An Irishman's Diary

 

At nine minutes past nine in the morning, 60 years ago today, a B-29 bomber nick-named Bockscar arrived over the Japanese city of Kokura on the northern tip of Kyushi island.

The plane was piloted by Maj Charles Sweeney, a genial, cheery man with the build of a Donegal midfielder, and his mission was to destroy Kokura.

The city was a major port and the penultimate station on the northern railway line of Kyushu, but a more important reason for its eradication was its relative intactness: the US was determined that the military junta running Japan could not be in any doubt about the devastating power of the atomic bomb. To destroy a half-ruined city would not have conveyed the awesome message which the United States Army Air Force intended.

This was the second time a B-29 laden with an atom bomb had had Kokura in its sights. A few days before, Kokura had been the secondary target for the use of the first atom bomb, had Hiroshima been obscured by cloud; but it wasn't, and thus Col Paul Tibbets had been able to proceed with the attack on the primary target with his "Little Boy" uranium bomb, with the catastrophic results you do not need to come to this column to discover.

As Charles Sweeney arrived at Kokura with his "Fat Boy" plutonium bomb, his target was largely obscured by smoke from the inferno engulfing the nearby city of Yawata after an incendiary raid by B-29s two nights before. This was the second setback he had experienced that morning. The first had occurred at the rendezvous for the three bombers participating in the raid - Charles's Bockscar and two camera planes, one of which didn't show up. Charles hung around for 45 minutes, before moving on to Kokura.

But now he was there, he was quite unable to see the intended aiming-point, a munitions complex, so he circled, waiting for the clouds to clear. But then he discovered that one of his fuel tanks was refusing to feed into his engines, trapping 600 gallons of fuel. He could no longer wait for the smoke to disperse.

Instead, he went on to his secondary target, a charming town called Nagasaki, which was only third in the list of cities to be atom-bombed because its topography would limit the effects of the blast.

Thus by, an extraordinary series of strokes of good fortune, was an unknowing Kokura was spared the fate that now was to befall Nagasaki. However, initially the weather there was nearly as bad as the man-made clouds at Kokura, and much of the city, including the aiming-point, was obscured. With Bockscar running out of fuel, Charlie Sweeney was close to abandoning the mission when he saw a hole in the clouds, and through it, he could make out the aiming-point.

At 10.58, his bombardier released the plutonium nuclear device, "Fatboy". The city of Nagasaki, hitherto famous solely for the arrival of an earlier American in uniform, Lt Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, was seconds away from destruction by the fissile evils of plutonium, and a celebrity of an altogether more melancholy kind.

But although August 9th, 1945, is remembered today as the date when tens of thousands of Japanese were incinerated alive, another event that day proved to be potentially even more important. For unaware of how close the atom bomb project was to fruition and to success, the increasingly doddery President Roosevelt had agreed with Stalin that the Soviet Union should enter the war against Japan. The date Stalin set for its formal declaration was August 8th.

As Charlie Sweeney's B-29 droned 30,000 feet over the Pacific at dawn on August 9th, Soviet troops attacked Japanese positions along their common frontiers. Col-Gen Ivan Chistayov's forces swept into Korea and soon conquered Japanese garrisons in the northern provinces as far south as Pyongyang. Gen Chistayov agreed to American requests to halt his advance at the 38th parallel of latitude, a line which has no geographical significance, other than being a clear line on the map. Contours do not define it, nor topography give it distinction. It was merely a temporary halting place for Soviet soldiers.

No temporary halting place in the world has proved to be so permanent or contentious, for that became the demarcation line between North and South Korea. In the North, the Russians established a puppet regime, employing Korean exiles who had been well trained in the dark arts of communist administration. One of these was 33-year old Kim Sung-ju, who had adopted the name of a Robin Hood-type hero from Korean mythology, Kim Il-Sung, as a cover for his anti-Japanese partisan operations.

Long decades of travail lay ahead for the people of Korea, those in the North in particular. Within six years, North Korea attacked the South, and Communism was stopped only by massive use of US force. The two Koreas went their separate ways, with South Korea becoming one of the most dynamic economies in the world and a cultural powerhouse for all of Asia.

North Korea went the other way. It became the most inward-looking society in the world, governed firstly by a lunatic, and then by his son, who is nearly as mad. In the Neolithic wasteland they created, governed by famine, fear and psychopathic regimentation, they mastered just one modern technology: the nuclear fission of the plutonium bomb, with which they threaten the entire region, including Japan.

By evil coincidence, it was such a device that Charles Sweeney dropped on Nagasaki, at the very moment that Soviet troops were beginning the advance which introduced Kim Il-Sung's communism to Korea, 60 years ago today.