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When Japan bombed Kolkata, and Nagasaki became an ‘accidental victim’

7 August, 2020 04:52:32
When Japan bombed Kolkata, and Nagasaki became an ‘accidental victim’

By common consensus, the world entered the nuclear era with the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Every year, August 6 is observed as Hiroshima Day, and everyone who hasn’t lived in a cave for the past seven decades knows that the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was called Little Boy, the plane from which it was dropped was called Enola Gay (named after its pilot Paul Tibbets’ mother), and that 70,000-80,000 people, or roughly 30 percent of the population of Hiroshima at the time, were killed outright. Almost an equal number were injured, some of them permanently.

Horrific as these numbers are, they are part of a fact file that is invoked every year on this day. After all, Hiroshima was the first example of nuclear power being used in battle, appar-ently in an attempt to make Japan surrender to the Allies in the closing stages of World War II. 

Japan had steadily increased its focus on Allied territories in South and Southeast Asia, in-cluding India and specifically, Kolkata. On the midnight of December 20, 1942, the city’s residents awoke to the screams of descending bombs from Japanese warplanes. It was the first in a series of attacks that were to continue until 1944, causing widespread damage to lives and livelihoods. 

Why was India a target? Principally because it formed the backbone of the Allied supply route to China and thence to Burma, which was then under Japanese control. Needless to add, Calcutta was an important landmark on this route. Predictably, among the most frequent targets was Khidirpur dock, from where supplies to China were unloaded from ships and sent on to Assam via land routes.

As the bombings intensified, Calcutta was put under curfew – with a complete ‘blackout’ after sunset, since the Japanese attacked by night, owing to the city’s strong air defence infra-structure. Calcutta’s night sky, too, often witnessed ‘dogfights’ between British and American fighter aircraft on the one hand, and Japanese warplanes on the other. Kolkata’s celebrat-ed Red Road was converted into a landing strip for American aircraft, while oil tankers were parked on the Maidan.

Old timers will remember the oft-repeated rhyme that everyone knew in the Kolkata of the early 1940s:

‘Sa re ga ma pa dha ni
Bom (bomb) phelechhe Japani
Bom-er bhetor keute saap
British bole baap re baap!’

(Rough transliteration: The Japanese have dropped a bomb with a cobra snake inside/ the British are running scared!)

Under the circumstances, the need to rein in Japan was paramount for the Allies. On July 26, 1945, Allied leaders had issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum which set out the terms for Japan’s surrender. There was an accompanying warning too – if Japan failed to capitulate, it would be attacked, resulting in “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland”. Note, the warning made no mention of an atomic bomb.

Japan rejected the ultimatum, and the attack was duly carried out. Leaving the sheer horror and scale of the bombing aside, one question we don’t often ask is: why did the bombing not stop with Hiroshima? Wasn’t the devastation strong enough? Why did Nagasaki become the second target on August 9? 

After all, the Hiroshima bombing was a far more devastating attack than Nagasaki, on which the Americans dropped a bomb called ‘Fat Man’. Incidentally, in terms of explosive power, Fat Man was far stronger than Little Boy.  

If one seeks answers, one will find that the Nagasaki bombing almost didn’t happen. Many years after the bombing, Gen. Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project which gave birth to the two bombs, went on record to state that he never knew when or why Nagasaki “was brought into the picture”. 

In April 1945, a list of potential targets was drawn up by the USA. Initially, the list had 17 ‘candidates’ including Nagasaki, but an eventual ‘shortlist’ was then drawn up, comprising – in order of preference - the cities of Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kokura, and Niigata. The important port city of Nagasaki was specifically omitted, primarily owing to its difficult terrain, and the fact that it housed a prisoner of war camp for Allied prisoners.  

Hiroshima and Kokura had large flat areas, considered ‘ideal’ for the enormous blast pressure produced by an atomic bomb. Nagasaki, however, is situated among valleys, divided by mountains.

Eventually, the planners zeroed in on Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. Nagasaki was not on the list even in the last week of July, when the strike order was finalised. The draft version of the order, written on July 24, 1945, mentioned “Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata in the priority listed”. However, on the order that Groves received, someone had crossed out “in the pri-ority listed” and scrawled “and Nagasaki”, by hand.

This amateurish approach pervades every aspect of the Nagasaki bombing. Not even American president Harry Truman was apparently aware that Nagasaki was to be bombed, and the fact that Fat Man was released over an overwhelmingly civilian population, including thousands of children, is something that seemingly continued to distress him greatly.

Records state that the visibility over Kokura was so poor that the mission had to be abandoned, and by the time the plane called Bockscar, flown by Major Charles W. Sweeney, reached Nagasaki, it had been in the air for more than eight hours, without reserve fuel.  Sweeney’s stated target was the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, though to this day, it re-mains unclear whether he actually saw it. Visibility over Nagasaki was pretty poor too. Could it be that, tired, hungry, and unsure how long his fuel supply would last, the pilot simply dropped his deadly load and turned back to safety? 

The result: 40,00 dead, another 40,000 injured, according to the American government. The day after Nagasaki, Truman issued an order: no more strikes without his express permission. 

In a cruel twist of fate, and yet another example of a complete lack of coordination, leaflets issued by the American Army warning residents of a nuclear strike reached Nagasaki, also on the day after.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only two examples of atomic bombs used in battle. The world hopes they will be the last. For all those who ask why, any number of videos showing the effect of nuclear explosions on the human body, specifically, photos and videos of Hiro-shima and Nagasaki following the bombings, are freely available.  

Story Tag:
  • History, Asia, Kolkata

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