As a ten-year-old exploring the dark corners of my family’s garage, I once found a huge knife sheathed in a worn leather case.
It had a rawhide handle and an eight-inch steel blade. When I asked my father about it, he told me it was from his days as a bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II.
He pulled a silk map of the western Pacific from a drawer In his desk and showed it to me; it was made of cloth, he explained, so that In case he was shot down and had to ditch over the ocean, the map wouldn’t get waterlogged and fall apart. The knife was for protection in similar circumstances.
“Weren’t you afraid of dying?” I asked.
“There’s no better way to die than fighting for something you believe in,” he replied.
He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1938, and was working as a clerk with a trust company in New York when the war started. Enlisting in the Air Force (Aviation Cadets), he eventually wound up in Montgomery, Alabama, a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant training younger men to fly B-24 bombers. Then word came that the government was looking for pilots to fly the new B-29s. He applied, was accepted, and in May of 1944 found himself in Fairmont. Nebraska, learning to fly the big planes as part of the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron.
Four months later the squadron's twenty crews were expecting to ship out to the Pacific when suddenly they were told to report to an obscure base at Wendover, Utah, and to not tell anyone about it. In Wendover they learned little more — peculiar tactics during training flights, commanding officers stonewalling all questions — but they did get the feeling something unusual was afoot. He didn't know it yet, but my father. Elbert B. Smith, was being trained to drop atomic-bombs.
In mid-June, 1945, the 509th Composite Group (as the new bombing unit had been designated) flew out to Tinian Island, a Manhattan-sized island in the Marianas, less than 1400 miles southwest of Tokyo. It was from Tinian’s North Field, the largest functional air base in the world at the time, that the 509th carried out the world's first two — and so far, only — atomic strikes. Still stationed on Tinian a few months later when the war had ended, my father, who had been designated to fly the third atomic mission, wrote down the events on the island as he had witnessed them, “while everything was still fresh in my memory.”
Now, almost exactly thirty-five years later, we sit across from each other in the study of his house in San Carlos — the man who was trained to drop one of the world’s most destructive weapons, and his son, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Like armchair quarterbacks discussing some weird and horrible football game, we go over his account step by step: his stay on Tinian, his ignorance of the bomb's awesome power, his near-brush with a dubious kind of fame.
“When the 509th Group came overseas, it was given one of the most distinctive insignias in the 20th Air Force. Since we were part of the 313th Wing, the geometric design on the tails of our planes was a circle, but instead of a letter inside this circle, we had a black arrow. In fact, shortly after we arrived on Tinian, Tokyo Rose had broadcast. Welcome to the South Pacific, Black Arrow Squadron.' We were proud that she’d taken notice of us.
“Before the first atomic mission was flown, all of us in the Group did a lot of speculating on the force of the ‘Gimmick. ’ as we referred to the unknown weapon. Few among us had any idea that it was even connected with the splitting of the atom. We knew it was supposed to be powerful and that the resulting explosion would be greater than any ever before witnessed by man. We’d been told that when the bomb exploded the entire target area would simply be leveled and would cease to exist or to support life. Naturally, we found these ‘stories' hard to believe. It was impossible for us to stretch our imaginations far enough to conceive of such a force.
“Beginning in mid-July, 1945, the 509th Group began to fly missions to Japan, all of which were nothing but practice missions for the day when we’d take off with the ‘Gimmick’ aboard. We never referred to these missions as being practice missions, though, not while we were flying them, anyway. It was the real thing to us. We had specific targets to go after and we stood as good a chance of getting shot down as did any other plane that flew over enemy territory. In fact, it was while I was on one of these ‘practice’ missions over Kobe on July 29, 1945, that I ran into flak which knocked three holes in our plane. That stood as the only battle damage suffered by the 509th during the entire war.
“On the last day of July, Colonel Tibbets [Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, commander of the 509th Composite Group] called a meeting of four of the bomber crews in the Combat Crew Lounge on Tinian, and announced to us that we would be the first four to drop the ‘Gimmick.' We were to go in this order: (1) Captain Bob Lewis’s crew, with Colonel Tibbets in command; (2) Lieutenant Don Albury’s crew, with Major Charles Sweeney in command; (3) my crew, with Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Classen in command; and (4) Captain George Marquardt’s crew. Colonel Tibbets told us at that meeting of the test which had been run in New Mexico about ten days earlier, and of the damage that the ‘Gimmick’ would cause. We believed him, because he was quoting the facts, but those facts were almost too much for our minds to grasp. After all. nothing even approaching an explosion of that immensity had ever been dreamed of before. “‘That test bomb,’ Tibbets said, ‘was only one-fourth the size of the bombs we’re to drop.’
