Robert “Bob” Krauss is the Official Historian of the 509th Composite Group. He and his wife, Amelia Krauss, published The 509th Remembered, which profiles the service members of the 509th Composite Group and the events that surrounded the group and its role in dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this interview, Krauss discusses how he became interested in collecting and preserving the history of the 509th and became the official historian for the 509th CG. He also narrates the stories of airmen from the 509th Composite Group and recounts his relationship with some of the airmen, including Donald Albury, Ray Gallagher, Fred Olivi, Paul Tibbets, and others. He reflects on the atomic bombings, the legacy of the Manhattan Project, and visiting some of the Manhattan Project sites today.
Norris Jernigan served in the 509th Composite Group at Wendover, UT, and Tinian Island during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Jernigan describes being assigned to the Intelligence Office of the 393rd Bomb Squadron. As a clerk, he prepared information for briefing missions and typed subsequent reports. He recalls his surprise at being transferred to Wendover and learning that the 393rd had been selected to be part of a top-secret project. Jernigan discusses what it was like serving on Tinian, the relationships between the different squadrons, and the atmosphere of the island during and between the atomic bombings of Japan. He remembers the intense secrecy surrounding the work at Wendover, the friendships he made, and the shock of spending time in sunny Cuba for training after the cold Utah winter. He also describes seeing the Enola Gay in pieces in 1980 before it was restored by the Smithsonian, and reflects on the atomic bombings and the Manhattan Project’s legacy for today.
Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and is the author of the definitive biography of General Leslie Groves. In this interview, Norris provides an overview of the French atomic program, describing the influence of Marie Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie. He goes on to explain how nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, became nuclear powers in the context of the Cold War. He also discusses current debates over nuclear weapons. Norris provides insight into the creation of the 509th Composite Group, and the U.S. decision to use the atomic bombs in Japan.
Dr. Jon Hunner is a Professor of History at New Mexico State University, the author of “Inventing Los Alamos” and “J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West,” and a former director of the New Mexico History Museum. In this interview, Hunner provides an overview of life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, including its takeover of the Los Alamos Ranch School and its relationship with Hispanos and Pueblos in the area. He talks about how Manhattan Project scientists and their family members would arrive in Santa Fe, and the sites in Santa Fe that are linked to the project. Hunner also discusses J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family, and Oppenheimer’s security hearing that revoked his security clearance. He describes the devastating effects of the atomic bombs on the Japanese who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and discusses his thoughts on the influence of the atomic bombs on Japan’s decision to surrender.
Al Zelver served as a Japanese language officer in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spent a year in Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this interview, Zelver talks about becoming a Japanese language officer, his time in the China-Burma-India Theater during the war, and seeing the ruins of Hiroshima shortly after the Japanese surrender. Zelver ruminates on the decision to drop the bombs and on the surrender itself. He recalls his time in Japan both immediately after the surrender and years later when he returned to Hiroshima to speak with the Hiroshima Peace Foundation. He reflects on the atomic bombings and nuclear proliferation today, and describes a conversation with Manhattan Project scientist Felix Bloch.
Nancy K. Nelson is the widow of Richard H. Nelson, who was the VHF radio operator on the Enola Gay on the Hiroshima atomic bombing mission. In this interview, Nelson discusses how she met her husband after the war. She describes his experience training to be a radar operator and in the 509th Composite Group. She recalls how he and other members of the missions felt about the atomic bombings. Nelson also discusses her experiences going to 509th Composite Group reunions and her husband’s friendships with General Paul Tibbets and other members of the 509th including Tom Ferebee, Dutch Van Kirk, and others. She also describes her husband’s visit to Japan and other reunions and events where he shared his wartime experience.
Russell E. Gackenbach was a navigator in the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. He flew on both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions. His crew flew aboard the Necessary Evil, which was the camera plane for the Hiroshima mission. Gackenbach photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. His crew flew again during the Nagasaki mission as the weather reconnaissance plane for the city of Kokura. In this interview, Gackenbach describes his wartime experiences, from enlisting in the service, to training in Wendover, UT and Cuba with the modified B-29s, to flying on both atomic bomb missions. He recalls the personalities of other members and leaders in the 509th, including Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew pilot, Capt. George Marquardt. He also describes his life after the war, including being honored at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game as their “hero of the day” and participating in 509th reunions around the country.
Joseph Papalia is an official historian of the 509th Composite Group, the US Army Air Force unit created specifically for dropping atomic bombs. Papalia, who served in the Air Force in the 1950s, became interested in the 509th later in his life. He began attending 509th reunions, held annually, and became friends with many veterans of the group, as well as with other historians who focused on the unit. In this interview, he describes how the reunions have changed as the veterans have grown older or passed away, as well as how they view their role in the atomic bombings and their legacy. He also tells anecdotes about members of the unit, including Colonel Paul Tibbets and Captain Bob Lewis. He shares examples of the 509th memorabilia and artifacts that he has collected over the years.
Jack Widowsky served as the navigator on the B-29 Top Secret at Wendover and Tinian during World War II. He participated in the mission to bomb Hiroshima as the navigator of the Big Stink, which was the backup strike plane on Iwo Jima. He flew as the navigator of the Laggin’ Dragon, one of the weather reconnaissance planes, during the mission to Nagasaki. In this interview, he discusses his time in the 509th Composite Group. He begins by narrating his introduction to the 509th after enlisting in the Air Force. He describes the copious travelling he did as he and his crew trained to be a part of the team that would eventually drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two important themes of this interview are the intense security and secrecy the project necessitated, as well as the jovial camaraderie enjoyed by Widowsky and the other members of the 509th.
Mack Newsom was a member of the Army’s 509th Composite Group. Newsom worked as an airplane mechanic and B-29 engine specialist. He was part of the ground crew on the B-29 Silverplate plane Next Objective. In this interview, Newsom discusses the details of his work on B-29s and what he and his fellow mechanics did to maintain the plane. He also describes the working conditions on Tinian, speaking of the climate, accommodations, division of labor, and water shortage on the island. He reflects on the use of the bomb, and how those stationed at Tinian came to learn of Hiroshima. Newsom also recalls going to Cuba when Next Objective was assigned there for temporary duty.