2. Activation (September 1, 1944 — June 27, 1945)
From 'Ruin From The Air' by Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts

AFTER the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron arrived at Wendover, Tibbets' prediction proved to be right. The officers and men hated the place-the bleaching heat, the inhospitable desert, the primitive accommodations, the dust, the rank drinking water, the sheer remoteness of their position. They hated not knowing why they were there.

On September 12, their second morning at the base, they awakened to find further cause for hatred-a wire fence now penned them in. Beside the exit gate a warning sign read:


Thickly coiled barbed wire and RESTRICTED AREA signs also barred the entrances to the ordnance, armament, engineering, and radar workshops. The wire was thickest around hangar No. 6, where a notice announced: TECH AREA "C"-MOST RESTRICTED.

What was a tech area? Why C? Where were A and B?

A week before, at the end of their training in Nebraska, the men of the 393rd had been proud that their squadron's record was way above average. They had expected to go overseas soon. Instead, the 393rd was shuffled off to Wendover. There were no bombers at the base. Rumor said they had come to pick up factory-fresh B-29s. But where were they? And why here? Nobody knew.

Officers, like their men, had no idea of what was happening. The 393rd's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Classen, had gone into the base headquarters on arrival and had hardly been seen since. When he did appear, he deflected all questions.

By breakfast time MPs were everywhere, their motorcycles and jeeps sending scuds of dust into the air. The 393rd had never tasted such sand. It permeated their clothes, skin, and food. The flavor of their cereals, eggs, and hashbrowns this morning came from the surrounding salt flats.

After the meal the squadron listened in stunned disbelief as their intelligence officer, Captain Joseph Buscher, a lawyer, tried to make light of the situation and pleaded with them to "give the place a chance." He could not tell them why they were at Wendover, but he could tell them that the base was "only" about a hundred miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. Elko, in Nevada, was "as close". Buscher hoped they would find Wendover itself "fascinating". Half of Wendover ran their lives according to the laws of the Mormon church. On the Nevada side of town there were bars and slot machines.

"What about women?"

The questioner was Captain Claude Eatherly, a tall, wickedly handsome pilot who had a way with girls, cards, and a bottle of bourbon. With his small-boy grin, Texas drawl, and fund of jokes, Fatherly was the squadron playboy.

Buscher ignored Eatherly's question and launched into a recital of how the pioneer wagons of 1846 had foundered crossing the salt flats. The tracks of some of them were still there.

"So will our bones be if we stay here!"

The words were spoken by a frustrated first lieutenant-Jacob Beser, the squadron's radar officer, a small, wiry, quick-witted man. Beser, a Jew, longed "to kill a few Nazis:" When Britain had gone to war he had tried to join the Royal Air Force, but his parents had insisted he complete his engineering studies at Johns Hopkins University. The day after Pearl Harbour, Beser had overcome parental opposition. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and had become one of the service's highest-rated radar officers at a time when radar was new and growing in importance. When the squadron was posted to Wendover, Beser had applied for a transfer to a combat unit. His request was turned down. But now, listening to Intelligence Officer Buscher struggling to extol the virtues of Wendover, Beser began to feel excitement. "The place sounded so damn awful that there just had to be a good reason for my being there," he later recalled.

Tibbets' old friend Major Thomas Ferebee had also arrived at Wendover. His formidable combat record in Europe made Ferebee one of the most seasoned and respected bombardiers in the air force, the perfect choice to train the 393rd's bombardiers in the exacting techniques required for dropping an atomic bomb.

Although he was glad to see Tom Ferebee, other matters stopped Tibbets from sitting down with him for a relaxed talk. Since breakfast, Tibbets had been closeted with Lieutenant Colonel Hazen Payette, a shrewd and penetrating intelligence officer who was at Wendover to supervise security, and Major William "Bud" Uanna, who had arrived unannounced. Uanna politely explained that Colonel Lansdale had sent him, plus some thirty agents detached from the main Manhattan Project, to help "police" the 393rd. Tibbets liked Uanna's style. He was coolly pleasant and interested only in his work.

Uanna brought with him a bulky briefcase containing a detailed dossier on each member of the 393rd. At that time they represented the most thorough secret investigations ever carried out in the name of the U.S. government. The first file was on Eatherly. It showed that the pilot was a gambler with an "emotional problem."

Tibbets studied Eatherly's flight record. It was normal enough, but his fitness reports spoke of his "flamboyance" and of his being "an extrovert." Tibbets knew the type. He had flown with "wild Texans" like Eatherly in Europe. They frequently got into trouble on the ground. But they were good pilots. Tibbets decided to let Fatherly remain in the 393rd.