“As the colonel slowly unraveled this amazing tale, we first began to realize the importance of our work. Ten months earlier, when the 509th was being formed, the colonel had announced to us that the work we would do would shorten the war by at least six months. Unable to realize how that could be possible, we’d often laughed at his remark as we continued to sit around and train in Utah.
“We twenty men — pilots, copilots, navigators, bombardiers, and radar operators — were then informed of the operational plans for the first few ‘drops.’ When he had finished outlining these plans, the colonel told us, ‘Let me emphasize one word of warning here. Don’t get into the cloud which will rise up from this explosion. You'll never live through it. At the time we all thought he was warning us of the terrific updrafts that would be inside that cloud. We later learned that had we flown through it and been fortunate enough to regain control of our plane, we'd probably have been killed by radioactivity.”
We face each other across a distance of three feet, my father behind his desk and I in an overstuffed chair. It is evening: a single light illuminates the room.
When I registered with the draft board as a conscientious objector, my father wrote a strong letter of support on my behalf. Sometimes I think that if I were confronted with a dictator like Hitler or an attack like Pearl Harbor. I would enlist in the service as he did. Yet I have many questions about the atomic raids, questions that will not go away.
“Couldn't there have been a demonstration first?” I ask. “Couldn’t the first atomic bomb have been dropped off the coast, or somewhere, as a warning?”
He leans back in his chair. “Well, I wasn't aware of it at the time, but they had given a lot of thought to making a demonstration drop — having the Japanese come in under a white flag and witness it. And they felt that there was too much of an opportunity for it to be a dud, that it would hurt our chances of ending the war more than help them.”
In fact, on June 12, 1945, seven scientists from the Manhattan Project's Chicago laboratory submitted to the government the Franck Report, a document urging a demonstration of the bomb in an uninhabited area in front of observers from many countries, including Japan. The report was rejected just four days later by the Interim Committee, a secret panel of specialists that advised President Truman on atomic energy. The committee stated. "We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war.”
“We four crews, to whom the colonel had talked, now became practically detached from the rest of the Group. Everyone sensed that the 'Gimmick' was about to make its debut and that we had the inside information. As is only human, they somewhat resented the fact that they hadn’t been let in on it and that we wouldn’t tell them.
“All there was to do until the atomic raids started was study targets. We came to know the four targets (Hiroshima. Niigata, Kokura. and Nagasaki) so well that we could close our eyes and see any one of them. We memorized the routes we were to follow, from landfall on the coast of Japan to the target and back out to sea again. We knew the cities, bays, rivers, and mountains that lay on those routes. The actual target areas and aiming points were studied so thoroughly that we could later draw pictures of them that were almost to scale, including the rivers, bridges, railroads, highways, and populated areas. We knew the size of the cities in square miles, and what military objectives were contained in them. Probably very few aerial attacks were ever so carefully planned and studied.
“Now that the atomic raids were approaching we found that our planes were being painted with a wide assortment of insignias: triangles, squares, circles, diamonds, etc. When we drove down the ramp where our planes were parked, instead of seeing a long line of black arrows on the tails, we were met with a conglomeration of insignias. It wasn’t as pretty, but we accepted it as a military necessity. If enemy fighters had ever approached our planes on an atomic mission and had seen the black arrow on the tail, we’d have been too easily recognized on future missions.
"This change in insignias and other preparations gave rise to the general knowledge that big things were about to take place. So for a period of three or four days the whole outfit was on edge, waiting for the raid to go out and for the news to break. By noon of August 5 it became apparent that the weather might be reasonably good the following morning, so the operational plans were finally put into effect. Briefings were held that afternoon and evening, and takeoff was scheduled for three o’clock the following morning.
"Thus, early in the morning of August 6, while most of us slept knowing we could do nothing to ensure its success, the mission took off. Captains Eatherly, Taylor, and Wilson took off and headed for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Nagasaki, respectively. These were the weather ships whose purpose it was to circle over those targets, collect all data, and relay it to Colonel Tibbets. Finally the colonel himself rolled his B-29 down the runway and lifted it off the ground.
"We awoke the next morning and right after breakfast started checking with Group Operations for news. Any radio reports from the planes flying missions would come to that office. It must have been about nine o'clock that the reports from the weather ships reached Operations. We heard them and our spirits soared. CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) conditions existed over the primary target. Hiroshima. We knew now that the mission which we had waited so long for would succeed.”
"I’m not sure there are any profound words,” says my father. Through an open window we can see the last blue fading from the sky. Traffic sounds drift in on the warm summer air. "We all had a pretty short-term view of the whole thing back then — you know, get the war over. A bomber pilot today would certainly understand the implications of a nuclear mission more than we did.”
"It was probably an hour or so later when Major Hopkins [Major James Hopkins, general operations officer of the 509th] told us the report they’d received stated that ‘results were better than expected.’
