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Memories of Nagasaki sealed in 55-year silence

On Aug. 9, 1945, a B-29 took off from Tinian; a Sharpsburg man could never talk about it

Sunday, August 06, 2000

By Pamela R. Winnick and Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

At 3:47 a.m. local time on Aug. 9, 1945, flight engineer John Kuharek of Sharpsburg and his 12 crewmates boarded a B-29 known as Bock's Car and took off from Tinian, a tiny island in the Pacific, to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.

Bock's Car flight crew: Kneeling from left: Sgt. Albert Dehart, tail gunner; Master Sgt. John D. Kuharek, flight engineer; Staff Sgt. Edward Buckley, radar operator; Sgt. Raymond G. Gallagher, assistant flight engineer; Sgt. Abe Spitzer, radio operator. Standing from left: 2nd Lt. Fred Olivi, co-pilot; Capt. Kermit Beahan, bombardier; Maj. Gen. Charles Sweeney, aircraft commander; Capt. James Van Pelt, navigator; 1st Lt. Charles D. Albury, pilot. Missing from the photo are Lt. Jacob Beser, radio counter-measures; Cmdr. Fred Ashworth, weaponeer; and Lt. Philip Barnes, assistant weaponeer. (The Don Albury collection, the Airmen Memorial Museum) 

Three days earlier, the crew of the Enola Gay had obliterated Hiroshima, killing 140,000 but failing to get Emperor Hirohito to surrender and bring World War II to an end. Bock's Car carried a plutonium bomb nicknamed Fat Man, even more devastating than Little Boy, the uranium device delivered by the Enola Gay.

"The atmosphere in the plane was subdued," flight commander Charles W. Sweeney wrote in "War's End," a 1997 book about the mission that ended up targeting Nagasaki. "Each man was alone with his thoughts."

Kuharek, like many who took part in the atomic attacks on Japan, remains alone with his thoughts more than five decades later.

Now 86 and living in Florida, Kuharek declined to be interviewed for this article. His wife, Charlotte, who was married to him at the time of the bombing, said he had never talked about it, not even with her. Unlike some crew members, Kuharek has written no memoirs and has shunned publicity of any kind.

"It was extremely upsetting to him," said his niece, Shirley McGurgan, of Sharpsburg, who keeps a picture of Bock's Car, autographed by each of the crew members, on her dining room wall. "He could never talk about it."

McGurgan and her sister, Adrian Gross, also of Sharpsburg, are proud of their uncle, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the mission. Were it not for him, Bock's Car might not have survived its encounter with history.

"John Kuharek was reliable and resourceful," Sweeney said. "He knew how to get the most out of the airplane and was a second pair of eyes for me in monitoring the aircraft systems in flight."

Trouble beset Bock's Car even before takeoff.

"Major, we have a problem," Kuharek leaned over and told Sweeney. "The fuel in our reserve tank isn't pumping."

Knowing that the plane, if it wasn't destroyed by the blast or shot down by Japanese gunners, would probably have to make an emergency landing on the return trip anyway, Sweeney decided to go forward with the mission.

Kokura, center of Japan's military industries, was the primary target. Radio reports had indicated that Kokura was clear, but when Bock's Car arrived, clouds and smoke obscured the city.

"I can't see it," yelled Capt. Kermit Beahan, the bombardier. "I can't see it."

Bock's Car, sparing the people of Kokura, moved on to Nagasaki.

The weather was bad over Nagasaki, too. As the crew searched for an opening in the clouds, time was lost and fuel depleted.

"If we didn't drop," Sweeney wrote, "we were out of options." Beahan finally found a hole in the clouds and released the five-ton bomb. It was late morning, 11:02 a.m. Nagasaki time.

"Bombs away," Beahan shouted.

Ten thousand pounds lighter, Bock's Car jumped in the sky. Sweeney turned its nose 150 degrees and banked to pick up speed. They had 45 seconds to get away. It was barely enough.

"Suddenly the entire horizon burst into a super brilliant white with an intense flash -- more intense than Hiroshima," wrote Sweeney, who had accompanied the Enola Gay. "The light was blinding.

"A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail," wrote then-New York Times science writer, William Laurence, a passenger on one of the instrument planes. "Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth. Next they saw a giant pillar of purple fire, 10,000 feet high, shooting skyward with enormous speed."

On the ground, "men and animals died almost instantaneously from the tremendous blast pressure and heat," said the Nagasaki Prefectural Report on the bombing. "Houses and other structures were smashed, crushed and scattered; and fires broke out. The strong complex steel members of the structures of the Mitsubishi Steel Works were bent and twisted like jelly and the roofs of the reinforced concrete National Schools were crumpled and collapsed."

The initial death toll in Nagasaki was, by some accounts, as high as 74,000. Another 75,000 were injured and 120,000 left homeless. In the decades that followed, thousands more would die of cancer and radiation-related diseases.

