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Our First Atom BombAn All-American Story
By Frederick Borsch
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Frederick Borsch
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLeaving Tinian
So there you were on that island in the west Pacific that had recently been taken from the Japanese and turned into a base for bombing Japan. You had been there for what, a month or so? And only a day or two before you had been briefed on the full significance of what you were about to do. So what was it like to be there at the start of that mission? Your mind must have been filled with awesome thoughts.
I suppose I could already have been thinking about how our Superfortress would glide over the wide bay with the city coming into view, nearly ringed by its hills. Some of the families might have gone back to sleep after being awakened by the first air raid sirens. I could see the factories and houses, closely packed together-the sun reflecting off roofs. Then there would be the T-shaped bridge I had chosen as target, as I was praying that I had made the right decision, with voices in my head and shouting behind me, the engines pulsing and then whining in the thin air as we slipped closer to the moment when the bomb-bay doors would snap open and who knows what hell would blaze far below.
But that's not what I wanted to be thinking. Sometimes I would instead picture poker hands in my head. I would think of the five cardssmooth in my hand, watching the other players arrange theirs, and then making my discard and drawing to a straight or a full house. Or I remembered the warm evening in Utah when I got the four kings.
And I could hear "Night and Day." I was hearing it just after our takeoff. "Night and Day" and poker cards and my grandfather Fred were in my head at the same time. They weren't together so much, more crisscrossing, and you can add the strain of the four engines as we continued to climb and the static that comes with the voices over the intercom. "Night and day ... day and night/ You are the one" was one of the songs Tokyo Rose played for "her keeds," "her boys." I had been listening to it with Angie, sheltering under the palm trees, holding on to one another's warmth as the storm was passing.
Day and night often got mixed up during wartime. With the floodlights behind us as we rumbled and then began rushing past the hulks of the crashed planes alongside runway A for Able, I couldn't help seeing again the long skid of the B-29 trying to abort its takeoff last week. For a few seconds, it seemed like they might get away with it, before a ball of flame shot up into the night sky, followed by the dull boom. In the eruption of all that gasoline and napalm, ten more of us were incinerated, not that unlike the Japanese they had been heading off to firebomb.
Our heavily-loaded Enola Gay had barely made it, groaning up into the darkness of a star-thronged heaven. Before that there had been no real sleep-a couple hours with my shoes off after our poker game and something like breakfast with Tibbet's pineapple fritters, and then the bus to our last briefing and prayer. Now we're at four thousand feet over the Pacific and turning north, and I was doing my best to keep my mind on whatever wouldn't trouble me. I was going to do what I had to do and then go home.
Fred wasn't my grandfather's real name. When I was about ten, I learned he'd been Werner until he changed it to Alfred. He thought that sounded more distinguished for an undertaker, especially after the first war with the Germans. Alfred still sounded German to me, but he said it was more American. In any case, I never heard people call him anything other than Fred or Mr. Worth, which I later discovered was a name change too.
I often wonder what he would say to me, so it's hardly surprising that I am thinking of him this night or what, I guess, you could call the still dark morning. When I was a teenager, my friends said it was strange, creepy even, to have a grandfather who was an undertaker. I would sometimes go and stay with him and "Mo," which is what we called Grandmother. Alfred Worth Funeral Home was both their home and his place of business. When I went to his own funeral there, not long after the Japs snuck up on Pearl Harbor, I was surprised to realize the place wasn't bigger. It had seemed huge when I was growing up, with the upstairs room full of empty caskets for purchase and the parlor downstairs where a body was sometimes laid out for viewing. When I stayed overnight or for the weekend, sleeping on a cot in the hallway outside the casket room, there could be a body down below. If Grandfather was especially busy, there might be another in the smaller back parlor. As long as I wasn't too noisy, I had the run of the place-out into the garden with the cherry trees or exploring the house. I can picture myself as a small lad looking into the parlor and then slowly approaching one of the bodies they said was "at rest." Sometimes I heard loved ones whispering to each other through their sobbing: "at last, she's at rest" or sometimes "at least she's at rest." Grandmother said they were "at peace". Aunt Ethyl did the cosmetic work, and she would invite me to see how they looked.
