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Nuclear Weapons

The Third Shot

Before the end of World War II, the United States was planning to detonate a third bomb—and more—on Japan.

Most Americans believe that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was always the plan. But the historical evidence shows otherwise. Not a single document from before Japan’s surrender indicates that only two bombs were to be used. It wasn’t until after the war ended that new meaning was given to the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A surge of memoirs produced by those involved in the Manhattan Project asserted it was common knowledge that two atomic bombs would be enough.

But, before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one thought two bombs would end the war.

But, before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one thought two bombs would end the war. Most certainly, not the two men in charge of the Manhattan Project. Three days after the Trinity Test, General Groves wrote to Oppenheimer that it would be necessary to drop Little Boy and Fat Man and possibly two more Fat Man bombs.

soldiers work on bomb

Fat Man being readied for its drop on Nagasaki.

Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The pilot of the plane that dropped Little Boy, Colonel Paul Tibbets, told varied accounts. According to his earliest recollection, it would take five atomic bombs to force surrender. He had fifteen bombers and trained crews ready to go in case they needed to drop more atomic bombs during the war.

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The Third Shot

On August 13, 1945—four days after the bombing of Nagasaki—two military officials had a phone conversation about how many more bombs to detonate over Japan and when. According to the declassified conversation, there was a third bomb set to be dropped on August 19th. This "Third Shot" would have been a second Fat Man bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki. These officials also outlined a plan for the U.S. to drop as many as seven more bombs by the end of October.

These officials also outlined a plan for the U.S. to drop as many as seven more bombs by the end of October.

The location for the third bombing remains unknown. At least one official advocated for Tokyo to be the site of the next atomic strike. He argued that attacking Tokyo would cause immense psychological damage for any government officials that remained in the city. To him, this was far more important than the destructive force of the bomb itself.

While the military continued to prepare for a third atomic strike on Japan, President Truman asserted control. When he learned that a third bomb would be ready in about a week, he ordered that there be no more atomic bombs dropped without his direct approval. When Truman was later asked why he wanted to halt nuclear strikes against Japan, he said that the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people and killing “all those kids” was too horrible.

man signs papers on a desk

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs surrender documents on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri while General Richard K. Sutherland looks on.

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Even after Japan surrendered on August 15th, there were fears of a militarist coup in Japan that would restart the war. Preparations for the third atomic strike continued until September 2nd—the day the American Occupation of Japan began.

A New Weapons Industry

The idea that it was always meant to be two bombs heavily permeated American society. But, the purpose of the Manhattan Project was not to produce two bombs and call it a day. The Manhattan Project was designed to build an entire bomb-making industry. It could have produced about three plutonium bombs a month and one uranium bomb every month or two. Combining plutonium and uranium was also considered as a way to ration the stockpile.

A Forgotten History

Japan’s surrender erased the Third Shot from popular memory, helped along by a revised narrative from official sources. The idea that it was always meant to be two bombs settled into the stories American's told about the war. And just like that, the Third Shot was forgotten.

Nuclear History: World War II

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