ORDERS crackled over the B-29's intercom. "We'll do it by the book. They're all gonna be watching."
The crew of the huge bomber heard their pilot, Captain Robert Lewis. But for the past hour they had been "doing it by the book," strictly following the procedures in the buff-colored manual. They had checked the outside of the bomber, clambered aboard, stowed their parachutes, and begun the pre-flight countdown.
Wyatt Duzenbury, the flight engineer, and Bob Caron, the tail gunner, who had flown with Lewis many times during Tibbets' B-29 testing program, were surprised at how serious Lewis was this crisp fall morning at Wendover. They knew him as a joke-loving twenty-six-year-old who wore a battered peaked cap and a stained flying jacket. He looked like a combat veteran, even though he had never seen action.
Lewis was treating this flight, in the words of Caron, "as if he had on board the President and the Cabinet."
"Equipment secure, Navigator?"
Captain Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator, settled himself more comfortably in his padded seat. He wondered whom Lewis was trying to impress. Tibbets had told Van Kirk that Lewis was "just letting off tension. In the air he's a natural." Van Kirk had his own ideas about naturals. Too often he had found them "daredevils trying to prove things to other people."
Lewis had always thought navigators a strange breed, with their blind belief that any pilot could steer a course to an absolute degree. Today, though, the pilot intended to follow explicitly all course changes Van Kirk indicated.
Seated in the cockpit, watching the winking lights on the instrument panel, Lewis experienced a familiar feeling of well-being; he had come a long way.
In his boyhood days on the streets of Brooklyn, a swift pair of fists had been better than a classy accent; in flying school, he knew, his abrasive manner had worked against him. But in the end, even his most demanding instructor had conceded that Lewis was a highly gifted pilot. He'd never forgotten the pride his mom and pop had shown when they first saw him in an officer's uniform, and his own satisfaction while walking through his Brooklyn neighbourhood and being "greeted as somebody."
Then there had been the day he had taken the legendary Charles Lindbergh up in a B-29. Afterward Lindbergh said he would have been happy to have had Lewis fly with him on his epoch-making flights.
It was Tibbets who had developed Lewis into one of the most experienced B-29. pilots in the air force. The summons to Wendover had not surprised Lewis. He had written to his father, "Paul needs me because I am so good at my job."
Modesty, as Lewis would admit, was not one of his endearing qualities. But he had others: generosity and a fierce loyalty to his crew, especially to the enlisted men.
He had joined his flight crew a few days earlier, when the first B-29 had been delivered to Wendover. There had been keen competition among the pilots to fly it, and Lewis had been school-boyishly excited when he was chosen to do so.
He immediately began to talk of "my crew" and "my ship."
But for this flight Van Kirk and Tom Ferebee had taken the places of his usual navigator and bombardier. Tibbets had explained to Lewis that Van Kirk and Ferebee would take turns flying with all the crews. Tibbets had added a promise. "It will be just like the old days, Bob."
But Lewis felt that his ten days at Wendover had not been like that. Tibbets never had time to sit down with him and reminisce about those old days. Worse, "He didn't laugh at my jokes and wasn't so tolerant if I made a small mistake. I put it down to nerves over a new command."
The last flight checks were ending. Lewis asked Van Kirk the estimated flying time to the initial point (IP), the map reference from which the bomber would commence its bombing run. From the IP to the aiming point (AP) would be a matter of a few miles. Over that distance Lewis would work with the bombardier, Ferebee, whom he had disliked from the day they met. He 'thought the bombardier acted "superior," talked like "a playboy in the movies."
In his mind Lewis ran through the briefing Tibbets had given. He was to climb to thirty thousand feet and fly south to the bombing range near the Salton Sea, in southern California. Ferebee would try to drop a single blockbuster, filled with ballast, into a seven-hundred-foot circle on the northern edge of the lake. Once the bomb was dropped, Lewis was to execute a 155-degree diving turn, which would take him back in roughly the direction from which he had come. Tibbets had emphasized, "Keep your nose down, and get the hell out of the area as fast as you can."
