Hiroshima's 'Shockwave,' 60 Years Later Sixty years ago Saturday, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay loosed a 10,000-pound atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. We remember Aug. 6, 1945, and the people whose lives were changed by it.
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Hiroshima's 'Shockwave,' 60 Years Later

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Hiroshima's 'Shockwave,' 60 Years Later

Hiroshima's 'Shockwave,' 60 Years Later

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This Saturday, August 6th, marks 60 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. On that day in 1945, very few Americans knew what had taken place across the Pacific. The first news came in radio bulletins. What details were available arrived the following day. Here's an excerpt from the front page of The New York Times of August 7th. `At 10:45 o'clock this morning, a statement by the White House that 16 hours earlier, about the time that citizens on the Eastern seaboard were sitting down to their Sunday suppers, an American plane had dropped the single atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, an important army center. What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known. The War Department said it, as yet, was unable to make an accurate report because an impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke masked the target area from reconnaissance planes. The secretary of War will release the story as soon as accurate details of the results of the bombing become available.'

But in a statement vividly describing the results of the first test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, the War Department told how an immense steel tower had been vaporized by the tremendous explosion, how a 40,000-foot cloud rushed into the sky, and two observers were knocked down at a point 10,000 yards away. And President Truman solemnly warned, `It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26th was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which have never been seen on this Earth.'

In a new book, "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima," BBC producer Stephen Walker focuses on the three weeks that led up to the attack and on the stories of individuals, policy-makers, diplomats, physicists, soldiers, airmen and residents of Hiroshima. He joins us in a moment. And a bit later, we'll talk with two men who were aboard the Enola Gay that day.

If you or your family has a connection to the Manhattan Project, with Hiroshima or any of the military units involved, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And Stephen Walker is now here with us in Studio 3A. He's a producer for the BBC and the author of "Shockwave," and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEPHEN WALKER (BBC; Author, "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: You start your book off with the story of two lovers meeting in a park in Hiroshima the evening before the bomb dropped. Tell us a little bit about it.

Mr. WALKER: Well, that was an extraordinary story, and it was a story that was completely unexpected. I had no idea how I was going to start this book when I started researching it. But my journey took me really across the world, and at one point, obviously, I was in Hiroshima itself. And my researcher, Japanese researcher, took me to an old man in his 80s. You could see he was very badly burned still from the effects of the bomb, and this guy--he sat opposite me in a little sort of living room in his home in Hiroshima, and he was beginning to talk a little bit about the day itself, and I just sort of asked him what he was doing the night before the bomb was dropped.

And there was a sort of pause, and then--I kid you not; this is exactly how it happened--he just burst into tears. And I felt awful, and I kind of wanted to back away, really. I didn't want the man to start crying in front of me. It was obviously highly embarrassing, but he said, `No, no, I want to tell you something I've never told anybody before in my life since that day 60 years ago' or 59 years ago as it was then. He then began to tell me the story about the night before the bomb was dropped was the happiest night of his life, and he had been that night with a lover called Rayka(ph), who he had met three or four months previously. They'd fallen madly in love with each other. It was a sort of a star-crossed relationship, because actually, her parents and his parents didn't agree with this relationship at all, and so they were stealing time, effectively, in Hiroshima, which was a very beautiful city before it was bombed.

And they spent that last evening together in a garden called the Shukkei-en Garden, which, in fact, I visited subsequently. It was restored after the war. And he had just received his call-up papers for the army, and that was essentially a death sentence really, and he knew he was going to die. Two of his brothers already died in the war. And so they went and spent that last evening in this beautiful garden, lying in the grass, side-by-side, underneath the stars, and--he told me this--for the very, very first time in that relationship, they held hands. They didn't kiss, but they held hands, and they lay together under the stars. It was a beautiful, clear night, and then afterwards at about midnight, they went to the entrance of the garden, and he went one way and she went the other way, and the next morning, the bomb was dropped, and he then searched for her in the ruins of the city, and that became his mission, to try and find her.

And I remember thinking, my goodness, me, I want to tell that story, and then I thought I'd preface the whole book with it, and also kind of bookend the story with it, because it felt like this is just a story that so many people can relate to, and yet here, it's not just any garden. It's that garden on that night before that bomb.

