Enola Gay: History's Surprises

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I have always been fascinated by World War II and especially by the history of the Manhattan Project. And that leads inevitably to the B-29 Superfortress and Paul W. Tibbets, whose arc through history put him at the point of two of the war's biggest projects—the bomb and the bomber that would deliver it.

Although it's not commonly known, the B-29 was actually said to be a larger undertaking than the Manhattan Project, at least in terms of total dollars spent. It was so beset with developmental problems that by 1943, when Tibbets showed up in Wichita to help sort out the airplane's shortcomings, there was some doubt that the airplane would be combat ready in time to have an impact on the war. The following year, Tibbets was selected to form what would eventually be the 509th Composite Group. He was 29 years old and responsible for what would become the most important weapon system of the war.

I never met Tibbets—he died in 2007—but I saw him interviewed many times. Inevitably, he was asked if he ever lost any sleep over the horrific results of the Hiroshima attack. Not a wink, he said. It was his duty and he did what was expected of him. Given how complex getting the bomb on target was and how many things could have conspired to make it fail, the fact that Tibbets made sure that it didn't stands as one of the towering examples of military leadership in a war that produced many others. In Tibbets, history found the right man.

From the interviews I'd seen, I always took Tibbets to be a no-nonsense guy and probably not given to sentimentality. When I was preparing this podcast on the restoration of the Enola Gay, National Air and Space restoration specialist Ann McCombs told me that if you were in the cockpit of the Enola Gay today, at the Udvar-Hazy Center where the airplane is displayed, it would appear entirely as it did in 1945 save for one detail. There's an understated pad on the pilot's seat, in place of the hard pan that would have been softened (barely) by a parachute worn by each member of the flight crew.

The pad was placed there to accommodate Tibbets, who traveled to the Smithsonian a number of times and sat quietly in his old seat. Sentimentality? Nostalgia? Or a dedicated commander who well understood his airplane's place in history and wanted to make sure the world would see it as he thought it should be seen? Either way, I'd have given a barrel of pennies for those thoughts. Nearly as fascinating is the story of the Enola Gay's restoration, which you can hear in our long-form podcast. I hope you enjoy it.

Click here to listen.

Comments (6)

Some years back (OK, a bunch of years back) I had the opportunity to go through the Enola Gay when she was still in several big pieces at the Silver Hill restoration facility. I was researching a book that involved the B-29, and the folks at the Smithsonian were good enough to give me a close look. As a pilot, I found the cockpit a bit like sitting on an aluminum diving board while surrounded, literally surrounded, by a lot of framed perspex. You were really hanging out there. But the bomb bay was the place I found most haunting. The release hook was a big, yellow, crudely-fashioned thing with a single wire leading to the latch release. Just a single wire. I thought of the impulse that traveled down that wire, popped that latch and let the bomb fall. It was dim and silent in there, with just that bright yellow hook glowing in the darkness. Spooky. There was also a log where visitors could jot down their thoughts. One message had been left by a Japanese man, and it said, essentially, "Thank you for saving my life."
By that he meant, I assumed, thanks for ending the horror before an invasion doubled, ore tripled it.
There's also a remarkable story about the mockup of the Hiroshima bomb that stood in front of the cockpit section for years. But that's for another time.

Posted by: ROBIN WHITE | April 13, 2009 10:51 AM    Report this comment

I think you will find that B-29 seats were designed for backpack style parachutes and were equipped with seat cushions. My seat (flight engineers) had no back. The parachute rested against the co-pilots armorplate. Seat pack chutes were not used.

Posted by: Don Vance | April 13, 2009 11:36 AM    Report this comment

I would respectfully disagree with the following statement " B-29 was actually said to be a larger undertaking than the Manhattan Project, at least in terms of total dollars spent."

The Manhattan Project cost substantially more than $20B ($1.8T in today's dollars) dollars through the end of WWII. The total number of bombs produced was 4, with 1 remaining unexploded. You could make the claim that each bomb cost $5B.. Even if the cost of the B-29 program was as high as the 3B reported in Acepilots.com, it does not even get into the range of magnitude of the Manhatten project expenditures.

Posted by: RAY DAMIJONAITIS | April 13, 2009 4:49 PM    Report this comment

In the early 50's, the "Enola Gay" was merely static display near the, on-base barracks of a Friend of the family during his tour at Langley AFB, I believe. During a visit by my newlywed parents, they were given a tour of that historical aircraft by their friend. Of Course, the plane did not have near the significance then as it does now. It was looked at more as a relic from 2 wars ago. The tour was capped off with pictures of a man waving to the camera. My Mother remembered the "man" as their friend. It was only after 50+ years had passed, and those old slide photos were found, that it was revealed the man waving from the Cockpit window was a picture of my recently deceased father. I never knew of his interest, or his contact with this, now famous, piece of history. The photo is now a prized possession I carry, brag, and smile about. It shows a picture of a young, vibrant man sitting in a seat, where history was made.

Posted by: Chris Murphy | April 14, 2009 1:06 AM    Report this comment

I too had a chance to tour Silver Hill when the Enola Gay was being worked on. Standing in the narrow bay where the bomb had hung was chilling and memorable. Learning the philosophy behind how restorations are done was even more remarkable... which suggests that the cushions were standard equipment.

Posted by: BILL WATSON | April 14, 2009 7:17 AM    Report this comment

I, too, had the chance to encounter the Enola Gay on the shop floor at Silver Hill. I was fully aware that I was touching a milestone on the very course of mankind, and I was quite humbled and amazed by the experience.

Posted by: Brian Veazey | April 14, 2009 10:44 AM    Report this comment

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