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Mission to Hiroshima
By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts
All rights reserved.
Activation SEPTEMBER 1, 1944, TO JUNE 27, 1945
The commanding general of the Second Air Force, Uzal G. Ent, looked up as Colonel John Lansdale of U.S. Army Intelligence led Paul Tibbets into his office.
He glanced inquiringly at the intelligence officer.
General Ent then introduced the two men seated beside his desk. One was U.S. Navy Captain William "Deak" Parsons, whom he described as an "explosives expert" but who was, in fact, one of the most influential men in the Manhattan Project; the other was a civilian, Professor Norman Ramsey, a twenty-nine-year-old Harvard physicist.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets was struck by Ramsey's comparative youth; he had always associated scientists with gray hair and stooped shoulders. To Tibbets, the two men looked fit enough to fly combat, even if Parsons's baldness made him appear older than his forty-four years. And it seemed strange that this naval captain should be involved in what appeared to be an Army Air Force meeting.
"Have you ever heard of atomic energy?" Ramsey had the firm, incisive voice of a natural tutor.
"Yes," said Tibbets.
"I majored in physics, so I know the atomic scale."
There was an expectant pause.
"What do you know of the present situation in the field?" asked Parsons.
Tibbets looked at General Ent. There was no encouragement there. A few days earlier, when Ent first became aware of the Manhattan Project, he himself had been warned he would be court-martialed if any leak of information were traced to him. Tibbets looked to Lansdale, who gave a barely perceptible nod.
As confidently as he could, Tibbets began to speak. He understood there had been some experimenting by the Germans to try to make heavy water so that they could split the atom.
"Good." Ramsey's gentle praise was more suited to the campus than the bleak office of a fighting general. He paused, weighing his words, a mannerism Tibbets would come to recognize.
Ramsey continued. "The United States has now split an atom. We are making a bomb based on that. The bomb will be so powerful that it will explode with the force of twenty thousand tons of conventional high explosive."
General Ent then told Tibbets he had been chosen to drop that bomb.
It was September 1, 1944. The place was U.S. Army Second Air Force Headquarters, Colorado Springs.
Only moments before this conversation, Lansdale had led Tibbets into the cloakroom adjoining General Ent's office. There, Lansdale had asked Tibbets a highly personal question.
Tibbets had given no visible reaction. Nevertheless, he was stunned. How did this stranger know of that private event of ten—or was it twelve—years ago; an experience of such a passing nature that he himself could not now exactly remember its date? Why had Lansdale been probing something that had happened all those years back?
Tibbets recognized that this assault upon his privacy, his sense of self-respect, was calculated. But how should he cope with it?
He knew that Lansdale's question had nothing directly to do with military intelligence. Therefore, he would be perfectly justified in not answering. Then he could walk out, unchallenged, through one of the two doors in the cloakroom. That door would return him to the conventional military world where nobody would dare ask such an intimate question of a much-decorated war hero.
Tibbets decided to tell the truth. "Yes. I was once arrested by the police in North Miami Beach."
"The chief of police at Surfside caught me in the back of an automobile ... with a girl," confessed Tibbets.
The rest took little telling—his arrest, a spell in the cells, the intervention of a judge who was a family friend, the indiscretion hushed up.
By admitting the truth about the backseat dalliance with a girl whose name he now had difficulty recalling, Paul Tibbets had assured himself of a place in history. Within a year his name would become forever linked with the destruction of Hiroshima, a Japanese city he was yet to hear of.
Until three days earlier, on Tuesday, August 29, 1944, Tibbets had not been considered for the task. Then, late in the afternoon, General Barney Giles, assistant chief of air staff, decided to replace an earlier nominee with Tibbets. Lansdale, one of the less than one hundred men who knew what the Manhattan Project was meant to do, immediately supervised the most thorough investigation of Tibbets, staging the cloakroom meeting as the climax.
Lansdale's question about a teenage sexual peccadillo was intended as the final test of Tibbets's character. If he told the truth, he was in. Lansdale was satisfied.
In General Ent's office, Ramsey and Parsons gave Tibbets a thorough briefing on the history and problems associated with building America's first atomic bomb. Then Lansdale took over.
"Colonel, I want you to understand one thing. Security is first, last, and always. You will commit as little as possible to paper. You will tell only those who need to know what they must know to do their jobs properly. Understood?"
"Perfectly understood, Colonel."
General Ent concluded the meeting by formally assigning the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron, based in Nebraska, to Tibbets. Its fifteen bomber crews would provide the world's first atomic strike force, capable of delivering nuclear bombs on Germany and Japan. Their training base would be at Wendover, Utah. The code name for the air force's part of the project would be "Silverplate."
