Before the break of dawn on the morning of August 6, 1945, a large silver bird took off from North Field on Tinian, one of the small North Mariana Islands in the South Pacific. Affectionately dubbed the Enola Gay in honor of the pilot, Col. Paul Tibbet’s mother, the B-29 Superfortress carried cargo that would change history.
On board, along with Tibbets, was a crew of 11 men. Captain Robert A. Lewis served as co-pilot and was the Enola Gay's regularly assigned aircraft commander. Major Thomas Ferebee was the bombardier on board the plane, Captain Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk served as navigator. Captain William S. Parsons of the U.S. Navy was weaponeer and mission commander.
First Lieutenant Jacob Beser performed radar countermeasures and was also the only man to fly on both the August 6th mission and three days later, another historic flight to Nagasaki. Second Lieutenant Morris R. Jeppson served as assistant weaponeer and Staff Sergeant George R. "Bob" Caron was tail gunner on the mission and perhaps the first man to witness the aftermath of their mission, taking photographic of the mushroom cloud from the tail of the Enola Gay.
Staff Sergeant Wyatt E. Duzenbury was flight engineer, Sergeant Joe S. Stiborik served as radar operator and Sergeant Robert H. Shumard was assistant flight engineer. Private First Class Richard H. Nelson operated the VHF radio.
The gravity of the mission that these men set out to accomplish was not lost on them. The cargo they carried was a bomb, code named “Little Boy,” with a target of Hiroshima, a Japanese industrial city of more than 350,000 people in 1945. It was an effort by the United States to bring a swift end to the war with Japan that promised to drag on indefinitely at the high cost of more American lives.
Shortly after 8:00 AM on August 6, the 10-foot long, 5-ton bomb fell for 43 seconds before it detonated nearly 2000 feet above Hiroshima. The city was decimated. Shockwaves wreaked havoc ten miles away and the thermopulse from the explosion incinerated everything within nearly four and a half miles of ground zero.
''If I live a hundred years, I'll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind. Everyone on the ship is actually dumbstruck even though we had expected something fierce." Capt. Lewis wrote afterward.
Three days later, the United States would drop another bomb on the city of Nagasaki, this one dubbed “Fat Man,” which killed an estimated 40,000 people. The United States saw the war’s swift end when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito offered his unconditional surrender less than a week later on Aug 15, 1945. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also made the American Military front runners in the nuclear race, a display of superior firepower in the face of a rapidly declining relationship with a Stalinist Soviet Union.
The Enola Gay and her crew changed the course of history that day. They were forced to grapple with the consequences of the role they played. Capt. Van Kirk acknowledged the conflicting reaction that the entire crew echoed.
"I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run, but I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life." Van Kirk said later. First Lt. Jacob Beser put the necessity of such evil into context with the words he shared after the fact.
"No, I feel no sorrow or remorse for whatever small role I played. That I should is crazy. I remember Pearl Harbor and all of the Japanese atrocities." Beser later wrote. "I remember the shock to our nation that all of this brought. I don't want to hear any discussion of morality. War, by its very nature, is immoral."