CONAN: Your book--it covers the event, I guess, with which we're all familiar. Yet, you focus on these stories of individuals and some of them policy-makers. I was particularly touched by the story of a man we don't think of that much during the history of the Second War, the secretary of War, Henry Stimson...

Mr. WALKER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...a man who was trying, until the last minute, to find a way around this.

Mr. WALKER: He really was, and it's quite ironic, isn't it, that the secretary of War was the guy that was trying to find a way of actually avoiding these bombs ever being dropped. I mean, it's quite extraordinary to me to think this man, who was, I think, just coming up to his 78th birthday at this time, had been born, I think, two or three years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, was actually responsible for the atomic bomb. I mean, it gives you some idea of the span of this thing. It's quite remarkable to me. He was a frail, rather aristocratic man, a kind of product of Yale, Harvard--that sort of world. And I think that the values of this kind of total war, this horrific new world, this bomb that was in development, sat ill at ease with a man of his sort of conscience and the kind of values--old school values, Yankee values that he'd been brought up with.

He was unhappy about it, even though he'd helped to mastermind it, and in those very last few weeks--and I do concentrate on this, in that last kind of 21 days before the bomb is actually detonated--he was desperately trying to find ways around this. He thought it might be possible that if the Japanese were given their emperor, if they were allowed to keep their emperor in any kind of surrender deal that was made, that they might just agree to surrender, because the writing was on the wall. But President Truman and his secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes--a real hawk, really, in this--overrode him, and he was sidelined completely, and he went home to Long Island and to his wife Mabel and to the cedar trees, and the bomb fell.

CONAN: We're remember the--60 years ago, the bombing of Hiroshima, the events leading up to it. If you have memories of that in your family, or if you do, give us a call, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's talk with Rick. Rick calling us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

RICK (Caller): How you doing, guys?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Mr. WALKER: Very well.

RICK: Good. Hey, I guess my comment is, is that my father-in-law was there 11 days after Hiroshima, spit over the hole after the bomb dropped and, you know, we have the Gerald Ford Museum here at Grand Rapids, and, you know, one thing I guess I'd like to comment on is really, when we went to a World War II exhibit there, you could really tell that the devastation level, you know, really affected these guys that, you know, got to see it. And then I guess as a secondary question, was there any harmful effects recorded against the guys that did go that soon after the bomb dropped?

CONAN: You would know, Stephen Walker.

Mr. WALKER: Well, interestingly enough--and I'm sure, you know, when Dutch and Morris Jepson talk a little later on, they can say that they were there, and I'm just the historian who recorded it. But my understanding is, is that when they came off the plane, all of them were checked over with Geiger counters, I believe, for radioactivity. I believe the plane was also checked through. I think that the bombardier, Tom Ferebee, made some remark about maybe he was going to be sterile because of the effects of the bomb, but the fact of the matter is, is that none of them were. They all had children. They all lived good lives.

RICK: OK. All right.

CONAN: Rick, did your wife's father ever tell you about this?

RICK: Oh, yeah. I mean, he doesn't talk a lot about it, but, you know, the day that we went to see the exhibit, you know, at the Ford Museum, boy, it just really started flowing out of him and, you know, the amount of devastation, even 11 days afterwards, was just--you know, I think it's something that he lives with, you know, pretty much, you know, regularly, having seen that kind of--like you guys were saying, before this, you know, there was never that kind of devastation off of one ...(unintelligible) or even off of one bombing raid, to my knowledge.

CONAN: Well, we do have to remember the horrific events in Tokyo, the firebomb there. More people actually died in the Tokyo raid, which was a firebomb raid, that died at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki; though the events later on--it gets controversial how you add up the numbers of people who died in the atomic bombings, but a hundred thousand people died in Tokyo.

RICK: Wow. You know...

CONAN: Yeah. Rick, thanks very much for the call.

RICK: Well, thank you, guys. Have a good day.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's talk now with Henry, and Henry's with us--where you calling from, Henry?

HENRY (Caller): I'm in Cleveland.