"After lunch our chaplain. Bill Downey, came by my quonset to pick me up, and we drove down to the 509th’s parking ramp to meet the returning planes. We were among the first to get there. The weather ships came in first: Eatherly, Wilson, and finally Taylor. We met them all, but it developed that we knew more about what had happened than they did. It was while we were talking with Taylor’s crew that Colonel Tibbets landed and taxied into the ramp.
"By then every general officer in the 20th Air Force must have been there. Even General Carl Spaatz was on hand, the man who was in command of all the combat air forces in the Pacific. Spaatz was standing about fifty feet from the nose of the parked plane, so everyone else fell into somewhat of a semicircle around the plane with the general in the center of it. As Colonel Tibbets climbed down and then stepped forward from the plane, another colonel moved out from the crowd and shouted, ‘Attention to orders!'
"Although everyone immediately became quiet, no one except Colonel Tibbets came to attention. He looked nervous, tired, and somewhat embarrassed, never having been one to stand on ceremony or formalities.
“’By order of the President of the United States, General Spaatz will now award Colonel Tibbets the Distinguished Flying Cross!’ The general moved forward to pin the medal on the colonel's flying coveralls. He fumbled around with it quite a while before stepping back. They shook hands and saluted. It was as simple as that. Colonel Tibbets had received the second highest award his country could give him.
“When the crowd around the Enola Gay finally began to disperse, I wandered over toward Captain Marquardt’s plane, which had landed several minutes behind Tibbets’. As I reached it one of the civilian scientists, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance, climbed out. He was met by several of his coworkers, who immediately began questioning him about the explosion. I stood there and listened. This man had been in the plane which had followed the Enola Gay in order to make observations.
"The ball of fire which followed the explosion, he said, had been about a half mile in diameter. It was obvious that no one below that ball had survived. The column of smoke had started up in a thin shaft as soon as the ball of fire disappeared, and gradually began to mushroom out as its vertical speed was slowed. It was the opinion of this man that the entire operation and the physical working of the bomb had been perfect.
"The celebration that night was no small affair. Long after we went to bed we could hear the participants wandering through the area shouting, throwing stones at the sloping walls of the quonsets, breaking bottles, and generally acting like the noisy bunch of drunken celebrants they were.
“About six o’clock the next morning I awoke, conscious that Captain Thornhill [Captain Francis D. Thornhill, bombardier for Captain Claude Eatherly’s crew] was talking excitedly down at the other end of our quonset. It took some time before I could sleepily piece together what it was he’d said. He’d shouted, ‘Hey, men, there’s the announcement coming over the radio!'
“I rolled over and looked at him. He was out of bed turning on our radio. From the quonset next to ours I could hear a news broadcast coming over the air, but it was too far away for me to understand. Then, as our radio slowly warmed up, we could hear the announcer talking about the atomic bomb. President Truman had released the news.
“That was the first indication most of the men in the group had that we were working with atomic force. The fact that I had known for so long was due to a slip of the tongue on the part of one of the officers who had known about some of the early experimental work. However, the story which unfolded that day and the following days over the radio was as amazing to me as to anyone else. That part of it was entirely new, entirely unheard and unthought of.”
“At that point in time, atomic energy was just sort of an expression,” my father explains. “The layman had no idea it could be turned into a bomb, that it could be such a violent thing. Here was something that was contained in such a small container, really…I knew it had something to do with atomic energy, but I didn’t know it had anything to do with unleashing such force.”
Truman’s announcement read in part: “The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…. We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history — and won. We are now prepared to obliterate rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city .... If their leaders 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.”
“The following day I got my first look at the photographs of Hiroshima. They were still classified ‘Top Secret’ when Lieutenant Colonel Payette [Lieutenant Colonel Hazen Payette, the 509th’s chief intelligence officer! got them out of his safe to let me look at them. Having already studied aerial photographs of Hiroshima extensively, I could see almost at a glance how severe the damage had been. A huge circle, approximately 4000 yards across, had been etched into the city. Inside that circle everything seemed to be utterly destroyed. The city had not only been leveled, it had disappeared. It looked like a city which had been bombed and later cleaned up. Examining the pictures through a magnifying glass, we could see there was little or no rubble lying around in the streets, such as can usually be seen in pictures of a bombed city. That rubble for the most part had been literally reduced to powder and sucked up into the cloud, just as had so many of the former inhabitants of Hiroshima.
“On the morning of August 9, the second atomic raid took place. Like the first, this one also took off several hours before dawn with the purpose of dropping on Japan sometime around nine in the morning.”
“Why so soon after the first?” I ask. “What was the hurry? Couldn’t they wait for a few days to see how the Japanese would react?”
