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Tibbets waves out of the window. Beneath him is the name of his plane, Enola Gay. It is also the name of his mother, immortalised in ways neither of them could possibly imagine.

The runway is one and a half miles long. Fire trucks are parked along its edge. With its big bomb, Enola Gay is dangerously overloaded. In the past 24 hours, four Bs carrying conventional bombs have crashed on take-off.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

If Enola Gay also crashes, it could set off a nuclear accident, wiping out the entire island. As he opens the throttles, Tibbets notices his hands are sweating. The plane races down the runway. Just before it runs into the sea, Tibbets hauls the wheels off the ground. A minute later, two other Bs follow, one packed with cameras, the other with observers.

All three aircraft disappear to the north, for the start of their 1,mile flight to Japan. But nobody yet knows on which of the three cities the bomb will drop. The lives of thousands of now-sleeping people depends on what the weather will be like tomorrow morning. Despite the blackout, Hiroshima is still relatively comfortable in this fifth year of the war. Even a few cinemas are still open. But food is scarce.

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The one consolation is that Hiroshima has so far escaped the bombing. Over the past few months teams of schoolchildren have pulled down houses to create firebreaks in case the bombers come. But they never do. The order to spare it has come from the president of the United States himself. Within minutes of take-off, a balding naval captain on board Enola Gay opens a hatch at the rear of the flight deck and steps down into the dark bomb bay. His name is Deak Parsons and his job is one of the most dangerous of this mission.

In the next few minutes he will arm the atomic bomb. Only the thin bomb-bay doors separate him from 5, feet of thin air. Over the radio he relays each stage of the arming operation back to Tinian. Despite the vibration and the turbulence, his concentration is total. It has to be. A slight slip and the mission could end in disaster.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima (Paperback)

Back on Tinian, General Farrell listens to the radio. By the time Parsons reaches stage eight — Connect Firing Line — his voice disappears into static. At this point, nobody on the ground is certain whether Parsons has succeeded, or blown himself and Enola Gay out of the sky. Within the sanctuary of his palace, Emperor Hirohito, Son of Heaven, watches the dawn after another sleepless night. These days, he does not look much like a god. Most of the time he wanders aimlessly through his palace in old clothes and slippers.

His right cheek twitches uncontrollably. He knows the war is lost. Despite the army fanatics on his council, he is desperate to find a solution. All his hopes lie with the Russians, still at peace with Japan. Perhaps they will broker a deal with the Allies. Sato is a realist. In his mind, there is only one way to end the war: unconditional surrender. It is a typically prescient remark, more accurate than Sato could ever have imagined. As captain of the weather plane assigned to the city, conditions look near-perfect. A huge hole has miraculously opened in the clouds, exposing its heart.

Twice Eatherly sweeps over it — both times completely undisturbed — before his radio man sends the weather report back to the strike force, one hour behind. On board Enola Gay, Tibbets receives the message. He adjusts his course towards the city. After all, the Americans never drop bombs. Some of the resident 43, soldiers perform their morning calisthenics in the sunshine.

Schoolchildren stream to their places of work in factories and offices, for there is no school these days. Everybody is mobilised for the coming invasion.

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To Major Tom Ferebee, the bombardier, the city glinting on the horizon is instantly recognisable from countless photos. The only difference is that it is in colour. A handsome Errol Flynn look-alike, Ferebee is a master of his craft, a veteran of 63 missions. His eyesight is legendary. He is not the sort of man to miss. With his left eye pressed to the bombsight, he searches the dense grid of streets for one feature.

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Then he sees it: a bridge where the Ota river branches in two, shaped like a T — the aiming-point for the bomb. Tibbets immediately warns everyone to put on their goggles. At Ferebee flicks a switch. A warning tone howls over the airwaves. In exactly 15 seconds, Little Boy will drop into the clear blue skies over Hiroshima. In Saijo, east of Hiroshima, an observer spots all three aircraft heading towards the city. He calls the air defence bunker.

Now he rushes to the studio as an engineer thrusts the latest warning into his hands. The warning tone cuts. The single shackle drops its dead weight into the freezing air. It wobbles before plunging towards the city. Tibbets immediately slams the big bomber into a tight diving turn.

Nuclear-Bomb Explosions

He has exactly 44 seconds to escape before the bomb explodes. As Enola Gay tears away, Little Boy continues its fall, accelerating almost to the speed of sound. From the observation aircraft, blast gauge canisters float down over the city, suspended from parachutes. Some of the inhabitants cheer. The station suddenly tilts as he is hurled into the air. Before the sirens have a chance to sound, the sky falls in over Hiroshima.