By Airman 1st Class Torey Griffith, 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 03, 2010
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Sixty-five years ago today, in the early hours of the morning, on a tiny island in the northern Mariana Island of Tinian, the sound of four B-29 engines roared to life, signaling the beginning of the nuclear age, and the end of the Second World War.
Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, 509th Composite Group commander, and orchestrator of the operational aspect of the original nuclear enterprise, the Manhattan Project, eased the monstrous-flying fortress named the 'Enola Gay' into the dark sky and began the sortie that would change the world.
The 509th Composite Group, born in secrecy Dec. 17, 1944, was created for the sole purpose of delivering the world's first nuclear weapon. Due to the secret nature of their mission, the group trained at Wendover, Utah, and Tinian Island, in the Pacific, ever-perfecting the performance of the crew and craft.
"What I tried to do, initially, was to train individuals - then weld the individuals into a good, cohesive team to fly this B-29 better that anybody else was flying ... that particular day," said Colonel Tibbets in an interview in 1966. "We were after perfection. I wouldn't settle for anything less than a quarter of a mile of accuracy, and I wouldn't stand for anything less than 20 seconds off on time. This became a challenge ... and you'd be surprised at the pride these boys took in being able to qualify."
The early 509ers rose to meet these demanding standards without question. Only Colonel Tibbets and a select few over him knew of the nuclear mission.
"I kept telling [the crews] that the work they were doing, even though it might seem non-productive to them at the moment ... because their contemporaries ... were overseas fighting a war and they were still training, ... their contribution would be something that had a good strong chance of ending the war," said Colonel Tibbets. "Now, this was enough to raise their curiosity. It didn't violate any security, and it gave them something to go on.
"... with this type of a training program, I think I produced the best B-29 crews in the 20th Air Force," Colonel Tibbets said.
With a squadron of 15 specially prepared 'Silverplate' B-29s and the best-prepared crews in the Army Air Corps standing by, Colonel Tibbets received orders from the White House to bomb Hiroshima.
"We got going down the runway at 2:15 a.m.," Colonel Tibbets said. "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? This is an atom bomb we're dropping.' These guys were no idiots. We'd been fiddling 'round with the most peculiar-shaped things we'd ever seen."
Colonel Tibbets and navigator Maj. Thoedore van Kirk put the Enola Gay over the designated target at 9:15 a.m. Bombardier, Maj. Tom Ferebee sighted his target, waiting for the perfect moment.
Colonel Tibbets said the Enola Gay lurched as the 10,000 bomb, nicknamed 'Little Boy,' dropped out of the bomb bay. He immediately banked the B-29, having only 40 seconds to put as much distance between the plane and the blast as he could.
In less than a minute, 4.7 square miles of Hiroshima were erased from the earth.
Tailgunner Staff Sgt. Bob Caron watched the shock wave, which looked like a ring of vapor quickly reaching out from the blast sight, overtake the Enola Gay. According to accelerometers on board, the first shock wave rocked the Enola Gay with 2.5 Gs of force. A second, smaller wave hit a few seconds later.
Colonel Tibbets turned the plane back toward the site, to inspect their handiwork. Having been one of the few to see film of the first nuclear test in the Trinity explosion, the first nuclear test performed in the desert of New Mexico, Colonel Tibbets said he was still amazed by the decimation.
President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the atomic weapons was a difficult one to reach. Germany, one of the original intended recipients of a simultaneous strike, had already folded that spring. The war in the Pacific, however, was still raging. Threats of an invasion had little effect on Japanese leaders.
President Truman was faced with adding to the millions who had lost their lives during the course of the war, or use the most powerful weapon known to mankind in hopes of ending the war.
"Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima," said the president in a public announcement. "It [was] an atomic bomb. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth."
After the strike on Hiroshima, Japan was silent for three days. The 509th Composite Group's "Bock's Car," piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney, struck Nagasaki, Aug. 9.
In his Aug. 9, 1945, radio address to the nation, Truman gave his reasons: "We have used (the nuclear bomb) in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans," he said.
On Aug. 15, 1945, in a radio broadcast, Japan's Emperor Hirohito said that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives." Japan formally surrendered aboard the battleship USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, drawing the bloody, six-year war to a close.
Late in 1945, the 509th Composite Group moved to Roswell Army Air Base, N.M., and was renamed the 509th Bombardment Group, where it became the core of the newly formed Strategic Air Command.
After the Air Force became its own branch on Sept. 18 1947, the 509th BG was assigned to the newly activated 509th Bombardment Wing at Roswell that November.
Today, the 509ers are still the cutting edge; operating America's premier stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit, out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. The wing provides assurance to its allies, and deterrence to its potential enemies, providing the President of the United States and combatant commanders a nearly invisible, weapons platform with unlimited global reach.
"The 509th Bomb Wing has a proud and storied history that has evolved over time, but has never wavered from providing our nation's leaders combat ready forces for nuclear deterrence and global strike operations," said Brig. Gen. Robert Wheeler, 509th Bomb Wing commander. "Today, the men and women of the 509th [Bomb Wing] stand ready to defend this nation and execute whatever orders they're given - just as our 509th forefathers did 65 years ago."
As the world remembers the dawn of the nuclear age, a new major command celebrates its first anniversary, Aug. 9. The Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the 509th BW, and every other Air Force nuclear-capable wing, was founded on the premise that no mission is more important than the responsibility for operating, maintaining, securing and supporting the nuclear enterprise.