The third atomic bomb: Tokyo, 19 August 1945

On this day in 1945, the third atomic bomb was dropped on Tokyo. Or, rather, might have been had not Japan surrendered on 15 August. For a long time, I've believed that the two bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only ones which would be available for a month or two. But a comment at Edge of the American West pointed me in the direction of a memo recording the conversation between General John E. Hull and Colonel L. E. Seeman on 13 August, about atomic bomb production in the next few months. And it turns out that there was one ready to be shipped out to Tinian at that very moment. According to Seeman, it would be ready for use on 19 August.

As for where it would be used, I got that from the first chapter of Michael Gordin's Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War. He says there that the third drop would 'probably' have been on Tokyo. That surprises me a little, given that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen from a list of cities spared from conventional bombing so that the effects of the atomic bombs could be better assessed. Tokyo wasn't on that list (the other cities were Kokura and Niigata). Perhaps the thinking was that two 'test' drops were enough, and that if no surrender followed, it was time for a higher-value morale target? It could be questioned how much of Tokyo was left to destroy after the 65 conventional (or fire) raids which had already taken place. Or perhaps a decapitating strike was intended, to take out Hirohito and his ministers? Though that might actually make surrender more difficult to organise.

Clearly I'll have to add Gordin's book to my to-read list ...

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33 thoughts on “The third atomic bomb: Tokyo, 19 August 1945

  1. Stevis

    Surprising. Intuitively, I would have thought Kokura would have been back on the target list. I'll have to look into this as well.

  2. Interesting. Same as you I always assumed the planned production meant that there would not be any more bombs unitl December at the earliest. As for Tokyo being the target i'm not sure and Gordin does not give a source for his guess. As you say the original recommended list of targets, decided in May, were:

    1. Kyoto
    2. Hiroshima
    3. Yokohama
    3. Kokura Arsenal

    I would have thought that from this list, if we follow the reseaning that 'test' drops were no longer needed then Kyoto would have been an inviting target. It is the spiritual heart of Japan and had not been bombed so would have had both a primary effect of a high value morale target and a secondary effect of testing the bomb.

    Indeed from the minutes of the second meeting of the targeting committee it was noted about Kyoto:

    'In this respect Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon...The Emperor's palace in Tokyo has a greater fame than any other target but is of least strategic value.'

    It interesting to note the comparison here with Tokyo.

  3. Jakob

    I don't know about Kyoto - Stimson was fairly adamant about removing it from the target list. Once the Target Committee made the list and the Interim Committee made the go-ahead decision, I don't think the list was re-visited was it?

  4. Jakob

    Ok, going back and looking at Robert S. Norris's Bio of Groves, Racing for the Bomb, Norris quotes a letter from Groves to Marshall dated August 10:

    The next bomb of the implosion type had been scheduld to be rady for delivery on the target on the first good weather after 24 August 1945. We have gained 4 days in manufacture and expect to ship from New Mexico on 12 or 13 August the final components. Providing there are no unforseen difficulties in manufacture, in transportation to the theatre or after arrival in the theatre, the bomb should be ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August.

    Apparently Marshall sent the memo back with the handwritten directive: 'It is not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President.'

    Groves sent a memo to Hap Arnold on the 10th suggesting that Tokyo might be added to the target list.

    On the morning of the 11th Groves spoke to Marshall and 'it was decided that no further shipments of material should be made to the Theater until the question of the Japanese surrender was decided' (Groves letter to Thomas F Farrell.)

  5. I'd have to see some really compelling evidence to be persuaded that Tokyo would have been a third nuclear target. You give the reason yourself above; the inevitable death of the Emperor would have made any organized end to Japanese resistance almost impossible to obtain, and surely Truman's Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff were well aware of this.

  6. Stimson's reasoning was because he liked it as he visited it on his honeymoon. Not really sound military reasoning. If suggestions were made to add Tokyo to the list the same could well have happened with Kyoto. It is, in this context, a much higer value target. I agree with Alan that Tokyo was unlikely, partly for the reasons I have alluded to but also the problem of taking out the Japanese govt and the impact that it would have upon the desire to continue the fight.

  7. Perhaps this is worthy of consideration. A July 24, 1945 letter from Colonel John Stone To General Arnold.

    "... 1. The following plan and schedule for initial attacks using special bombs have been worked out:

    a. The first bomb (gun type) will be ready to drop between Ausut 1 and 10 and plans are to drop it the first day of good weather following readiness.

    b. The following targets have been selected: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata anbd Nagasaki.

