THE commanding general of the Second Air Force, Uzal Ent, looked up as Colonel John Lansdale, of U.S. Army Intelligence, led Paul Tibbets into his office at Colorado Springs. Ent glanced inquiringly at the intelligence officer. Lansdale nodded.
General Ent then introduced the two men seated beside his desk. One was U.S. Navy Captain William "Deak" Parsons, whom he described as an explosives expert but who was in fact one of the most influential men engaged in the highly secret development of the world's first atomic bomb; the other was a civilian, Professor Norman Ramsey, a twenty-nine-year-old Harvard physicist.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbets was struck by Ramsey's comparative youth; he had always associated scientists with gray hair and stooped shoulders. To Tibbets these two men looked fit enough to fly combat, even if Parsons' baldness made him appear older than his forty-three years. And it seemed strange that a navy captain should be involved in a meeting at U.S. Army Second Air Force Headquarters in Colorado.
"Have you ever heard of atomic energy?" Ramsey had the firm, incisive voice of a natural tutor.
"Yes," said Tibbets.
"I majored in physics, so I know the atomic scale."
There was an expectant pause.
"What do you know of the present situation in the field?" asked Parsons.
Tibbets looked at Lansdale, who gave a barely perceptible nod. As confidently as he could, Tibbets began to speak; he understood there had been some experimenting by the Germans to try to make heavy water so that they could split the atom.
"Good," Ramsey said. He paused, weighing his words, a mannerism Tibbets would come to recognize. He continued. "The United States has split an atom. We are now making a bomb based on that, a bomb so powerful it will explode with a force of twenty thousand tons of conventional high explosive."
General Ent then told Tibbets he had been chosen to drop that bomb.
It was September 1, 1944, Within a year Paul Tibbets' name would become forever linked with the destruction of Hiroshima, a Japanese city he was yet to hear of.
Until three days earlier Tibbets had not been considered for the task. Then his name replaced another nominee's, and Colonel Lansdale, the project's security chief, immediately launched an intensive investigation of the pilot. Lansdale was satisfied.
In General Ent's office Ramsey and Parsons now gave Tibbets a thorough briefing on the history and problems associated with building the first atomic bomb.
Five years before, on August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein had addressed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, stating that recent nuclear research indicated "extremely powerful bombs of a new type," based on uranium, could soon be developed. Einstein warned that secret work with uranium was going on in Nazi Germany. He urged that similar American research be accelerated.
Alexander Sachs, economist and friend of Roosevelt's, agreed to deliver the letter to the President. Before he could do so, however, World War II broke out in Europe, on September 3, 1939, and Roosevelt was unable to see him until mid-October. After much persuasion by Sachs, Roosevelt marked Einstein's letter for action. The first result of the President's decision was the expenditure of just six thousand dollars. It bought graphite, essential for one of the early experiments that would in time lead to the atomic bomb. Substantial funds for producing the bomb itself were not authorized by Roosevelt until two years later—on December 6, 1941.
Next day came Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt vowed vengeance.
By the summer of 1942 it was clear that enormous amounts of money and effort would be required to build an atomic bomb. Huge manufacturing and processing plants had to be erected to produce the sometimes dangerous materials required, and research work in widely scattered laboratories had to be initiated and put on a wartime footing. And all in the utmost secrecy.
A cover name was invented for the project: the Manhattan Engineer District, later simplified to the Manhattan Project.
In October 1942 Site Y, Los Alamos, in the New Mexico desert, was chosen by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer for his key research laboratory. Old private school classrooms would come to be used by eminent scientists, among them Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and that other European giant of physics, Niels Bohr. It was Fermi who masterminded the crucial experiment on December z, 1942, that produced the self-sustaining chain reaction that allowed an atomic bomb to be designed. He conducted it in an unused squash court at the University of Chicago, amid fears that the city itself might be endangered by the nuclear energy released. But the reaction was controlled, and the scientists demonstrated that when a uranium atom splits, it releases neutrons which can collide with and thereby split more uranium atoms. They formally christened this chain-reaction process the K Factor; among themselves they called it the Great God K.