By late morning Uanna's thirty agents had infiltrated the squadron, carrying forged papers which allowed them to pose, not always successfully, as clerks, cooks, even a garbage detail. Captain James Strudwick found a man checking the wiring in his quarters who "didn't know one end of a socket from another," and the mess officer, Lieutenant Charles Perry, discovered two men working in the mess hall "who had trouble distinguishing a soup ladle from a carving knife."

But not all the newcomers were security men.

Sergeant George Caron arrived, dusty and thirsty from a trans-American journey, with his collar unbuttoned and wearing a flying jacket-a double breach of military regulations. The MPs at the gate pounced on the tail gunner. They marched him to the orderly room in the headquarters building, where a military policeman began to berate him.

Suddenly, from an adjoining office, Caron heard a familiar voice. "Is that you, Bob?"

"Sure is, Colonel."

Tibbets was one of the few officers who called Caron by his nickname, Bob.

"Come on in."

Smiling impishly at the stunned MPs, Caron strolled in from the orderly room to see Tibbets. They greeted each other like the old buddies they were.

Caron had been gunnery instructor in Tibbets' B-29 training program. Tibbets now explained to the gunner why he had sent for him. "Bob, I need a man who knows what he's doing—and can teach others to do a similar job. And keep their mouths shut."

"Colonel, I won't even mention I'm here," said Caron. Tibbets smiled, re-establishing the easy contact which had marked their previous working relationship. He did not find it unusual to be imparting information to a non-com while senior officers in the 393rd still had no idea of what was happening. For Tibbets the privileges of rank were limited; men had to earn the right to his confidence. On the B-29 program, onlookers had spoken scathingly of "Tibbets' private air force." He had shrugged such criticism aside. He meant to adopt the same policy at Wendover.

Later that day, when Tibbets saw his new outfit assembled for the first time, he was not overly impressed. He thought they looked decidedly inexperienced. He guessed most of the officers were in their early twenties; the enlisted men were even younger. Ferebee and Caron know what it's all about, thought Tibbets; the others are trying to pretend they do.

The 393rd later agreed that, standing there, Tibbets looked tough, mean, and moody. As one officer put it, "He looked as if one mistake from us, and he would happily fry us for breakfast."

Command had taught Tibbets a trick—surprise people, shake them by the unexpected. "I've looked at you. You have looked at me. I'm not going to be stuck with all of you. But those of you who remain are going to be stuck with me."

This is a new Tibbets, thought the gunner, Bob Caron. He shared in the ripple of expectancy around him.

Tibbets continued. "You have been brought here to work on a special mission. Those of you who stay will be going overseas." A cheer came from the rear ranks. Tibbets froze it with one look. "This is not a football game. You are here to take part in an effort that could end the war."

A murmur rose and fell of its own accord. He had them now. "Don't ask what the job is. That is a sure-fire way to be transferred out. Don't ask any questions, Don't answer any questions from anybody not directly involved in what we will be doing. I know some of you are curious about all the security. Stop being curious. This is part of the preparation for what is to come. And never mention this base to anybody. That means your wives, girls, sisters, family."

There was dead silence when he paused. Years ago, when he first became an officer, his mother had given him a piece of advice: sometimes he would have to be tough, but he should always try to temper it with gentleness.

"It's not going to be easy for any of us. But we will succeed by working together. However, all work and no play is no fun. So, as of now, you are on two weeks' furlough. Enjoy yourselves."

Before the squadron was dismissed, Tibbets spoke again. "If any of you wish to transfer out, that's fine. Just say the word."

He waited.

Nobody moved.

"I'm glad," Tibbets said, "really glad."

By mid-afternoon the men were already leaving the base. Many had begun to wonder why, if their assignment was so important to ending the war, they had been given two weeks' leave. Unknown to them, it was a security operation.

Second Lieutenant Eugene Grennan, the flight engineer on Claude Eatherly's crew, decided after strolling down the flight line that the talk about security was "hogwash." A hangar door had been left open. He peered inside "and there was this German V-1 rocket." A triumphant Grennan decided that the squadron was going to Europe "to knock down Nazi rockets."

The rocket was a fake and the door had been deliberately left ajar—a trap devised by Uanna. Within minutes an agent reported that Grennan had swallowed the bait. But Uanna was in no hurry to catch the flight engineer. He had other snares to set.

