In 2002, Paul Tibbets gave a wide ranging interview to Studs Terkel about his experiences as the pilot of the Enola Gay and Commander of the 509th Composite Bombing Group. Tibbets, piloting the Enola Gay, would drop the first atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Three days later, on August 9, another B-29 named Bockscar would drop the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
What the world didn’t know and what the Japanese definitely didn’t know is that Japan’s complete silence after the Nagasaki bomb sent the US military down the path of planning for the dropping of a third bomb.
The US military really thought that the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima would bring Japan to her senses and she would immediately surrender. To their surprise, the Japanese government was silent after the dropping of the first bomb. Had Japan surrendered, there would never have been the second atomic attack on Nagasaki. But instead, three long days passed in silence after Hiroshima. It was only after a day and half of silence following the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima that planning began for the dropping of the second bomb, the one that would obliterate Nagasaki.
So on August 9, history records that the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The military thought that the Japanese would surely surrender after a second atomic attack.
First one day, August 10th, passed in silence and then a second day passed with no word from Japan. Then on August 12th, General Curtiss Lemay, Chief of Staff of the Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, called Tibbets and asked him point blank….
“You got another one of those damn things?”
Tibbets knew that they had the components for a third bomb, but they weren’t on Tinian. The third bomb was still back in the United States. LeMay immediately told Tibbets to have it flown out to Tinian where it was to be assembled and dropped on Japan for a third atomic attack. That third attack never happened because the Japanese finally surrendered on August 15th by which time the third bomb had only been transported as far as San Francisco in its long journey from the US to Tinian.
Had that third bomb been delivered to Tinian with the first two, its more than likely that a third Japanese city would have been obliterated. Since the US military only waited 3 days between the Hiroshima bomb and Nagasaki bomb, its not very likely that they would have waited longer than the same three day interval between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb and the third bomb.
Tibbets was asked by Terkel if he knew what target General LeMay had in mind for the third bomb. To which Tibbets responsed that he didn’t know.
Some have speculated that it might have been dropped on Tokyo. Some even suggest that the Royal Palace in the center of Tokyo might have been targeted with this third bomb.
But that seems unlikely. Given that everyone from Curtiss LeMay to President Truman himself was waiting to hear from someone in Japan that they were willing to surrender, dropping an atomic bomb on the very people that would have had to issue the surrender order on behalf of Japan seems counterproductive. If Japan’s Supreme Council that included Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, and Foreign Affairs Minister Shigenori Togo along with Emperor Hirohito had all been obliterated, the US might never have received word of the Japanese surrender.
A far more likely target was one of the potential targets considered for the earlier bombings. This list included Kyoto, Yokohama, and the Kokura Arsenal. As with the earlier bombings, weather often played a big role in determining the fate of one target or another. If the primary target was covered by cloud, the B-29 pilots were under orders to fly onto a secondary target that was clear. This had already saved Kokura from atomic obliteration as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was originally intended for Kokura. But Kokura was socked in with heavy cloud cover so Bockscar flew on towards Nagasaki.
Kyoto was an unlikely target as various people in the US government had pressed that Kyoto held too much religious and cultural significance to the Japanese.
Langdon Warner, an archeologist and art historian who worked as a Monuments Man during the war is credited with talking the US into removing both Kyoto and Kamakura from the target list. Warner specialized in Asian cultures and art and had already been instrumental in talking the military out of firebombing Kyoto and other cultural locations. Today there are statues to Warner in both Kyoto and in Kamakura attesting to his efforts to save those cities.
More recently some historians point to then Secretary of War, Henry Stimson as being the individual who saved Kyoto. Stimson spent his honeymoon in Kyoto before the war when he was stationed in the Philippines. He is known to have argued to save it from destruction.
This leaves Yokohama as a likely third target. Its location quite close to Tokyo would have made its destruction pretty hard to ignore by the Japanese Supreme Council and Emperor Hirohito.
But luckily we’ll never know for sure.