• Last updated on November 10, 2022

The B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb to be used against a civilian population, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The B-29 Superfortress

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., was twenty-nine years old when he first heard of the atomic bomb. At the time, he was one of the U.S. Air Force’s best bomber pilots, having flown twenty-five B-17 missions, including the first raid against occupied Europe and the first mission in support of the North African invasion. As a test pilot, he helped bring the B-29 Superfortress into service. In September, 1944, he was briefed on the Manhattan Project, the code name of the project to build the atomic bomb. He was given the assignment to organize, equip, and train a unit to drop atomic bombs on Germany and Japan. Tibbets was told that if the bombs worked well, they might end the war.

The B-29 Superfortress was the first intercontinental bomber. Powered by four 2,200-horsepower engines, it stood three stories tall. With a 141-foot wingspan and a 99-foot fuselage, it filled half of a football field. It was armed with up to twelve 0.50-inch machine guns mounted in four turrets and the tail, and a 20-millimeter cannon mounted in the tail. To save weight, Tibbets requisitioned fifteen B-29’s without protective armor, turrets, or guns, except for the 20-millimeter tail cannon. The B-29 had a pressurized cabin and could cruise above 30,000 feet, beyond the reach of antiaircraft fire and most enemy fighters.

Tibbets took command of the 393d B-29 bombardment squadron at the Wendover Army Air Base on the Utah-Nevada border. He had the squadron pilots train to drop a single large bomb from 30,000 feet and to perform a strange evasive maneuver in which they turned the planes 150 degrees while diving to gain speed. The squadron was told its mission would have an important effect on the war, but were given no other details. On December 17, 1944, orders were issued activating the 509th Composite Group, which eventually included more than 1,500 enlisted men and 200 officers. In the spring of 1945, the group began to move quietly to Tinian Island in the Marianas Islands.

The Hiroshima Bombing

On August 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman gave his approval to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The bomber crews were briefed by William S. “Deke” Parsons of the Los Alamos National Laboratories. Honoring his mother, who had encouraged him to join the Air Force, Tibbets had the name Enola Gay painted on the nose of his selected B-29. With Tibbets as commander and pilot, the Enola Gay took off from Tinian at 2:30 a.m. on August 6, en route to Hiroshima. At first Tibbets flew at less than 5,000 feet, so that Parsons and his assistant could enter the unpressurized and unheated bomb bay to insert the cordite explosive that would propel the uranium-235 slug into awaiting rings of uranium-235 to form a supercritical mass. At 7:30 a.m. Parsons returned to the bomb bay and armed “Little Boy,” the nickname for the 9,700-pound bomb.

During the 45-minute climb to the 31,000-foot bombing altitude, the weather plane flying ahead of the Enola Gay reported favorable conditions over Hiroshima. The plane was flying at a speed of 328 miles per hour as the bombardier, Major Thomas W. Ferebee, took control of the plane for the bombing run. Finding his aiming point, he let Little Boy fall away from the Enola Gay. Tibbets threw the bomber into its 150-degree escape maneuver, so that they were 11.5 miles away 43 seconds later, when Little Boy exploded 1,900 feet above the ground. After a blinding flash of light, Hiroshima was hidden beneath a huge, boiling cloud, that was simultaneously incredible and terrible. The bomb’s estimated yield was 12,500 tons of TNT, a common high explosive. Captain Theodore J. Van Kirk, the Enola Gay’s navigator, later admitted to thinking as he watched the destruction, “Thank God the war is over and I don’t have to get shot at any more. I can go home.” The Enola Gay then returned to Tinian and landed at 2:58 p.m.

The Smithsonian Exhibition

As part of a fifty-year commemoration, the forward section of the Enola Gay’s fuselage was placed on display in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution from June, 1995, to May, 1998. Initial plans for the display produced a hurricane of controversy. Objecting to a bare display of military hardware as a glorification of war, museum directors sought a larger context for the Enola Gay exhibit. One suggested theme was the dark side of air power and the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. An early script said that for most Americans, the war against Japan was a war of vengeance, but for most Japanese it was a war to defend their unique culture against the imposition of Western imperialism. Veterans’ groups, along with many others, were outraged at what they considered to be a very biased treatment that glossed over the aggression and atrocities of Japanese warfare, focusing instead on the victims of the two atomic bombs. After Congress stepped in and threatened to cut off funds, the exhibit was restricted to the forward section of the Enola Gay, a plaque explaining its mission, and a video of the flight crew’s training and experiences.

Bibliography
  • Laurence, William L. Men and Atoms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959. The author, the science editor for the New York Times attached to the Manhattan Project describes his experiences flying in one of the observation planes during the bombing of Nagasaki, along with the events surrounding the flight of the Enola Gay.
  • Newman, Robert P. Truman and the Hiroshima Cult. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995. The author answers the questions of those who initially sought to revise history with the Enola Gay display.
  • Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A comprehensive, richly detailed, accurate, and very readable account of the politics, history, and science of the atomic bomb. The flight of the Enola Gay is described in the chapter entitled “Tongues of Fire.”

Air Force, U.S.

Bombers

Kamikaze missions

Military flight

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing

Superfortress

World War II

The Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, returns to base.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History Content