Oppenheimer’s Dark Night of the Soul and the Nagasaki Experience

Christopher Nolan’s film focuses on the qualms of scientists, but what did people who used their science in war have to say?

Through their eyes. We ought to consider how the development of the atomic bomb looked through the eyes of those who used the science in war. Image Credit: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

One of the two main strands of Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” follows the community of scientists who come to be cloistered in the high desert wilderness of New Mexico working to develop an atomic bomb. The Los Alamos setting for the bomb-devising sections of the movie serves the filmmaker’s purpose of exploring the moral qualms and emotional burdens suffered by people creating such a terrible weapon, primarily those of J. Robert Oppenheimer, compellingly played by Cillian Murphy.

The other strand follows Oppenheimer’s grilling by a Cold War national security establishment worried about his flirtations with communism and whether the acclaimed hero can be trusted to keep America’s most lethal secrets from the Soviet Union. The strands intertwine, weaving a Nolanesque, nonlinear narrative that works superbly this time out.

Father of the atomic bomb. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Image Credit: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs/Wikimedia Commons

But it is the atomic bomb that hangs heavily over the story, and Oppenheimer’s passions as its father that draws the audience in. As he pursues weaponizable nuclear fission, the physicist is occasionally consumed by bouts of fear and uncertainty about what his work will unleash on mankind.

Yet the movie disconnects the conflicted scientists from the men in the field faced with actual armed conflict. The latter are almost entirely absent. This is deliberate: The nuclear work at the top-secret compound proceeds largely in isolation, with handlers and technocrats buzzing around it like electrons. Those uniformed men shown on screen are mainly security guards or project facilitators, notably Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project.

This Could Be the Magic Wand

In the real world, while physicists and mathematicians were wracking their brains—and their consciences—at Los Alamos, aircrews were training at Wendover Field, Utah, on the brand-new Boeing B-29 Superfortress that would penetrate fierce enemy air defenses to deliver atomic weapons on targets in Japan. If Nolan’s story is fixed on the thoughts of the scientists, the thoughts of the warfighters bear a closer look.

In January of 2002, I recorded an interview with retired General Charles Sweeney, who as a 25-year-old major and pilot in the Army Air Force (AAF) commanded the bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. I subsequently used this recording as the basis of a short documentary that can be seen on YouTube.

My concern at the time was to develop a technically complete narrative of the mission from the then 82-year-old Sweeney’s point of view for a magazine article. Over lunch he provided this, to the best of his recollection, and in the process revealed his thoughts about wielding the most powerful weapon of war ever used.

When I was first told about this thing, it was in September of ’44. And a lot of my friends had been killed in Europe. Guys to whom I was very close. My heart was broken for them, not the mention the Marines and other guys out in the Pacific and elsewhere in the war. But I was particularly heartbroken because I knew these guys in the flying game. Many of them. And so I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a wand and just go like this and stop the war.

A security guy picked me up in a Jeep and took me out in the desert and said, we’re going to brief you on what we’re doing here because you’re going to have to help train the crews, and so forth. He said, we’re working on one bomb that will turn a whole city into this, and he just threw a bunch of that sand. And I said to myself, my goodness. This could be the magic wand.

Sweeney’s unit, the 509th Composite Group commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets, who ultimately led the Hiroshima atomic bomb mission, moved from its training base to Tinian in the Mariana Islands in June 1945. The AAF created the 509th specifically to deploy nuclear weapons. The capture of the Marianas enabled the U.S. to build airfields on its principal islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian capable of supporting the massive Superfortresses. Other B-29 bomber groups were already flying from the island bases to conduct incendiary raids on Japanese cities, and mining harbors and approaches to cut off the home islands from the outside world.

Enter the Fat Men

Nolan’s movie builds to a cinematic climax of the bomb development storyline with the test of the first atomic device in the New Mexico desert, code named Trinity. During the run-up to Trinity, Oppenheimer is in Washington, D.C., in a brief scene with top war leaders—likely condensed from longer and more numerous discussions—working out the logistics of the test and selecting potential targets in Japan.

It is during this scene where we get a snippet of how the uniformed services viewed the proceedings. A question arises about what altitude a B-29 observation plane should operate during the test. Oppenheimer seems uninterested in the detail. An AAF officer, who could be a stand-in for Gen. Curtis LeMay, says it matters to him because he’s going to be up there over Japan.

This was a time when U.S. war planners thought that many atomic bombs might be needed to convince Japanese leaders that continued resistance was pointless. LeMay, commander of U.S. bomber forces attacking Japan and architect of the firebombing campaign, occasionally flew combat missions to see how his tactics were working. It is not unreasonable to suppose he might have eventually flown an atomic mission if the war lasted that long.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer, who is never shown to have had any reservations about using the bomb against the Germans, seems distressed at its being employed against the Japanese. This is after a fire raid against Tokyo in March 1945 killed over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Over 60 Japanese cities would be subjected to incendiary raids before the atomic bombs were dropped. Yet the atomic bombs have totemic significance to Oppenheimer because of his hand in creating them.