Lieutenant Russell Gackenbach, a navigator, reached Salt Lake City and was stopped by a non-commissioned officer asking if Wendover was the "headquarters of the Silverplate outfit." Gackenbach had never heard of Silverplate, but he suspected a trap and sternly warned his questioner that "darn-fool questions could get us both in the pen."

Gackenbach had survived Uanna's obstacle course. Others found themselves enmeshed.

Two NCOs were accosted by an officer in a Salt Lake City hotel. He said he was joining the 393rd. What sort of outfit was it? The men obligingly told him. The officer, a Manhattan Project agent, thanked them. Two hours later MPs picked up the talkative NCOs and drove them back to base. Within an hour both non-coms were on the way to Alaska.

Flight Engineer Grennan reached Union Square, Chicago, before his trap was sprung. There he ran into a friend from college days. Grennan told him about "the crazy setup at Wendover." His friend listened attentively. They parted company. Grennan arrived home to find a telegram ordering his immediate return to Wendover. There Uanna keelhauled the young flier for talking. His friend was an agent. All that saved a crestfallen Grennan from transfer was his fine flying record. From then on, he became one of the most security-conscious men in the squadron.

Five more members of the 393rd were netted by Uanna's agents. They were also swiftly shipped to Alaska. Their records were not good enough to save them.

Radar Officer Beser had been ordered to remain on base. Tibbets told him to expect important visitors soon. When the radar officer attempted to question Tibbets, he "received the coldest stare any man could give." Beser just went to his quarters and waited.

Now, late in the evening of that same September day, Tibbets and the bombardier, Tom Ferebee, finally settled down for a reunion.

Ferebee, taller than Tibbets and rakishly elegant, could have played the hero in a war movie. He sported a neat RAF-style mustache, which made him look older than his twenty-four years. He had survived sixty-three combat missions, twenty more than Tibbets. They shared the same philosophy about war: it was a rotten business, but it was either kill or be killed.

They had flown together in Europe, been shot up, known the meaning of fear, and become firm friends. It was almost a year since they had last met. Now they reminisced about German-occupied French towns they had attacked. They remembered the summer day in 1942 when they had tangled with Goring's personal squadron of yellow-nosed Messerschmitts. One of their gunners had had his foot shot off, the co-pilot had lost a hand, and Tibbets himself had been wounded in the arm. But Ferebee had successfully bombed the Abbeville air base, and in daylight.

Finally Tibbets turned to the present. "Tom, we are going to need good men for this job. If it works, we'll flatten everything within eight miles of the aiming point."

"That's quite a bang, Paul." The bombardier made no other comment. Restraint was one of Ferebee's qualities. His friends said that the only time he asserted himself was in combat, at the poker table, or with a pretty girl.

Tibbets asked him if he could recommend anybody they should bring in for "the job."

"What about Dutch?"

Captain Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, who had been their navigator in Europe, was a quiet professional now based in Louisiana. Tibbets said he would have the navigator transferred to Wendover. Van Kirk could raise the standards of the 393rd's navigators to that required for an atomic strike mission.

"Tom, I want every one of these crews to be lead crews, capable of finding the target without having pathfinders up front leading the way and dropping marker bombs."

Ferebee had two further suggestions for men who could meet Tibbets' requirements. One was a bombardier, Kermit Beahan; the other was a navigator, James Van Pelt. Tibbets said they would be recruited. He announced his own choices—all men who had served with him on the B-29 testing program. Three were pilots: Robert Lewis, Charles Sweeney, and Don Albury.

Lewis, Tibbets explained, was a little wild, but a natural pilot; Sweeney was Boston Irish "and would fly a B-29 through the Grand Canyon if you asked him"; Albury "was about the most competent twenty-five-year-old I have ever known."

He had one other selection, Staff Sergeant Wyatt Duzenbury, his former flight engineer. "Tom, Dooz can coax magic out of airplane engines, and he's a helluva guy when you're in a corner. Give him an engine fire and he becomes steady as a rock. Give him two and he becomes even steadier."

By the end of the evening Tibbets and Ferebee had virtually decided on the men who would be flying with them on the first atomic strike.

IN tight FORMATION five aircraft flew east over the Pacific. All their pilots hoped to die soon.

The fliers wore white scarves loosely knotted around their necks. Under their leather flying helmets, concealed by their goggles, each man also wore a replica of the hachimaki, the headband that samurai warriors had traditionally worn in battle in ancient Japan. Today the band was the symbol of the Special Attack Corps of suicide pilots —the kamikaze, or "divine wind." The first divine wind was the momentous typhoon of 1284, which, according to legend, rescued Japan from the fury of a Mongol attack.

