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August 7, 2015

70th Anniversary of the Attack on Hiroshima: The Men Who Dropped the Bomb

As the 70th anniversary of the US atomic attack on Hiroshima approaches we recount what President Truman described as “a rain of ruin from the air”.

It was 2.45am on Sunday, August 6, 1945, when the 12-man crew of the B-29 Superfortress that was to drop the world’s first atomic bomb set off on their mission.

Their starting point was an airfield on the island of Tinian in the Philippine Sea, south-east of Japan and their destination was the Japanese city of Hiroshima, 1,700 miles, six-and- a-half hours flying time away.

When the mission commander Colonel Paul Tibbets handpicked the aircraft for this seminal mission it was still on the assembly line and known simply as Number 82.

But by the time he set his course for one of Japan’s principal military centres, he had renamed it after his mother Enola Gay Tibbets and had had a maintenance man paint her forenames in black capitals on the B-29’s silver nose.

The plane was not the only element of the mission that had a nickname.

The bomb that was to wreak such carnage had been given the deceptively harmless moniker of Little Boy, after a character in the film The Maltese Falcon.

Such was the sensitivity of their mission, the only people aware of the nature of it before the Enola Gay was airborne were Tibbets and Captain Deke Parsons, whose job it was to arm the bomb in flight.

Tibbets later recalled: “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?’

"They said: ‘Well, yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission.’

"I said: ‘Yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission, but it’s a little bit special.’

"My tailgunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert.

"He said: ‘Colonel, we wouldn’t be playing with atoms today, would we?’

"I said: ‘Bob, you’ve got it just exactly right.’ ”

When the Enola Gay and two accompanying aircraft res ponsible for photography and instrumentation were still an hour’s flight from their target, they were detected by Japan’s radar system.

An air-raid alert was sounded and radio broadcasting was stopped in many cities but both orders were lifted at 8am after the radar operator in Hiroshima realised that no more than three planes were heading for the city and assumed it was a reconnaissance mission.

A quarter of an hour later Tibbets’s B-29 was directly above its target and Bombardier Tom Ferebee oversaw the automatic deployment of the bomb.

The plane lurched as it found itself free of a 10,000lb payload.

This was the cue for Tibbets to put the bomber into a well-rehearsed steep turn.

LIFE-CHANGING: Hiroshima explosion - the bomb that changed the world. (Getty)

In the run-up to the raid he had asked Dr Robert Oppenheimer – the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project what he should do once Little Boy had been dropped.

During his days flying conventional bombing missions in Europe and Africa Tibbets’ practice had been to fly straight ahead after opening his bomb bays.

This would have been a suicidal approach when it came to an atomic bomb with the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT, however, as Little Boy would leave the Enola Gay travelling at the same speed as its mother ship.

As Oppenheimer said: “You can’t fly straight ahead because you’d be right over the top when it blows up and nobody would ever know you were there.”

The answer, it turned out, was for Tibbets to make a 159-degree turn in either direction in order to put as much distance as possible between himself and the bomb when it detonated.

As Little Boy was dropped from 32,700 feet and was set to detonate at 1,800 feet, he had 44 seconds to clear the area.

“The shockwave was coming up at us after we turned,” Tibbets recalled in an interview in 2002.

“And the tail-gunner said: ‘Here it comes.’ About the time he said that, we got this kick in the ass.

"I had accelerometers installed in all airplanes to record the magnitude of the bomb.

"It hit us with twoand- a-half G.

"Next day, when we got figures from the scientists on what they had learned from all the things, they said: ‘When that bomb exploded, your airplane was 10-and-a-half miles away from it.’ ”

In the run-up to the raid US President Harry S Truman had threatened Japan with “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth”.

And that is exactly what the Enola Gay delivered. Little Boy exploded with a blinding flash, sending surface temperatures to 4,000C.

A high-pressure shockwave was unleashed that vaporised people and animals, melted buildings and cars and reduced a 400-year-old city to dust.

An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly, a death toll that rose to 135,000 in the ensuing days and months.

Three days after the Hiroshima bombing another crew dropped a second – even bigger – bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki.

The devastation it wreaked was only marginally less terrible than that caused by the fi rst device but still Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was unwilling to capitulate.

As Hirohito dithered, the Americans prepared for yet another mission.

“Unknown to anybody else – I knew it but nobody else knew – there was a third one,” said Tibbets.

“See, the first bomb went off and they didn’t hear anything out of the Japanese for two or three days.

“The second bomb was dropped and again they were silent for another couple of days.

“Then I got a phone call from General Curtis LeMay [chief of staff of the strategic air forces in the Pacific].

"He said: ‘You got another one of those damn things?’

"I said: ‘Yes, sir.’ He said: ‘Where is it?’ I said: ‘Over in Utah.’

"He said: ‘Get it out here. You and your crew are going to fly it.’

"I said: ‘Yes, sir.’

"I sent word back and the crew loaded it on an airplane and we headed back to bring it right on out to Trinian.”

In the end the third bomb never left American soil.

By the time it reached its departure point in San Francisco, California, Hirohito had finally surrendered and the war was over.

(This original article was written by Dominic Midgley and published on Daily Express)


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