Who were the pilots that dropped the atomic bombs? - History Key

Who were the pilots that dropped the atomic bombs?

When it comes to the atomic bombs dropped during WW2, the entire subject would be usually centered on the casualties and the devastating effects of that kind of intervention. But there is also another side of this story, related to the ones who had the mission of dropping the bombs.

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy”  was dropped from a B-29 American bomber, causing the death of 66,000 people and the injury of around 70,000. Among the deaths, only 20,000 were soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army. We must add to these numbers, also the terrible radioactive long-term effect, which raised the casualties’ number in the following decades.

The B-29 bomber was named “Enola Gay”, after the name of captain’s Paul W. Tibbets Jr. mother Enola Gay Tibbets.

Colonel Tibbets waving from the Enola Gay cockpit
Colonel Tibbets waving from the Enola Gay cockpit © wikipedia.org

Twelve men formed the crew operating the Enola Gay. The group was separated from the rest of the army and trained in dedicated facilities and in absolute secret.

How to save more lives

Each one did not know the details related to the mission and knew only what was necessary to his position on the plane. Even if they knew what was going to happen, very probably they could not imagine the destructive power of those weapons. All they knew was that the mission will shorten the end of the war.

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was 24 years old. Despite his age, he was an experienced veteran, having a total of 58 missions while in North Africa. He stated that the atomic attacks avoided the invasion of Japan, ending the war without other bloodbaths.

”I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese.

I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life. We unleashed the first atomic bomb, and I hope there will never be another. I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I’m not sure that we have.” – Van Kirk, 2005.


Image from Hiroshima after the bombing, August 1945
Image from Hiroshima after the bombing, August 1945 © express.co.uk

Among the twelve-crew members, somebody had to push the button, somehow gathering all the responsibility of what will follow. That man, the man who pushed the button for the bomb’s release, was Thomas Ferebee. It is known that he slept in the plane before and after the moment of the bombing. He also considers that the bomb was necessary.

“I’m convinced that the bombing saved many lives by ending the war.

Now we should look back and remember what just one bomb did, or two bombs,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. “Then I think we should realize that this can’t happen again” – Thomas Ferebee

What I’ve done?

Joe Stiborik, a radar operator on the Enola Gay, remembered an essential moment from after the bombing:

“The crew was sitting in stunned silence on the return flight. The only heard words were Lewis’s ‘My God, what have we done’. I was dumbfounded. Remember, nobody had ever seen what an A-bomb could do before. Here was a whole damn town nearly as big as Dallas, one minute all in good shape and the next minute disappeared and covered with fires and smoke…There was almost no talk I can remember on our trip back to the base. It was just too much to express in words, I guess. We were all in a kind of state of shock. I think the foremost thing in all our minds was that this thing was going to bring an end to the war and we tried to look at it that way” – Joe Stiborik

Overall, it looks like there are no regrets among the crewmembers. What do you think, would be normal to apparently feel no remorse, considering that you were a soldier on a mission, or accept the terrible sorrow?

We continue with few more statements, coming from other members of the Enola Gay crew.

Hiroshima landscape, 1945
Hiroshima landscape, 1945 © boston.com

Richard Nelson was only 20 years old while in the Enola Gay crew. He was the second radio operator from the crew and the one who transmitted by code the message of a successful mission to President Truman. He had no regrets related to his participation in the mission:

“War is a terrible thing. It takes and it destroys. Anyone feels sorry for people who are killed. We are all human beings. But I don’t feel sorry I participated in it. If I had known the results of the mission beforehand, I would have flown it anyway.” – Richard Nelson.

Robert Lewis was one of the pilots of the B-29. He kept a journal during the mission, even if this was a forbidden procedure. A well-known passage from his diary forms around the note written immediately after the bomb hit the city:

”My God, what have we done?”

Finally, let’s hear what the chief of the mission afterthoughts. This is what Colonel Paul Tibbets declared in a 2002 interview:

Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That’s what I believe in and that’s what I work for. Number two; I’d had so much experience with airplanes… I’d had jobs where there was no particular direction about how you do it and then, of course, I put this thing together with my own thoughts on how it should be because when I got the directive I was to be self-supporting at all times.

On the way to the target, I was thinking: I can’t think of any mistakes I’ve made. Maybe I did make a mistake: maybe I was too damned assured. At 29 years of age I was so shot in the ass with confidence I didn’t think there was anything I couldn’t do. Of course, that applied to airplanes and people. So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we’d be doing that I thought, yes, we’re going to kill a lot of people, but by God, we’re going to save a lot of lives. We won’t have to invade Japan” – Paul Tibbets for Studs Terkel, 2002.

Enola Gay crew
Enola Gay crew © mentalfloss.com

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