Aviation History


The Enola Gay lurched as the the 10,000 pounds Mk I bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” dropped out of the bomb bay

The 509th Composite Group, born in secrecy Dec. 17, 1944, was created for the sole purpose of delivering the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Because of the secret nature of their mission, the group trained at Wendover, Utah, and Tinian Island, in the Pacific, ever-perfecting the performance of the crew and their B-29 Superfortress bombers.

“What I tried to do, initially, was to train individuals – then weld the individuals into a good, cohesive team to fly this B-29 better that anybody else was flying … that particular day,” said Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, 509th Composite Group commander, and orchestrator of the operational aspect of the original nuclear enterprise, the Manhattan Project, in an interview in 1966. “We were after perfection. I wouldn’t settle for anything less than a quarter of a mile of accuracy, and I wouldn’t stand for anything less than 20 seconds off on time. This became a challenge … and you’d be surprised at the pride these boys took in being able to qualify.”

ROSWELL ARMY AIR FIELD, New Mexico — Col. Paul Tibbetts, Jr., of Miami, Fla., poses in front of his B-29 Superfortress “The Enola Gay” (named for his mother). The Enola Gay is the same plane he piloted when his bombardier dropped the first atom bomb over Hiroshima, Japan.

As explained by Airman 1st Class Torey Griffith, 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs, in the article 509th Bomb Wing continues Assurance, Deterrence … 65 years later, the early 509ers rose to meet these demanding standards without question. Only Colonel Tibbets and a select few over him knew of the nuclear mission.

“I kept telling [the crews] that the work they were doing, even though it might seem non-productive to them at the moment … because their contemporaries … were overseas fighting a war and they were still training, … their contribution would be something that had a good strong chance of ending the war,” said Colonel Tibbets. “Now, this was enough to raise their curiosity. It didn’t violate any security, and it gave them something to go on.”

“… with this type of a training program, I think I produced the best B-29 crews in the 20th Air Force,” Colonel Tibbets said.

The ground crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center. Marianas Islands.

With a squadron of 15 specially prepared ‘Silverplate’ B-29s and the best-prepared crews in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) standing by, Colonel Tibbets received orders from the White House to bomb Hiroshima.

“We got going down the runway [on Aug. 6, 1945] at 2:15 a.m.,” Colonel Tibbets said. “After we got the airplanes in formation, I crawled into the tunnel and went back to tell the men. I said, ‘You know what we’re doing today? This is an atom bomb we’re dropping.’ These guys were no idiots. We’d been fiddling ’round with the most peculiar-shaped things we’d ever seen.”

Colonel Tibbets and navigator Maj. Thoedore van Kirk put the Enola Gay over the designated target at 9:15 a.m. Bombardier, Maj. Tom Ferebee sighted his target, waiting for the perfect moment.

The mission runs of August 6 and 9, with Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Kokura (the original target for Aug. 9) displayed.

Colonel Tibbets said the Enola Gay lurched as the the 10,000 pounds Mk I bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”), dropped out of the bomb bay. He immediately banked the B-29, having only 40 seconds to put as much distance between the plane and the blast as he could.

In less than a minute in fact, 4.7 square miles of Hiroshima were erased from the earth.

Tailgunner Staff Sgt. Bob Caron watched the shock wave, which looked like a ring of vapor quickly reaching out from the blast sight, overtake the Enola Gay. According to accelerometers on board, the first shock wave rocked the Enola Gay with 2.5 Gs of force. A second, smaller wave hit a few seconds later.

Little Boy unit on trailer cradle in pit on Tinian, before being loaded into Enola Gay’s bomb bay.

Colonel Tibbets turned the plane back toward the site, to inspect their handiwork. Having been one of the few to see film of the first nuclear test in the Trinity explosion, the first nuclear test performed in the desert of New Mexico, Colonel Tibbets said he was still amazed by the decimation.

According to Griffith, President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use the atomic weapons was a difficult one to reach.

Germany, one of the original intended recipients of a simultaneous strike, had already folded that spring.

At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column.

The war in the Pacific, however, was still raging.

Threats of an invasion had little effect on Japanese leaders.

President Truman was faced with adding to the millions who had lost their lives during the course of the war, or use the most powerful weapon known to mankind in hopes of ending the war.

“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima,” said the president in a public announcement. “It [was] an atomic bomb. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

Enola Gay after Hiroshima mission.

Since Japan was silent for three days after the strike on Hiroshima, the 509th Composite Group’s “Bock’s Car,” piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney, struck Nagasaki, Aug. 9.

In his Aug. 9, 1945, radio address to the nation, Truman gave his reasons: “We have used (the nuclear bomb) in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans,” he said.

On Aug. 15, 1945, in a radio broadcast, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito said that “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.”

Japan formally surrendered aboard the battleship USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, drawing the bloody, six-year war to a close.

Colonel Paul Tibbets waving from the Enola Gay’s cockpit to get reporters to stand clear of the propellers prior to engine start, before taking off for the bombing of Hiroshima

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron, Mr.98 via Wikipedia and 509th photographer Pfc. Armen Shamlian / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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