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

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Kokura was the target, but the bombardier couldn't locate it because the area was clouded. So the navigator took us to Nagasaki. We had gotten a report that the area was clear, but we noticed undercast clouds. By this time, we'd used almost an hour's gas at the rendezvous point, and the engineer was really sweating it. It was going to be nip and tuck. I went up to Sweeney and said, "We're going to be able to make one run on this target--if we're lucky." I told him to be prepared to use radar. This was in contradiction with orders we'd received that prohibited us from bombing without a visual target sight.

We were making our approach on radar and getting ready to drop when [Captain Kermit] Beahan [the bombardier] cries out, "I've got the target!" As we'd gotten over Nagasaki, Beahan had looked into the undercast and saw that it had holes in it. He synched the cross hairs of his bomb sight telescope and released the bomb.

We saw the flash and then the mushroom cloud. It's pretty spectacular, like a roiling mass of burning smoke and fire. The colors varied between salmon and pink and yellow flame in color.

We took one turn around the cloud, and then we had to get to the ground as fast as we could because of the gasoline situation. We flew directly to Okinawa. Sweeney put the airplane on a long, slow glide, and as we approached the island, he went on the intercom: "Mayday! Mayday!" There was no response. He used flares but still didn't get an answer. Finally, he called the tower and said, "We're going to land!" We touched down about halfway up the runway and came to a screaming halt right at the end. Later, we ran tests on the gas tanks. We had about 35 gal. of usable fuel. And 35 gal.--as far as a B-29 is concerned--is immaterial. We were essentially out of gas.

On the way back to Tinian, we tuned in to some local news and got word that the Japanese had approached the Swiss about surrendering. We were all pretty elated. Looking back, I think that what we did was entirely the thing we had to do under the circumstances. It was a major contribution to the end of the war, and I was fortunate to have participated in it. But the real story here is the mission. It came within a gnat's eyebrow of being a disaster.


Co-pilot on a B-29 that accompanied the Enola Gay and on the Bockscar

On Aug. 6, our job for the Hiroshima mission was to drop instrumentation to record the magnitude of the bomb blast and the radioactivity. When Tibbets dropped the bomb, we dropped our instruments and made our left turn. Then this bright light hit us, the brightest light I had ever seen in my life. And the top of that mushroom cloud was the most terrifying but also the most beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life--every color in the rainbow seemed to be coming out of it. Then it felt like someone came and slapped the airplane two or three times. And that was it. I said a little prayer: Lord, please take care of all of them down there. It was all I could do.

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