CONAN: OK, go ahead.

HENRY: Well, I'm Korean American, and the story I know of is there were a number of people from my father's village in Korea taken to Hiroshima and other places in Japan to work as munitions and other slave labor, and many people from his village were there when the bomb was dropped, but they had felt no animosity toward the Americans at all, because the Japanese placed them in that situation and then the years that followed, no one from--it was impossible to get reparations for the Koreans who had worked in Hiroshima after the bombing, even though many Japanese got care and follow-up. The Koreans were very much forgotten about.

CONAN: You do write in the book there were other nationalities...

Mr. WALKER: Yes.

CONAN: ...in Hiroshima...

Mr. WALKER: Yes.

CONAN: ...most of whom were Korean.

Mr. WALKER: Yes. I mean, I'm so glad that caller has brought that up. Thank you for that. It is something I mentioned in my book. I mean, it's quite interesting how I think--and maybe I'm going to be kind of attacked for saying this--is that the Japanese, to a certain extent, have appropriated this kind of horror, if you like, as entirely their own, and the truth of the matter is is that there were 53,000 Koreans actually living in Hiroshima, approximately, at the time the bomb was dropped; 25,000 of them, by the best estimates, from various independent historians, actually died in that bomb. And if we assume that the figures of people that died in that bomb are somewhere between 80,000 to a hundred and forty thousand, depending on whom you believe, you're talking about a very, very significant proportions of Koreans that actually died. Many of those people that died were actually slave laborers.

CONAN: And there were also American prisoners of war.

Mr. WALKER: There were, indeed. There were an estimate of 23 American prisoners of war who were in dungeons being held around the city. At least 10 of them died, one of them very, very horrifically. I spoke to two witnesses, Japanese witnesses. He was actually tied to a stake, and he was seen by two witnesses being stoned to death immediately after the atomic bombing. And indeed, what's interesting about that, as well as being horrific, is that the place where he was stoned to death was a bridge which was actually the original aiming point for the atomic bomb, so it's a kind of horrific irony, actually, that this American man died, an aviator actually died on the very bridge chose as the aiming point for the bomb.

CONAN: Henry, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

It's only two days to the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. We're talking today about the events leading up to that fateful morning and what happened subsequently. After the break, two of the crew members of the Enola Gay join us. If you remember the bombing or if your family does, give us a call, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This weekend, we mark 60 years since the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay loosed its cargo, a 10,000-pound atomic bomb known as Little Boy, over the city of Hiroshima. Today we mark that event and the lives of the myriad people in Japan and America who were caught up in it. If you have a family story or a question about the bombing of Hiroshima, give us a call (800) 989-8255, and our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

With us in the studio is Stephen Walker. He's the author of "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima." And if you want to learn more about Hiroshima, you can go to our Web site, npr.org, to read an excerpt from the book and see clips from a BBC documentary.

Joining us now is "Dutch" Van Kirk, the navigator on the Enola Gay. He joins us from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. Sir, it's a great pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. "DUTCH" VAN KIRK (Enola Gay Navigator): Nice being here.

CONAN: Take us back to your life just before that mission. How old were at the time and did you know what you were getting into?

Mr. VAN KIRK: I was 24 years old. I had just completed flying 58 missions over Europe and Africa in B-17s, and yes, I did know what I was getting into.

CONAN: The training you did, though, with the 509th Composite Bomb Unit, that must have been a little unusual for somebody who was--had been flying B-17s over Europe.

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, it was unusual, but the reason why we did all that training was the scientists said that we had to be eight miles--they thought the airplane would be OK if we were eight miles away when the bomb exploded. And so all of our training was in what we did to the B-29, stripping it down and taking all the weight out and everything was--and then our further training and maneuvers and everything was done to--so we could make sure we got that eight miles between us and the bomb before it exploded.

CONAN: The third surviving member of the crew is captain--the captain, Paul Tibbets, then Colonel Paul Tibbets. We're going to be talking with Morris Jepson, another crew member, in just a moment. But it was Colonel Tibbets who brought you into the project, no...