Sweeney was well aware of the devastation the other bomber groups were inflicting on Japan and regarded it as what happens in war. He and his comrades in the 509th were developing their techniques and tactics for delivering very large bombs of a peculiar design on precise targets from high altitude.

We had dropped lots of what we called fat men in practice; 10,000 pounders filled with concrete. Each crew dropped a couple on Japan with torpex on the inside instead of nuclear stuff. Torpex is a very powerful conventional high explosive. And each airplane went to a different target, lights out.

Now, I’ll never forget, [Captain] Fred Bock went to a chemical company—a big, tremendous chemical company—and dropped a torpex bomb, which was essentially the Fat Man. We dropped the torpex bomb and it went smack on the nose and it set off some sympathetic explosions down the line like this: one building after another. The most beautiful thing you ever saw—if you’re at war.

Sweeney’s caveat reveals the lens through which people actually fighting a war view it. Events that bring a victorious end to a war closer are good, even beautiful. Those not looking through that lens are apt to see such destruction less positively, perhaps even as completely wasteful and horrible—even criminal.

The One-Two Punch

World War II ender? B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” was the bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Image Credit: United States Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

It’s an interesting footnote that the Manhattan Project produced two atomic bomb designs, the uranium weapon dubbed “Little Boy” and the aforementioned “Fat Man” plutonium weapon. Nolan’s movie largely skims over this two-track approach other than to illustrate the progress of each by showing marbles representing appropriate nuclear material filling glass goblets over time. Fairly early on in the program, the team settled on the plutonium design but kept the uranium development going as a backup.

The Little Boy prototype was used on the Hiroshima raid of August 6, 1945, and was in fact its test detonation. It worked, but no other bombs of this design were made. The plutonium prototype, detonated in the Trinity test of July 16, already had bomb casings being produced around the footprint of the warhead. These so-called pumpkin bombs were used in the training that Sweeney, who called them fat men, described above.

A key point is that there were only two atomic bombs available to the 509th when it flew the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions: the Little Boy prototype and the first production Fat Man.

My crew was the only one that was on both missions. The 6th was Hiroshima. I flew the wing for Tibbets. We had three sets of instruments and three scientists—civilian scientists. We got no flak at Hiroshima. We had perfect weather and everything went perfectly, just as if it was a walk in the park.

Then we went up on the 9th [the day of the Nagasaki bombing] with the weapon with the primary target of Kokura. I had a suspicion when Tibbets assigned me to go as number two guy, carrying the instruments and flying in formation with him on Hiroshima. That night he came to me and he said to me, we’re going to go on the 9th. He said, the idea is to give the Japanese the one-two punch and make them think we had more of these coming on immediately. I knew we only had two. But we wanted the Japanese to think we had them coming, coming and coming.

(Sweeney provides a harrowing narrative of the Nagasaki mission that explains how that city became the target over the primary target, Kokura.)

One of the conceits in the movie is that Oppenheimer envisions forces and ramifications while he is having conversations. Walls vibrate, lights flare, massed feet stomp ominously in unison. In a denouement to the atomic bomb storyline, Oppenheimer addresses a hall of cheering Los Alamos workers consumed by patriotic fervor after the success of the atomic bomb drops. While trying to thank them in a suitably triumphant tone, he has visions of people with skin flaking off their faces, bodies turned to charred husks and otherwise suffering atomic bomb effects.

There is a scene late in the movie where Oppenheimer meets President Truman in the Oval Office after the war. The scientist confesses that he feels like he has blood on his hands. A disdainful Truman, as played by Gary Oldman, pulls out a handkerchief and mockingly offers it. “You think anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki gives a shit who built the bomb?” he says. “You didn’t drop the bomb, I did.”

If Truman bore ultimate responsibility for authorizing use of the atomic bombs, Sweeney and his crew physically dropped one on people. When we finished our coffee after lunch and I turned off the recorder, I asked him if he was ever bothered by what he had done. Sweeney told me he had never lost a night’s sleep.

Other than the sorrow he felt for his friends and countrymen killed in the war, Sweeney was matter-of-fact about his role in the atomic bombing of Japan. Rather than vengeance, he was motivated by the challenge of mastering not only a new aircraft but one that was being modified to serve a historic purpose. As far as he was concerned, he helped end the war.

If J. Robert Oppenheimer worried about what would happen if he succeeded, Maj. Charles Sweeney worried about what would happen if he failed.

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