The men chosen to launch the new divine wind, the kamikaze, had been told before takeoff that they were "gods without earthly desires." Their Zeros contained 250-kilogram bombs. They were to crash-dive on ships of the American fleet.

This plan was devised only six days before by Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi. To all the adjectives applied to the moon-faced commander —arrogant, brilliant, uncompromising —another could be added in these last days of October, 1944: desperate. He was no longer the confident leader who had helped devise the attack on Pearl Harbor; who had launched the assault on Clark Field, Manila, which had wiped out America's air force in the Far East; who had sent pilots marauding through the Pacific.

Those days were over. Retaliation was on the way. A huge American fleet had been spotted heading toward the Philippines. If those islands fell, Japan's supply lines would be fatally ruptured. Onishi was given command of the First Air Fleet, operating from Manila. This once impressive force now consisted of less than a hundred aircraft. But they were enough for Onishi. On October 19, when he had presented his plan, there had been an enthusiastic response from his pilots. The men now over the Pacific were about to deliver the first blow.

They had, of course, written their final letters and farewell poems. Some had left brief wills. Each, in accord with the tradition of samurai leaving for their final battle, had enclosed locks of hair and nail parings —all that was to remain of their bodies on earth.

Before takeoff every man had been given a ceremonial cup of water in behalf of Onishi, who had left there a few days before. As each pilot took his cup, he had bowed, and lifted the water in both hands to his lips.

At 10:40 a.m., October 25, 1944, the suicide squadron sighted the American fleet. The pilots bore in, scattering tinfoil to jam the American radar. Each pilot pulled a toggle, which prepared the bomb in his plane for detonation.

At 10:53 the first Zero crash-dived onto the flight deck of the aircraft carrier St. Lo. Plane and pilot disintegrated in a huge explosion.

The St. Lo began to sink.

By 10:59 all five planes had hit their targets. The mission had been a total success.

THE drab olive-green sedan stopped on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The security chief, Colonel Lansdale, told Tibbets and Beser to remove their air force insignia. He handed them Corps of Engineers emblems. In explanation he said, "Security."

Lieutenant Jake Beser had been overwhelmed the day before by what had happened when he had been called to Tibbets' office. The radar officer had immediately recognized by name the important visitors. Professors Norman Ramsey and Robert Brode were physicists whose papers he had read as a student. They had questioned him for an hour on his academic background and radar qualifications. Finally Brode had told Beser he could do the job on the understanding that his life was expendable.

Nobody had told Beser yet what the job was, but Beser knew better than to ask.

Early this morning he and Tibbets had flown south from Wendover to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lansdale was driving them on to Santa Fe. They reached the town and stopped before a wrought-iron gate, centuries old, which led to a small Spanish-style courtyard. Professor Ramsey was waiting on the patio to escort them to Site Y, Los Alamos. It had been chosen as an atomic laboratory for two reasons. It was remote enough for security purposes, and —if one of the experiments resulted in a premature explosion —there was no sizable civilian population nearby to be imperiled by the release of radioactivity.

Tibbets' first impression was disappointing. He felt "the birthplace of the bomb should look more factory-like." What he saw were clusters of buildings set out on a plateau of the Jemez Mountains. Six thousand scientists, technicians, wives and children now lived within the high wire fences. Beser thought the place looked like a concentration camp. Many of the buildings were of rough construction. As at Wendover, there were areas marked RESTRICTED and MOST RESTRICTED.

Waiting for Tibbets and Beser in his office was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the shy, frail theoretical physicist who was the scientific director of Los Alamos. He greeted them warmly, but was less effusive toward Lansdale, who had had Oppenheimer under surveillance because of the scientist's former association with various Communist organizations. General Groves had questioned Oppenheimer and was satisfied that his "closest, most indispensable collaborator" had severed all connections with his offending past. Groves had ordered the watch lifted, but Lansdale had ignored the order, and his agents continued to harass the scientist. They were watching the wrong man.

When Lansdale left, Beser went on to Professor Ramsey's laboratory. Now Oppenheimer told Tibbets, "You had better know everything." Here at Los Alamos, he said, men were discovering the special nature of a chain reaction and studying the unique problem of critical mass: how to bring together two lumps of uranium 235 of the right potency to cause an atomic explosion at the right time.

Oppenheimer reduced the problem to a few words. "Time. That's our problem, Colonel. Getting the timing right. If we are successful in solving that, then your problems will begin."