Mr. VAN KIRK: That was correct. And I flew with Paul Tibbets over England and Africa. Tom Ferebee and I flew with Paul Tibbets over England and Africa in B-17s, and that's how we knew each other.

CONAN: How's he doing today?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, I talked to him several days ago, and he's doing just fine, but he's now a little over 90 years old and it just takes a little bit more time to recover than it used to.

CONAN: I can understand that. On the day of the mission--when exactly did you know what you'd be carrying?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, I think ...(unintelligible) if you were in the 509th group and did not guess that you were going to be carrying an atomic bomb, you were pretty stupid, but if you talked about it, you were even more stupid. So I guess I knew way back about January, February, March--in around there--that we were going to be carrying an atomic bomb that day.

CONAN: After all of that training and all of that expectation, that morning, as you were getting ready to take off on Tinian, what was the mood like? What were you feeling like?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, we were feeling as almost any other mission. We all knew our jobs, number one. We had been trained to do our jobs, and all we had to do was do our jobs the way we had been trained, the way we knew how, and everything would go all right, and that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: What was everybody's reaction on the plane when the bomb went off?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, the first reaction was one of feeling that--I don't want to say elation or anything of that type, but a feeling of satisfaction. The bomb had worked. It was not a dud, and there was a real possibility it would be a dud. So now we knew that the bomb had worked and that we had carried out our mission. It was successful. And what was more important was that it was probably going to mean the end of the war, and then somewhat--sometime thereafter, maybe five, 10 minutes--something like that--when we got to talking about it and everything, one of the fellas--and I think it was Dick Nelson, who was our radio operator, and I think Dick said, `Fellas, this war is over.' Well, he was wrong about that. It took one more, but the war was over very shortly thereafter.

CONAN: I understand you went to Japan after the war, not to Hiroshima, but to Nagasaki.

Mr. VAN KIRK: That is correct. We had transport planes in a group and the scientists wanted to go up in Japan and gather up the scientists from the Japanese atomic program, because understand, the Japanese had an atomic program the same as we had. So it was to meet with them and then go with them down to Hiroshima, fly low over Nagasaki--I mean, low over Hiroshima, and then at Nagasaki, where there was a landing field, we landed there and went into the city.

CONAN: What was your reaction to seeing Hiroshima from the air and Nagasaki from the ground?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, our reaction was that it was, number one, a big bomb; number two, there was a lot of devastation and destruction and everything of that type beyond what we had ever seen before and certainly beyond, I think, what we had expected. But it was about what the scientists had predicted would happen.

CONAN: Did that experience, do you think, change you at all?

Mr. VAN KIRK: Not in any way whatsoever.

CONAN: Hmm. I guess--I don't mean any sort of disrespect, but I'm sure...

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, you're not showing disrespect. You ask an honest question; I'll give you an honest answer.

CONAN: Well, I guess the question that comes up, do you have trouble sleeping at night?

Mr. VAN KIRK: I do not have trouble sleeping. You have to understand that Japan was warned--well, let me start off. Japan was a defeated nation before we ever dropped the atomic bomb. Eighty-five percent of the industrial capacity of Japan had been burned down before we ever dropped the bomb. The president had issued a request, a warning to the Japanese to accept the terms of unconditional surrender. The Japanese leaders said, `It is not even worth considering.' In addition to that, we dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Japan before we ever dropped the bomb. And then we dropped an additional hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Japan between Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of our efforts to warn the people about what was going to happen were ignored by them. They were insisting on continuing the war, even though they were a defeated nation.

CONAN: We had a call from a listener earlier who had the question about whether you and the other crew members suffered any effects of the radiation.

Mr. VAN KIRK: We did not suffer any effects from radiation, and none of us, I will add, had any psychological effects. None of us went crazy. None of us went into monasteries and everything else that a lot of people say we did. We'd had none of that effect. We didn't even know there were psychologists at that time.

CONAN: And this was not the last nuclear weapon that you dropped.

Mr. VAN KIRK: Well, it was the last one I dropped, but there was another one dropped on Nagasaki later, three days later.

CONAN: I was referring to after the war.

Mr. VAN KIRK: Oh, after the war. Well, then I was over at the Bikini atom bomb tests, but I did not drop that bomb there, thank God.


