It was 9.20 a.m., August 9, 1945, when a flight of Corsairs came in over the hills surrounding Onagawa Bay, Honshu, Japan. Flying off the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable the Corsairs broke formation at 10,000 feet then followed the hillside down to 50-feet above sea level where each aircraft selected targets from Japanese vessels assembled in the bay.
Leading the flight was Lt. Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray, a 27-year-old from Trail. For his target he chose the largest ship in the mini-fleet, and the most dangerous to attack – the Japanese navy destroyer Amakusa. His wingmen picked targets from minesweepers, small sub-chasers and supply ships.
Three days earlier the world’s first atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima. “Hammy” Gray and the men flying with him had been briefed on the atomic destruction. They were advised, while it probably spelled the end of the war with Japan, pilots should not take “undue risks” on pending missions. Unfortunately “undue risks” tend to disappear in the adrenalin rush of a bombing run at screaming speed and mere 50-feet above the waves.
“Hammy” Gray’s Corsair took heavy fire as he roared toward his target. One of the two bombs he carried, shaken loose by the ferocity of the flack, fell harmlessly into the sea. Lt. Gray held his course and released his second bomb precisely on target. It struck the Amakusa just below the second gun platform, ripped through to the engine room and exploded to blow a huge hole in her starboard side. In minutes the Amakusa rolled to starboard and sank taking 71 crew members with her.
As Lt. Gray pulled away his aircraft exploded in a ball of flame and pin-wheeled into the ocean, not far from where the Amakusa was settling in her final resting place. Not distant as warplanes fly, and little more than two hours after Lt. Gray’s triumphant but fatal last charge, the United States Air force dropped its second atomic bomb on a Japanese city.
It was two minutes after noon, August 9, three days after Hiroshima, when an estimated 40,000 died in Nagasaki in what became known as “the second sunrise”. Other thousands succumbed to radiation – some within hours, others after years of agony.
In an attempt at black humour ground crew had painted the initials JANCFU on the nose of the five ton bomb known as Fat Man: It stood for – Joint-Army-Navy-Civilian-Fuckup.
And JANCFU it was for those in Nagasaki who had not been officially selected to die that day. The original victims lived in the small city of Kokuru, population 75,000, but clouds and ground haze forced an in-flight decision to find an alternative and Nagasaki was the choice.
The New Yorker magazine noted in its August 7 (The Last Bomb issue) that the U.S. military released a Nagasaki damage map in 1946. Inside the cataclysm zone (three thousand feet from ground zero) were Nagasaki Prison, Mitsubishi Hospital, Nagasaki Medical College, Chinzei High School, Shiroyama School, Urkami Cathedral, Blind and Dumb School, Yamazato School, Nagasaki University Hospital, Mitsubishi Boy’s School, Nagasaki Tuberculosis Clinic and Keiho Boy’s High School.
Two brief hours before over Onagowa Bay, little more than 1,000 klm north, Robert Hampton “Hammy” Gray died alone in equally devastating but “conventional” fire. He was the last Canadian to die in combat in the war with Japan and was posthumously award the highest award for gallantry – the Victoria Cross.
Six days later the war with Japan was over, but 70-years later in other countries the dying, some heroic, mostly senseless, continues.
Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the weapons have remained “conventional” and it would appear, worldwide, that makes everything okay.