America's Surprising Original Atomic Target

September 06, 2018

When the use of atomic weapons first became an option during World War II, when and where to use them became the biggest questions. Though the targets eventually chosen were the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans had first considered other locations to be the original atomic target. A recent search of the archives of the Manhattan Project uncovered a plan for striking an entirely different target.

The Original Atomic Target

The War in the Pacific wasn’t easy for either side, and as the battles raged on and the death toll continued to rise, American military planners started to consider the best ways to cut down on the length and losses of the war.

Yamato-class Battleships anchored at Chuuk Atoll, 1943

Yamato-class Battleships anchored at Chuuk Atoll, 1943

Partway through the war, the Japanese Navy established a naval base in the Micronesian atoll of Chuuk, previously spelled "Truk." For the Imperial Japanese Navy, the atoll was ideal for protecting its fleet. The 40-mile-wide lagoon allowed the Japanese to build up a base without fear of outside attacks. Over the quarter-century thry ruled Micronesia, the Japanese had constructed drydocks, airfields, and tank farms, turning the atoll into a Japanese version of Pearl Harbor. It didn't take long for the Americans to make the connection between the Hawaiian naval base that had been devastated on December 7, 1941 and the lagoon thousands of miles across the Pacific that was serving in a similar capacity for the Japanese.

On May 5, 1943, the Manhattan Project’s Military Policy Committee came together and discussed the possible targets for the first atomic bomb strike. Interestingly, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t part of the initial talks.

“The point of use of the first bomb was discussed and the general view appeared to be that its best point of use would be on a Japanese fleet concentration in the Harbor of Truk,” according to a memo released by the committee. In the memo, it was revealed that General Steyer also suggested Tokyo, but fears that a misfired bomb would land in the water and give the Japanese the opportunity to salvage it.

The Military Policy Committee developed a plan to bomb Chuuk, hoping it would disable a major part of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In November of 1943, the strike on Chuuk was on the horizon and the committee continued talks. In the end, the course of use of atomic weaponry was altered by the increase of the overall American naval strength in the Pacific.

A Change of Plan

Japanese ships burning during Operation Hailstone, 17 February 1944

Japanese ships burning during Operation Hailstone, 17 February 1944

On February 17, 1944, the US Navy was able to attack Chuuk without the use of atomic weapons. Operation Hailstone launched 500 aircraft, a fleet of five carriers, four light carriers, and seven battleships against the Japanese installation.

After dismissing Chuuk as the original atomic target, the devastating bombs weren’t used until August 6, 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima. A second bomb was dropped on August 9 on the city of Nagasaki.

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