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article number 662
article date 05-04-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
All Brains Together—First to Develop the Atom Bomb, Part 11: B-29 Bomber Crews & Personal Train to Deliver
by William Laurence, Reporter, New York Times
   

From the 1946 book, Dawn Over Zero.

* * *

IN ATOMLAND-ON-MARS a man had to go at a pace “twice as fast as he could just to stand still.” Events did not occur in sequence, but simultaneously in all places.

It had to be taken for granted that things would work as expected, at a time when no one could tell for certain that they would. Instead of taking one step at a time in logical sequence, many steps had to be taken simultaneously all over the map, relying on faith that in the end everything would fit into one grand design.

Hence, long before the test at New Mexico, extensive preparations were made for getting the atomic bomb in action against Japan as soon after the test as possible.

This entailed the training of special crews to carry the new weapon to the enemy; the building of modified models of the B-29, specially designed for greater speed, safety, and other requirements; and the preparation of an advance base on Tinian Island, in the Marianas, as a final assembly place for the bomb, since Tinian was at that time (Iwo Jima and Okinawa had not yet been taken) the nearest point of departure for the land of the enemy.

A highly secret base for the training of the special crews was established at the flying field at Wendover, Utah, in the fall of 1944. Here, under Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., of Miami, Florida, one of our most distinguished fliers, was organized what later became known as the 509th Composite Group, of the 313th Wing, of the 21st Bombing Command, of the 20th Air Force.

Tibbets gathered under him seventy-five of the most daring fliers in our Air Force, and an equal number of picked non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, of whom sixty officers and seventy-five non-coms and G.I.’s were to constitute fifteen crews of nine men each, four of whom were officers.

In addition, a large ground crew of 1,700 men, all highly skilled in the handling of B-29’s, was selected, after a most rigorous screening process, from our far-flung air contingents at home and on the various battlefronts.

With the exception of Colonel Tibbets, no one among the officers or men had the slightest inkling of the nature of their job. All of them had been asked to volunteer for an organization that was “going to do something different.” That was all.

They trained through the winter of 1944-5 and the spring of 1945, on the flying field in the bleak Utah desert, in such strict secrecy that their existence was not known even among the top-ranking officers and scientists on the other sites of the Atomic Bomb Project.

Since the effectiveness of the bomb was wholly unknown at the time, it was decided from the very beginning not to employ radar, but to drop the bomb visually over the chosen target.

Also, it was believed necessary that the bomb be dropped as close to the center of the target as possible. The bombardiers, consequently, had to be chosen for their special ability to drop a bomb right on the button. In Utah they were given further training to enhance this ability.

To simulate combat conditions, and to accustom the fliers to the “something different” they were to carry, an exact model of the atomic bomb (which, by the Way, was not yet in existence), made of ordinary explosives but having the same weight and shape, was carried on the training flights and dropped over selected targets in the Utah desert from the same altitude from which the real thing was to be dropped later over Japan.

Colonel Tibbets, a perfectionist if there ever was one, trained his men to take off and arrive at a given destination exactly on scheduled time. If a B-29 arrived five minutes late after a long flight, Colonel Tibbets was displeased.

While this was going on in the Utah desert, construction was being rushed on the Atomic Bomb Base on Tinian, under the direction of Oklahoma-born Colonel Elmer E. Kirkpatrick, West Point Class of 1929, one of the ablest construction experts in the Army Corps of Engineers.

   
B-29 Superfortresses arrive Tinian Island in 1944. The atomic bomb project would be located there, occupying a part of one of the bases we built.

Tinian was chosen not only because of its proximity to Japan, but also because it lent itself better than Saipan or Guam to the maintenance of strict secrecy.

New Yorkers like myself found themselves at home on Tinian. Its roads and its streets were laid out (doubtless by some homesick Seabee from New York) along the lines of Manhattan Island, with numbered broad avenues running north and south, and numbered cross-town streets east and west.