If I was alone, I might come even closer and solemnly examine them. Ned was afraid they might move, but I knew they never would. "Dead as doornails," I learned to say. A few times I put my hand on their foreheads. They felt like cold stones. I don't remember doing it, but Ned insists I once pinched a corpse's nostrils, which stayed shut because of rigor mortis. I don't imagine I was allowed to that again. But now I've seen more rigor mortis and blown-apart people at whatever rest they're going to get, including a bunch of guys I knew, than Grandfather could ever have imagined.
Click. "This is the Colonel," came Tibbet's voice over the intercom. You'd think he might just call himself the captain or even Paul. He wasn't much more than four years older than me, but he was gung-ho into this war, this mission, and his career. He liked being the colonel. "We've swung around to the north" Click. Click. "We'll be flying up the Marianas chain for a while." Click. Click. "Leaving Saipan behind. It will look mighty good coming home." He clicked off.
In the starlight I could see the dark, lozenge-shaped island limned by the faint glow of its surf. I could make out only a few lights. They were being careful in case a Jap bomber or two tried to sneak back, but there were not many, if any, Japs left in these parts. In order to get rid of them and get our own bombers this much closer to Japan, thousands of GIs had died down there battling the fanatics dug into their hillsides and caves. They could only be blasted out with hand grenades and flamethrowers. And they laid booby-traps all over the place, even on dead bodies. More death came from death, and it was a bloody business all around with stacks of no-longer-empty coffins waiting to be shipped home. Who would want their loved ones, so young at rest, to be left out here so many thousands of miles from home?
Click. "We're going to hold at five thousand for quite a while. We can burn off more fuel. The old girl is pretty heavy. At this altitude we don't have to pressurize, and it will be easier for the Judge to arm the bomb." Click.
Obviously he liked clicking on and off. It was his way of being in charge. The colonel would dole out the information.
Click. "You are all aware that Operation Centerboard is a very special mission. I will tell you something more about that when I can. I've especially chosen each one of you. I am proud of you and what we've all been chosen to do for our country." Click. Click. "Five thousand feet. Not much headwind for now. Something over five hours to target." Click.
He had chosen us, but maybe particularly me. "The best bombardier who ever looked through the eyepiece of a Norden bombsight," he had boasted. I'd certainly had enough practice, all over Europe and on all the practice runs with the highly classified new Norden in these B-29 Superforts.
Click. "That's all for now. I'll come back on when there's more I can tell you." Click. Click. Static. "Otherwise I think we'd better not clutter up the intercom, although out here we don't need to worry about any Nips." Click.
On many of the missions over France and Germany, we'd had to worry plenty about enemy fighters. Then, too, during the day raids or on that long night flight to Romania as we came in low over the oil fields, fiery flak would burst and thunder into gray-black smudges all around us. The noise was almost the worst part, and, as often as not, we'd be hit at least a couple of times and shudder before lurching forward again with a few more holes to show the team back home. But rarely did we all get back-once less than half of us made it. It was only luck that-up here like the proverbial sitting duck-I'd come this far with only a few stitches on my thigh. Didn't miss the rocks by much.
Click. "If some of you want to snooze a bit, on this mission that's okay. I know we woke you up a little early." A chuckle. Some static. Click.
Click. "You okay, Babe? You and Little Boy?" "You bet," I answered.
"Naval Captain Carsons-code name "Judge" will start getting him armed before long." Click. Click. "That's all for now." Click.
The Judge was one tightly-wound human being I never could unravel. As the others were drifting off from the little slideshow he had given us, Carsons headed me off and took my arm in a way that made it clear he wanted to talk with me. "You want to talk some more about it? We are going to have to work together. The Colonel, and, for that matter, LeMay, want to be sure we're working well together. He doesn't want any surprises. Maybe you have some questions?"
"Me, neither," I told him. He seemed exacting, almost without feelings.
"Let's head over here." He gestured toward the end of the Quonset hut, the room still stifling from the tropical heat of the day. A standing fan swung back and forth, batting the humid air about the dun and khaki space and, at the end of each arc, lifting the corner of a newspaper that was held down by a wrench. Three lights hung on their cords from the corrugated steel roof curving over the dimness above us. "Some of this is still very much under wraps, but you'd better know everything you need to know," he told me as we sat down.
We ended up facing one another across a small folding table. I wondered if I should get something for us to drink, preferably something cold. I didn't appreciate the way he was looking at me through his wire-rimmed glasses. The light had glinted off them when he was talking earlier so that you couldn't see his eyes. Now I could see them sort of enlarged-gray and rarely blinking, calculating as though I was another piece of his equipment. I think he could have been fifteen years older than I was.
