Young Men and Bombs

Oral history: four American men talk about their connection to the Hiroshima attack—and one Japanese suicide pilot tells of unexpectedly receiving life

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TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY

FLYBOYS: The crew of the Enola Gay poses in front of the plane after the Hiroshima mission

THEODORE (DUTCH) VAN KIRK, 84

Navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima

When [Colonel Paul] Tibbetts was picked to be commanding officer [in 1944], he named me group navigator. He told me, "We're going to do something that I can't tell you about right now, but if it works, it will end or significantly shorten the war." And I thought, Oh, yeah, buddy. I've heard that before.

We picked a day the weather was good. At the briefing that day, they told you who was assigned to what airplanes. We were going to drop the bomb, [Captain Charles] Sweeney was going to fly the instruments, George [Marquart] was going to fly the picture airplane, [Captain Frederick] Bock was flying one of the weather airplanes. They called us about 10 or 11 in the evening. I don't know how they expect to tell you that you're going out to drop the atom bomb and not know if it's going to work or if it's going to blow up the airplane, and then tell you to go get some sleep. I wasn't able to sleep.

Our takeoff time was 2:45 a.m. We get down to the airplane, and the Manhattan Project had it lit up with a whole bunch of lights. I said it looked like a Hollywood premiere. [Private] Dick Nelson said it looked like a supermarket opening. But there were questions, picture taking, tape interviewing and everything. We got in the plane and took off. I didn't talk about anything. The navigator was to keep the plane on course, getting the plane from Tinian to Hiroshima on time. It was 12 hr. and 15 min. total.

The Enola Gay was stripped down--a big metal tube with a lot of instruments and people in it. All the turrets, all the guns--except the tail guns--and anything we did not absolutely need, we discarded. It was about 6,000 lbs. lighter.

It was just like any other mission: some people are reading books, some are taking naps. When the bomb left the airplane, the plane jumped because you released 10,000 lbs. Immediately Paul took the airplane to a 180° turn. We lost 2,000 ft. on the turn and ran away as fast as we could. Then it exploded. All we saw in the airplane was a bright flash. Shortly after that, the first shock wave hit us, and the plane snapped all over. We looked to see what happened to the target, and we could make absolutely no visual observation because the entire city of Hiroshima was covered in black smoke and dust, debris that had been kicked up by the bomb and the blast, and a large white cloud that you've seen pictures of. I'd guess it was up to 42,000 ft. already.

When you're looking at it, you know that a tremendous amount of energy has been released. There was one thought that was uppermost on everyone's mind. Somebody said, and I thought too, "This war is over." You didn't see how anybody--even the most radical, militaristic, uncaring for their people--how anybody like that could stand up to something like this.

MORRIS R. JEPPSON, 83

Weapon test officer on the Enola Gay

We had breakfast after midnight and were taken by a truck out to the plane. My role was to test the electronics on the bomb all the way from the battery that operated the circuitry to the timing clocks and the barometric switches and the radars that had to be turned on.

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