A new and different band of brothers began arriving at North Field, Tinian, in that summer of 1945, hauling duffel bags out of transport planes, staking out a sequestered cluster of buildings set aside for them in a purposely remote location, and giving the cold shoulder to anybody who wasn’t one of their own.
The 509th Composite Group had arrived. It was supposed to be a combat group, like the others on Guam, Saipan and Tinian, yet it had only two flying squadrons – one with B-29 Superfortress bombers, the other with C-54 Skymaster transports. No one else at B-29 bases in the Marianas had enjoyed the luxury of arriving aboard their own transport planes.
In charge of the 509th was Paul Tibbets, born in Illinois but a product of an Iowa upbringing, serious, earnest, deadpan. Tibbets understood little of the science behind the Manhattan Project but he knew bombing and bombers. He had to have some sense that nothing less than the fate of the world rested in the hands of his 1,760 men and 15 specially configured Superfortresses.
Members of other units found 509th troops reluctant to converse, clannish, and tight-lipped. Someone wrote a poem deriding Tibbets’ outfit:
Into the air the secret arose,
Where they’re going, nobody knows,
Tomorrow they’ll return again,
But we’ll never know where they’ve been.
Don’t ask about results or such,
Unless you want to get in dutch,
But take it from one who is sure of the score,
The 509th is winning the war.
The razzing was not good-natured. Most members of the 509th still did not know why they were on Tinian, why they had special aircraft, or why they were sitting out big missions being flown by hundreds of B-29s. Airplane commander Capt. Robert Lewis was more than upset. Tibbets appropriated Lewis’s aircraft. The plane Lewis had thought his own would eventually wear the words Enola Gay, named for Tibbets’ mother.
On the night of Aug. 5, 1945, ground crews began loading the “Little Boy” weapon aboard Enola Gay. They moved the big bomber into position straddling a bomb-loading pit. Not really little at all but actually 12 feet long, weighing 9,000 pounds with a 28-inch diameter belly, the Little Boy was hoisted by hydraulic lift and slipped through the bomb bay with two inches to spare.
Tibbets’ crew included four who had flown with him in Europe: bombardier Maj. Thomas W. Ferebee, navigator Capt. Theodore J. “Dutch” Van Kirk, tail gunner Staff Sgt. George R. Caron, and flight engineer Staff Sgt. Wyatt E. Duzenbury.
The pre-dawn launch from Tinian involved a number of other 509th group B-29 bombers. Besides the Enola Gay, six aircraft were to participate – three were weather planes, launched beginning at 1:17 a.m, a back-up aircraft in case Enola Gay encountered mechanical problems and needed to land at Iwo Jima, and two additional B-29s carrying special instrumentation.
Shortly after 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Enola Gay taxied out from its Tinian parking spot with its unique cargo. There was anxiety over the takeoff run. John T. Correll wrote:
Tibbets had already decided to make use of every inch of the runway. The aircraft was heavily loaded with fuel and the 9,000-pound bomb, and was 15,000 pounds over the usual takeoff weight. He released the brakes, advanced the throttles, and rolled down the long runway, gathering speed. Tibbets resisted the urge to attempt takeoff before the aircraft reached its best speed possible.
“I held firm until we were a little more than 100 feet from the end of the pavement,” Tibbets said. “Thanks to our extra speed – we were at 155 miles an hour – the plane lifted off easily and climbed steadily.”
Tibbets was the boss, but another figure, Navy Capt. William S. “Deak” Parsons, was in some sense the leader of the world’s first atomic bomb run. Weaponeer Parsons began his day by ignoring orders forbidding the mid-air arming of the bomb in the belief that it was too dangerous. Parsons, who had seen countless B-29s crash on take-off, felt that if he armed the weapon on the ground, and Enola Gay suffered the slightest mishap, the mission would end in disaster for the Manhattan project, and death for thousands of sailors and airmen on Tinian.
At 3:00 a.m., with the Enola Gay safely thousands of feet up and hundreds of miles away, Parsons began carefully inserting the explosive charge that gave the “Little Boy” its teeth. Early in the process, he cut his finger badly on the sharply machined edges of the bomb’s tail. Blood glistened on Parsons’ clothing and on the surface of the bomb.
At 7:00 a.m., Japanese radar detected aircraft heading toward Japan and broadcast the alert throughout the Hiroshima area. Soon a weather B-29 circled over the city. At 8:09 a.m. the crew of the Enola Gay saw the city appear below. The target was the “T” shaped Aioi Bridge that was located in the heart of Hiroshima. At 8:15 a.m., bombardier Ferebee – who did not know what kind of ordnance he was dropping – released the “Little Boy.”
The detonation occurred near the central section of the city. The crew of the Enola Gay saw a column of smoke rising fast and intense fires springing up.
“Little Boy” went off at a height of 1,800 feet above Hiroshima, an altitude calculated to make the most of the blast effect. Seventy thousand people, including some American prisoners of war, died instantly. Sixty thousand buildings, out of Hiroshima’s total of 90,000, were completely destroyed. The yield was approximately 15 kilotons, or equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. The March 9-10 mission to Tokyo had wiped away a larger urban area and killed more people but had taken 279 aircraft dropping bombs to do the job. The mission to Hiroshima took just one plane with one bomb, for one city.
A 12-year-old Japanese student who’d survived the March 9-10 Tokyo firebomb mission spoke years later about Hiroshima. “It was a shock of course, but at the time, initially we didn’t know what happened,” Yoko Ono said. “I heard about it from somebody in my village. It’s a very, very different kind of bomb, they said, we have to immediately stop the war. It didn’t make sense to me at all, in any way. We didn’t understand … It was something that you just could not understand. It was just so bad.”
Following the second atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, the surrender of Japan became official at noon on Aug. 15, 1945. The western allies insisted that they were getting the unconditional surrender they’d sought. In reality, they’d acquiesced to preserving the institution of the Emperor. Once fighting ended, B-29 crews began flying supply missions to prisoner of war camps.