75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing Missions

The B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay parked on Tinian. Courtesy photo

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, MO. – On April 26, 1945, 859 men loaded onto two trains at a small rail station in western Utah for a two-day journey to Seattle, Washington. After a short stay, the men boarded the ship “Cape Victory” and on May 6 set off for Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands where they were met by Lt.Col. Hazen J. Payette on May 29. The men were members of the 509th Composite Group, a part of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the modern Air Force. Payette, the group intelligence officer, had led an advanced Air Echelon of 90 men that arrived several days earlier. Over the course of the next two months, most of the remaining members of the 509th CG would arrive on the island along with equipment, supplies and fifteen specially modified B-29 Superfortress aircraft.

The move from Wendover Field, Utah where the men had been stationed since December 1944 to Tinian was in anticipation of a mission so secretive, that only the commander, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. and a handful of individuals were aware of its true nature.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Tibbets, flying the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Three days later, the only other atomic bomb used during wartime was dropped from Bockscar flown by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney.

As we look back on the events of August 1945, the debate continues as to whether using the atomic bomb was justified and whether it was responsible for the Japanese surrender. After four years of war, the American people wanted peace and it came after the 509th CG carried out the missions it had been training for over the previous eight months.

On August 15, Emperor Hirohito’s recorded message announcing Japan’s surrender was broadcast over the country’s radio network. In the United States, “victory over Japan” was declared in newspaper headlines across the country, although President Harry Truman proclaimed September 2, 1945 as the official “V-J Day” when formal surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri.

Today, the 509th Bomb Wing holds the solemn responsibility of being the caretaker of the history associated with the missions of the Enola Gay and Bockscar. It is visible when you drive past the Silverplate B-29 standing guard at the front gate, when you display the 509th emblem bearing the atomic cloud burst and motto that translates to “Defender Avenger,” and when you look skyward to see the mighty B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber flying over Whiteman. Our mission to execute strategic nuclear operations, lethal global strike and combat support anytime, anywhere means we are ready to emulate the actions of the 509th CG, but that our resolve to do so ensures it will not be necessary.

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