Tibbets hoped the maneuver would provide the answer to how an aircrew could survive the expected shock wave from an atomic blast. He had calculated that Lewis should be some seven miles away when the test blockbuster hit the ground. He did not explain to Lewis the reason for this action, "because that would have meant telling him too much too soon."
Shortly before the crew had boarded the B-29, Jake Beser, the radar officer, had arrived on the apron with some three hundred pounds of special equipment for the trip. "Can't tell you why," Beser had told Lewis cheerfully. "It's a matter of security."
That didn't endear Beser to Lewis. Waiting for takeoff, Beser squatted on the floor of the B-29, aft of the toilet, in the rear section of the plane, with his spectrum analyzers, direction finder, search receivers, and antennas. He would practice coping with simulated enemy attempts to interfere electronically with an atomic bomb. During the flight it would be Beser's task to recognize, anticipate, and deflect "enemy" radar beams.
"Ready to start engines?"
Duzenbury studied the engineer's panel before answering Lewis. He was, at thirty-one, the oldest man in the crew. He hadn't questioned why Tibbets had brought him to Wendover. It was enough for him "to work for the finest gentleman in the air force."
He also liked Lewis, who, next to the colonel, was the best pilot he knew.
"Start engines, Captain," he said.
One by one, each of the four Wright Cyclone engines roared into life, and the tower cleared Lewis for takeoff. At the end of the runway he boosted the engines to 230o rpm while Duzenbury checked the magnetos and generators. Then Lewis advanced the throttles to their full-power position and slowly released the brakes. At 95 mph, just as the manual said, Lewis lifted the largest bomber in the world into the air.
Exactly on time he reached the IP. Minutes later Ferebee announced he had the AP in his Norden bombsight. "Bombs away. Correction. Bomb away."
Lewis banked the plane violently to the right, dropping its nose to give him more speed. A surprised Caron, far back in the tail, shouted into the intercom, "Cap'n, it's like a roller coaster back here!"
Lewis shouted, "I'll charge you for the ride when we get home!"
Beser was too involved to notice the maneuver; two of his instruments had lost power, and he had no idea how effective his electronic countermeasures had been against the invisible beams. The blockbuster fell within the circle. On the ground, cameramen from the Manhattan Project recorded its fall. Their films were flown to Los Alamos, where scientists studied them, trying to determine the best final shape for the atomic-bomb casing.
Measuring instruments calculated that Lewis was over seven miles away when the bomb hit. Tibbets, observing the drop from the ground, expressed his relief to one of the scientists who was with him. The maneuver meant that an aircraft should be able to avoid the atomic bomb's shock wave.
The man gave Tibbets a chilling response. "Seven miles, twenty miles, fifty miles. There is no way of telling what the safe distance is until we drop a real one."
When Tibbets returned to Wendover that October evening, he continued to review the tactical requirements for delivering an atomic bomb. Although he knew a great deal more than he had a month earlier, he was far from reassured. A fighter escort had been ruled out. To survive the shock wave, fighters would have to be so far away from the explosion that it was unlikely they could provide proper protection. Further, a fighter escort might only succeed in drawing attention to the bomber.
It looked as if the B-29, would have to go in alone.
That, too, raised problems: flak and enemy fighters. It was probable that the final approach would be made over enemy-held territory. The more Tibbets thought about it, the less seemed the chance of success. The bomber could be destroyed long before it reached its objective.
Then Tibbets recalled his experience in New Mexico. Months before, he had been there carrying out tests to assess a B-29's susceptibility to fighter attack. He had been irritated to find that his usual B-29, was out of commission. He was offered another one — stripped of its guns.
Tibbets quickly discovered that the stripped plane could operate some four thousand feet higher than his own bomber. It was also faster and more maneuverable. He was able to outpace the P-47 fighters making mock attacks on him. Finally, at thirty-four thousand feet, the fighters had to give up; the strain on their engines was too great.
