At the height of the Cold War, children all over the world lived under the constant threat of atomic conflict. Videos were shown in schools on what to do in the event of an atomic attack, and those of a nervous disposition likely found it difficult to avoid imagining what experiencing an atomic blast would really be like.
Fortunately, those billions of children never had to experience an atomic event. Unfortunately, some children did. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This event was the result of months of planning and debate behind closed doors, but it caught Japan off guard and stunned the world. Here at last was the military science that would define the 20th century.
On the ground, however, there were no politics, no socioeconomic discussion, and no military justifications. Those present, the citizens of Hiroshima and the crew of the Enola Gay, were faced with a stark physical reality from which they could not escape. Japanese survivors of the blast tend to talk about the atomic device and its aftermath in physical terms: light, heat, chaos, and destruction.
What did August 6 look like? What did it feel like? How did those 24 hours play out in real time? Naturally, events happened differently for different citizens, and some moments are impossible to time precisely. However, by relying on the words of the survivors and the reconstructions of scientists, we can assemble a timeline of that terrible, world-changing day.
August 5, 1945, was spent in preparation: checking the plane and the device, and assembling the crew. At midnight, after 10 months of secretive training and briefings, the crew received their final briefing, most of which was spent emphasizing the gravity of what they were about to do and reminding the men to wear their polarized goggles.
After the briefing, a Protestant chaplain delivered a prayer that asked God "to be with those who brave the heights of Thy heaven and who carry the battle to our enemies."
After the briefing, the crew ate ham and eggs, took some photos in front of the plane, and began the pre-flight sequence. Pilot Paul Tibbets did perhaps the only thing he could do under the circumstances: "I forgot the atom bomb and concentrated on the cockpit check."
At 02:45, the Enola Gay began to take off from the air strip at Tinian Island. For a Boeing B-29 Superfortress carrying an unusually heavy load, this was an extensive process. The Enola Gay was a recent model, and well-maintained, but thanks to the 4-ton bomb on board, it was at least 15,000 pounds over its carrying capacity.
This doesn't seem to have worried Paul Tibbets, who simply used the entire stretch of the 2-mile runway to build up to takeoff. No doubt it was a harrowing moment, but the plane cleared the runway, got airborne, and was on its way to Hiroshima.
By August 1945, US air raids were commonplace in Japan. Cities were equipped with air raid sirens, and all citizens were drilled on what to do in the event of a raid. However, during this time, the citizens of Hiroshima led a relatively charmed life. Despite its strategic and manufacturing importance, Hiroshima had never been the target of a US air raid.
So when sirens sounded on the morning of the 6th, the citizens of Hiroshima could be forgiven for going about their business. They knew that these things were often false alarms - and, after all, why would the US start paying attention to them now? Furthermore, they were used to sirens around this time of day: This was usually when an American weather plane flew over the city.
When the Japanese radar net detected the approaching planes, they likely assumed it was a small group of weather planes. The alarm was sounded more as a matter of form than anything, and by 8 am, the radar center was satisfied that the seven planes were too few to constitute a real bombing run. The alarm was lifted.
While it is easy to see this as a crucial and obvious mistake, the radar operator was acting in accordance with standard operating procedure at the time. The Japanese were already fighting a losing battle and the military could not be expected to respond to such a tiny incursion.