During the following months there was a sense of urgency about the complex production of the small amounts of uranium 235 needed to make atomic bombs. Plutonium, also suitable for atomic weapons, was being produced as well.
Roosevelt backed the project without the knowledge of Congress or the electorate. Funds for the venture—which would eventually total two billion dollars—were disguised in the federal budget.
By the summer of 1944 the required quantities of U-235—and plutonium, for a sister atomic bomb—were available. The only remaining problem to overcome was how to enclose the Great God K in a bomb casing. It was being dealt with. The time had now come to choose a man to train and lead the men who would drop the bomb. That man was Paul Tibbets.
When Ramsey and Parsons finished their briefing, Lansdale took over. "Colonel, I want you to understand one thing. Security is first, last, and always. You will commit as little as possible to paper and will tell only those who need to know. Understood?"
Perfectly understood, Colonel."
General Ent concluded the meeting by formally assigning the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron, which had just completed training in Nebraska, to Tibbets. Its fifteen B-29 bomber crews would comprise the world's first atomic strike force, capable of delivering nuclear bombs to Germany and Japan. Although less than half that number of B-29s would eventually be used on the Hiroshima mission, all fifteen crews would be capable of carrying out an atomic strike. Their training base would be at Wendover, Utah.
The code name for the Army Air Forces' part in the Manhattan Project would be Silverplate. Tibbets wondered who had chosen such a homely name for a weapon "clearly designed to revolutionize war:" And he still could not accept that one bomb dropped from a single aircraft could equal the force of twenty thousand tons of high explosive. Ordinarily, some two thousand bombers would be required to deliver such a payload.
But he had more pressing problems to deal with. He had to gather together some of the trusted men who had served with him before; he had to inspect Wendover Field, devise a training program, and be prepared to work alongside "a bunch of civilians". And, finally, it was clear to Tibbets that on such a mission he would have to be in the driver's seat when the bomb was dropped.
As he was leaving the office, General Ent stopped him. "Colonel, if this is successful, you'll be a hero. But if it fails, you'll be the biggest scapegoat ever. You may even go to prison."
Tibbets was a stocky, medium-size man with a crisp, detached manner. At twenty-nine he was one of America's most successful bomber pilots. He had flown the first B-17 across the English Channel on a bombing mission early in the war; had piloted General Dwight Eisenhower and General Mark Clark to Gibraltar to plan the Allied invasion of North Africa; had taken Clark on to Algiers, landing on a field being bombed and strafed; and later had led the first American raid on North Africa. Returning to the United States, he took charge of flight-testing the new B-29 at a time when the Superfortress was thought too dangerous to fly; it had killed its first test pilot. Tibbets was courageous, used to command, able to give and execute orders with speed and efficiency.
Some people, though, found him difficult to work with. He did not suffer fools, and, by his own standards, there were many. Restrained and reticent, he seemed the paragon of service correctness. Few knew that behind his outward appearance was a shy man who suffered acutely the loss of any of his fliers in action. All that showed on his face was a pleasant, noncommittal intelligence.
Tibbets was born in Quincy, Illinois, in 1915. His father, a wholesale confectioner, was a strict disciplinarian who punished the slightest infringement of the many rules which hedged in his son's formative years. Paul's mother, Enola Gay, was as gentle as her unusual name, a name given her by her father, who had read and admired a novel with a heroine by that name shortly before her birth in 1892. No one in the Tibbets family can now recall the title of the nineteenth-century book, but Mrs. Tibbets is known to have had mixed feelings about her name, for Enola, reversed, spells "alone"—which it often seemed to her that she was.