Tibbets began to feel excitement. Flak was largely ineffective at over thirty-two thousand feet, and Tibbets knew that a P-47 was similar in performance to a Japanese Zero.
With Japan likely to provide a target city, Tibbets reasoned that his best possible chance of survival would be to use a stripped down B-29 for the mission. He would take out all the armor plating and all the guns, apart from the two in the tail.
He telephoned the flight line and told the ground crews to begin work at once on the two bombers already at Wendover. The mechanics christened the emasculated bombers Sitting Target One and Sitting Target Two.
ON NOVEMBER 24 the 393rd received its fifteenth stripped-down B-29, The squadron was now at full strength.
Three hundred blockbuster casings were available for the crews to use on their practice missions to the Salton Sea. Cameramen continued to film the bomb drops and the aircraft making their jolting 155-degree turns. Pilots soon discovered that failing to execute a proper turn meant being temporarily grounded. Such punishments were an integral part of Tibbets' method. He also encouraged excellence by example. He himself flew several runs, with Lewis as his co-pilot, and performed the turn perfectly.
The size of the target area was steadily reduced until it was no more than four hundred feet in diameter. Ferebee had demonstrated it was possible to drop a casing into the circle from thirty thousand feet. Van Kirk proved that on training flights which were long and over water, it was feasible to navigate the distance with no more than a half-mile error. The workshops remained open twenty-four hours a day, and the flight line worked around the clock keeping the bombers aloft.
One December morning, at thirty thousand feet over the Salton Sea bombing range, Tibbets and Ferebee were trying to solve a problem that had worried them for a week. The bombardier had failed to drop the dummy bombs consistently into the circle, now reduced to three hundred feet. There seemed no reason why some fell true while others did not.
Tibbets reminded Ferebee why precision was so important. "Tom, when the time comes, we have to be as near on target as we can get. Radar is out because it's still too uncertain. So it's got to be visual. You've got to be able to drop within that circle every time."
Tibbets had come on the practice flight to see why the aim was erratic. The weather was perfect, and Lewis was holding the B-29 steady on the run up to the aiming point. Tibbets watched Ferebee crouching over the bombsight, which had been totally stripped and reassembled, a mechanically perfect instrument.
Ferebee called out that he had the AP in the cross hairs. He lifted himself off his seat to bring his face closer over the viewfinder. Below, through the optical sight, he could see the bombing circle clearly. Satisfied, he eased himself back on the seat, his head still glued to the viewfinder.
"Bomb away." The bomb fell outside the circle.
Tibbets ordered Lewis to fly back toward the AP. He told Ferebee to repeat his actions. He watched intently as the bombardier began to line up the target in his sights, then rose off his buttocks again.
Tibbets shouted, "That's it!"
At the crucial moment, Ferebee, like any other bombardier, had lifted himself off his seat to bring his eyes closer to the sight. The movement was no more than an inch or two. But it was enough to change the angle of his head against the viewfinder. If he bad been bombing from a few thousand feet, the small movement would have had little effect. But from thirty thousand feet, nearly six miles up, it meant the error could be several hundred feet by the time the bomb hit the ground.
Within hours Tibbets had ground crews construct and fit a padded headrest to the bombsight. Using it, Ferebee's head was forced into exactly the same position each time. From then on, he achieved consistent accuracy.
While the perfecting of precision bombing continued, many crewmen were complaining about the long training hours, the continual security checks — and, above all, why didn't somebody explain what this was for?
In the words of the executive officer, Captain John King, the feeling was growing "that there were `them' and `us."' Or Tibbets, Ferebee, and Van Kirk — and the rest of the 393rd.
The trio worked and relaxed together. Occasionally, Lewis joined the group. But the once close relationship between Tibbets and Lewis was cooling. Tibbets felt Lewis was increasingly trying to take advantage of their past association. Tibbets was no longer amused by the aggressive way Lewis approached everything: cards, volleyball, even conversation. But in the air Lewis continued to excel. In the end, that was what Tibbets cared most about.