Mr. VAN KIRK: They missed the target by 1,400 yards and nobody was even shooting at them.

CONAN: "Dutch" Van Kirk, thank you very much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. VAN KIRK: Thank you.

CONAN: "Dutch" Van Kirk, one of three surviving crew members of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He was the navigator on that historic mission, and he joined us today from his home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Lori. Lori joining us from Boylston, Massachusetts.

LORI (Caller): Yes. Hi.


LORI: I actually have a couple of comments to make. The first is both of my parents worked at Oak Ridge. My dad as a newly graduated MIT engineer and my mom as a civilian secretary. They were both in what they called the inner sancta. Two things, one is they used to talk about wearing a little radiation detector, and if their detector was particularly high, they were given the next day off. My dad died at the age of 52. I understood from him that a lot of his colleagues down in Oak Ridge had died early as well.


LORI: Secondly, after listening to your last caller, the crew member, his comments throughout life were very similar. As I challenged him in the '60s as to what he did during the war, he was very defensive and honestly felt that they had, in the long run, saved lives as a result of detonating--or developing the atomic bomb.

CONAN: Stephen Walker, that debate is not going to be resolved on this program or probably ever, but there's no question the bombs did shorten the war.

Mr. WALKER: Oh, absolutely. In my opinion, no question about it at all. I mean, it's inconceivable that if the bombs had not been dropped, that the war, you know, would have ended as quickly as it did. The question about saving lives is a very, very difficult one. I mean, I think you're into a sort of hypothetical argument about what might have happened if there had been an invasion. It's very difficult to know really what would have happened. Of course, it is absolutely true that the Japanese, you know, did have this culture of not surrendering, and the experiences on Okinawa and other islands prove that they were willing to fight to the death.

One of the key problems here, though, is that the Japanese themselves had the only production--war production that was actually increasing by that time was bamboo spears. The blockade was extremely effective, as Dutch has said. I mean, the Japanese were on their knees by then, and it's difficult to say how long they could have actually held out had there been the invasions that there were. And certainly, there was actually a very key meeting that took place in the middle of June 1945. This is just two months before the bomb. (Unintelligible) with the chief of staff and the president in which they were trying to estimate casualties for the bomb--for the prospective invasion of Japan and, you know, the figures are not the same figures that were used after the war by Truman and others. So it's a very, very difficult area, that.

CONAN: Lori, thank you very much.

LORI: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Roxanne in Minnesota. `My aunt worked on the Manhattan Project at Kellex labs. It was, of course, very secret. She and my dad shared a very scientific interest, and he had perhaps some idea of what she was working on in a very small sense. When the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, she phoned him and said, "Some corn flakes, huh?" The reference to Kellogg cereals gave him what he needed to figure it out. I never eat a bowl of cereal without thinking of what those innocent people have endured over these many years.'

Well, joining us now is Morris Jepson. He served as weapons test officer aboard the Enola Gay, and he joins us now from Las Vegas in Nevada. Mr. Jepson, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MORRIS JEPSON (Enola Gay Weapons Test Officer): Thank you. Stephen, it's a pleasure to talk with you again, and it was a pleasure also to hear the comments by "Dutch" Van Kirk and your callers' comments, too.

CONAN: Well, tell us, what do you remember best about that day?

Mr. JEPSON: Well, what I remember best about that day was the fact that all of the training that had been done at Wendover, Utah, and test weapons dropped over the targeted Salton Sea, California, had proven to be finally successful. The mission worked. The bomb worked. And the hope that everyone had was that the war might end fairly quickly.

CONAN: Tell us what you saw.

Mr. JEPSON: Well, immediately, I didn't see anything. I had had a role during the flight from Tinian island, 1,500 miles to Japan, but I was in a part of the forward pressurized cabin that didn't have any windows except for Dutch Van Kirk's small navigator's window. So I missed the flash. But then when--others in the crew saw the flash, and then a few seconds later, there was a shock wave, so I knew then that the bomb had worked and that this particular weapon, the reason for all the testing done from Windover, was to ensure that this weapon would be detonated above the ground at an elevation that would cause the most damage from shock wave. So I could tell from the fact that there were two shock waves coming after the flash that the bomb had detonated approximately 1,500 to 1,800 feet above the ground.