The scientist explained how they intended to build the uranium bomb. A suitable mechanism had to be devised to bring two hemispheres of U-235 into contact quickly, so that their combined mass reached the critical point, and detonated. The amounts of U-235 to be used, the size of the two spheres, the speed with which they must collide, the range of the neutrons projected by the chain reaction —those, Oppenheimer said, were some of the questions to be answered.

He rose to his feet and told Tibbets to follow him. They went into a nearby building where a team headed by Captain William Parsons, whom Tibbets had met at Colorado Springs, were dealing with how to ensure that the bomb would explode at a predetermined height above the target. Parsons was in charge of turning both the uranium and the plutonium devices into combat weapons. Oppenheimer said that Parsons would probably be going along on the atomic mission.

"Good. Then if anything goes wrong, Captain, I can blame you," Tibbets said.

"If anything goes wrong, Colonel, neither of us will be around to be blamed," Parsons replied.

He then described an experiment to test the theory of critical mass. A piece of uranium was dropped through a hole in another, doughnut-shaped lump of uranium. The uranium plunging through the gap brought both pieces, for a split second, close to critical mass. It was a dangerous game to play. They called it "twisting the dragon's tail."

Parsons explained more about the bomb's mechanism to Tibbets. "It is designed to ensure that the bringing together of the two sub-critical pieces occurs for the first time at the moment of planned detonation over the target." The heart of the bomb, he went on, was just "a good old five-inch cannon with a six-foot-long barrel. After the bomb has left the plane and is on its way, a piece of U-235 about the size of a soup can will be fired down the barrel into a second piece of uranium, fixed to the muzzle."

Oppenheimer then explained that in the coming months Tibbets' unit would drop test bombs. These would help the scientists develop the final shape of the atomic-bomb casing, as well as test the proximity fuses, which governed the height at which the bomb would explode.

Tibbets continued to be astonished by Oppenheimer during his conducted tour of Los Alamos. Late in the afternoon they were walking down a corridor, past rooms whose walls were lined with blackboards covered with formulas, and whose occupants pored over slide rules and logarithm tables. Suddenly, Oppenheimer halted in mid stride, his head cocked, like a dog scenting game. He stalked back to an office. Inside, a man sat slumped on a straight-backed wooden chair, staring fixedly at a blackboard. He was unshaved and disheveled. Tibbets wondered if he "might be the building janitor taking an unauthorized rest after a night out."

Oppenheimer stood silently behind the man. Together they stared at the blackboard with its jumble of equations. Oppenheimer moved to the blackboard, rubbed out part of an equation, and quickly wrote a new set of symbols.

Still the man in the chair did not move.

Oppenheimer added a final symbol.

The man rose from his chair, galvanized, shouting, "I've been looking for that mistake for two days!"

Oppenheimer smiled and walked out of Enrico Fermi's office, leaving one of the founders and greatest geniuses of nuclear physics happily resuming work.

Radar Officer Beser was enjoying "the most fantastic day" in his life. He had met and talked to a dozen renowned scientists who had been his teenage heroes. They told him about the strange guns they had devised that used atomic "bullets." When fired at each other, the bullets devoured one another on impact. The scientists described how they hoped this phenomenon would be used to produce an atomic explosion. They spoke of temperatures they hoped to create which would make a light "brighter than a thousand suns."

Professor Ramsey outlined the role Beser would play on the mission. Beser would be taught how to monitor enemy radar to see if it was trying to jam or detonate the intricate mechanism of the bomb. To understand how this could happen, Beser must learn what few of the scientists involved knew —the minute details of the bomb's firing mechanism, including its built-in miniature radar set —the heart of the system. Nobody seemed concerned about how much Beser was told. They poured information over him; he felt they left him "sinking in a scientific whirlpool."

At the end of the day Tibbets and Oppenheimer were once again alone in Oppenheimer's office, reviewing what Tibbets had been shown. The flier felt that in a few hours he had received a better scientific education than in all his years in school.

Now Oppenheimer began to question him. Apart from enemy interference, the scientist wanted to know what other risks were involved in a bombing mission. Tibbets explained there was always the chance of bombs jamming in their bays, or a faulty mechanism detonating them prematurely. Oppenheimer was confident such risks could be eliminated in the atomic bomb.

Then he stared intently at Tibbets. "Colonel, your biggest problem may be after the bomb has left your aircraft. The shock waves from the detonation could crush your plane. I am afraid that I can give you no guarantee that you will survive."

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