Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker. HarperCollins, $26.95, 384 pages.

The News & Observer

August 7, 2005



As American scientists sweated over the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, Japan was planning to arm every man, woman, and child with, among other things, bamboo spears. On the same day that America tested the bomb, the Hiroshima newspaper assured its citizens that Japan would triumph in the war. “Victory is Definitely with Us!” blared the headlines, “Our Sacred Country Will Repel the Hated Enemy!

Stephen Walker, an award-winning BBC writer and director, reveals these startling contrasts in “Shockwave” by telling the story of the bombing of Hiroshima from multiple points of view. The reader watches as scientists test the first atomic bomb and listens to the politicians who ordered its use. We hear from the air crew that dropped the bomb and from the Japanese civilians who would be incinerated or maimed by it. Tension builds as Walker fleshes out the characters whose lives will intersect in one blinding instant at Hiroshima. The result is a gripping tale which takes us back to 1945 — allowing readers to appreciate the spectacular scientific effort that created this tool of doom and see how war blurs moral landscapes.

The story begins on Sunday, July 15, 1945, at the Trinity test site near the super-secret Los Alamos laboratory. The world’s first atomic bomb, aka the Gadget, sits atop a 100-foot tower. The Gadget is the end product of the biggest, most expensive scientific project ever undertaken. Despite this, it looks homemade, amateurish. Cables and plugs sprout from the 5-foot sphere, which is attended by Dan Hornig, who, Walker tells us, “designed a wondrously complex piece of equipment called the X-unit.”

The X-unit is the Gadget’s trigger; it is also the part most likely to malfunction. When activated, the X-unit would send a powerful electric charge to 64 detonators. The detonators would ignite 5,300 pounds of high explosive, creating a spherical implosion that would compress a grapefruit-sized lump of plutonium to the point that it would sustain a chain reaction. Neutrons would multiply geometrically — 2,4,8,16 and so forth. In a fraction of a second, enough mass would be converted into energy to equal the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT. The Gadget was a complex, untried, but potentially war-ending device, and President Harry Truman was determined to end the war.

It should have never come to this. The Japanese were already beaten. Walker sums up the situation: “General Curtis ‘Iron Ass’ LeMay’s low-level incendiary attacks were daily demonstrating the unassailable power of the American war machine.” Over 900,000 Japanese had been killed in these attacks, more than died in all the hard-fought Pacific battles. Still, they hung on. On the other side Truman’s actions revealed a different facet of war’s warped logic: Only death could preserve life; only the bomb could shock the Japanese into submission.

Of course, the bomb had to work, and that was no gimme. The Manhattan Project was the most complicated and expensive scientific project in history, undertaken in a pressure-packed environment where the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The distinguished physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lab director and the man in charge of building the Gadget, had worked and worried himself into an exhausted wreck. Only countless cups of black coffee and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit kept him functioning. Worn down, Oppie was heard to say just before the final countdown, “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”

Incredibly, the test went off perfectly. Thousands of hours of calculations, hundreds of design days, and two years of creative gadgeteering by America’s brightest scientists paid off. “It rose from the desert,” Walker writes, ”like a second sun, a searing, brilliant, expanding ball of fire. … Its impact was monstrous and elemental.” Truman had his weapon and no compunctions about using it. “Not any decision you had to worry about,” he said. Indeed, moral arguments were a luxury to most scientists and politicians at the time. In the grip of total war, their concern was victory; the lives that mattered were those of their countrymen.

Because of this mindset, three hours before the successful test at Trinity, a second bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, had been loaded onto a ship and was beginning its journey to Tinian Island, a speck of land 1,500 miles south of Japan. Meanwhile, the Japanese had no notion of their impending fate. Though some leaders quietly entertained a range of options, people who spoke openly of peace feared assassination by the die-hard military men running the war. Those men planned to fight to the bitter end and to give no quarter. Just a few weeks earlier, they had publicly beheaded eight captured American airmen.

In the book’s most touching scenes, Walker traces the lives of some Hiroshima residents in the days and hours before and after Little Boy destroyed the city. One of the stories is that of Dr. Shuntaro Hida, an Army doctor assigned to the Hiroshima Military Hospital. The doctor hated the war. “He hated the stranglehold of the army,” Walker writes, “the ruthless, incessant discipline, the brutality, the wholesale erosion of even the smallest freedoms.” At the same time the Enola Gay was leaving Tinian Island for its fateful rendezvous at Hiroshima, Dr. Hida was summoned from the hospital to attend a sick girl in a village north of town. When he awoke the next morning in the family’s house, he spotted an American B-29 flying extraordinarily high. Dr. Hida had no inkling of its mission, but the reader does, which adds excruciating suspense.

About 80,000 Japanese died on the morning of August 6, 1945, in a brilliant, destructive flash of light that some survivors called “astonishingly beautiful.” The blast, thousands of times hotter than the surface of the sun, produced a temperature so high that it instantaneously boiled off the intestines of those unfortunates close to ground zero. The bomb’s shockwave leveled 60,000 buildings. Six kilometers away, Dr. Hida watched a giant red ring encircle the city. Seconds later the blast hit, knocking him down, wrecking the house. After rescuing his young patient from the rubble, he made his way toward the mushroom cloud forming over the city. He spotted an object coming toward him. “It did not look like a human being,” he reported. “Every part of its body was black .... It had no nose or hair. Its mouth gaped open like a huge hole.” It was naked, but Dr, Hida could not tell if it was a man or woman. “Black rags hung from its arms and torso. For a moment Hida thought these were pieces of burned clothing. Then he realized they were burned flesh.”

During that day, Dr. Hida watched hundreds of charred shapes stumble out of Hiroshima, trying to escape the horror. Three days later, a similar horror was visited on Nagasaki, and five days after that, the Japanese surrendered. The bombs had done their job, just as President Truman hoped. In the starkest contrast of all, horror had led to peace.

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