“Those decisions we were not privy to,” my father replies.
The second atomic raid seemed to move forward under its own power. The plans had been made, and no call came through to the 509th’s headquarters on Tinian to bring them to a halt. Just after noon on August 9, 1945, thirty percent of the city of Nagasaki, Japan, was obliterated by an atomic blast.
“My crew and I had been told we would be next to make a drop, ” my father tells me now. “We had not been told there was no bomb ready.”
When the Japanese finally sent official word of their surrender on August 14, the United States had already depleted its arsenal of two nuclear weapons. But technicians in Los Alamos were rushing to build more, and there were plans to drop several atomic bombs in September if the Japanese had not capitulated by then. The former trust company clerk from New York missed becoming a footnote to the long, sad history of human strife by only a few weeks.
“If we had to do it to end the war. I'd have done it,” he says quietly. “Looking back now. I’m real glad the war ended when it did, and we didn’t have to do it. ” He struggles to recall his feelings, the emotion of the war dimmed after thirty-five years. Since his days as a bomber pilot he has worked for Northwest Orient Airlines and General Dynamics; now he is past sixty, nearing retirement. He glances at his hands and finally continues. “I didn’t want to have to look in the eyes of people when I killed them. That’s why I joined the Air Force. It was a very impersonal thing. You kept it that way as a sort of insulation around you. You did what you were told to do.”
There is a sweet simplicity in his words, that speaks of a time when right and wrong were like colors that are easily told apart. And perhaps there was such a time. But today the reds and greens of international diplomacy have faded mostly to indistinguishable grays, and it seems important to keep in mind that bombs are devices for killing one’s own kind, and that each statistical death in a war is a person who once had thoughts, feelings, a life…. I tell my father this and he frowns and is silent. He is silent, but in the darkness outside his study, crickets are chirping.
Soon after the Japanese had surrendered, my father met William Laurence, then science editor for the New York Times, who was staying on Tinian Island at the close of the war. Laurence had been picked by the Army to write the official story of the atomic bomb, from its development in Los Alamos to the missions that dropped it. He and my father had several interesting conversations, and my father's account of his stay on Tinian closes with this one:
“If my wife had not sent me clippings from the Times about the first atomic bomb raid. I might never have met William Laurence. However, word got through to him that I had these clippings, so he looked me up. The first night he stopped in to read them he sat on my cot, reading his words in news stories for which other journalists had been credited. It was quite evident that he was hurt by it, but there was nothing he could do. As long as he continued to work for the Army his words were public property once they were officially released.
“A few weeks later a group of us were talking with Laurence, shortly after we’d heard a report over the radio that the areas which had been hit by our atomic bombs would be uninhabitable for as long as seventy years. Upon questioning him we learned that this wasn't exactly true. Those areas wouldn't be dangerous for more than three or four years at the most, he told us, and then only in the spot directly beneath the bomb’s blast. However, he added, it would be possible to make a bomb which would have the effect described over the radio. As it was, he led us to expect that a great number of Japanese would die from radioactivity simply because they had been exposed to the blast.
“‘Just what kind of a death results from radioactivity?’ someone asked.
“It’s the most horrible kind of a death you can imagine,’ Laurence said. He went on to tell us how the white corpuscles in the blood stream are killed by the rays emitted from any radioactive substance. Once the human body has been exposed to these rays, there’s nothing that can be done.
Those who were killed instantly by the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the lucky ones. The others, who had been exposed, were sure to die in time, but their deaths would be lingering and torturous.
“We sat there somewhat stunned after he told us this. The picture wasn’t pretty. Not that we felt any qualms about killing our enemy, as they had and would have killed us; but we wondered about the future. Couldn’t any country make these atomic bombs? Couldn’t we be in just as much danger from them as any other nation? We realized that nothing could be done to protect us from this newly unleashed power.
“We spoke of our fears to Laurence, and he answered us slowly and, I thought, somewhat prophetically. He said that mar now had the means whereby to destroy himself. It remained to be seen whether he would do that or would use this power to his own benefit.
“‘That’s a horrible thought,’ I said, ‘It could literally mean the end of life or earth.’
“‘Exactly,’ he replied, ‘but you can’t avoid the facts.’
“Several men got up to leave our group, and slowly, the same way it had started, the discussion came to an end. Laurence himself finally said good night and left. We sat on the porch of our quonset hut and watched him go. Though we weren’t speaking about it, I know we were all thinking the same thing: how we hoped he was wrong; how we hoped that this war, which had just ended, which had so brutally killed millions of soldiers and civilians as well, would bring about lasting peace in which the countries of the world would live together without strife. Could it really happen this time? Had we fought the war to end all wars?
“No! Down inside we knew we hadn’t.”