The small atom-town of twenty-one raised tents, where I lived with the atomic bomb scientists during my month’s stay at Tinian, was located somewhere in the vicinity of “Times Square.” The flying field from which the B-29’s took off for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was located somewhere in “upper Manhattan.” “Broadway” and “Eighth Avenue” were the two main thoroughfares, along which at all hours of the day and night, the atomic bombers rumbled in jeeps and trucks to and from the bomb-assembly area.

As Dr. Morrison described it before the Senate Committee, “Tinian is a miracle.”

Here, 6,000 miles from San Francisco, the United States armed forces have built the largest airport in the world. A great coral ridge was half-leveled to fill a rough plain, and to build six excellent ten-lane runways, each almost two miles long.

Beside these runways stood in long rows the great silvery airplanes, not by the dozen, but by the hundred. From the air this island, smaller than Manhattan, “looked like a giant aircraft carrier, its deck loaded with bombers.”

Dr. Morrison’s description of what went on every day at Tinian is so graphic that I take the liberty to quote some of it:

"I doubt that there is a more complex and wonderful machine in the world than the B-29. And here at Tinian, far from the factories in Seattle and Wichita, were several hundred of these million-dollar craft. Here were collected tens of thousands of specialists trained in the operation and repair of the delicate mechanisms which cram the body of the plane.

"In the harbor every day rode tankers, laden with thousands of tons of aviation gasoline. A net of pipe lines supplied the airfields with fuel. The radio dial was busy with signals of every kind.

"And all these gigantic preparations had a grand and terrible outcome. At sunset some day the field would be loud with the roar of the motors. Down the great runways would roll the huge planes, seeming to move slowly because of their size, but far out-speeding the occasional racing jeep.

"One after another each runway would launch its planes. Once every fifteen seconds another B-29 would become air-borne. For an hour and a half this would continue with precision and order. The sun would go below the sea, and the last planes could still be seen in the distance, with running lights still on.

"Often a plane would fail to make the take-off, and go skimming horribly into the sea, or into the beach to burn like a huge torch.

"We came often to sit on top of the coral ridge and watch the combat strike of the 313th Wing in real awe. Most of the planes would return the next morning, standing in long single line, like beads on a chain, from just overhead to the horizon.

"You could see ten or twelve planes at a time, spaced a couple of miles apart. As fast as the near plane would land, another would appear at the edge of the sky. There were always the same number of planes in sight. The empty field would fill up, and in an hour or two all the planes would have come in."

   
B-29’s of the 509th Composite Group at Tinian Island.
1920x1530 size available. to open in new window.

This was the environment in which the first atomic bomb base was set up. It was an island within an island. The inhabitants of the inner island lived in a world apart, completely isolated from the other contingents. In all, including military and civilian personnel, they numbered fewer than 2,000, of whom 1,850 were aviation personnel. The others included twenty-seven civilian scientists, eleven Navy officers, nine Army officers, twenty-one enlisted men, all but three of whom were scientists, and myself.

In an isolated part of the island, far removed from all other activities and closely guarded by special detachments of M.P.’s, were several Quonset huts transformed into testing laboratories, and one barricaded, air-conditioned building. Here the small group of scientists from Los Alamos, under the direction of Professor Norman F. Ramsey, of Columbia University, assembled the atomic bomb and prepared it for its final delivery.

The stringent secrecy and the aloofness of the 509th Group subjected Colonel Tibbets and his crew to considerable ribbing, and life during the months prior to Hiroshima, already tense, was not made any easier by the ridicule of fellow fliers, including old comrades on other battlefields.

It was made even more difficult by the fact that the members of the 509th did not themselves know what their mission was to be. Every day they would watch thousands of their comrades take off on missions to the Empire (as the Japanese main islands were known) in huge formations, many of them failing to return, many coming back seriously wounded, whereas all they were doing was to take off now and then in a small formation of three planes, drop a lone missile over enemy territory, and return to base, to face the derision of fliers in other groups.