"Congratulations on being chosen for this. I understand you are one of the best in the business."
"Had a lot of experience. Guess I'm lucky still to be around," I told him.
"Maybe lucky; maybe not." He was practically staring at me. "I understand you've met Angie."
I looked away and made like I was watching someone across the room. "She seems nice. You know her?"
"Used to know her too well. Or maybe she got to know me too well."
"Back in the States?"
"I'd be a little careful of her. Maybe stay away."
"Why is that any of your business?"
It was his turn to look away. "No. I've thought about it a lot. She expects too much of us. It's not what she says. It's more what she seemed to want from me in this war."
"I'm just a technician in all this. That's what I'm good at."
"Me, too, I guess."
He stared at me again. "You know what an atomic bomb is?"
"That's what this is?"
"You must know that."
"No. I really don't. All I know is that this will make a huge explosion. You tried to show that with the slide."
"Picture doesn't show the half of it."
"You were there for the test."
"Nothing ever like it. Incredible."
"Hard to describe?"
"Nothing ever like it. I got to know some of the scientists who made it. The head of the operation named the test 'Trinity,' if I understood him correctly, not for the Christian trinity but for three Hindu gods." Carsons stared at me intently. "One of whom claims, 'I am become Death, the shatterer of the worlds.'"
"So how is it atomic?"
"The head scientist also told me that those Hindu scriptures talk about 'the radiance of ten thousand suns.'"
"He must think of himself as some kind of poet," I suggested.
"Certainly he was awestruck by the explosion. We all were."
"How is it atomic?"
"It's hard to tell you if you aren't a physicist. I'm not one either, but what it does is set off a chain reaction within atomic nuclei. It's a process called fission that rapidly produces more and more neutrons, splitting the atoms and sort of doubling over and over again."
"Until there are thousands of them?"
"Millions at least. And it happens all at once. It's something like what's going on in the sun all the time."
"What's it made out of?"
"In this case the basic material is uranium. You know what that is?"
"When the chain reaction gets started the bomb will just blow itself apart and destroy everything for at least a mile around, probably several miles." He held me in his gaze. "Lucky you, huh? You get to do this."
"Well it's not just me, and I'd just as soon not think about the destructive part of it. I've dropped enough tons of bombs by now. As far as I'm concerned, this is just a bigger one."
"Think about it."
"No thanks. I'm sure nobody wants to do this, but there doesn't seem to be much choice in the matter."
"Nobody else knows this, but I'm going to tell you that there are several of the scientists who aren't sure. There was a rumor back in New Mexico that some of them were trying to get a message to the President. They either don't want to use it or think it would be enough just to show the Japanese we've got an atomic bomb. They don't want to use it on people."
"So what do you expect me to do with this information?"
"What do you think?"
"I told you I'm trying not to."
From behind in the plane there was a sharp rattling that I realized must be Caron's fifty-caliber machine guns. Click. "Just making sure they're working. Hope I didn't spook anyone." Click.
Those fifty-cals were the only guns on our plane, but there had been other missions on other planes, when all our guns were firing, and then some buddies to port or starboard would be hit hard. A whole wing could come off the plane ahead of us. It would halt in mid-flight, like the ducks I used to shoot, and begin to cartwheel earthward. Or, trailing dark smoke and flame, planes would veer down through the flak. With luck there'd be time for the puffs of several parachutes. Sometimes survivors were hauled off to prison camp and at least once, we heard, to be beaten to death by angry Krauts. We also heard how the Japs had executed three of Doolittle's raiders, chopped off their heads.
Click. "Good, Bob. Always glad when you're on top of things. You, too, Dutch," followed by another chuckle. Click.
Dutch and I'd been through a lot of hell together-down to Africa, over the rail yards in France, Cologne, the Ruhr, you name it. Bombardier and navigator, we'd been bunk or tent mates, talking about things that had happened to us before the war, our hopes for afterward, anything to keep our minds from thinking of death and dying-sometimes when we were out drinking or playing poker.
Click. "You all set, up in front there? We've got a ways to go." Click.
"Roger to that," I told him.
"The Judge will start getting him armed before long." Click. Click. "That's all for now." Click.
Excerpted from Our First Atom Bomb by Frederick Borsch Copyright © 2009 by Frederick Borsch. Excerpted by permission.
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