    (1) Hiroshima ...
    (2) Nagasaki ...
    (3) Kokura ...
    (4) Niigata ...

    c. ...
    d. ...
    e. ...
    f. ...
    g. ...
    h. ...

    2. Two tested type bombs are expected to be available in August, one about the 6th and another the (?)th. General Groves expects to have more information on future availabilities in a few days which will be furnished you when received.

    ... "

    [ ref. ]

    So, by July 24 Tokyo had been excluded from the target list for the first two bombs and subsequent bombs.

    Which does not mean it could not reappear on the list as military and political needs required.

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  9. Post author

    Very impressed with this erudite discussion! There's no copy of Gordin to be had hereabouts so I haven't much to add on the Tokyo aspect. (Though I would note that we shouldn't assume that an atom bomb on Tokyo would inevitably destroy the Imperial Palace -- it was a big city, after all, and there was still a lot left to destroy after the earlier raids.)

    But apparently Richard Frank (in Downfall, 303) claims a different list of targets for the third bomb, according to a forum post:

    1. Sapporo
    2. Hakodate
    3. Oyabu
    4. Yokosuka
    5. Osaka
    6. Nagoya

  10. Holly Hageman

    I just spoke to a soldier today, 88 years of age, who wS on the airplane with the third bomb when the radio contacted the captain to return because the war was over. Japan had surrendered. He described handling it, how it was loaded, and described how they had enough fuel to get there, and then fuel tanks could be dropped into place after their load was dropped.

    He told me that his captain did not believe the radio message at first, thinking it was the Japanese. However, they found one of the captain's buddies who came on the radio a and confirmed the truth of the surrender. It was only because he recognized his buddy....

    Fascinating story. This man, Reuben, told me there are only two of the men on that mission left living yet.

  11. Alan Allport

    With all due respect to your interviewee, Holly, it sounds as though some confusion has crept into his account. As the post and comments above indicate, the third bomb never left California. It certainly wasn't in the air en route to Japan at the time of the surrender.

  12. Holly Hageman

    Hmm. I will have to ask him again. He had the name of the airplane and everything.

  13. Holly Hageman

    In fact, I will try to get his email. Perhaps I misunderstood some of what he was telling us over lunch. At 88 you wonder, and he was enjoying talking about it so much...

  14. Post author


    It's an interesting story, but I agree with Alan: there's just no way that there was a third atomic bomb was on its way to Japan when the surrender was announced. As noted in the post above, we know that on 13 August the third bomb was ready to be shipped out to Tinian, available for use from 19 August -- but Japan surrendered on 15 August. So the chronology just doesn't fit. There's also the problem that this third bomb mission has apparently never been revealed until now -- none of the historians who have researched the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs appear to have heard of it. Of course, it would have been secret at the time, but there would be no reason to keep it a secret for very long. It's such a dramatic story that it would have quickly become retold and well-known.

    If you do find out more details, that would enable some further cross-checking. But I don't think it is worth devoting too much time to it -- tall tales from veterans are nothing new!

  15. Brian Thorn


    Today I was at the Mesa-Gateway airport to see the B-29 FiFi. While waiting for the aircraft to arrive I struck up a conversation with a man later known to me as Ray Stauffacher, 93 years old. He was a 20 year old B-24 pilot in Italy that flew 42 missions into Europe. After Germany surrendered he returned to the states and went into B-29 training.

    He told me that he was the co-pilot on the 3rd atomic bomb mission and that shortly before landing at Tinian they heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered. He said they did not use the radio to confirm that due to radio silence, but continued on to Tinian where they found out that it was true. He said that their target would have been Tokyo and that he regretted not being able to complete the mission.

    After getting home I did some research and found an interview with him from last year that is almost word for word what he told me. You can see the interview at:

    Start at the 28 minute mark.

    Obviously, I have no way to confirm his story but he did not come across as a BS'er to me and he certainly had his faculties about him. He could quote you airspeeds, fuel capacity, number of aircrew, etc, etc.

  16. Alan Allport

    "I have no way to confirm his story ..."

    And that's the problem right there.

    Air sorties generate paperwork. Atomic bomb sorties, particularly.

  17. Post author


    Thanks for that. The trouble is that false combat claims are not uncommon, as I'm sure you know; people make up stories about being a SEAL or something and dine out on the undeserved attention for years afterwards. As Alan says, there would be records of such a flight, and there would be plenty of other corroborating records (his service record, for example; the records relating to the manufacture and transport of A-bombs that I discuss in the post). He might have been a bomber pilot, even a B-29 pilot; but if he was en route to drop the third bomb when Japan surrendered, how come he's the only person who seems to know about it? So I don't buy it.

