the surrender, apparently.

Messer: To prevent the news of a decision to end the war. The high-level government knew much more about how the war was going than the people. Even people when they heard the Emperor’s broadcast were not sure. They thought they had won the war. People I know who were in Japan at the time, that kind of detachment that the civilian population had from the real war news. It was heavily censored. That kind of disbelief when the war was finally over.

It is a very different perspective. The people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were certainly aware that other cities throughout Japan, over sixty of them, had been burned to ashes. Half of Tokyo had been burned out with a tremendous loss of life in March. Incendiary raids and fire storm raids had raged for months.

Rosenberg: It is worth remembering that there was at least one raid over Tokyo which killed more in the single raid than were killed at Hiroshima, I believe.

Messer: At least instantaneously. The total figure at Hiroshima may have exceeded that fire raid, but the magnitude of 100,000 dead in one night had already been established conventionally. In terms of mass, 1,000 B-29s, but one B-29 did what 2,000 B-29s could do.

Rosenberg: Commercials again. I am going to give you two or three minutes, Bob, to come up with an answer to this one. What is your considered judgment—and I know there are different schools among the historians who have worked this over. What is your considered judgment as to the necessity, or the absence of necessity, with regard to the decision to use the bomb directly over the cities? What would have happened if we had not used them on August 6th and August 9th? Directly back to Robert Messer, to Ray Gallagher and Fred Olivi after these words.

Announcer: WGN Radio Chicago. This is Extension 720. Once again, your host and moderator, Milt Rosenberg.

Rosenberg: We return to Fred Olivi, who was Second Lieutenant in the time that we have been talking about, to Ray Gallagher, who was Staff Sergeant, both of them involved in the missions over Hiroshima or Nagasaki or both, as in the case of Ray Gallagher. And Robert Messer, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That great persisting debate, that does persist, does it not, Bob? As to whether the bombs should or should not have been dropped.

Messer: It usually flares up in editorial columns every August.

Rosenberg: What is your own view on it? First summarize where does historical judgment now stand and then what is your particular judgment.

Messer: I think the best, or at least the one I agree with, the considered judgment of people who have made a serious study of the process, of the decision-making process at the highest levels, the President and his immediate advisors, can only conclude that the bomb was seen as if not absolutely necessary. There were alternatives, but they were not as attractive. The concessions on the Emperor had domestic political implications. As the Secretary of State warned Truman, “If you look soft on the Emperor”—this was after Nagasaki—“you will be crucified at home.”

The modus for using the bomb are complex, but it certainly was seen as useful. We now know that Truman had concluded that in all probability the much-feared invasion would probably not be necessary. He had concluded in mid-July that in a month or so when the Russians come in, as he put it. Literally, he said “Fini Japs when that comes about,” because he knew the Japanese were trying to negotiate a peace through the Russians. Once his intelligence operation told him that their last hope for negotiated peace would be dashed, once Stalin declared war on Japan, which he was also aware of.

Rosenberg: Stalin had pledged to do that, was it back at Yalta?

Messer: At Yalta, three months after V-E Day, which was May 8th, he was to come in the war against Japan. This was a major military objective of Franklin Roosevelt before his death, getting the massive Red Army to engage the Japanese Kwantung Army in North China and Manchuria. In February 1945, that looked like a very good bargain. This is pre-atomic bomb. But in July 1945, his successor, Harry Truman, saw that as a bargain that was not nearly as attractive because the bomb gave him another option. As he said in his diary, in his own handwriting, yes, I am paraphrasing. “The war will end once the Russians come in. But we can end it even sooner and save all those boys’ lives with Manhattan?” As he referred to it, as the bomb.

Rosenberg: Now, there is another available interpretation. Herbert Fries is one guy who has written on this kind of stuff.

Messer: Fries.

Rosenberg: Fries comes close to it. Gar Alperovitz says it outright and overtly. That interpretations that Truman made the decision, but Truman was under very strong influence and he was not as strong himself in standing independent as we now think he did. But rather, he was much influenced by both James Byrnes, his Secretary of State, and Stimson, his Secretary of War. That between the two of them, Stimson and Byrnes, both had come to the view that this weapon should be used not merely against the Japanese, but should be used against the Japanese as a way of using it against the Russians.

That is to say, the Russians knew we had it. They did not know we had the will to use it. They did not know how destructive it might be. If we demonstrated how destructive it was, and brought the Japanese war to an end instantly thereby, if we also in that process demonstrated that we had the will to use the weapon, this would be decisively inhibiting in its influence upon the Soviets.

It would be a cautionary consideration for them to keep in mind in the struggle that was bound to emerge after the end of the hostilities, when again, the US and the Soviet Union would begin to vie with each other rather than cooperate in the attempt to defeat the Axis Powers.

So this was a weapon used indirectly against the Soviet Union as well as directly against Japan. I think I am summarizing the author of its theory.

Messer: I think there is a better interpretation, if not theory. Martin Sherwin’s book, A World Destroyed, takes much the same evidence and shows, without over-emphasizing the Russian or Soviet factor, that yes, this was a bonus. Something that was yet another reason for using atomic bombs. But the real question in 1945, was why not use atomic bombs?

It sounds callous in retrospect. But cities were already being destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people were being killed in conventional bombing, and if it would shorten the war in Truman’s perspective, even by a few days, this was worth doing. The decision to use it, the basic decision, was implicit in the decision to create it. That was Roosevelt’s decision to spend two billion dollars plus on the most expensive weapons development project in the history of the world to that time.

Rosenberg: In fact, if a social psychologist can get in on the act, I would think that a relevant extra perspective on this is the sheer bureaucratic drift or force of the fact that the project was there. You do not spend such billions of dollars and grab up the careers of thousands and thousands of people and then let it come to naught. There is a kind of momentum in the thing which requires that you go through to the final step.

Messer: Particularly, if you are a politician who really built his political career and became Vice President on his reputation as the Senate’s billion-dollar watchdog. He was head of the Truman Committee. He was in charge of ferreting out waste and corruption in the defense establishment.

Rosenberg: So the point would have been I, Harry Truman, can’t now that I am President, allow this multibillion-dollar expenditure to come to nothing.

Messer: That was again another consideration. I do not see that as a controlling one.

Rosenberg: Yeah.

Messer: The controlling consideration is that the war against Japan, history’s most bloody war, and every day people were dying on both sides, even when there were not major operations going on.

Copyright 1988 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.