Of course, they did not know at the time that they were making practice runs with simulated atomic bombs over Japan for a dual purpose—to give them further training, and to condition the Japanese to the sight of small formations of B-29’s that did comparatively little harm. Then the Japanese, it was reasoned correctly, would pay no attention to the real thing when the time came.

What the other groups on Tinian thought of the 509th was expressed in verse by an anonymous satirist, widely quoted during July and the first days of August. It ran as follows:

Into the air the secret rose,
Where they’re going, nobody knows.
Tomorrow they’ll return again,
But we’ll never know where they’ve been.
Don’t ask us about results or such,
Unless you want to get in Dutch.
But take it from one who is sure of the score,
The 509th is winning the war.

When the other Groups are ready to go,
We have a program of the whole damned show.
And when Halsey’s Fifth shells Nippon’s shore,
Why, shucks, we hear about it the day before.
And MacArthur and Doolittle give out in advance.
But with this new bunch we haven’t a chance.
We should have been home a month or more,
For the 509th is winning the war.

The title of this poem was “Nobody Knows.”

To add to their discomfiture, the Japanese radio began poking fun at the 509th.

And so the days, weeks, and months dragged on for Colonel Tibbets’s harassed crew. They were no picnic for Colonel Tibbets himself, even though he knew what it was about.

For he also knew that everything depended on a certain test in New Mexico, which had not yet taken place. And even if the test were to succeed, that still would not guarantee the success of his first mission, the day for which he knew was drawing close.

Success in this case did not mean just “something different.” It had to be something revolutionary or it would have to be regarded as a dismal failure.

   
Few of the many involved at Tinian. "In all, including military and civilian personnel, they numbered fewer than 2,000, of whom 1,850 were aviation personnel."

If before the New Mexico test things had been going at double time, they moved even faster after the event. The Potsdam Conference was then in session, and the first item on the agenda was to inform President Truman of what had taken place. The British Embassy in Washington sent a similar report to Prime Minister Churchill, and it is believed that both informed Premier Stalin.

General Groves and General Farrell sat up nights writing these reports, got a fast little courier plane, and rushed them to Potsdam.

These reports, as General Farrell said later, probably “hit the Potsdam conferees with an impact almost equal to that of the bomb itself upon those of us who had the opportunity of seeing it in New Mexico.”

It was then decided to get the bomb into combat as rapidly as possible. A large batch of the material was rushed in several planes to San Francisco and loaded on the ill-fated cruiser ’Indianapolis.’ It arrived in Tinian by the end of July.

The last few batches of the active material left the plant on the afternoon of July 26 and were flown to Santa Fe. From there they were taken by truck to Kirtland Field, Albuquerque, where they were picked up by three B-29’s of the 509th Group from Wendover and flown to Mather Field at Sacramento, aerial port of embarkation for B-29’s, arriving there on the morning of July 28.

Disaster almost overtook one of the three B-29’s, named the ’Laggin’ Dragon’ and commanded by Captain Edward M. Costello, West Point Class of 1943, whose home is in Zillah, Washington.

Just after he had taken off for Tinian, when the plane was only fifty feet up, the life-raft door blew open and wrapped itself around the right elevator. By that time the B-29 had already crossed the end of the runway and started nosing toward the ground.

Captain Costello and his co-pilot, Second Lieutenant Harry B. Davis, started pulling the wheel back with all their strength to raise the elevator, but the big plane kept fluttering so violently that they had all they could do to hold on to the wheel.

They finally managed to raise the whole weight of the raft upward and climbed to three hundred feet. Just then the raft became disengaged and blew off into the air.

They signaled the control tower and were advised that if the plane could fly at all, they should remain in the air until their weight was down to 120,000 pounds, when it would be safe to make a landing. The plane at that time weighed 132,000 pounds, one ton heavier than the maximum limit allowed at Mather Field.