Tibbets briefly wondered who had chosen such a homely name for a weapon "clearly designed to revolutionize war." Even so, he still could not accept that one bomb dropped from a single aircraft could equal the force of twenty thousand tons of high explosive. Ordinarily, some two thousand bombers would be required to deliver such a payload.
But he had more pressing problems to deal with. He must gather together some of the trusted men who had served with him before; he must inspect Wendover; he must devise a training program; finally, he must be prepared to work alongside "a bunch of civilians who would give me a glimpse of Pandora's box."
As Tibbets was leaving the office, General Ent stopped him.
"Colonel, if this is successful, you'll be a hero. But if it fails, you'll be the biggest scapegoat ever. You may even go to prison."
Tibbets was a stocky, medium-sized man with a crisp, detached manner. It would have been hard to guess that he was one of America's most successful bomber pilots; a combat veteran who had flown the first B-17 across the English Channel on a bombing mission in World War II; who had piloted General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Mark Clark to Gibraltar to plan the Allied invasion of North Africa; who had taken Clark on to Algiers, landing on a field being bombed and strafed. Tibbets later led the first American raid on North Africa. Returning to the United States, he took charge of flight-testing the new B-29 Superfortress at a time when the bomber was thought too dangerous to fly; it had killed its first test pilot. Tibbets was courageous, used to command, able to give and execute orders with speed and efficiency.
Some people, though, found him difficult to work with. He did not suffer fools, and, by his own standards, there were many fools. Restrained and reticent, Tibbets appeared the paragon of service correctness. Few knew he concealed his sensitivity by steely control, that behind his outward appearance was a shy man who had suffered acutely the loss of any of his fliers in action. All that invariably showed on his face was a pleasant, noncommittal intelligence.
Tibbets was born in Quincy, Illinois, in 1915. His father, a wholesale confectioner, was a strict disciplinarian who severely punished the slightest infringement of the many rules which hedged in his son's formative years. Paul's mother, Enola Gay, was as gentle as her unusual forenames. She adored her only son and strongly opposed her husband's decision to send Paul, at the age of thirteen, to the Western Military Academy at Alton, Illinois. Afterward, it was his mother who first encouraged him to be a doctor, and later, against strong family opposition, to join the U.S. Army Air Corps; she quietly accepted Paul's wish to abandon medicine in favor of flying. But in those difficult post-Depression days a military career was not viewed with great favor in the middle-class community of which Paul Tibbets's father was a pillar. When his son enlisted in 1937, his father's last words on the subject were, "You're on your own." His mother had said, "Son, one day we're going to be real proud of you." She reminded him always to "dress neatly," never to promise more than he could do, and always to tell the truth.
It was because Tibbets had followed her advice that he was able, in such unlikely surroundings, to answer truthfully Lansdale's intimate question.
When Brigadier General Leslie Groves took command of the Manhattan Project, he was answerable only to Secretary of War Henry Stimson and, through him, to President Roosevelt.
Both knew more about this man with old-fashioned manners than they did about any other serving officer. An FBI check—the only occasion the bureau became involved in the atomic project—turned up Groves's passion for candy, his concern about middle-age spread, his mean tennis playing, his ability to solve complicated mathematical problems while eating. The probe revealed Groves was known as "Greasy" at West Point, that he had few interests outside his work, that he was stable and happily married.
Stimson also knew his professional background: an outstanding West Point engineering graduate who had helped build the Pentagon; a man reputed to be the "best barrack-builder in the Army."
His service record showed Groves to be a corner-cutter, a dimesaver, tough, tireless, and resilient. He was used to working to time and budget. He got things done. Although he tended both to ruffle the tempers of his equals and inspire fear in his subordinates, Groves seemed to Stimson and Roosevelt the best possible choice to run the world's biggest-ever military project.
From the outset, Groves worked a fifteen-hour day, seven days a week. He gave up tennis and put on weight, sustaining himself with pounds of chocolates which he kept locked in the safe where he also stored the project's most important secrets.
But Groves was not just a builder going from site to site with a bag of candy in his pocket. Even his friends in the project—and they numbered few—believed, in the words of one, that Groves "not only behaves as if he can walk on water, but as if he actually invented the substance." Another, less cruel, claimed "he has the most impressive ego since Napoleon."
Forty-eight years old, with a vocabulary capable of blistering a construction worker—though many found more unnerving his deep sigh at a piece of misfortune—Groves came from the same mold as MacArthur and Patton.
Ultimately, nobody could withstand his barrage of orders and demands. Opposition was crushed and arguments he regarded as pointless ended with a crisp "Enough." He drafted industrial tycoons as if they were buck privates, and drove his work force to exhaustion as he built and ran his empire.
Bullying, cajoling, bruising, buffeting, occasionally praising, and rarely apologizing, Groves had achieved a feat he himself had once thought impossible. In two years he had brought the atomic bomb from the blueprint stage to the point where it would soon be ready for testing.
