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

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The arming of the bomb was about half an hour before the bomb was dropped. My last job was to climb into the bomb bay and remove those three testing plugs, painted green and each about the size of a saltshaker. Those plugs isolated the testing system from the bomb, so there was no chance of any voltage getting from the bomb to the testing system. I pulled those plugs and put in three red firing plugs to arm the bomb. From that point on, the bomb was running itself.

The focus was entirely on making sure that thing worked. I knew from test drops that it took about 43 seconds from the time that the plane jerked up--when the bomb left--to the time of the flash or explosion. I counted to myself to 43. Nothing happened, and that was my moment of real worry. A couple of seconds later, the flash came--reported by people from the front of the plane--and I knew that I had miscounted the time and that the thing actually worked.

People were looking down and seeing this enormous cloud coming up and the destruction spreading out from the base--with flames and black smoke and white smoke. And that's the point that it's somber because you know a lot of people are getting destroyed down there with the city. No joy at that point. But it was a job that was done.

Everyone by this time was tired. When we landed, the plane was greeted by several hundred people, a whole group of Army, Navy, Air Force generals and admirals. I was lost in the crowd, so it didn't make any difference. The crew went off to a debriefing. Nobody knew particularly what my role or our group's role was, so I went back to my tent. Sitting on the edge of my bunk was a Navy lieutenant whom I had grown up with from the first grade--my best friend Jack Scott. I didn't know he was even on the island, but he said, "Come to the Navy base on the other end of the island. We have a good officers' mess there, and we'll have a good meal and a good bar." So we drove down there and had dinner, and there were several Navy officers there. One of them turned to me and asked, "What did you do today?" I'd heard a lot of their stories, so I thought I'd make just one remark. I said, "I think we ended the war today."

FREDERICK L. ASHWORTH, 93

Weaponeer on the Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9

At about 1:30 in the morning on the 9th, we gathered at the Bockscar, and [Major Charles] Sweeney [the pilot] and the flight engineer ran through the preflight tests. The engineer discovered that the transfer pumps, which transfer gasoline from the reserve tank into the main tanks, weren't working. There was 600 gal. of gasoline there, but we wouldn't have access to it. But Tibbets told him, "You don't need that gas, so there's no reason to delay this."

Our takeoff was uneventful. My station was in the navigator's compartment, and I had a hole about 8 inches in diameter to look out. I was the weaponeer--basically, I was in charge of the bomb. We flew to the rendezvous point, where we'd meet two other airplanes one with instruments to measure the blast and another holding observers. The observer plane didn't show up. We circled, and after about 35 minutes, I said to Sweeney, "Damn it, proceed to the first target."

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