CONAN: Because you could count the time between the two shock waves.

Mr. JEPSON: Yeah, right. Correct.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. We're speaking with Morris Jepson, who was weapons test officer aboard the Enola Gay.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Mr. Jepson, let me ask you the same question that we were asking Dutch Van Kirk earlier. Do you think this experience changed you at all?

Mr. JEPSON: Well, I don't really believe so. In some ways, it gave me some--I want--I don't want to use the word `advantages,' but it gave me an entree to college after the war, which is what my mission was. At the age of 23, I wanted to get the war over with and get back to school. And I had the very distinct pleasure of riding alone with Dr. Oppenheimer, who was the director of the--of Los Alamos. I rode with him a couple hours on a B-29 and that gave me a chance to ask him many questions about where I should go to college after the war. And his response was `Go to the University of California-Berkeley.' That's where he was from.

CONAN: Did you take that advice?

Mr. JEPSON: I did, indeed.

CONAN: Morris Jepson, thanks very much.

Mr. JEPSON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Morris Jepson was weapons test officer on the Enola Gay. He joined us by phone from Las Vegas in Nevada. Still with us here in the studio, Stephen Walker, author of "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima."

Here's an e-mail question. `My name is Raymond Bergstrom-Wood(ph). I'm a high school student in northern Virginia who heard that US translators mistranslated a Japanese message which said they were actually about to surrender before the bombing occurred.'

Mr. WALKER: Gosh, that's a new one to me. What I do know is that there were US translators, Japanese-speaking translators, who were actually translating all the telegrams, secret telegrams, which were taking place between the foreign minister, Michael Togo, and his ambassador in the Soviet Union, a man called Sato. And these telegrams were rather extraordinary, actually, because what they were doing was hinting at possibilities for peace, some kind of surrender with honor, not an unconditional surrender. And all of these telegrams were being translated. They're called Magic Diplomatic Summaries. And they were landing on the secretary of war's desk every two or three days. In fact, you can read them in the National Archives. And they make quite astonishing reading.

I mean, there is an argument, and I sort of subscribe to it, that there was sort of a small window where a possibility for peace might have existed without either an invasion or the use of the atomic bombs. I think it is possible that Henry Stimson for two or three days in July 1945 might have actually reached across to some of those people in Japan who felt that way. But there's always the argument that, you know, you had very strong fanatics, also, inside the Japanese Cabinet, and, frankly, they held the rest of the country in thrall. I mean, people were terrified of them, and, in a sense, they finally had their way.

CONAN: We just have less than two minutes left with you. I wanted to ask you--this was a book about individuals. Which one moved you or impressed you the most?

Mr. WALKER: Well, of the Americans, the one guy that I really found quite extraordinary was a man called Don Hornig, who very, very quickly was a guy who, when the test took place in the desert in July 1945, was made to go up to the top of a tower and sit next to the world's first atomic bomb in a corrugated iron shack with nothing but a telephone and a paperback thriller for company. Pretty terrifying experience in the middle of an electrical storm, but somehow he survived it. His story was really extraordinary and I start the book with it.

CONAN: Yeah. And it's not only in the middle of an electrical storm but he knows that earlier a passing storm had triggered the bomb.

Mr. WALKER: Actually done it. And also that the camp--on the base camp, the prize-winning--Nobel Prize-winning scientists were taking bets on whether this first bomb could actually ignite the atmosphere and destroy all life on the planet as we know it.

CONAN: Stephen Walker, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. WALKER: Thank you, indeed.

CONAN: Stephen Walker, a producer for the BBC. His book is "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima." And he joined us here in Studio 3A.

When we come back from a short break, we'll hear the story of an embedded reporter wounded in the same region of Iraq that claimed the lives of 14 Marines yesterday, and we'll hear from our listeners in Ohio, home state for many of those soldiers, about how their deaths have affected their communities. Give us a call, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK, or send us an e-mail--totn@npr.org.

Back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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