Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the first five parts of this series we recalled Adolf Hitler’s death in the July 20th bombing; Hermann Goering’s Assumption of power as German chancellor and subsequent overthrow by the Himmler-Bormann-Goebbels triad; Europe’s liberation from Nazi rule; the start of the jet age; Himmler’s mental breakdown and eventual suicide; the fall of Berlin; the demise of several prominent Nazi collaborators in western Europe and the capture of Benito Mussolini; the impact of the Third Reich’s collapse on the Manhattan Project; and the fears that pervaded Emperor Hirohito’s inner circle as Japan braced itself for the final Allied onslaught on its shrinking Pacific empire. In this chapter we’ll discuss the first atomic bomb, outline Roosevelt’s final days in the White House, and recall Harry S. Truman’s first days as President of the United States.
Originally, the Project Manhattan team had not expected to conduct this test for several more months; however, during the final days of the war in Europe it had been decided by Oppenheimer and his military supervisor, General Leslie Groves, that the uranium bombshould take top priority over the plutonium bomb which had previously been the focus of the project's research and development activities. The logic behind this decision was that since the Third Reich had collapsed earlier than expected, and the United States needed an atomic bomb ready at the soonest possible moment, it was better to focus on the uranium bomb since it was closer to completion and was regarded as being more likely to achieve the intended goal of hastening Tokyo's surrender.
Few, if any, who were present at the test site that morning had any real idea just how powerful the prototype bomb would turn out to be when it went off. Most of those who accompanied Oppenheimer to the site expected the force of the blast to be equivalent to about 5000-7000 tons of TNT; one or two of the more daring souls hazarded a guess that it would be in the neighborhood of 9,000 tons.
At 5:45 AM local time, the experimental bomb was detonated. A searing burst of heat and light ripped through the New Mexico dawn sky, and high winds buffeted the desert as the loudest controlled blast in human history echoed across the Trinity test site. Watching the fiery mushroom cloud that blossomed from the epicenter of the detonation, Oppenheimer found himself moved to quote Revelations 7:12 of the Bible: "And I opened the sixth seal…and behold there was a great earthquake, and the sky became black like sackcloth, and the moon became like blood."
When the force of the explosion was reported, Oppenheimer and his team could hardly believe their ears. According to seismic monitors recording the detonation, it had measured as equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. General Groves immediately cabled the results of the test to the White House, and within two weeks the US Army Air Corps had ordered the 509th Composite Group, based in Tinian Island, to begin training for what it called "special strategic missions" against the Japanese home islands.
Now that the Manhattan Project had reached its goal of producing a working atomic bomb, the next question that came up was which cities in Japan should be on the list of potential targets for the first atomic attack. Tokyo was immediately ruled out on the grounds that such an attack could wipe out Japan’s government before surrender was achieved; Kyoto and Osaka were excluded since they were both part of possible landing zones for Operation Olympic; Kure was eliminated from consideration because it had already been bombed so often and ferociously it was no longer considered a worthwhile target for air attacks of any kind.
Eventually it was decided to put the ports of Hiroshima and Kokura and the manufacturing town of Nagasaki at the top of the target list. There were psychological reasons as well as practical ones for including Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Roosevelt wanted to avenge the Pearl Harbor attack that had plunged the United States into the Second World War nearly 3˝ years earlier. Hiroshima had been the home port for the carrier fleet which carried out the attack, and Nagasaki was the location of the factory which had built the torpedoes used in the raid.
Over in Europe, meanwhile, an Allied Administration Council (AAC) had assumed responsibility for running a still-devastated Germany until its citizens could form their own government. From the beginning, this body was riddled with political infighting as the wartime coalition between Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States finally started to dissolve. But new US Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinus Jr., who’d succeeded Cordell Hull shortly after Hull’s retirement in January of 1945, was determined not to let that infighting get in the way of the crucial job the AAC had been established to do.
Part of that job was finding men to act as liaisons between the AAC and the German people during the three years it was expected to take for Germany’s constitutional government to be restored. The first man to hold this position was former Leipzig mayor Carl Gordeler, one of the key civilian figures in the Hitler assassination plot. For most of the final months of the war, Gordeler had been in hiding, moving from city to city under a variety of assumed names as he sought to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo; in December of 1944, however, he astonished the Allies by surfacing behind the American lines under his own identity.
Gordeler was appointed to the liaison post about a month after the war in Europe ended. He didn’t last long, however; his monarchist political beliefs made him an irritant to both Western and Soviet officials, and in February of 1945 he was summarily dismissed. Two weeks later, former Cologne mayor Konrad Adenauer was named as his successor.
