StMU Research Scholars

The Enola Gay Dropping A Big ol’ A-Bomb: The Start of the Nuclear Age

Colonel Tibbets could not see anything through his army-issued anti-glare goggles, so he flung them off. The crew and witnesses were blinded by the absence of color, by the pure white light. They did not know what hit them through all the commotion, the blindness, and the ear ringing, as the plane “cracked and crinkled.” That was the first shock wave. Tail gunner George Caron was able to recognize and warn the crew when the second shock wave was about to hit. Clear and out of range, the crew members looked back at what was left. The city “was hidden by that awful cloud…boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall.”1 Horror, destruction, and death rose over the city of Hiroshima. This was the first atomic bomb that was successfully dropped by the United States bomber Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, and it marked the beginning of the Nuclear Age.

In order to demonstrate superiority in military power, it was in the United States’ best interest to beat Nazi Germany in the race for a nuclear weapon. The top-secret Manhattan Project was a two million-dollar investment in nuclear research, and the initial outcome was three atomic bombs. The United States successfully tested the first one on July 16, 1945 in the Alamogordo desert of New Mexico.2 President Truman’s diary revealed his thoughts after the news of the successful test. While he was still alive, Roosevelt wondered whether this new weapon might “be the fire [of] destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous ark.”3 A huge decision weighed on the president’s shoulders, whether to use the apocalyptic weapon in order to save American lives or hold back the weapon and have the war with Japan continue for months, possibly years more. It was determined that if such a weapon were used, the target would have to be strictly “a military one,” so the Japanese city of Hiroshima was chosen as that first target, and the intense training of the 509th Composite Group would be put to use.4

The trainees of the 509th Composite Group had to be the best of the best. If a pilot was “good,” he was selected to go to Utah to train in B-29s; but overall, simply being “good” didn’t make the cut. Many pilots for the B-29 were intensely trained, and the training required perfectionism, precision, and accuracy, and many failed the program. But all that training in intensity and secrecy was for what? All pilots wanted to fly B-29s; however, none of the trainees knew what missions they were training for. The aircrews took orders, “After a simulated bomb run, make a fast turn. Angle of bank, 60 degrees plus. Amount of turn, 150 degrees. Time for turning, 28 seconds. Keep practicing it… What we learn in Utah may end the war.”5 Brutal standards required them to bank at speeds of 215 miles per hour, a turn so tight that a wing could snap off the aircraft. These were the strict procedures for dropping a top-secret nuclear weapon and still escape its shock waves. This two-million-dollar project could not afford any mistakes.6

Photograph of the B-29 Enola Gay: the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Project Manhattan was so secretive that just two days before the scheduled attack, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, (SCAP), was informed about the atomic bomb and the decision to use it. SCAP is the commander that controlled and kept tabs on Japanese forces, air, sea, and land.7 The top-secret information began to spill out days before the mission. “On August 5th crews were shown photographs of the test explosion in New Mexico…. Anti-glare goggles were issued but the true nature of the bomb was not revealed.”8 Three B-29s took off from Tinian Island Japan at 2:30 am on August 5th; Colonel Paul Tibbets was piloting the Enola Gay carrying “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb to be dropped; Chuck Sween’s crew were the blast-measuring and data-collection crew; and George Marquart piloted the camera crew. Once the Enola Gay was at cruising altitude, Colonel Tibbets revealed the mission to his crew and informed them what lied in the belly of the aircraft. They listened and patiently were left with their thoughts. “I didn’t know size or shape or weight of an atomic bomb or how it would drop. We wanted to end the war, but we hoped that the end wouldn’t catch us…in a B-29 crumpled like a tinfoil gum wrapper.”9 This was new technology and it was a lot to take in, due to it never having been done before. The suspense grew heavier as they flew closer toward their target.

The morning of August 6th, 1945 was a beautiful and bright morning, and it started like any other day in the city of Hiroshima. Many locals were getting ready as any other morning, prepping for the day to come. However, up above the clouds, 32,700 feet high, was a different story. The crew was on schedule for the drop at 9:15 am. At twelve miles out, the target was in site. A short loud tone—“blip” on radio comms—notified the other two escort B-29s that there was two minutes until the drop. This was shortly followed by the continuous tone, “15 seconds she goes.” [Tom] Major Ferebee, the bombardier, looked up at Tibbets, and nodded, “It’s going to be okay.”10 Fifteen seconds probably felt like years when you are up against something that has no guaranteed success. This moment was everything they had trained for, every simulated micromanaged bomb drop, every intense take-off or stall on the landing strip, every emergency situation acted out and practiced like a skit. Would they be heroes and save American lives, or could this whole mission tragically go wrong without warning?

