As World War II wore on, America was faced with a terrible decision: should they use the latest in military technology against the Japanese, a bomb capable of killing more people than any other weapon ever devised… or should they rely on traditional methods to advance the fight in the Pacific, regardless of the cost to their own troops.  Despite military legends about the massive number of purple hearts manufactured in preparation for an American invasion of Japan, President Harry S. Truman ultimately decided to side with technology, giving the order to drop America’s new atom bombs on targets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

The destructive power unleashed on the people of Japan on August 6, 1945 was unlike anything ever before seen in war.  An American B-29 bomber, dubbed the “Enola Gay,” dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in combat, called the Little Boy, on the city of Hiroshima, unleashing the equivalent of 15,000 pounds of TNT and immediately reducing four square miles of the city to ruins.  80,000 people died in the blast with thousands more succumbing to radiation poisoning in the days to follow.  Three days later, another atomic weapon, “Fat Man,” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more.

Soon thereafter, the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States.

The decision to drop these two atomic bombs on Japan effectively served as the final punctuation mark for the largest war ever to occur on the face of the earth, while simultaneously changing the way the nations of the world would interact with one another forever more.  In the aftermath of WWII, the United States set itself apart from the rest of the globe, using its military might and incredible economic strength to establish itself as one of, and eventually the only, true super power on the planet throughout the 20th century.  Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, the United States continues to sit atop the hierarchy of military powers around the world, a position first established by the flight crew of the Enola Gay.

Now, the United States sits on the precipice of another potentially nuclear conflict, as North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, continues to pursue nuclear weapons that possess only about as much power as the one dropped on that fateful day in August of 1945.  That’s how immense the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons can be, even when 70 years outdated.  The United States recognizes, perhaps better than any nation other than Japan, how destructive a nuclear weapon equivalent to those used so long ago can truly be.  In order to keep the equivalent of a “Little Boy” or a “Fat Man” out of the hands of a despot, the U.S. remains ready to go to war.

Until recently, very few photos of the bombs, or the men responsible for delivering them to their targets, had ever been released.  Perhaps the decision was a matter of national security, or perhaps the United States was reluctant to associate faces and individuals with these weapons that would end the lives of more than a hundred thousand human beings.  At the time, the United States was in the business of winning world wars, but that doesn’t soften the humanitarian edge of such a loss of life.  The United States has pursued a world free from nuclear war ever since that day, which serves as perhaps the strongest testament to the destructive power of these weapons: when even the man carrying the gun is afraid to see it go off, the gun may be too powerful to use in your average conflict.

The National Archive recently declassified a batch of pictures of the preparation for that first atomic strike in human history, allowing us a rare glimpse into what history looks like as its being formed.  It seems possible, if not unlikely, that these men may have been aware that they were a party to what may prove to be one of the defining moments in all of human history, but at the time, they seemed as devoted to service as any other American fighting for their nation, and way of life, unaware that today we’d be looking at their images through a historical lens that paints them as heroes, victors, but also harbingers of a terrifying shadow that looms over our heads to this day.

In the days that followed the pictures, this bomb would deliver a massive explosion that would bring with it the dawn of the nuclear age.  Whether that age ends with the destruction of humanity… is yet to be seen.