The Luck of Kokura – A Tale of Two Cities

by | Oct 7, 2019

The crew standing in front of the B-29 “Bockscar”

In the fantastic book, Lake Success, a character explains he owns a table made of Japanese Eucalyptus from Kokura, Japan because the table reminds him how lucky he is. The people of Kokura were very lucky in 1945.

What is the “luck of Kokura?”

On August 6, 1945 the U.S., via the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, dropped the atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Three days later another atomic bombing mission occurred. Early on the morning of the 9th, a B-29 bomber Bockscar, carrying the atomic bomb called “Fat Man”, circled a rendezvous point off the coast of Japan ready to meet up with another B-29 named Big Stink carrying official observers. After circling in vein for over 40 minutes, Bockscar abandoned the meet up and proceeded to the city of Kokura, which was the primary target for the bomb. It was later determined that Big Stink had been flying at the wrong altitude. Bockscar was delayed by over 30 minutes.

During the delay cloud cover increased over Kokura and steel workers at Kokura, possibly tipped off by the bombing mission’s weather reconnaissance plane, set afire coal tar which produced thick smoke. The cloud cover, along with the coal tar smoke, obscured the bomber’s ability to accurately locate the army base that was the intended target.

After three passes over the city seeking the target, Bockscar abandoned Kokura and proceeded to Nagasaki, the secondary target city. Bockscar dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki a short time later. About 44% of Nagasaki was destroyed and as many as 80,000 people were killed. Japan announced its surrender on August 14th, 1945, avoiding a third planned atomic bomb.

Fat Man exploding over Nagasaki.

At 21 Kilotons, Fat Man was quite a bit more powerful than Little Boy’s 15 Kilotons, but fewer people were killed in the Nagasaki blast than in Hiroshima due to the geography of the two cities – Nagasaki is in a valley while Hiroshima is spread out. Both Fat Man and Little Boy were quite weak as compared to modern hydrogen bombs: What is the Difference Between Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs?

Schematic showing extent of damage by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In addition to not being hit by an atomic bomb, Kokura remained relatively unscathed by the allied bombing of Japan that widely occurred in 1945 because the U.S. Army command banned conventional bombing attacks on Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and a few other potential atomic bomb targets. The U.S. wanted to be able to measure the strength of the atomic bombs and conventional bombing would interfere with determining the atomic bombs’ effect. As relayed in a 1995 article in the NY Times, “Everybody was kind of wondering why Kokura wasn’t bombed, even though we had a big military factory,” recalled Mutsuharu Odawara, a retiree who during the war helped make fighter airplanes. “Lots of people wondered.”

Kokura merged with some surrounding cities in the 1960s and is now called Kitakyushu. At the intended target is a memorial recognizing Kokura’s luck. A plaque there reads: “There was a former army barracks in this area. An American military aircraft carrying an atomic bomb flew over to bomb it, however, they turned around and dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki instead as they could not locate the target through the clouds.”

In addition to being the primary target for the second bombing, Kokura was the backup target on August 6th had the weather been poor at Hiroshima.

Modern Kokura, now known as Kitakyushu


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