Adenauer, who had been jailed a number of times for his anti-Nazi views prior to Hitler’s death, won the respect of British and US authorities for his vision of a restored democratic Germany in the postwar era. This vision, however, alarmed the AAC’s Soviet delegates, who had hoped to see the position go to German Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht; between March of 1945 and July of 1946 they made no less than a dozen attempts to remove Adenauer from the liaison slot and replace him with Ulbricht. These attempts further exacerbated the already serious divisions between the Soviets and the West over the question of Germany’s postwar government— and prompted Roosevelt to wonder if Churchill’s suspicions about Stalin’s desire to dominate the whole of Europe hadn’t been right after all…
By early April, it was clear to nearly all objective observers that Japan’s Asian empire would collapse sooner rather than later. Almost from the second the ink had finished drying on the German government’s surrender pact with the Allies, a quiet yet dramatic restructuring of Allied forces had been underway in the Pacific to allow Washington, London, and Moscow to move against what was left of the Imperial Army and Navy at the earliest possible opportunity. In February of 1945, two months after the Third Reich collapsed, the Soviet Union finally declared war on Japan, sweeping through the Kurile Islands and the southern half of the Sakhalin Peninsula and making substantial inroads into Manchuria and northern Korea.
The British, meanwhile, had intricate plans laid out for a massive campaign to push the Japanese out of Burma, the East Indies, and Malaya— plans that, unfortunately, were complicated by a political rift between Britain and Australia dating back to 1941, when large numbers of Australian troops had been called overseas to fight the Afrika Korps and left a serious gap in Australia’s homeland defenses just as the Japanese were embarking on their conquest of southeast Asia.
As for the Americans, they had stepped up their island-hopping campaign in the South Pacific and were imposing a naval blockade on Formosa. General Douglas MacArthur, the Allied Supreme Commander in the Pacific at the time, hoped to starve Formosa’s defenders into submission; in the meantime, his troops were busy securing bases for both a new wave of B-29 raids against the Japanese home islands and the landing force that would implement Operation Olympic should an invasion of Japan prove to be necessary.
But on April 13th, an event happened which compelled Allied strategic planners to rethink their ideas: anti-colonialist factions in the East Indies, seeing an opportunity to break away from the Dutch overseas empire and establish a sovereign state before Allied troops arrived in full force, accepted a Japanese offer of full withdrawal from their soil and recognition as the independent country of Indonesia in return for a signed pledge from the new nation’s leaders to adopt a neutral stance in Japan’s war with the Allied powers. Jakarta, Java’s provincial capital and former headquarters of the Japanese occupation forces, would be designated as the fledgling Republic of Indonesia’s capital city.
When Dutch authorities tried to reassert control over the territories now comprising Indonesia, they found their efforts stymied by a lack of effective transport with which to ferry their troops to Java and the surrounding islands. Being a small country, they were forced to rely on British and American naval craft to get their forces around in the Pacific— and given that Anglo-American planners already had their hands full trying to maintain an adequate transport inventory for their own operations, it was all but inevitable that Dutch plans for a reconquest of Indonesia would get short shrift.
Thus the Dutch government had to content itself in the short term with sternly worded letters of protest to the leaders of the new Indonesian nationalist government. Their hope was that, within a few weeks, a month at most, the situation in the Pacific would improve sufficiently for them to be able to enlist Allied support for amphibious landings to force the recalcitrant Indonesians back into the fold.
But a corner had been permanently turned for the Indonesian people; just as Britain’s domination of India was ending and France would later be compelled to relinquish its colonial holdings in southeast Asia, the Dutch would sooner or later have no choice but to accept that their overseas empire was extinct— a fact which would be driven home rather graphically in late May of 1945 when an attempt to land Dutch marines near the town of Surabaya was turned back by Indonesian militias with severe losses to would-be invaders.
When Indonesia declared its independence from Holland, Franklin Roosevelt had been vacationing at his private retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. It wasn’t just physical relaxation that he sought when he went down there— he was also hoping to gain some much-needed mental clarity that would permit him to resolve some of the nagging questions the United States was faced with as it prepared to enter the postwar era.
On April 16th, 1945, he was reading an Atlanta Journal-Constitution account of the recently opened Verona trials against the surviving senior leaders of Italy’s deposed Fascist regime when he suddenly felt an overwhelming pain at the side of his skull and groaned to an aide, "I have a terrific headache." The aide immediately summoned Roosevelt’s personal physician to the president’s side, but there was little that the doctor could do— FDR had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Roosevelt was pronounced dead at 3:30 PM that afternoon; by 5:00 Harry S. Truman had been sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States.
"Today the weight of the sun, the moon, and the stars fell on me." Truman told reporters in his first press conference as President, and he wasn’t exaggerating by much. The new chief executive had not only inherited all the political and strategic obligations borne by his predecessor, but also had the unenviable task of trying to keep the Dutch rift with Indonesia and his own country’s problems with Moscow from disrupting the United Nations charter conference that was scheduled to take place in early June in San Francisco.
But to his credit, Truman rose to the occasion in short order. With the mix of blunt candor and down-home charm that would characterize the rest of his White House tenure, the new president kept the San Francisco conference on track and mediated a cease-fire agreement between Dutch and Indonesian forces after the Surabaya landings. He also worked tirelessly to ensure that America’s transition back to a peacetime economy would proceed as smoothly as possible once the war with Japan was over.
