Thirty years ago this week, the United States dropped a 9,000-pound atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. More than 70,000 Japanese died, and an area one eighth the size of Manhattan was leveled. It was the awesome climax to a secret project that began in 1942 when the U.S. brought together a group of scientists and $2 billion in an effort to unleash the power of the atom. The first nuclear weapon was detonated on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, N.M. Three weeks later a B-29, the Enola Gay, jettisoned its deadly payload at 8:15 a.m. Was the bombing justified? President Harry Truman, who approved it, had no doubts. A costly alternative was to invade Japan. The bomb, he said, “saved the lives of untold thousands of American and Allied soldiers.”
Pilot Paul Tibbets got Truman’s thanks
“At the bomb release point I put the plane in a sharp maneuver to the right,” recalls Paul Tibbets Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay. “I knew the bomb would explode at 1,500 feet, and we had 50 seconds to get away. The bomb exploded, and the shock wave hit us. At first look, Hiroshima was obliterated by steam and smoke. The mushroom ascended to the aircraft’s altitude, 33,000 feet, and we continued to fly beside it for approximately a mile before heading back to our base.”
Today, at 60, Tibbets is vice-president of Executive Jet Aviation, a charter service in Columbus, Ohio. He retired in 1966 from the Air Force with the rank of Brigadier General after 29 years of service, but still retains his pilot’s license. “I never use my military title, and I never bring up Hiroshima,” says Tibbets. “I meet people day in and day out who have no idea that I had anything to do with it.”
Tibbets, who got hate mail for four years after the bombing, says, “I had no personal feeling against the Japanese. We were not fighting individuals. We were fighting a country.”
Born in Quincy, Ill., Tibbets grew up in Miami and attended the Universities of Florida and Cincinnati. During W.W. II he was second in command on a B-17 flight that dropped the first bombs on Nazi-held France. Later he directed the first B-29 instructor school. He now lives in a suburb of Columbus with his second wife, Andrea.
“It was the right thing to do,” says Tibbets, looking back on his historic flight. “It saved innumerable lives on both sides. I believe many more Japanese would have been killed had we not used the bomb.”
He remembers visiting President Truman after the war. “I was happy to do a good job for my country,” said Tibbets to the President, adding that he felt he was only following orders.
“Goddamn right you did,” said Truman. “I told you to do it. Don’t ever let that bother you.”
Bombardier Ferebee: just doing his job
Thomas Ferebee remembers that the flight to Hiroshima began in pitch dark at 2 a.m. Bombadier Ferebee was perched in “the glasshouse,” the bubble in the nose of the B-29. Clouds were building in the distance by the time the Enola Gay reached Hiroshima. Ferebee centered the crosshairs of his bombsight on the bridge that marked ground zero and squeezed the release trigger.
“I’m not proud of killing a lot of people,” says Ferebee today, “but I think we saved many by what we did. I was hoping, with everybody, it would get things over with. If people had seen how the Japs had things set up for our invasion, they wouldn’t feel bad at all.”
Ferebee, 56, retired from the Air Force and lives in Orlando, Fla. Col. Ferebee and his wife, Ann Elisabeth, a schoolteacher he married in 1946, have four sons and three grandsons. He passes his days selling real estate, cultivating his one-acre flower and vegetable garden and occasionally camping out.
Born in Mocksville, N.C., Ferebee wanted to play pro baseball, but when W.W. II seemed imminent, he enlisted in the air cadets. He flew with pilot Paul Tibbets out of England. On one mission, recalls Ferebee, “we got hit real good. Paul was hit along with the copilot and the ball turret gunner, and our instruments were shot out, but Paul got us back.”
In training for the Hiroshima flight at Wendover Field, Utah, Ferebee knew it was “something big.” When scientists told him what the new bomb would do, he was skeptical. Later he helped test fuses for the bomb.
He looks back on his experience as the first A-bombardier with no remorse. “After flying 63 combat missions I couldn’t just change over one,” he says. “You kill a lot of people or you just kill one. You just do your job.”
Claude Eatherly, a post-war casualty
Maj. Claude Eatherly piloted the B-29, The Straight Flush (named for his prowess at poker) that checked the weather over Hiroshima for the Enola Gay. Eatherly went in first and radioed back: “Bombs primary.”
Minutes later the bomb bay doors of the Enola Gay opened, and a metallic mass about 10 feet long tumbled out. When it exploded Major Eatherly and his crew were nine miles away. Before the war ended the dapper young pilot had flown 160 combat missions.
After leaving the Air Force in 1947, Eatherly gambled too often, drank too much and suffered nightmares. He bounced from job to job and his marriage broke up. He staged a robbery with a toy pistol and fled without the cash. Finally, he was committed to an insane asylum. His every misstep provoked headlines.
Today, Eatherly, 56, seeems to have found serenity. He has remarried, has two lively daughters (Annette, 7, page 41) and lives on social security and disability pay in a Spanish-style cottage near Houston. He likes to watch TV, fish, play pool and work in his yard.
A throat malignancy in 1974 robbed him of his voice, but through gestures and writing, he can make his thoughts plain. Does he feel the Hiroshima mission caused his troubles? “I don’t know,” he says. “It takes somebody smarter than me. The psychiatrists have tried. But we have been together over the last few years and things have been O.K.”
Eatherly no longer weeps or rages. Perhaps it is because he may be facing death from cancer. He sits quietly, a slight, graying man in straw hat and cowboy boots, smoking his pipe in his darkened den.
Would he fly the mission again, given the choice?
His pencil moves across the paper, and he writes: “Yes. With regrets.”
The naval officer who felt ashamed
“It was the only day in my life I have really been ashamed to be American,” says Paul Connelly, 53, the first U.S. serviceman to enter Hiroshima after the A-bomb.
Connelly was then a 23-year-old lieutenant (jg.) from the destroyer John Pierce which had docked at Kure on Aug. 15, a day after the Japanese surrender and nine days after the bomb was dropped. “People cowered by the side of the road,” he remembers. “Many of them were badly disfigured with large sores running on their arms and faces. They had these vacant looks in their eyes, just a haunting terror. ‘God,’ you said to yourself, ‘these are human beings and we’ve done this.’ They seemed to be absolutely drained as if the graves had opened up and these people had come forth.”
Connelly (above, with wife, Mary), now a Washington lawyer and partner of Edward Bennett Williams, recalls that his detachment was met by the mayor. He arrived in a battered car and formal clothes. “He was very obsequious, and that embarrassed me. He followed slowly, showing us the damage, which became greater and greater until we came to this vast bowl about three miles across. And there was literally nothing standing above shoe-top level. Except right in the center, there was a tall smokestack.”
Connelly and his men were taken to a hospital—”The people cringed in their beds and whimpered.” The next day, Connelly returned with another officer—Eddy Duchin, the pianist. Duchin played for the patients and, says Connelly, “the transformation among the patients was miraculous—they smiled and began to communicate.”
In retrospect Connelly feels the bomb should not have been dropped. “No one who has seen the results of an atomic bomb,” he says, “could consider using it again.”