Beser did not like flying with Lewis, because they had "nothing in common." But the radar officer warmed toward Tibbets; he saw, correctly, a shy man behind the aloof commander. He had become aware that Tibbets had a marriage problem and that he was "only truly happy in the air, but there he was magnificent."
Beser enjoyed the mystery surrounding his function. He was regularly — and unsuccessfully — pumped about his visits to the restricted Tech Area and the unscheduled flights he and Tibbets made to Albuquerque. Beser was receiving instruction in the intricacies of electronic countermeasures from Los Alamos technicians, who would return to Wendover with him and spend days in the Tech Area, teaching him to analyze the intensity variation of successive return waves or to identify the location, speed, and course of a reflecting object. After Beser had become familiar with some of the bomb's secret radar system, a security agent guarded him day and night whenever he left the base.
By now grim winter had come to Wendover. The wind whistled across the salt flats, numbing everything in its path. Tibbets became even more tight-lipped. General Groves, the Manhattan Project chief, was in regular telephone contact with him, wanting to be briefed on progress, chivying and demanding. Tibbets would mention some of the difficulties in bringing all the bomber crews to readiness. Groves would listen, grunt, and reply, "Work them hard. That's what you are there for."
Scientists flew in and out of Wendover daily, demanding that design changes be made. They asked that the bomb bays be modified. Conventional bombs were held in place by shackles, but for a plane carrying just one large, long atomic bomb, what was required was a single reliable hook from which it could be suspended. No such hook could be found. Kermit Beahan, the bombardier who had been recommended by Ferebee, was sent to England to bring back the specifications for the one used by the RAF in its Lancaster bombers. It was adapted and fitted to the 393rd's B-29S.
There were constant changes, too, in the bomb's shape and weight. Often, after a change, visiting scientists from Los Alamos would tell Tibbets they were satisfied, that he could plan his training program with confidence. A few days later they would return, asking again for modifications as they discovered other problems necessitating further alterations.
Tibbets frequently found himself in sympathy with the exasperated service personnel in the base machine shops, where the changes had to be made. At times they became almost openly hostile to these unknown civilians who descended on them and scrapped a long night's work with the briefest of apologies. Matters were not helped by security people insisting that the scientists pass themselves off as sanitary engineers — the subject of many ribald comments.
Tibbets' command had assumed impressive proportions. Besides the 393rd, he now had the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, the 390th Air Service Group, the 603rd Air Engineering Squadron, and the 1027th Air Materiel Squadron under his wing. These units fetched, carried for, and served the 393rd. To police them he had the 1395th Military Police Company and some fifty agents from the Manhattan Project, who, under Uanna's instructions, continued to try to get the airmen to talk about their work. They rarely succeeded. The word was out: if Wendover was bad, Alaska was worse.
But that did not solve the problems associated with the daily management of some twelve hundred servicemen. There were fist-fights and drunken brawls in Salt Lake City involving base personnel. Captain Eatherly was regularly summoned to Tibbets' office to explain his misdemeanours. There was a wad of speeding tickets he had collected. Tibbets made him pay. Eatherly spent many of his nights playing poker, and shooting dice at a hundred dollars a throw at the State Line Hotel in Wendover. Sometimes he lost — and won back — his month's salary in a few hours. Security agents reported his gambling to Uanna, who complained to Tibbets. But the colonel said, "He's a hell of a pilot. That is all that matters."
Eatherly shrugged aside his sizable gambling losses, hinting of a huge ranch back in Texas whose income could meet any of his debts. He claimed he had left the ranch at seventeen to become a pilot. He told the story well. Nobody suspected it was just a pipe dream, one of the first signs of the instability which, after the war, would cause Claude Eatherly to be committed to mental hospitals. His fellow fliers only recognized that he seemed to have a yearning to be famous.
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