Just then they began noticing a flutter in the tail, and the tail gunner, Corporal Maurice J. Clark, reported that large areas of the elevator fabric had been torn way and that more pieces seemed to be tearing off into the wind. Captain Costello therefore notified the tower that he was forced to come in for an emergency landing.

There were ten passengers aboard in addition to the crew of nine, and they were all told to get ready for a crash landing.

But as they stood there in crash landing position, hands clasped behind their necks, expecting the worst, Captain Costello made a perfect landing just when it seemed that the airplane was about to get out of control. The reversible pitch propellers with which the atomic bomb B-29’s were equipped had saved the day. It was not even necessary to use the brakes in landing.

Captain Costello did not know what he was carrying, but he had an idea that it must be something precious if three B-29’s were required to carry it in three parts all the way to the Marianas. He was determined, he told me, to save the unit at all costs.

The torn elevator was replaced with an elevator taken from a war-weary B-29 that had been on thirty missions, and they took off at 12.30 a.m. on July 30. They arrived at Tinian at 12.15 p.m. August 2, Marianas time. Three days later, on August 5, the bomb was loaded on the ’Enola Gay,’ Colonel Tibbets’s flagship.

   
Enola Gay rests in front of the bomb pit containing Little Boy.

The ’Indianapolis’ was sunk with the loss of nearly all men aboard while on her way to the Philippines, four days after she had delivered her precious cargo to Tinian.

By the end of July General Farrell, deputy to General Groves, arrived to take charge. On his way to Tinian he stopped off at Guam, where he conferred with General Curtis E. LeMay, then in command of the 20th Air Force and about to become the Chief of Staff of the Strategic Forces, and arranged the details of the operation.

General Farrell then called on Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, whose headquarters were also at Guam, and arranged with him for assistance by the Navy, which included the placing of submarines in Japanese waters along the route the atomic bomb fliers were to take, for the purpose of rescue in case they were forced to bail out or ditch, as well as having in readiness a number of Navy flying boats at near-by bases.

At the end of the conference Admiral Nimitz called General Farrell over to the window and pointed at an island a short distance from Guam.

“That island over there,” Admiral Nimitz said, “is Rota. There are about three thousand Japanese on it. They bother us a great deal. They have radios. They know what we are doing. They are sending out information. Haven’t you got a small bomb you can drop on Rota? I don’t feel it warrants an amphibious invasion at this time. But they do bother us.”

“Unfortunately, Admiral,” General Farrell replied, "all our bombs are big ones.”

Early on the morning of Sunday, August 5, Marianas lime (Saturday, August 4, in the United States), there came word that the weather would be favorable for a take-off early next morning. Preparations were at once speeded up to get the bomb ready for immediate loading.

But Captain (now Rear Admiral) William S. Parsons, Navy Ordnance expert, who was completely responsible for the technical control of the bomb and for decisions as to its use, was worried. The night before, he had seen four B-29’s in a row crash at the end of the runway and burn.

“You know,” be said to General Farrell, “if we crack up at the end of the runway tomorrow morning and the plane gets on fire, there is the danger of an atomic explosion and we may lose this end of the island, if not the whole of Tinian with every blessed thing and person on it.”

Said General Farrell: “We will just have to pray that it doesn’t happen.”

“Well,” replied Captain Parsons, “if I made the final assembly of that bomb after we left the island, that couldn’t happen.”

“As I understand it, if that is the way you would work it, then, if the plane cracks up and burns, we just lose the airplane and the bomb and the crew and you—but we don’t lose the island. Is that right?” asked General Farrell.

“Yes,” said Captain Parsons.

General Farrell said: “Isn’t that nice? Have you ever assembled a bomb like this before?”

“No,” said Captain Parsons, “but I’ve got all day to try it.”

“Go ahead and try,” said General Farrell.

