Saturday not-Snippet: The Day After Trinity


This morning, instead of a book excerpt, I’d like to mark yesterday’s anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear weapons age by introducing you to a 1980 documentary film, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb“.

At the time of its making, there were several of the original atomic scientists still alive and functional, and able to contribute their memories of the Manhattan Project and the events of July 16, 1945.  I don’t think there’s ever been a better documentary movie about the atomic bomb.

The event has personal significance for me.  My father served in the Royal Air Force during World War II.  He’d seen what aerial bombardment could do to troops in the field, and to cities and towns.  My mother served as a fire guard during the war, standing on top of buildings armed with a stirrup pump, a bucket of water and a bucket of sand, watching to see where German incendiaries fell and hurrying to extinguish them before they could set the roofs on fire.  Both of them knew at first hand the terrible destruction wrought by bombing . . . but that was thousands of relatively small bombs, relying on a cumulative effect to produce their devastation.

The atomic bomb changed that forever.  Both of them told me, over the years, how shocked and stunned they’d been by the news of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, each by a single bomb of previously unimaginable power.  Mom used to shake her head slowly, as if in pain, as she described how utterly useless she felt as she looked at her stirrup pump and buckets.  They might have provided at least rudimentary protection against incendiaries, but against an atomic bomb, she might as well have spat in random directions, for all the good they’d do.

My father also looked old and tired as we talked about the atomic bomb.  He’d serviced and maintained bomber aircraft as an engineer officer.  He knew how destructive a bomb bay full of 500-pounders or 1,000-pounders could be:  but this new bomb was equivalent to dropping 80,000 500-pounders, or 40,000 1,000-pounders, simultaneously.  That would have taken an attacking force of five to ten thousand pre-1945 bombers to accomplish over Europe, and they couldn’t have dropped their bombs simultaneously.  Suddenly, an even greater devastation could be inflicted by one single bomber.  He freely admitted he couldn’t wrap his mind around the magnitude of the jump in lethality.  Even the advent of the jet engine towards the end of World War II didn’t make as big an impression on him.  The latter was an incremental improvement on propellers and piston engines.  The former . . . there was nothing incremental about it.  It was transformational.  It changed the face of warfare.

I asked Dad once whether, knowing what we do now, he thought that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan had been justified.  He unhesitatingly said that it was.  He pointed out that few modern commenters had any idea of just how vicious the Japanese defense of the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been, and how it had shaken Allied politicians and military leaders.  They knew that if they had to invade Japan by conventional means, they were looking at hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties, probably more than the war-weary populations of their nations were prepared to accept.  What’s more, their fanatical resistance could only mean that the Japanese would die by the millions, perhaps by the tens of millions.  The atomic bomb cut short that prospect, and ended the war relatively humanely, at the cost of only a few hundred thousand casualties.  (My father admitted it was bizarre to put it like that, but on reflection, I think he was right.)

Perhaps most important of all from my selfish viewpoint is that, if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, millions of Allied servicemen – including my father – who’d just won the war in Europe would have been sent to Japan to do it all over again.  Untold numbers of them would have become casualties, and the children they later fathered would never have been born.  Dad said to me once, almost casually, that I might owe my existence to the atomic bomb, because dropping it meant he wasn’t sent to Japan and into danger yet again.  That’s a sobering thought.

At any rate, the Trinity nuclear test – the first explosion of a nuclear weapon in the history of mankind – took place 76 years ago yesterday;  and today marks the 76th anniversary of “The Day After Trinity”.  I thought it was worth commemorating it by reminding ourselves of the extraordinary events that produced this breakthrough, one that’s simultaneously terrified, intimidated and protected the world since then.  May it never be used in anger again!

Here’s the documentary.  It’s an hour and a half in length, but I suggest it’s worth your time to watch it.  Trinity changed history.  Unless we’re very careful, its more advanced descendants may (God forbid!) end history as the human race knows it.



  1. My dad was in the navy and took part in the Okinawa business. My father-in-law was also there with the marines. Both would likely have taken part in the invasion of Japan. Perhaps the bomb made my wife an me, as well as our descendants possible.