Those who underestimated Truman’s toughness learned the hard way that it could be a serious mistake. One of the first men to receive that lesson was Vycheslav Molotov, who was shocked to find himself on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from the president when he tried to exact a guarantee from Truman that US troops would pull out of western Austria by October of 1945. "I have never been talked to like that in my life." gasped a shocked Molotov, to which Truman replied: "If you carried out your agreements you wouldn’t get talked to like that."1 The Soviet foreign minister duly reported the confrontation to Stalin, who rightly suspected that the new president wasn’t going to be quite as accommodating to his ambitions as Roosevelt had been.
On June 7th, 1945, the United Nations Charter Conference opened in San Francisco with representatives from 53 countries in attendance. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, chosen by President Truman to lead the American delegation, received a 23-minute-long standing ovation when she entered the conference room to take her seat— a tribute both to Eleanor’s personal stature and her unstinting advocacy on behalf of her late husband’s vision of the UN as an agency for maintaining global peace.2
Back at the White House, President Truman had made a decision that would affect the course of world history just as deeply as the UN Charter: the first atomic bombs were to be used against Japan no later than July 20th, one full year to the day after Adolf Hitler’s death. His main reason for this edict, other than the desire to end the war in the Pacific as quickly as possible, was to forestall a threatened Soviet amphibious landing on Hokkaido. The Red Army’s offensives in Korea and Manchuria had unexpectedly stalled, and in hopes of diverting scarce Japanese military resources away from those theaters Stalin had decided to attack the home islands at what he perceived to be their weakest defensive point. If he went through with the landings it would confront the White House with the possibility of a postwar Japan split in two— or worse, fully under the Kremlin’s thumb.
Truman was determined at any cost not to let that happen. For the first atomic raid, directed against Hiroshima, the 509th Composite Group assigned the B-29 Enola Gay, named after the mother of pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbetts, to drop a single U-235 bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ directly on the heart of the port city; the second atomic strike, tentatively aimed at Nagasaki, was to becarried out by 393rd Bomber Squadron commander Major Charles Sweeney’s B-29 Bock’s Car and would also employ a single U-235 bomb (designated ‘FatMan’). Should those two strikes fail to have the desired effect, additional atomic raids were planned for Kokura, Sapporo, and Yokohama.
On June 17th, 1945, ten days into the San Francisco conference, Enola Gay took off from Tinian accompanied by a weather reconnaissance plane and two P-80 Shooting Star fighters as escorts. The bomber reached Hiroshima around 1:30 PM Tokyo time3, then released its lethal cargo and turned for home as fast as its four engines would let it. Within minutes, one of its crewmenwas gasping "My God!" over the intercom as a fireball of almost gargantuan proportions erupted above Hiroshima’s port district, sparking a firestorm that incinerated the entire city. Buildings, people, and even stones were crushed by the blast wave and hurricane-force winds turned scores of air raid shelters into crematoriums as they hastened the spread of the inferno the bomb had created.
80,000 people were killed by the bomb outright; tens of thousands more would die from bomb-related injuries or radiation poisoning in the weeks and months ahead. In a radio address from the White House that evening, President Truman called on the Japanese to unconditionally surrender to the Allies within 48 hours and warned that failure to comply with this deadline would bring about what he called "a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has not yet been seen on this earth"4. That he could make such an assertion after five and a half years of war that had seen scores of cities pounded into dust gave objective listeners a strong hint of the destruction the atomic bomb was capable of.
Still the Japanese refused to capitulate; one of their preconditions for concluding peace with the Allies was a firm guarantee that the Emperor would be permitted to retain his throne after the war ended, and thus far no such guarantee had been forthcoming. Thus the 509th Composite Group was compelled to make preparations for a second atomic strike against Nagasaki on June 20th. Bad weather forced the raid’s postponement for three days, during which time the Soviets started to break through the Japanese lines in Manchuria and assemble troops in the Kuriles for the projected Red Army landings on Hokkaido.
Bock’s Car finally took off for its assigned mission at 10:30 AM local time on June 23rd, 1945; everything appeared to be going smoothly until the navigator alerted him 45 minutes into the flight that a partial cloud cover had formed over the primary target, making it quite difficult if not impossible to find the designated aiming point for their bomb. Sweeney was then faced with a difficult choice: whether to abort the mission and head home to await more favorable weather conditions, or continue flying and re-direct his bomb towards the proposed secondary target, Kokura.
After a brief discussion with his co-pilot and his bombardier, Sweeney made his decision— the bombing run would proceed, but with Kokura rather than Nagasaki as its objective. Nagasaki’s residents wouldn’t learn for several days how narrowly they had avoided nuclear obliteration, while the citizens of Kokura were unaware of the calamitous fate about to be inflicted upon their city…5
To Be Continued
1 Truman was alluding here to Soviet efforts to install a Communist regime in Poland, which constituted a direct violation of existing arrangements between the Soviets and the Western Allies under which Poland was supposed to be permitted to hold free elections to choose its postwar government. 2 Mrs. R: The Life Of Eleanor Roosevelt by Alfred Steinberg, copyright 1958 by Putnam Books.
3 12:30 AM US Eastern Daylight Time.
4 The full text of President Truman’s announcement regarding the atomic strike on Hiroshima is preserved in the archives at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Kansas City, Missouri.
5 In modern Japanese slang, the phrase "Nagasaki’s luck" has come to refer to a person escaping disaster without knowing it.