Listen to This Lecture From the Man Who Dropped Both Atomic Bombs
Jacob Beser helped drop the first nuclear bomb … three days later he did it all again
At first, Jacob Beser sounds like another grumpy old man out of touch with the times.
“One of the things that really distressed me this summer is that I ran into quite a few Americans in Japan — a so-called peace movement.” He clears his throat and continues, describing a peace rally he saw.
“What could be more meaningful than to have a child get up in front of a huge audience, a child … do a little dance and sing a song and say, ‘I do not want to die.’ That makes sense, doesn’t it? ‘I especially do not want to die in a nuclear holocaust.’’’
Beser says that these kinds of protests mean nothing. According to him, teaching children to repeat words they don’t understand doesn’t contribute to a peaceful world. At the same event, he ran into a group of guys who had biked all the way from Seattle to Washington … for peace.
“Now what does this do for you?” he asks. “It attracts attention to these well-intentioned young men who either have enough money or nothing else to do.”
But Beser is more than just a curmudgeonly man complaining about hippies. He fought in World War II and he’s got a special perspective on the situation. What did he do during the war? I’ll let him tell you.
“On August 6, 1945,” he explains, “I was on a B-29, four-engine bomber … cruising at an altitude of 32,000 feet approaching the city of Hiroshima from the southeast.”
“At 08:15:45 — 45 seconds after the minute — a door was open to a new era in man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. We dropped the bomb at 8:15. About 45 seconds later it went off, at 1,820 feet over the city.”
Three days later, Beser climbed into another B-29 and flew to Nagasaki. He was the only airman who flew in both missions. He sat on the Enola Gay and Bockscar, met many of the scientists who helped build the bomb and witnessed the effects of the weapon first hand.
He’s got a unique perspective on war, peace and the use of force.
Beser spent the back half of his life answering questions about the atomic bomb and in 1985 he gave a definitive talk, complete with question and answer, at Johns Hopkins University.
This was three years after NATO’s famed Able Archer exercise. In two years, Washington and the Kremlin would sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In two more years, Berliners would tear down the physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain.
The Cold War was dying, but in 1985 many had lived with the threat of nuclear Armageddon their entire lives. It’s easy to see how the audience at Beser’s lecture would see him as the representative of a generation which created the most horrifying weapon in history and unleashed it on the world.
Beser invites the audience to interrupt him early on and they do, but it’s civil. Yet there is a tension, a sense that the people asking the questions need to understand why they live in constant fear of death from the above, why their schools taught them to duck and cover and why Washington created the weapons in the first place.
Does Beser see how it could have been different? Does he wish America had never developed or dropped the bomb? Was there a way to save the world from the tension of the Cold War?
“I can truthfully say that I can support today decisions we made 40 years ago,” he says. “Even with all of the new information.”
Beser was born in 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland. He attended high school at Baltimore City College — a magnet school focused on college prep — and studied science. After graduation, John Hopkins University accepted him into its mechanical engineering program.
Beser dropped out of college the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was Jewish and he’d long wanted to get to Europe and join the fight against Hitler. But it wouldn’t work out that way.
He joined the Army Air Forces, but because of his mechanical engineering background he never quite made it over to Europe like he’d wanted. Instead, the AAF had him teach communications and electronic procedures to airmen training to become bomber pilots.
But that all changed in 1944.
“I was working as a project officer and a teacher in Orlando Army Air Base … which is now known for Disney World,” he recalls. “In fact, Disney World is situated on the site of one of our satellite air bases, where I trained night fighter observers during the war.”
“We were told that we would not go back to our parent outfit, but we were going to be trained and drop a new weapon, secret. ‘At the proper time, you will find out what it is all about. But fellows, trust me, if it works, it will bring about a rapid conclusion to the war.’”
Soon, Beser was at Los Alamos meeting Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Norman Ramsey and other Manhattan Project scientists. Thanks to his science background, Beser knew this would be no ordinary mission and no ordinary weapon.
“I knew these guys were not up there just playing around,” he says. “I knew what their specialties were, and you put two and two together.”
As the lecture wears on, the tension between Beser and his audience grows. About halfway through, someone asks him if he holds anyone responsible for “this deed,” meaning the nuclear bomb.
Beser mishears him. He thinks the man called the nuclear attack a misdeed. It takes a moment to clear up the confusion, but it stuck with Beser.
“See, I thought you said misdeed,” Beser says. “I was going to come right at you.” Nervous laughter moves through the crowd.
Later, another person questions using the atomic bomb at all. Why not drop it as a show of force in a rural area far away from people? Why didn’t America prove it had a superweapon then ask Japan to surrender?
“What would be lost?” Beser says. “The integrity of your threat is gone … the ability to carry out your threat is paramount. You do not win a war by just threatening to do things and then go ‘poof.’”
“These people had demonstrated a will to fight to the death. They did not know the word surrender. It was an honor to die for the Emperor. The topography of the main islands was ideal for the defenders and was very poor for the attacker,” he explains later. “It is very mountainous and it would have been a bloodbath.”
Another student later asks if him the United States couldn’t have done the same amount of damage to Japan with conventional weapons. But America had been bombing Japan before it decided to drop a nuke. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had already died.
“It hurts my pride to say this — strategic bombing in World War II was the most overrated thing that we did,” Beser explains. “If you look at the yields on a cost-effective basis, nothing is better than even a one, two-billion-dollar weapon that we used for effectiveness.”
“When you look at what one airplane and one bomb did, and you consider that at Hiroshima it would have taken 220 aircrafts …. 1,200 tons of incendiaries, 400 tons of high explosives, 500 tons of anti-personnel fragmentation bombs, for a total bomb load of 2,100 tons to do what this little 12,000 pound ash pan did.”
This is the horrible cost benefit analysis of war laid bare. Dropping a nuclear bomb was a terrible thing to do to a people. But Beser argues that the alternative was far worse. According to Beser, a ground invasion would have killed far more people.
“We had three million troops ready to throw in there and some 3,000 aircraft,” he explains. He notes that 300,000 of the American troops were “kids to be written off.” Just fodder to break the lines of Japanese resistance. Acceptable losses in the plan to stop the Empire’s war machine.
“Now, you say that one form of bombing over another is immoral, and I say baloney,” he says.
“I say war by its very nature is immoral. If you are going to prolong a war by using a lesser weapon, that is an immorality. But I do not see any special immoralities where it comes to using the best weapon to get it over with in a hurry.”
Beser defends the morality of the nuclear weapon, but that doesn’t mean he feels the United States didn’t screw up during World War II. He calls the mass internment of Japanese-American citizens during the war, “a blot on our history in this country as a democracy that we will never outlive.”
He also says that the U.S. made several key mistakes during the closing days of the war, where diplomatic horse-trading between the Allies helped define the boundaries of the Cold War to come.
The first is “the way we sat there and divvied up Europe, rather than contesting it right at the point where we could have done something about it.”
The other mistake was far worse, he argues. “We recognized that post-war control of nuclear weapons was going to be a problem,” he explains. “But we tabled that issue until after the war … that was a mistake, we should have said something.”
Beser was a remarkable man with a remarkable perspective. His defense of the bombing of Japan comes from a sense of wartime desperation long since lost to America, but his admittance that the United States “should have said something” about the post-war control of nuclear weapons must have been cold comfort to the children of the Cold War.