- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- Military History
The Enola Gay‘s Saga
On June 14, 1945 the Army Air Forces (AAF) accepted the B-29-45-MO, serial number 44-89292, from the Martin plant at Omaha. The “MO” in the sub-variant designation stands for “modified”. The modifications were so it could carry an atomic bomb. This B-29 was assigned to the 509th Composite Group, the bomb group that was created to carry out atomic bombing missions.
This B-29 flew to Tinian in the Pacific Ocean as were the other B-29s of the 509th Composite Group. The 509th began flying combat missions on July 20, 1945. These were training missions for atomic bombing missions. The B-29s would carry a single large bomb that was painted orange. These missions were nicknamed “Pumpkin Missions”. The Enola Gay arrived on Tinian on July 2, 1945. It flew its first Pumpkin mission on July 6.[i] It flew 4 Pumpkin missions.
Prior to flying his atomic bombing mission the 509th commander then Colonel Paul Tibbets had the aircraft he would fly on the mission named “Enola Gay”, after his mother. On the morning of August 6 Enola Gay took off from Tinian with a uranium bomb nicknamed “Little Boy”. A uranium bomb had not been detonated before. Colonel Tibbets flew the Enola Gay to its primary target Hiroshima. At 8:15 AM Tom Ferebee, the Enola Gay’s bombardier, release the bomb and 43 seconds later the Tall Boy detonated. The bomb detonated over the foot of the Moyasu Bridge. This was about 1,000 feet away from the aiming point, which was the Aioi Bridge.[ii]
The bomb killed approximately 130,000 people from the time of its detonation until the end of 1945. Hiroshima survivors had a higher than average rate of leukemia for many years after the bombing. Many survivors also suffered a number of other health issues that lasted long after the war. The Hiroshima bombing destroyed two Japanese Army divisions but most of the casualties were civilians.
[i] The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, An exhibition label script for the National Air and Space Museum, October 26, 1994 version, © 1994, Smithsonian Institution.
[ii] The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, An exhibition label script for the National Air and Space Museum, October 26, 1994 version, © 1994, Smithsonian Institution. The Aioi Bridge had a T-shape which made it a good aiming point for a bombing mission.
After the Mission
After the war the Enola Gay served with the 393rd Composite Squadron. It flew a number of nuclear test missions but the Enola Gay never again dropped an atomic bomb. The Air Force put the Enola Gay in open storage in 1959. In 1965 the Smithsonian took possession of the Enola Gay. The Smithsonian kept it at its Paul E. Garber storage facility in Silver Hill, Maryland.
In the 1970s the Confederate Air Force[i] carried out reenactments of the Hiroshima bombing. They used the only B-29 in flying condition, named FiFi. During one of these shows they had retired Brigadier General Paul Tibbets flying the aircraft. It was part of their show commemorating World War II. The Japanese didn’t like the reenactment, which included a mushroom cloud. The Confederate Air Force cut out the Hiroshima Bombing reenactment when the Department of Defense sent a Navy officer to ask them to stop. The officer told the Confederate Air Force representative the reenactment could hurt U.S. relations with Japan.
In 1984 the National Air & Space Museum began restoring the Enola Gay. It was the largest restoration project the museum attempted. In 1994 the restoration was nearly completed and the National Air & Space Museum wanted to use parts of the Enola Gay for an exhibit about the atomic bombing and its repercussions. The museum’s plans set off alarm bells with World War II veterans. Air Force Historian, Dr. Richard Hallion, called the exhibit’s original script “dreadful”. [ii] The Air Force Association called for the exhibit’s cancelation. The museum revised the script but the revision didn’t satisfy the critics. The museum attempted a third script. They had a working relationship with the American Legion.
Stanford University professor, Barton Bernstein told the National Air & Space Museum’s director, Dr. Martin Harwit, the estimate of U.S. casualties for the invasion of Japan in the script, 250,000, was too high. Dr. Harwit changed the script to Mr. Bernstein’s estimate of 63,000. When the American Legion learned of the script change the organization withdrew its support and on January 18, 1995 called for the exhibit’s cancelation. President William Clinton supported the veteran organizations. On January 30, 1995 the museum cancelled the exhibit and Dr. Harwit resigned soon after.
The National Air & Space Museum opened an exhibit that included the forward fuselage and other parts of the Enola Gay on June 28, 1995. There were some small demonstrations outside the museum by anti-nuclear protestors. There was a vandalism incident so the museum installed Plexiglas over some photographs and artifacts. The museum ran the exhibit until March 1997. This exhibit was one of the most popular for the National Air & Space Museum.
On December 15, 2003 the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center opened. The Enola Gay was one of the aircraft on exhibit in the World War II section. There were 7,083 visitors to the Udvar-Hazy Center on the opening day. A few of them protested the Enola Gay being displayed without a strong negative context. Thomas K. Sicmer threw a bottle containing a red liquid into the Enola Gay. The police arrested him for felony destruction of property and loitering. The police arrested Gregory Wright for loitering. The attack made the Enola Gay a crime scene for a time. The museum has since added a sheet of Plexiglas to make it more difficult for would be vandals to damage the Enola Gay. The Enola Gay is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center with nothing to draw special attention to it.
[i] The organization has since changed its name to the Commemorative Air Force.
[ii] Dr. Richard Hallion said this during an interview by Paul F. Straney in 1994.