Groves would allow no one to stop that momentum.
He had approved the choice of Tibbets as the commander of the special atomic strike force because he had all the professional qualities Groves believed were needed to get the job done.
Working from a temporary office in the Pentagon, Tibbets was coming to realize, a week after the meeting in Colorado Springs, just how vast his powers were as commander. He could demand anything he wanted, merely by mentioning the code name Silverplate. Using that prefix, he had instituted a search for some of the men who had served with him in Europe, North Africa, and on the B-29 testing and training program. Some had already been traced and were on their way to Wendover in Utah; others were having their orders cut.
Here, at the Pentagon, General Henry Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, had said, "Colonel, if you get any trouble from anybody, you can call on me."
Arnold had designated two senior officers to serve as liaison with Tibbets when he got to Wendover. Arnold's order to them was simple. "Just give him anything he wants without delay."
Tibbets had stopped at Wendover on his way from Colorado Springs to Washington. He found it "the end of the world, perfect." It was close enough to Los Alamos by air, an important consideration, for Ramsey had warned him that "the scientists will be bugging you day and night." It was only some five hundred miles by air from the Salton Sea area in Southern California, an ideal bombing range. The location of Wendover would simplify security. The existing facilities on the base were suitable for immediate occupancy.
He knew his men would hate the place.
But he planned to work them so hard that they would not have time to dwell on their surroundings.
By now, Tibbets had surmised there were only two possible targets for him to bomb: Berlin or Tokyo. He thought the Japanese capital more likely; the war in Europe was already approaching a decisive stage.
If it was to be Japan, then he would need a base within striking distance of the Japanese home islands.
He recalled reading that the U.S. Marines had recently captured the Mariana Islands in the Pacific. The newspapers had dubbed one island "the place where the Seabees are going to build the largest aircraft carrier in the world." It was just thirteen hundred miles from Japan. Its name was Tinian.
Tibbets filed it in his memory.
The fall of Tinian in late July had totally failed to shake Second Lieutenant Tatsuo Yokoyama's belief in the invincibility of the Imperial Japanese Army.
This September evening, as usual before gunnery practice, the forty men at the antiaircraft gun post on Mount Futaba, in the northeastern outskirts of Hiroshima, were lectured by their young commander on the need to keep faith with the high command's belief in ultimate victory.
In appearance, Yokoyama at first glance seemed the classic caricature in countless American cartoons: buck teeth, slanted eyes, sloping forehead; a wiry figure in baggy blouse, with sloppy leggings encasing bandy legs.
But his image was deceptive. He was a crack rifle shot at seven hundred yards. He was capable of carrying four hundred rounds of ammunition—double that carried by an American infantryman—and trained to exist on a bowl of rice and fish a day. He regarded surrender as the greatest shame he could inflict upon his family and country. Deeply religious and hyperpatriotic, he devoutly believed in the divinity of the emperor and the sacred duty of the army to protect his majesty. He would not spare his family, his soldiers, or himself to serve the emperor.
Yokoyama had three heroes: first, Minoru Genda, the young officer who had convinced the high command that an unexpected, carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor was feasible and militarily desirable; second, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, Genda's close friend, who had led the 354 planes to Hawaii. Both had connections with the city where Yokoyama was now based. Genda had relatives in Hiroshima; Fuchida sometimes visited friends there. Yokoyama's third hero was General Hideki Tojo, "The Razor," Japan's architect of war.
Yokoyama told his men that they should look upon the "withdrawal" from the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas as a predetermined action, part of a carefully prepared plan to draw the enemy closer to Japan.
There, as they all knew, a vast army was waiting, and eager, to deal America and her Allies a blow which would send them reeling. The Americans could win a battle, he reminded his men, but Japan had never lost a war since 1598. He told them that the Japanese "departure" from the Marianas meant the day must be approaching when enemy bombers launched from there against Japan would at long last come within range of their guns.
In anticipation of that moment, he drove his bored gun crews hard. The men knew he would punish them severely at the first sign of slackness. Under his commands the guns moved smoothly on their greased bearings, their slim barrels traversing the air over Hiroshima.
Yokoyama passed among the gunners, urging them to imagine they were in action. Suddenly, one of the guns jammed. Yokoyama saw that a piece of waste cotton had been left in the mechanism. He halted the practice and furiously ordered the crews to strip, clean, and reassemble the guns. He then returned to his quarters to write up the incident in the daily report book and to think of a suitable punishment for the errant crew. He decided on two extra drills.
But first he would enjoy a ritual he performed every evening. At the window of his billet, he surveyed the city through binoculars.
He knew there would have been little change during the last twenty-four hours, but the panorama always soothed him.
Excerpted from Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts. Copyright © 1977 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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