In the 1952 movie Above and Beyond, movie idol Robert Taylor played handsome Col. Paul Tibbetts, straight out of Central Casting, who piloted Enola Gay to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima 78 years ago today. We all grew up in awe of Tibbetts, Enola Gay and the perfect mission which incinerated Hiroshima from the first A Bomb dropped in anger. My awe eventually turned to revulsion over a horrendous war crime.
But who piloted what plane that dropped the second A-Bomb on Nagasaki just 3 days later? The American Story has largely erased the saga of the Nagasaki mission for good reason. It was a colossal screw up that almost got the pilot court-martialed; indeed, nearly detonated Fat Man over the Pacific en route.
Trouble began early on. Paul Tibbetts, fresh from his Hiroshima success, picked his friend Charles Sweeney to pilot the drop plane “Bockscar” instead of its regular pilot Fred Bock. Sweeney was unfamiliar with both combat and the plane. Preparing for takeoff, Sweeney was unable to operate the reserve tank containing 640 gallons of fuel needed to get Bockscar safely back to its Tinian takeoff point. Bock may have had the familiarity with the plane to accomplish that. Regulations required the mission be scrapped so Sweeney and crew exited Bockscar. But Tibbetts overruled them and the mission was on with insufficient fuel.
Three hours in, worse trouble. Fat Man’s red detonation lights began blinking wildly. Chief weaponeer Dick Ashworth frantically searched the blueprints and realized 2 switches had been reversed in the pre flight assembly. Solving that problem, everyone relaxed till Bockscar failed to rendezvous with the second of two back up planes, one for photography and one for instruments. The instrument plane, The Big Stink, was 9,000 feet above Bockscar.
Instead of pushing on to original target Kokura, Sweeney wasted 45 minutes of precious fuel trying to link up. Big Stink pilot Hoppy Hopkins broke radio silence frantically calling Tinian asking “Is Bockscar down?” Mission officials only heard “Bockscar Down” and freaked out believing Bockscar, Fat Man and the 13 member crew were in Davy Jones Locker.
Ashworth was frantic that all was lost. As tension mounted between the weaponeer and the pilot, he finally persuaded Sweeney to proceed to primary target Kokura. But a smokescreen put up by Japanese defenders responding to the Hiroshima attack caused Sweeney to go around for a second and third bomb run, wasting more fuel.
More trouble. Flack and approaching Japanese Zeros forced Sweeney to abandon Kokura to flee 100 miles to alternate target Nagasaki.
The drop made, Sweeney made a desperate dive to avoid the mushroom cloud that nearly engulfed them. But his previous delays made the return trip to Tinian impossible. Low on fuel, Sweeney began a treacherous 450 mile flight on dwindling fuel for Okinawa. All aboard Bockscar prepared to ditch. Approaching the Okinawa airfield unable to radio the tower of their emergency, Bockscar had to drop into a forced landing amid numerous other flights without control tower clearance. Bockscar bounced 25 feet in the air landing at 30 MPH over the maximum landing speed, nearly colliding with a row of fuel laden B-24’s. One engine quit on the approach and another upon touchdown. Thinking Bockscar was lost, airport personnel inquired who this strange plane was that descended out of the sky unannounced. “We just dropped an atomic bomb” was the reply.
There were no celebrations for the crew of Bockscar. Officials considered a courts martial for Sweeney for his life and mission threatening delays but considered the embarrassment it would cause and decided against. Why mar the mission-perfect first nuking of civilians by Paul Tibbetts and Enola Gay?
While we’ll never get a Hollywood treatment of the Bockscar A-Bomb mission, it would be a lot more exciting than Above and Beyond. An appropriate title? Nearly Down and Out Over Nagasaki.
Walt Zlotow became involved in antiwar activities upon entering University of Chicago in 1963. He is current president of the West Suburban Peace Coalition based in the Chicago western suburbs. He blogs daily on antiwar and other issues at www.heartlandprogressive.blogspot.com.