  18. section9

    Only pilots hand picked by Paul Tibbets and already in the 509th Composite Group Chain of Command would have been authorized to deliver atomic weapons in 1945.

    If the individual in question was a member of the 509th, then the story rings true. The unit roster is on the Internet.

    Tibbets did send two B-29's (Luke the Spook and Jabit III) back to Wendover, Utah, to stage in case they were needed to haul the Third Bomb and its plutonium core out to Tinian. They may have staged as far forward as San Francisco before getting an order to stand down, but of that I'm not certain.

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  20. Brandon Smith

    I would just like to say that my grandfather was there in Nashiyama directly after the third bomb was in fact dropped he says it has been suppressed by the CIA. He says that all the Japanese that were there were paid off those that lived. He also gives details like the fact that the first two bombs were ground attack bombs. Where as the third was detonated slightly above ground before impact causing more damage. He reports people with the tops of their heads burnt and scared. And how they died shortly after. He parachuted into that mess. He also said that while Reagan was president he suppressed it further. I just thought I'd share and get your thoughts and mind you my grandfather is of completely sound mind and has told me these things for years.

  21. Post author

    Sorry, but this story is even less plausible than (and of course inconsistent with) the other stories being claimed above (i.e. that a B-29 took off with a 3rd bomb on board but the mission was aborted). For some of the same reasons (we know the third bomb wasn't ready until after the Japanese surrender). Why would the third bomb have been kept a secret? Hiroshima and Nagasaki were publicised pretty much as soon as they happened; what point would it have served to cover up Nashiyama (which I can't find on a map or the internet; can you check the spelling and/or describe the location)? The first two bombs weren't ground attacks, rather the opposite -- they were air bursts (which is why there was little fallout). Some of the details, I grant, may simply be confused recollections, but the basic claim just doesn't add up. What unit did your grandfather serve with?

  22. Don A. Farrell

    One of my students drew my attention to this website during his research on the Tinian atomic bombs. The plutonium core for the third bomb never left Los Alamos, although the currier as signing for the cargo when the phone call came from General Groves to stop the shipment (RG 77 NARA, box 19). The body of the bomb had been completed at Tinian and was only awaiting the nuclear core. A 509th plane and crew had been dispatched to Mather Air Field, San Francisco, to carry another pre-assembled implosion sphere to Tinian, but that plane was returned to Wendover Air Field, Utah. The "third bomb" was eventually expended at Bikini Atoll as part of operation Crossroads.

  23. Post author

    Thanks, Don. It seems like some of the preceding discussion may have glossed over the difference between the fissile core and the preassemblies by glibly referring to 'bombs'. I note you give an archival reference; do you have a good secondary source which covers this, too?

  24. Darrell Dvorak

    My article, The Other Atomic Bomb Commander, was published in the Winter 2012 issue of AirPowerHistory, the quarterly journal of the Air Force Historical Foundation. Regarding the third (aerial) atomic bomb, per Tibbets, the C.O. of the 216th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Special) at Wendover, Col. Cliff Heflin, would have piloted the plane to deliver the third plutonium nuclear core to Tinian. But, as discussed above, it never left Los Alamos. The late Col. Heflin was my father-in-law.
    By the way, because of Trinity, a "third" bomb would actually have been the fourth atomic bomb and the third aerial atomic bomb.

  25. jack strong

    b , lhl.vgk, .h,lv, m,hvh.;lvhhvjvh b , , , , v m m gvgvvvvvvvlvlllvv,vvvv

    that is the martian version and they should know as the martians gave the USA the technology to create nuclear weapons. The tradeoff was that planet earth would send beautiful females to Mars to be used as sex slaves for the next 200 years

  26. Stacy fowler

    I have been reading the comments and I have no clue about what exactly happen. But today I spoke with a man that is 93 and he was telling me that he was to be on the third plane. He was very sharp. He told the story like it happened yesterday. I started googling names ect as he was talking. Tibbit ect ect. It is so strange that this happen to me today on vet day. How can I find the names on the 509th group?

  27. Post author


    Good point, it's certainly possible that a pumpkin mission muddied the waters long after the event (though it would have been clear enough to anybody on the mission that it was a non-nuclear attack), since they flew the same mission profiles. There were even a couple of pumpkins dropped after Hiroshima, one of which was after Nagasaki.


    I don't have a copy, but there is a 2005 book called The 509th Remembered, edited by Robert and Amelia Knauss, which has a unit roster of the 509th's members.

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