So Captain Parsons went ahead and began learning the intricacies of the bomb’s assembly some hours before take-off time. By afternoon he felt confident that he could do the job. He is a technician of a high order, Admiral Parsons, and a great gentleman.

   
Circuitry inside Little Boy atomic bomb.

The bomb, only partly assembled (though to all outward appearances it looked complete), was rolled out of its closely guarded, air-conditioned assembly building and taken to the airfield.

By late afternoon it was hanging majestically in the bomb bay of the ’Enola Gay,’ named by Colonel Tibbets after his mother. It was autographed with all sorts of ribald messages to the Emperor, including one in bold letters from the boys on the ’Indianapolis,’ for whom death was waiting just round the corner.

There was a lump in every throat and a hope in every heart when the loading job was finally finished.

I arrived in Tinian in the midst of the loading, three days behind schedule. I had been first delayed at Hamilton Field, California, waiting for a transport plane, and then lost another precious day when the C-4 that was taking me to Hickam Field, Hawaii, was forced to turn back after flying half the distance.

I was traveling under sealed orders and did not know until I arrived at Guam on the morning of August 5 what my final destination was. At Guam I was met by First Lieutenant Nicholas Del Genio, of Military Intelligence and Security, who Informed me that he was to take me to Tinian.

Though I did not have official knowledge, I had a fairly good notion that I was to be privileged to be an eyewitness of the dropping of the first atomic bomb just as I had witnessed the first test in New Mexico.

I became certain of it when, on leaving Washington, I was given an official card bearing the legend: “Valid only if captured by the enemy,” and informing the enemy that I was entitled to the privileges of a colonel. As Dr. Alvarez, who carried the same kind of card, said: “I could just see myself coming down in a parachute, waving this card at the natives.”

Immediately upon my arrival in Tinian I sought out General Farrell, hoping that there was still time to arrange for my going along. General Farrell, as fine a man as I have ever met, told me it was too late, but that I would go on the next mission, which at that time was scheduled for August 11.

“There may not be any need for another mission,” I said. “This one may do the trick.”

“I hope you are right,” he said.

That same evening at about ten o’clock six selected crews were assembled for briefing. The usual jesting that takes place before a briefing was missing. At last they were about to learn what the "something different" was for which they had undergone such intensive training and suffered the ridicule of their fellows.

Colonel Tibbets took the platform in the barnlike newly built assembly hall, with its long rows of unpainted wooden benches, and addressed his men as follows:

“Tonight is the night we have all been waiting for. Our long months of training are to be put to the test. We will soon know if we have been successful or failed.

"Upon our efforts tonight it is possible that history will be made. We are going on a mission to drop a bomb different from any you have ever seen or heard about. This bomb contains a destructive force equivalent to twenty thousand tons of TNT.”

He paused, expecting questions. But there was silence in the room, a look of amazement and incredulity on every face.

Colonel Tibbets resumed his talk:

“Because this bomb is so powerful, we must use different tactics from those we have employed when using ordinary bombs.”

He then explained the tactics and the part each plane was to play. Three airplanes would take off one hour early, at 1.45 a.m. the next morning. Those planes would act as weather reporters. It was their responsibility to cover three previously selected targets. This would provide the latest weather reports, so that at the proper time the target could be changed should weather conditions make it necessary.

The second group of three B-29’s, one of which was to be the strike plane, to be piloted by Colonel Tibbets, would take off at 2.45 and assemble over Iwo Jima about fifteen minutes after daybreak. This assembly was necessary because the three planes had to enter the target area together.

At midnight there was another briefing, at which all the points were carefully gone over. The men still wore the amazed look of two hours before. They were told what had happened in New Mexico.

They were each handed a pair of adjustable arc welders’ lenses and warned not to look at the flash with their naked eyes. But what they were being told seemed beyond human comprehension.

