The Only Man to See all 3 Atomic Bomb Detonations on the Unprecedented Destruction of Hiroshima

On this day 75 years ago, amid the backdrop of the Second World War, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, setting off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the surrender of Emperor Hirohito.

That year, 1945, there was only one person to see all three wartime detonations with his own eyes. That man was Lawrence Johnston, an American physicist working as part of the Manhattan Project weapons program at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Johnston is credited with helping to develop a new type of detonator that played a key role in the creation of a second atomic bomb, "Fat Man," which plunged from a B-29 bomber and exploded over Nagasaki three days after the Hiroshima mission.

The scientist saw the first ever test of a nuclear bomb at the Trinity site at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and was assigned to a team that assembled the bombs at Tinian Island—the launching point of the unprecedented attacks.

Sent into the field thanks to his work on tools that could be used to measure the atomic explosions, Johnston was assigned to follow bombers on their missions and record the detonations, blasts that led to the death of more than 100,000 people.

An oral history compiled by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, has Johnston's own reflections of the events, stating he prayed for victims—but adding the campaign was "spectacular enough" that it ended conflict in the Pacific.

Lawrence Johnston
Lawrence Johnston pictured at a US Military Base in an undated photo. Getty Images

"All those people that were going to be killed? I was praying for them. I was praying that God would help us to bring an end to the war," the scientist said in one clip. "There were so many people being killed every day, so many Japanese [people] being killed every day by the bombers that were taking off from Tinian [Island.]

"Many many people were being killed every night. So the number of people killed by our bombs was small compared to the number that had been killed by those firebombs in Japan. But it was spectacular enough that it ended the war.

"They had good psychology... the first bomb for Hiroshima, then we would skip a day and then we would send the second bomb so they would get the impression that we had a big supply of more bombs to come—which of course we did not."

From the vantage point of 2020, it is easy to forget the context of the era—the violent and prolonged impact of war that caused global chaos and destruction.

On August 6, 1945, the uranium-235 bomb "Little Boy" is believed to have killed around 80,000 people on impact, with tens of thousands more dying from radiation exposure.

Three days later, the "Fat Man" plutonium bomb plunged at Nagasaki, a region chosen after cloud cover over the first target, Kokura, meant it was no longer viable. It has been estimated that up to 80,000 people died as a result of the Nagasaki A-bomb.

75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing
People pray in remembrance during the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, on August 6, 2020 in Hiroshima, Japan. In a ceremony that has been scaled back significantly because of Covid-19 coronavirus, Japan will mark the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bomb that was dropped by the United States on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Carl Court/Getty

Despite reluctance after the first bomb—and carrying on despite the defeat of Germany in Europe months prior—Japan's Emperor Hirohito eventually confirmed his country's unconditional surrender in the war via a radio broadcast on August 15.

Robert Citino, an award-winning military historian and senior historian at the National WWII Museum's Institute for the Study of War and Democracy in New Orleans, told Newsweek that context is key when reflecting on the two anniversaries.

"I think the best thing anyone can do when we're talking about the Manhattan Project is to remember that it didn't pop out of nowhere, like one day people sat around said 'well we need the biggest bomb we can find,'" he said in a call.

"It's out of the context of the Second World War, out of the context of just about every industrialized nation involved in the war believing their rivals on the other side of the fence were probably engaged in the same research. That's why we say it was a race to the bomb.

"Only America really had the financial resources, industrial resources, to build a bomb of that scale during World War II, but that's not to say anyone really knew that.

"I think we have to remember there was a war on. Even moving ahead to the 75th anniversaries of those awful events, no-one dropped a bomb out of a clear blue sky one sunny morning as a surprise maneuver. It was it was at the end of an extremely bloody and horrible war, by far the worst war the world has ever seen."

In the modern era, nuclear weapons are oft-discussed, but nations wielding them have little appetite to take advantage of the raw atomic power. The images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still etched in the mind of anyone who has seen them.

Citino told Newsweek it was unlikely that military or political leaders had felt remorse at the time, partially due to the context of the conflict surrounding them, even if some of the project's scientists later signaled unease with what they had created.

"Today it's become a matter of general controversy, and I think much of the controversy is divorced from context. And the context is a World War that had already killed 65 or 70 million people and promised to kill a lot more if it didn't come to an end as rapidly as possible," he said. "There have only been two [atom bombs] dropped in anger in the history of the world, and we sincerely hope that number stays at two forever."

In the 75 years since the atomic explosions hit Japan, our perspective of what warfare—and humanity—is capable of doing in times of crisis has changed. Nation states will tussle—the U.S. and China's trade troubles, for example—but Citino said he does not think it will escalate to a nuclear option, although the chance of "regional nuclear war" among smaller armed countries is more of a threat.

He said nuclear weapons are still seen as an "object of prestige" among those who obtain them, but the trend is arms are getting smaller; less concerned with vast explosions and more interested in the likes of cyber.

"Nuclear weapons haven't been used since 1945 and that's no accident, they're almost too big to use to achieve any kind of sensible political aim," he said. "But that's not true about drones or cyber, which is an ever-present worry today. But again, I would say that leads us back to that original 1945 theme—of technology."

Hiroshima
Aerial view from B-29 Superfortress, of the mushroom cloud from the atomic detonation in Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945. The bombing killed over 30% of the city's population and wounded tens of thousands more. US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty
The Only Man to See all 3 Atomic Bomb Detonations on the Unprecedented Destruction of Hiroshima | Tech & Science