  2. Same here. My dad was a radar technician aboard the USS Zeilin (apa 3) in the south pacific. At a reunion of the crew in the 1960's they were told by an admiral who had been part of planning for Operation Downfall that their ship was to have been a part of a diversion and was expected to be lost. I probably would not exist if there had been no A-bomb.

  3. My dad flew 2 full tours out of England as a B17 ball turret gunner in 1943 and 44. He was sent back home and was on leave with orders to report in for training to go to the pacific. If I remember correctly his report date was mid august, he said he was pretty discouraged, he knew he wasn't going to survive another tour. Shortly after August 6 he received a telegram cancelling his report date then shortly after he was processed out of the AAF. He never questioned whether we should have dropped the bomb, he was certain that those 100-200k deaths saved a million from death.

  4. My Dad entered the Marines at 17 in 1943 and then spent the the time through into 1945 in the Pacific. On Okinawa he was severely wounded and spent more than a year in a Naval Hospital before he was Medically Retired. He would never talk about it but the scars were horrible from the top left shoulder to right hip and all across both legs from top to bottom. Most of his stomach was gone, his back had been broken and over the years he spent time in the VA getting time in to shift his back into proper shape.

    My Mother's cousin was on a carrier that got hit with a Kamikaze when it had a fully loaded deck. Most of the crew was killed or wounded. The deck of the ship was ripped open for most of the desk length. My mother's cousin lost his arm. The closer we got to Japan the worse the effects were on the soldiers and the Navy.

  5. My Dad was a US Army Air Corp fighter pilot in the Pacific. He did not expect to survive the war. The A-bomb saved his life and made mine possible.

    Don in Oregon

  6. Cousin and uncle both fought in the SW Pacific and were at Okinawa. It was justified according to them.

  7. Thanks to all of your fathers that served in WW II. My dad was too young to serve in that conflict; he served in the Korean Conflict.

    As a retired military officer, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. l think most of us know the justification used. I am glad that a lot of you are here to comment.

  8. I fear that this is a case of looking back in history and trying to judge it based on a different set of standards. To those at the time, and even anyone who knows the history, it was awful but not as awful as what an invasion looked like.

  9. left in the dust is the history of the rest of the bombing under General LeMay and others. A bombs were singular effects but the area effects of the fire raids utterly destroyed Tokyo and other cities.
    My grandfather never left England. He was the G3 for Overlord. My cousins were in the Pac and me too of course but that was decades and decades later.
    Good movie.

  10. My dad was a Navy Corpsman with the Marines in the South Pacific and saw some stuff that he rarely talked about. Ironically, my mother was working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the bomb, she was one of the Calutron Girls. She mostly figured out that she was working on a devastating weapon but didn't work out the full scope of it. She helped end the war so that my dad could come home. Amazing times.

  11. I'll echo that. One grandfather was a plankowner on USS Bunker Hill, and she took two kamikazes off Okinawa. They would have had her put back together just in time to make Operation Olympic (the first landing for Operation Downfall , the invasion of the Japanese home islands). My other grandfather was still in Europe, after surviving Bastogne, and would have redeployed for Operation Coronet (the campaign for Tokyo).

    Five hundred thousand Allied casualties at least. There's a really strong possibility that i wouldn't be here if Truman hadn't ordered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. What's more, given how every man, woman, and child was being stoked up by propaganda and armed with everything they could find, down to wooden spears, the Japanese people would have been decimated- in the Roman sense of the word.

  12. My father served in the Coast Guard during War 2, and was stationed at a secret base in the Aleutian Islands. He didn't like it much, but it beat ducking lead at Normandy.

    I had a history teacher in Jr. High (7th grade, I think) who tried to sell the class on a few liberal ideas. Keep your guns at a gun club or someplace like that (the class laughed) and the nuclear bomb wasn't warranted. My mother stated that the Axis wanted to rule the entire world, and would never stop until they were either defeated or victorious.

    My father summarized the end of the war quite neatly. "We dropped one, and when that didn't achieve the desired effect, we dropped another one."

    Which I repeated in class. The trouble was that I used my father's authoritative tone of voice, and the teacher didn't like that. I got sent out to the hall to contemplate my sins.