She adored her only son and strongly opposed her husband's decision to send Paul, at the age of thirteen, to Western Military Academy, at Alton, Illinois. Afterward it was his mother who first encouraged him to be a doctor, and later, against strong family opposition, to join the U.S. Army Air Corps; she quietly accepted Paul's wish to abandon medicine in favor of flying. In those difficult Depression days a military career was not viewed with great favor in the middle-class community of which Paul Tibbets' father was a pillar. When his son enlisted in 1937, the father's last words on the subject were, "You're on your own."
Enola Gay Tibbets said, "Son, one day we're going to be real proud of you."
WHEN Brigadier General Leslie Groves had taken command of the Manhattan Project in 1942, he was answerable to Chief of Staff George Marshall, to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and, through him, to President Roosevelt.
A security check revealed that Groves had few interests outside his work, that he was stable and happily married. It also turned up a passion for candy, mean tennis playing, and an ability to solve complicated mathematical problems while eating.
An outstanding West Point engineering graduate, Groves had helped build the Pentagon and was reputed to be the "best barrack-builder in the Army". He was used to working to time and budget, and to getting things done. And although he tended to ruffle the tempers of his equals and inspire fear in his subordinates, he seemed to his superiors the best possible choice to run the biggest military project the world had ever known.
Sustaining himself with pounds of chocolates, which he locked in the safe where he stored the project's most important secrets, Groves worked seven days a week. Forty-eight years old, with a vocabulary capable of blistering a construction worker—though many found more unnerving his deep sigh at a piece of misfortune —Groves came from the same mold as MacArthur and Patton.
Bullying, cajoling, occasionally praising, and rarely apologizing, Groves had achieved a feat he himself had once thought impossible. In two years he had brought the atomic bomb from the blueprint stage to a point where it would soon be ready for testing. He had approved the choice of Tibbets as commander of the special atomic strike force because he had all the professional qualities Groves believed were needed to get the job done.
A week after the meeting in Colorado Springs, Tibbets was coming to realize just how vast his powers were as commander. Working from a temporary office in the Pentagon, he demanded and promptly received anything he wanted merely by mentioning Silverplate. Using that code name, he had instituted a search for some of the men who had served with him in Europe, North Africa, and on the B-29 testing and training program. A few had already been traced and were on their way to the base at Wendover, Utah; others were having their orders cut.
Tibbets had stopped at Wendover on his way from Colorado Springs to Washington. The town, with a population of a hundred and three, was split down the middle by the Utah-Nevada line. Tibbets found its "end of the world" location perfect. It was close enough to the Los Alamos laboratory, but only by air—an important consideration, for Professor Ramsey had warned him that "the scientists will be bugging you day and night." It was only some five hundred miles by air from the Salton Sea area, in southern California, an ideal range on which to practice the precision-bombing techniques essential for the mission. Wendover's isolated location, moreover, simplified security, and the existing facilities on the base were suitable for immediate occupany. Tibbets knew his men would hate the place. But he planned to work them so hard that they would not have time to dwell on their surroundings.
By now Tibbets had surmised there were only two possible targets for him to bomb: Berlin or Tokyo. He thought the Japanese capital more likely; the war in Europe was already approaching a decisive stage.
If it was to be Tokyo, then he would need a base within striking distance of the empire. He knew that the U.S. Marines had captured the Mariana Islands, in the Pacific, about a month before. The newspapers had dubbed one island "the place where the Seabees are going to build the largest aircraft carrier in the world." It was about fourteen hundred air miles from Japan. Its name was Tinian. Tibbets filed it in his memory.
THE fall of Tinian in late July, 1944, had failed to shake the belief of Second Lieutenant Tatsuo Yokoyama—commander of a gun post in Hiroshima—in the ultimate victory of the Imperial Japanese Army.
It was September now, and, as usual before gunnery practice, the hundred and fifty men at the anti-aircraft post on Mount Futaba, in the north-eastern outskirts of Hiroshima, were lectured by their young commander. Yokoyama told them that the Japanese "withdrawal" from the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, in the Marianas, was part of a carefully prepared plan to draw the enemy closer to mainland Japan.
