Frederick Ashworth, 93

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FREDERICK L. ASHWORTH, 93 Weaponeer on the Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki

I got out to Los Alamos on Thanksgiving Day of 1944. When I arrived, I was immediately invited to a cocktail party at Dr. [Robert] Oppenheimer's quarters. I'd gone from sea level to 7500 feet and it didn't take very long before a couple of martinis did their business. The cocktail party adjourned into a square dance. My wife was pretty good at it, so she got along pretty well. I didn't have the vaguest idea what I was doing. That was my introduction to Los Alamos.

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Life was pretty primitive up there. There was mud all over the place. Most of the people lived in barracks-type buildings. Everyone was under real pressure in terms of schedule. It was all work and not much play. But they knew how to play when they wanted to. I'm sure that Oppenheimer was quite sure that there needed to be a social aspect along with the rest. He had people in to his place frequently. In two-cocktail time, I think there was probably more technical one-on-one transfer of ideas than in meetings in the laboratory.

I reported to Captain [William S.] Parsons. I was essentially his assistant. When I was not at Los Alamos, I was frequently troubleshooting for Capt. Parsons in Washington. When it came time to select a base for the 509th group, they sent me out to stake some ground in the Pacific. I was sent out to Admiral [Chester] Nimitz's headquarters to make this selection. That was in February 1945. I was given a letter that told Admiral Nimitz, who was located in Guam at the time, that there was being developed an atomic bomb, which would be in his area, in the Pacific, around the first of August of 1945. The letter was classified top secret and I was the custodian. I got myself a money belt and strapped it around my middle. I took it from Washington all the way to Guam, flying on military transport service. When I arrived in Guam, I went straight to Adm. Nimitz headquarters. I had to open up the shirt of my uniform, pull my shirt out of my pants—in front of the admiral—and pull out the money belt. I brought out the envelope, which by that time was pretty sweaty looking, and I handed it to the Admiral, much to his amusement.

He read the letter and looked out the window. Then he turned around and said, "Thank you very much Commander." Then he said, "Don't those people out there know that we're running a war out here? It's February and you can't have it out here until August?" I told him that it was quite obvious from the state of development that it would be no earlier than August, and, in fact, it'd be lucky to be August.

In about May of 1945, we relocated to Tinian. And around August 1st, we got a message from Washington, that the use of bomb had been released by the President. But it should not be dropped before the 2nd of August. The real limitation from then on was the weather in Japan. The first permissible weather was on the 6th of August. Our mission [Nagasaki] would be on the 9th. It had pretty much been set.

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."

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.

A shorter version of this account appears in the Aug. 1, 2005 issue of TIME Magazine

Next: Charles "Don" Albury, 84