    My father kept a revolver in his dresser drawer, and it was loaded. I knew that it was forbidden to touch it, because it was real. That's one of the things my father taught me – keep it loaded. Just try loading a revolver in the dark, under stress, and such.

  13. That's an excellent documentary, thanks. For anyone interested in more detail, Richard Rhodes's book The Making of the Atomic Bomb is also excellent.

  14. My dad was in the infantry in Europe. After VE Day his division was rotated home early, not out any sense of reward for a job well done, but to begin training for the invasion of Japan. Their casualties were estimated at 80%. So yeah, when he talked about hearing the news that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed he wasn't very remorseful.

  15. My uncle was one of eleven in his platoon that survived Okinawa.

    " they were looking at hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties…" In my measly research, I found we still haven't reached the bottom of the barrel on purple hearts that were struck for the invasion of Japan. Every purple heart awarded since August 1945… And there are still more. Think about that…

  16. Brutality occurs on both sides during a war. I will want to know why if the allies were the victors, why was half of Europe enslaved under communism?

    The Japanese were not doubt tenacious fighters, but the idea of taking every island was rather senseless. Besides, let us not forget that thanks to Truman, China went communist and later killed millions more than the Japanese did.

    "If the surrender by the Japanese had been accepted between May and the end of July of 1945 and the emperor had been left in place, as in fact he was after the bombing, this would have kept Russia out of the war. Russia agreed at Yalta to come into the Japanese war three months after Germany surrendered. In fact, Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, and Russia announced on August 8, (exactly three months thereafter) that it was abandoning its neutrality policy with Japan and entering the war. Russia’s entry into the war for six days allowed them to gain tremendous power and influence in China, Korea, and other key areas of Asia. The Japanese were deathly afraid of communism and if the Potsdam Proclamation had indicated that America would accept the conditional surrender allowing the emperor to remain in place and informed the Japanese that Russia would enter the war if they did not surrender, then this would surely have assured a quick Japanese surrender."

  17. Lab Manager:
    FDR was a terrible president, and Truman wasn't much better. FDR is why we got involved in WW2, and his behind the scenes actions in Europe can be said to have started the ball rolling there. Documents found in Europe show he made claims of support to several countries if they were attacked by the Germans, which was counter to the US rules of war action.
    His policies against the Japanese forced them to go to war, and they decided that they had to remove the US from the table to be successful in the Asian area. They badly gauged the resolve of the US to prosecute a war. How they could have been THAT stupid is not clear. I don't recall much study on that particular subject. The fact is they were Democrats, and those have a very bad history of warfare. With them in charge, frankly I'm surprised we actually won, sort of. They don't want to win against socialists and communists, their fellow travelers.

    Where the article on Rockwell goes from facts to fraud is near the end. Stating that a myth had to be developed to support the dropping of the atomic bombs is a total fabrication. The various statements above of family involvement or planned actions that didn't occur is correct, however the reality of the Japanese defensive planning was actually MUCH worse than intelligence gathering lead the Allied military's to believe.

    They estimated a million plus casualties, with 1/2 M deaths. Allied inspection of Japan's defensive preparations after their surrender frightened them badly. Their conclusions were that our planned invasion of their Home Islands would probably have FAILED, with a HUGE death and injury toll on both sides. Turns out the Japanese High Command was willing to see 20M+ Japanese civilian deaths to keep the invaders out, just to start. They had a huge supply of fuel for their aircraft that was held back just to fight the invasion fleet. Something like 15k, of which 1/3 were wooden training aircraft that they had proven were essentially invisible to the US Navy radar.

    The US military's plans for the use of atomic bombs during the invasion would have been a disaster, as we had no clear idea of the health impact that would have occurred to our troops.

    For a more in-detail look at the invasion subject, check out: "Hell to Pay" by D.M. Giangreco.

  18. My Dad was a Chief Boatwains Mate, wounded when his destroyer was shot out from under him at Guadalcanal. Pretty sure he would have been called up to support landings on the Japanese home islands. Yeah, not being born til '53, the odds are good I wouldn't be here, nor my kids, either…

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