There, as they all knew, a vast army was waiting, eager to deal America and her allies a blow that would send them reeling. The Americans could win a battle, he reminded his men, but Japan had never lost a war. He told them that the day must be approaching when enemy bombers would at long last come within range of their guns.
Yokoyama was trained to exist on a bowl of rice and fish a day. He regarded surrender as the greatest shame he could inflict upon his family and country. He devoutly believed in the divinity of Emperor Hirohito and the sacred duty of the army to protect His Majesty.
The gun crews were ready, stripped to the waist, sweating in the warm evening air, and Yokoyama ordered practice to begin. Load, aim, unload. The guns moved smoothly, their slim barrels traversing the air over Hiroshima.
The young officer was pleased with the way the men responded promptly to his orders—the same commands he had given them for every drill since the battery was commissioned as part of the Hiroshima antiaircraft defense system in May 1943. Sixteen guns of various calibers now defended the city. They had yet to be fired in battle.
The practice over, Yokoyama returned to his quarters to enjoy a ritual he performed every evening. From the window of his billet he surveyed the city through binoculars. The panorama always soothed him.
When, a year before, he had first observed the city from his vantage point close to the crest of Mount Futaba, Yokoyama was struck by an oddity: Hiroshima resembled a human hand. By holding out his right hand, palm down, fingers spread, he reproduced a rough outline of the city. The port was at his fingertips in the south; beyond lay the depths of Hiroshima Bay and the Inland Sea. His wrist corresponded to that area where the Ota River ended its flow from the hills in the north and entered a broad, fan-shaped delta, its six main channels dividing the city into islands. These were linked by eighty-one bridges. Directly under his palm was Hiroshima Castle, the centre of a huge military operation.
Yokoyama amused himself by identifying various installations and placing them in the corresponding positions on the back of his hand. At the tip of his index finger was Hiroshima Airport, with its military aircraft. On his thumb he located Toyo Industries, which made rifles and parts for warships. At the end of his little finger was the Mitsubishi works, with its dockyards and cranes. The factories, together with dozens of smaller plants, maintained around-the-clock shifts. Almost every man, woman, and child in the city was actively engaged in the war effort. Yet on this September evening of 1944 the war seemed as remote as ever to Yokoyama. The city below him was peaceful, a vast cluster of black-tiled roofs encased in a natural bowl of reclaimed delta and green hills and peaks.
But in Yokoyama's opinion Hiroshima was highly vulnerable to air attack. All a bomber need do was drop its load within the bowl to be certain of causing damage. Apart from a single kidney-shaped hill in the eastern sector of the city, Hiroshima was uniformly exposed to the spreading energy that big bombs generate. Besides, Hiroshima was built to burn. Ninety percent of its houses were made of wood. Large groups of dwellings were clustered together, and the city's fire-fighting equipment was antiquated and personnel was lacking.
From where he stood, Yokoyama could clearly see the city boundaries; thirteen of Hiroshima's twenty-seven square miles were built up, seven of these densely. In that small area, some forty-nine thousand people were crammed into every square mile. His gunners on Mount Futaba were there to protect them, and the crews longed to see action.
The anti-aircraft officer understood their desire to fight. It was part of the samurai tradition, of the two-thousand-year history of Japan. The wish for battle was coupled with an absence of fear. More than any other nation, Japan had excised fear from its warriors; death for them was part of living.
Yokoyama had told his men to be patient. But he worried whether they would ever have the chance to shoot, to taste that special excitement. He wondered whether a story he had heard was true—that many people in Hiroshima had relatives in San Francisco and Los Angeles who had petitioned Roosevelt to spare Hiroshima from attack and that he had agreed to do so as "a gesture of goodwill."
If the story were true, then enemy bombers would never come to Hiroshima, and all Yokoyama's practices would be in vain.
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