Photograph of the museum in Hiroshima destroyed by the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 | The museum still stands today | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Panic filled the city after the normal air raid routine passed and they saw the B-29s swooping in from above. 9:15 on the clock and the continuous tone silenced; simultaneously the bomb dropped from the Enola Gay’s belly and the crew’s rigorous escape training kicked in. Colonel Paul Tibbets was flying blind, and the crew did not know what hit them at eleven-and-a-half miles out—the first shock wave. These shockwaves were noticeable, “a visible shimmer in the atmosphere,” allowing the tail gunner to warn the crew when the next one was closing in. Escaping was muscle memory at this point, but adrenaline and confusion was genuine. Looking back over the city that was, was like “a peep into hell.” The crew could never forget within two minutes “the evaporation of the city.” Minutes ago, a beautiful sunny day in Hiroshima, and now a charred land under a billowed-up mushroom cloud. Next stop, Nagasaki for the third and final atomic bomb drop, this time of “Fat Man” in just three days.11

The bomb detonated mid-air over Hiroshima, the “headquarters of the Japanese army,” and although Truman had good intentions about dropping the bomb over a military base, no one accounted for the wind blast and lasting radiation. Heat along with the blast “caused the devastating visible effects of the atomic bomb.” 50% was wind blast, 35% heat, and 15% radiation, all creating wind and pressure (the shock wave), measuring 35atm. A normal hurricane or typhoon measures 0.1atm for comparison.12 The shock waves destroyed everything in its path. To make matters worse, those who managed to survive the initial blast of the bomb had to face the storm after. “Almost as if nature had come to cleanse the burned city, it started to rain.” Only it was not a cleansing storm; debris and death itself, disguised as the famous “black rain,” dirty, radiation-filled, black liquid, swarmed the city. About “70,000 people were killed instantly…60,000 by November and another 70,000 by 1950.”13 More and more deaths mounted, due to organ failure from radiation. Studies show that some survivors were diagnosed with radiation Leukemia. It was a horrible state of events, and a memory that would affect the world forever.

Controversy and criticism are apparent with this historical event, due to the money and power being important key factors in making the decision to drop the atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Little Boy, and Fat Man were needed to project American power to both fallen Germany and Soviet Russia, but also to end the war with Japan. The bombs proved to help achieve these goals. Horrific details aside, the 509th Composite Group became American heroes. These crews were indeed the best of the best, plus a little extra. They faced brutal training with the aircraft, and those who knew about the Manhattan Project had to hold on to its secrecy for dear life. These men flew into a situation, unsure about making it out alive, risking it all for millions of Americans. They knew what they were fighting for, and down to their last breath, they had no regrets. Just two days after Hiroshima, right before the bombing of Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito stated, “We must bow to the inevitable. No matter what happens to my safety, we must put an end to this war as speedily as possible so that this tragedy will not be repeated.” An announcement was made on August 14 stating the war against Japan was officially at an end.14

Left to right | Photograph of Major Van Kirk: navigator, Colonel Paul Tibbets: pilot, and Major Thomas Ferebee: bombardier | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The first atomic bomb to be dropped has to be one of the most epic events for humankind. So much power and destruction at the disposal of the United States. With death by radiation being a new sickness, new techniques to prevent such a deadly thing had to be enforced. It took one bomb to open up a whole new era of weapons. It took one crew to end a whole war. “It seems the most terrible thing [nuclear bombs] ever discovered but can be made the most useful.”—Truman’s Diary15

  1. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no.49, (1946): 136.
  2. Ei-ichiro Ochiai, Hiroshima to Fukushima: Biohazards of Radiation (New York: Springer, 2014), 29.
  3. Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, Hiroshima’s Shadow (Stony Creek, Conn.: Pampheleteer’s Press, 1998), 95.
  4. Ronald T. Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1995), 42.
  5. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 18.
  6. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 18.
  7. Ronald T. Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1995),  30.
  8. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 135.
  9. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 18.
  10. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 136.
  11. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and Wesley Price, “How to Drop an Atom Bomb,” Saturday Evening Post, 218 no. 49, (1946): 136.
  12. Ei-ichiro Ochiai, Hiroshima to Fukushima: Biohazards of Radiation (New York: Springer 2014), 35.
  13. Ronald T. Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1995), 45.
  14. Ronald T. Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1995), 48.
  15. Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, Hiroshima’s Shadow (Stony Creek, Conn.: Pampheleteer’s Press, 1998), 95.

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14 Responses

  1. While I was aware of the high amount of secrecy surrounding the Atom bomb during the closing days of WW2, I didn’t expect that secrecy to extend to the bombing crew themselves. It is somewhat fitting that the most devastating and destructive war, would give mankind the capacity to destroy itself in another war. A very well written article focusing on the Enola Gay bomber crew.

  2. While everyone in the world knows about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki I personally did not know many of the details leading up to the events of August 6th ,1945. This was incredibly informative and I think the level of secrecy the bombing was treated with is fascinating. Perhaps Macarthur being kept in the dark about this powerful new weapon right up until it’s use is what lead him to push so hard for it to be used in the Korean war. This is truly one of the most defining moments of human history.

  3. I had very little knowledge about the start of the nuclear age, I only seemed to know about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we had learned it in school. It is really interesting to hear about such destructive bomb came to be in this world. It was interesting and also kind of sad to see the pictures of what was left of Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb was dropped. Great article. 🙂

  4. This was a really well written and informative article. I had very little prior knowledge about the start of the nuclear age, much less specific information about Enola Gay or the first bombs dropped, so this was very interesting to read.Its crazy to think that such massively powerful weapons could have even been created, and its even crazier to think about how they have shaped all ofhistory since.

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