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Countdown 1945: the Incredible Story of the 116 Days That Changed the World

5 November 2020

Countdown 1945: the Incredible Story of the 166 Days That Changed the World, Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss, 2020, ISBN 978-1-9821-6019-7, 312 pp.

Yes—the very same Chris Wallace from Fox News and, thankfully, with Mitch Weiss assisting. Weiss is known for his authoring skills which firmly place readers in the moment. I could hear in my mind Wallace’s voice while reading this riveting telling of the men and the women who were able to unexpectedly end World War Two with the nuclear attacks—first against Hiroshima (using the “Little Boy” uranium bomb) and second against Nagasaki (using the “Fat Man” plutonium-uranium bomb).

Told in an intriguing countdown style beginning just prior to the death of FDR and advancing to the horrific, but grateful end, Wallace instills a sense drama as he describes the context and character of the decisions made by people from varied walks of life in real time—pilots to calutron monitors— generals to scientists. Persons both large and small in the story are brought to life, bringing in the human component of this history. From the main directors (i.e., Grove Andy Oppenheimer) to the vital technical people rarely heard or written about (e.g., Jacob Beser and Lilli Hornig) and the all important though usually discounted grunts such as Ruth Sisson and Lawrence Huddleston. Japanese civilians are also in this story and their experience in survival and their ultimate fates are equally compelling tales, as well.

Wallace and Weiss make these people alive and vibrant in their script with all their thoughts and actions as they slogged through a war with barley an end in sight as each island taken from the Japanese incurred more casualties and at higher rates. Yes, Japan was losing but, paradoxically, fighting better and better using kamikazes, enfilade fire from hidden cave position, tunnels galore as well as an accurate awareness of location and time of future beach assaults. Yes, Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu) was not going to surprise Japan in the least and they were prepared—but that is covered in other books.

The authors use artistic license occasionally to describe common occurrences in an uncommon manner. “Engines running like new silk” as well as crew members being “invited” to mission briefing amusingly come to mind. The detail in the book is astounding, however, from the mention of graphite lubricant used in Little Boy to why women were better at monitoring and adjusting the uranium isotope (U-235 and U-238) separation machines, known as colutrons.

Two particular fiscal costs are mentioned—the cost of Project Manhattan at $2 billion and the uranium (U-235) core for Little Boy (delivered via the USS Indianapolis) at $300 million. Though not stated, since the authors place you inescapably as well as wonderfully in the moment, these are likely 1944 dollars. A quick look using Google shows Project Manhattan’s cost in 2020 dollars as a tad over $29.5 billion and Little Boy’s U-235 core at a bit over $4.6 million.

Countdown 1945 shows the power of unfettered science—unfettered except by secrecy. It also focuses its readers on the grist of waging war as well as the tremendous wastefulness inescapably incurred. Japan had lost the war and could have ended it at any moment but it took two, not one, atomic bombIngs to bring them to conclude the war they had initiated. The inevitable discussion of the savings in American lives as well as the Asian discrimination (which has been most definitely extant within the U.S. for decades prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor) are brought into play by the authors as well as the morality of using these fearsome weapons. The figure of 250,000 servicemen’s lives being saved by not invading Japan is often used by the writers, though others were mentioned—but the 250,000 figure was a low ball estimate given my the U.S. government to their public. Not withstanding public sentiment to have Japan surrender unconditionally the public support for a prolonged was war was beginning to wane. Servicemen for the most part had been away from home for years and the public was beginning to feel a conditional peace was becoming more attractive—the Japanese were playing to that end and willing to die for it.

Though not comprehensively addressed in the book…what would have happened to the American psyche if we had invaded and incurred 500,000 to 750,000 casualties? The U.S. causality rate in the Okinawa invasion was an incredible 35%, after all. The U.S. would have been entirely surprised by the preparedness of Japan’s defenses with increasingly successful kamikaze attacks (coming from mountain passes in largely wooded aircraft giving only moments to fire on them). Additionally, Japan had assessed correctly which landing beaches were likely and positioned artillery pieces which would had the great advantage of enfilade fire with no likelihood of return direct fire against landing gear craft. It would have likely been an Allied victory of near Pyrric proportions. What is also not mentioned was the desperate arming of women and children with pikes. Our servicemen would have been forced to kill women and children directly In great numbers—not from a distance but up close and personally. I cannot image the lasting pain that would have caused on the U.S. persona. The atomic weapons forced Japan to surrender and ultimately saved their culture as well as millions of lives (both American and Japanese).

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