The first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the Monday morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Japan time.
Its import wasn’t lost on faraway Missoula, where the headline in the next day's Missoulian blared: “Most Terrible Destructive Force in History – Atomic Bomb – Loosed on Japan.”
It’s difficult these 70 years later to gauge the reaction of western Montanans, who were as weary of war as anyone.
“The atomic bomb is the best argument for peace to come to mankind’s attention – and there are thousands such reasons for abolishing the dreadful folly of warfare,” the Daily Missoulian opinion editor wrote when the news broke.
But, he added, he was "intensely disappointed."
"We had hoped that the first use of atomic force would be for the advantage of mankind, to free us still more from the slavery of physical labor. And now it is on the other side, finds its first application in unparalleled destruction.”
As the week proceeded, hopes for an end to the hostilities grew in Missoula.
The second bomb fell on Nagasaki, 260 miles to the west, in the late morning of Thursday, Aug. 9, just after 10 p.m. on Aug. 8 in Montana. That was in time to get a preliminary Associated Press account from Guam into the next morning’s paper, though the story was played under the announcement that Russia had finally thrown in with the United States to fight the Japanese.
“The alternatives are: suicide or surrender,” the Missoulian editor wrote. “This must be very obvious to Tokyo.”
At least 100,000 Japanese died in the initial bombings and tens of thousands more in their aftermath. The exact death toll will never be known – the devastation was too great and census figures too vague – but experts say it may have approached a quarter of a million people.
As the world awaited Japan’s decision, the war news played out on the local front. Soldiers were returning from the European theater that had been secured in the spring, and the Northern Pacific railroad was snapping them up to help handle the heavy traffic, often two dozen freight trains a day through Missoula in both directions.
In the hours before the second bomb dropped on the other side of the world, directors Clarence Bell and Alex Stepanzoff conducted the Missoula City Band’s regular Wednesday evening concert on the county courthouse lawn. The final concert of the summer was planned for the following Wednesday, Aug. 15, on the oval at Montana State University. It would fall, as it turned out, on V-J Day.
A story in the Saturday Missoulian on Saturday, Aug. 11, detailed the career of Dr. Harold Urey, a 1917 graduate of the University of Montana and a 1934 Nobel prize winner in chemistry. Urey, the paper said, played an important but unspecified role in the development of the atomic bomb.
An extra edition that afternoon trumpeted the news that the Big Four powers had accepted Japan’s surrender, provided Emperor Hirohito were “made subject to supreme orders.” As Japan’s warloads chewed on that, the bombing of Tokyo continued and Japanese suicide planes attacked American ships off the coast of Honshu.
Days later came the banner headline: “Japs Say ‘We Quit’” it read on Tuesday, Aug. 14.
“To put it mildly, Missoula went wild,” the paper reported the next day.
The restraint shown on V-E Day in May was abandoned. Within moments of President Harry Truman’s announcement at 5 p.m. Mountain War Time, that peace had arrived, a seemingly perpetual parade of cars commenced up and down Higgins Avenue.
An impromptu band made up of Elks, high school and city band musicians and anyone else who could be recruited led a formation of horn-honking automobiles filled with passengers “who hailed the war’s end by singing, yelling, screaming, beating tubs,” the paper said.
A trainload of returning servicemen and -women had stopped at the Northern Pacific station at the top of the street. The band marched up and down the station platform.
“Most of the soldiers and sailors left the train, learned the news, and yelled: ‘It’s over. We won’t forget Missoula. We’ve been waiting a long time for this,’ " a reporter wrote.
The evening wore on and another, larger parade led by the city band amped up the celebration that continued long into the night. The raucous party had one downside. Weekend storms had ignited some 130 fires around the region and U.S. Forest Service personnel were sent to Missoula to round up 750 sandwiches for the fire camps.
They tried several establishments, but could get their orders filled at none due to the V-J day festivities.
The party was still rolling in the wee hours of Wednesday, which by then had been proclaimed as the first of a two-day national holiday. At the behest of Truman, Gov. Sam Ford and Mayor Dwight Mason, all stores in Missoula were closed for business Wednesday and Thursday. Only holiday service would be maintained at the post office during that time, postmaster Ralph Brown announced. Both local banks, the Western Montana National and the First National, were shuttered. The university suspended all summer classes for the two days, and thanksgiving services were planned at the Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic churches.
In the midst of the joy, some were already turning to talk about postwar challenges.
The Missoula Chamber of Commerce said that the imminent return of servicemen and -women would intensify an already acute housing shortage. The chamber gave notice that anyone with unused living quarters or even spare rooms should call its offices at 2767.
Montana was set to begin a $12 million public works building program as soon as men and materials became available, but how those funds would be distributed was uncertain. The state water conversation board had requested $721,000 for five projects, Montana’s university system was eager for a bump in funding and an addition to the Capitol in Helena was in the works to accommodate state offices housed in rented buildings downtown.
A $7 million highway program was ready to go as soon as the green light came from Helena, and the state had $500,000 from a bond issue to expand facilities at its Warm Springs hospital.
The end of war also came with sobering news for Missoula. On Friday, Sheriff Robert MacLean could reveal that the city had a brush with an incendiary bomb from a Japanese balloon.
The fire had been spotted around midnight on July 28, in the gravel pit behind the reservoir on Waterworks Hill. After the flames were doused, responders could find no trace of a balloon. But rocks and gravel were melted and fused into something akin to lava.
“It was then discovered that there was a mass of peculiar foreign matter there, and a whiteness-like phosphorous over everything around it,” the newspaper reported.
A cable a quarter-inch thick and a bulky mass of Japanese fish line were found at the scene. The latter, which the sheriff estimated at 50 feet long, was wrapped around “whatever it was that constituted the actual bomb.”
The Army took over the investigation and MacLean said on Aug. 17 he’d not heard the results. Compared to other cities, Missoula had gotten off easy.