   
Colonel Tibbets with Captain Parsons brief the crew before the mission to Hiroshima.

That briefing was concluded with a deeply moving payer by the Chaplain, Captain William B. Downey, of the Hope Lutheran Church at Minneapolis:

“Almighty Father, who wilt hear the prayers of them who love Thee, we pray Thee to be with those who brave the heights of Thy heavens and who carry the battle to our enemies. Guard and protect them, we pray Thee, as they fly their appointed rounds.

"May they, as well as we, know Thy strength and power, and armed with Thy might may they bring this war to a rapid end. We pray Thee that the end of war may come soon, and that once more we may know peace on earth.

“May the men who fly this night be kept safe in Thy care, and may they be returned safely to us. We shall go forward trusting in Thee, knowing we are in Thy care now and forever. Amen.”

Quietly we filed out into the night and proceeded to the mess hall, where Mess Sergeant Elliott L. Easterly, of Lake City, Tennessee, not far from Oak Ridge, served the traditional pre-flight supper.

Here was the menu, with Sergeant Easterly’s side remarks:

Look! Real eggs (“How da ya want them?”)
Rolled oats (“Why?”)
Milk (“No fishing”)
Sassage (“We think it’s pork”)
Apple butter (“Looks like axel grease”)
Butter (“Yep, it’s out of again”)
Coffee (“Saniflush”)
Bread (“Someone get a toaster”).

After supper we all went to the field and gathered around the ’Enola Gay.’ Batteries of glaring lights had been set up and hundreds of pictures were taken.

There was some danger in that, as there were still many Japanese hiding in the hills above the field and they apparently had some way of communicating with the Empire, as on the day the 509th arrived on Tinian, Tokyo Rose welcomed it by name to the theater. The lights and the activities around a single plane might have tipped them off that there was something extraordinary going on.

   
Little Boy atomic bomb is raised into Enola Gay.

At exactly 2.45 on Monday morning, August 6, the three B-29’s took off from three parallel runways. On the center runway was the ’Enola Gay’ with Colonel Tibbets at the controls. We waved him good-by and wished him luck. He waved back and smiled, a tired smile.

As soon as the ’Enola Gay’ started warming up, a few of us entered a jeep and went to the control tower for better observation. We watched Colonel Tibbets hold the Enola Gay to the ground almost to the last few feet of the runway. “Will he ever lift her up off the ground?” we wondered. As General Farrell, who was one of the group, said later: “We were almost trying to lift it with our prayers and hopes.”

We thought of the four B-29’s that had crashed and burned the night before. Those of us who did not know at the time about the conversation between Captain Parsons and General Farrell stood there, frozen.

Then, it seemed almost at the last foot of runway, the ’Enola Gay’ rose. It soared up into the night, remained visible for a little while, and vanished into the northern sky.

General Farrell and Captain Parsons had a special code for communicating with each other. Each had a copy. Each word in the code meant a full sentence, and the code was considered broad enough to cover any possible situation Parsons might encounter. Parsons assured Farrell he was quite certain that he would be able to destroy that code in case his plane was forced down.

Very few people knew that shortly before he entered the ’Enola Gay’ Captain Parsons borrowed an automatic
pistol from Lieutenant Del Genio. He was the only man board who knew all the mysteries of the atomic bomb and he was not going to permit himself to be taken alive.

As soon as the ’Enola Gay’ and its two companions had taken off, we raced to the communications center, where we could talk with the ’Enola Gay’ by radiotelephone for out forty-five minutes of travel. During that period General Farrell kept asking Colonel Tibbets how Captain Parsons was getting along with his assembly job. When we lost contact, he was still in the bomb bay working on it.

No one slept that night. For all we knew, Captain Parsons might not have succeeded in putting the bomb together.

   
"On the center runway was the ’Enola Gay’ with Colonel Tibbets at the controls. We waved him good-by and wished him luck. He waved back and smiled, a tired smile."
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