Two weeks ago, a brick went up in a wall at the Guyasuta Veterans of Foreign Wars on Main Street in Sharpsburg to honor "M/Sgt John D. Kuharek, Nagasaki-B-29." For those who've noticed, it is probably the first time they have realized that a Sharpsburg man helped usher in the nuclear age. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

"The mood among the crew was upbeat," Sweeney wrote. "With everything that had gone awry, they were relieved to have survived."

But the atmosphere on Bock's Car remained tense, even though the mission had been accomplished. There was not nearly enough fuel to get back to Tinian and barely enough to make an emergency landing on Okinawa, wrested from the Japanese only one month before.

Calculating the fuel reserve was Kuharek's responsibility.

"Major, you've got enough fuel for one approach," Kuharek told Sweeney, according to an account published by the Airmen Memorial Museum in Suitland, Md.

The crew of Bock's Car shot off every flare on board to let people on the ground know the aircraft was in trouble. One engine, starved of fuel, quit on the way down, but Bock's Car landed safely. There were seven gallons of fuel remaining, scarcely enough for another minute of flight.

After a two-hour layover in Okinawa, the crew took off again on a five-hour flight to Tinian. The music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller drifted in from the Armed Services radio station.

"I began to think that if the Japanese didn't surrender, we would be flying more of these missions," Sweeney said. "The thought left me cold."

Was destroying Nagasaki necessary? Would the Japanese have surrendered anyway, especially after losing Hiroshima in a single unfathomable explosion?

"This is the question that has no answer," said David Mills, Japanese language coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, who's been studying Japan for 30 years. "No one knows what would have happened if we didn't bomb Nagasaki."

The Japanese were a formidable enemy and, in August 1945, showed few signs that they would surrender any time soon. Twelve thousand Americans were killed and another 36,000 wounded in the battle for Okinawa. The total death toll -- Americans, Japanese and Okinawans -- has been put at 237,969. Japanese forces, under orders to die rather than give up, were dug into caves and rocks.

The United States had planned a Nov. 1 invasion of Kyushu, a March 1 invasion of Honshu. The Joint Chiefs planned to use 5 million troops in the two invasions of Japan. Planners projected 30,000 to 50,000 American casualties in the first 30 days of the Kyushu invasion alone. Total U.S. losses were projected at more than half a million.

"For centuries, Japan had been a closed militaristic society," Sweeney wrote. "In 500 years, it had never lost a battle. The code of the samurai guided its destiny. Young flyers willingly committed suicide by diving their bomb-laden aircraft so that they could kill as many Americans as possible in one single effort."

Some historians say Japan would have surrendered without the Nagasaki bombing, in part because Russia had declared war on Japan the day before. Others believe it saved hundreds of thousands on both sides who would have been killed in an invasion of Japan because a second nuclear attack was needed to convince the Japanese military that it had lost the war.

Japanese commemorations tend to focus on the bomb itself, rather than the country that dropped it.

Last year, at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9 -- the exact time of the blast -- residents of Nagasaki joined in prayer as church bells rang and sirens wailed.

"Our city of Nagasaki was instantly transformed into charred ruins," Mayor Itcho Ito said. "From this hellish experience, we have gained the conviction that the existence of nuclear weapons cannot be tolerated."

Roni Savochka, 21, lived with a family in Sasebo City, about an hour from Nagasaki, during her freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. Older members of the family had survived the bombing, but rarely spoke of it, she said.

"Their main feeling is that they didn't understand why such a drastic measure had to be taken."

Savochka herself is less reticent. She remembers the feelings that overcame her when she visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum and saw remnants of a church where Mass was being celebrated when Fat Man hit.

"For the first time in my life," she said, "I was ashamed of being American."

Of course, many Americans who lived through the war see it very differently.

Bill Schofield of Shaler, 73, was in training for the Navy in August 1945. He fully expected to be part of the invasion of Japan that fall.

"The minute I heard of the bombing," he said, "I thought to myself, 'My life is saved.' "

After 28 years in the military, John Kuharek went on to become an engineer at the University of Florida.

Two weeks ago, a brick went up in his honor in a wall at the Guyasuta Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Main Street in his hometown of Sharpsburg: "M/Sgt John D. Kuharek, Nagasaki-B-29."

For those who've noticed, it is probably the first time they have realized that a Sharpsburg man helped usher in the nuclear age.

As debate has raged about Hiroshima and Nagasaki for more than half a century, many of the crew members from both missions, like Kuharek, have adhered to a rigid code of silence.

"To this day," Sweeney wrote in his memoirs, "when our group gathers for its annual reunions, we never talk about the bomb."

"I have regrets. I have remorse. I think it exists with every one of the crew members," bombardier Beahan told Dr. Glenn Van Warrebey in an interview for Van Warrebey's 1985 book, "Looking Up, Looking Down: The Psychology of the A-bombers."

Mary Gallagher, widow of Ray Gallagher, Kuharek's assistant flight engineer who died last year, said her husband didn't like to talk about the mission, either.

"It just bothered him about the women and children," she said. "He used to say the women and children were the defenseless ones."

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