Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

The Hiroshima Mission

This broadcast is a dramatic retelling of the Hiroshima mission and the trials the 509th Composite Group faced in the lead up to that mission. The broadcast includes a speech by Colonel Paul Tibbets and a reading of a letter written by Enola Gay co-pilot, Robert Lewis.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


Narrator: Apparently aloof from the rest of World War II, the solitary 509th, still unaware of its own purpose, carries on its puzzling training schedule. Their orders: practice runs to nearby islands. Then their own private missions to Japan, always above thirty thousand feet, always alone or in threes, always to drop just one bomb. Each time they must return to Tinian to face the ridicule of their fellow flyers. A poem is written in their dubious honor.

“Into the air their secret rose. Where they are going nobody knows. Tomorrow perhaps they’ll return again and we’ll never know where they’ve been. But take it from one who knows the score; the 509th is winning the war.”

These missions are not so futile as they appear. Navigation has improved over the actual approach courses until they can take them out on a ten-cent compass and bring them back on a broken slide rule. Each of the group’s fifteen planes is being constantly flight dusted from bomb bay to rudder bolt. Carburetors have been replaced by fuel injectors and engines are fine tuned to get four miles out of the fuel per three. Meteorological runs acquaint them with the high altitude wins over the Japanese coast, the strongest and most conflicting in the world. Headwinds that can hold a B-29 motionless in the air cross current so complex the bombardier might have to make five extra corrections for each drop. Most important, these sorties condition the Japanese to the regular appearance of small flights which drop only one bomb and do comparatively little damage.

August 5, 1945, the word from Alamogordo, test successful. Japan has refused a final surrender ultimatum, has pledged her five million man army, still intact, to glorious suicidal resistance. If the bomb is not used military experts have told President Truman one million American causalities may result from an invasion of the Japanese main islands. The decision is made; the bomb will be dropped tomorrow. For some, crews of the bombers coming and going on the big Tokyo raids tomorrow even will be too late. Aborted take offs and landings take their normal operational toll on a B-29’s.

When four B-29’s in a row crash and burn the day before the atom strike, one man is more concerned than most. Navy Captain William S. Parsons Technical Control Officer asks permission of the Officer Second in Command of the Manhattan District, General Thomas Farrell to arm the bomb in flight. A crack up on takeoff tomorrow he fears might disintegrate the entire island of Tinian. He has never assembled an A-bomb before; he has four hours in which to learn how. The bomb has been delivered to Tinian in four sections – three by plane, one by the cruiser Indianapolis sunk four days after she delivered her cargo. Colonel [Paul] Tibbets will fly the strike plane B-29 number 82. Its regular Commander Captain Robert Lewis will fly as his co-pilot. These are actual pictures made during the bombing up. This is the first time they have been released.

Colonel Tibbets plane with the bomb partially assembled and racked up is tenderly taxied down to the remotest end of the runway. That same day, August 5, the crews of six planes have been summoned to the assembly hall for briefing. Now for the first time they will be told why the 509th Composite Group has come to Tinian. They will hear from Colonel Tibbets why they had to practice those violent, wing-ripping hundred and fifty degree getaways each time they released a bomb.

Colonel Paul Tibbets: Gentleman, when we met at Wendover for the first time about ten months ago, I told you at that time that I had great hopes for the mission that we are about to undertake could end the war. At the same time, I offered release any man who felt that he could not work under the conditions of mystery and possible danger that might prevail. That offer still goes because tomorrow we are going to execute that mission. If there are any doubts existing in any one’s mind, he can leave now before anymore is said. A bomb similar to one that we are going to use was exploded in the desert in New Mexico. We have here with us tonight a man who witnessed that explosion. They have photographed it and they will endeavor to answer any questions that you may want to ask. Now during your training period you were called upon to do many strange things. There was a reason for all of that because this bomb that you are going to use is not an ordinary bomb. It is not a thousand pounder, it is not a ten ton blockbuster, this bomb has the strength of twenty thousand tons of TNT.

Narrator: Enola Gay freshly painted on the plane is the name of Colonel Tibbets mother. His will be the strike plane. The Great Artiste and B-29 number 91 will carry observation personnel. Three other planes will go out first and report the weather over the targets. Depending on visibility, they will strike either Hiroshima, Kokura or Nagasaki. These are each military targets previously undamaged so before and after results can be assessed. Captain Parsons, the only one aboard who will know the secret of the bomb assembly has borrowed an automatic pistol. If they are shot down he has no intention of being captured. The time is 2:40 AM New Year’s morning of the Year One of the Nuclear Age. 

The mission starts tensely, more than half of Enola Gay’s takeoff weight is gasoline and she needs every last foot of runway.

As soon as they are airborne work must start on final assembly of the bomb. Back in Tinian when they practiced this, the bomb was still inert, now Captain Parson must arm it, set the trigger. The margin for error: zero.

New York Times reporter William L. Lawrence has asked copilot Captain Robert Lewis to keep a flight log. It is in the form of a letter to his parents in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. 

“Dear Mom and Dad” Lewis writes “4:20. The Colonel better known as Old Bull shows signs of a tough day with all he had to do to get this mission off. He is deserving of a few winks so I’ll have a bite to eat and look after George, the automatic pilot.”

5:55 over Iwo Jima, halfway to Japan, the Enola Gay rendezvous with the Great Artiste and number 91. They start to climb and set a course to the Northwest. The gunners clear their guns. Captain Parsons is still sweating out the bomb assembly only now he does not have much time.

7:10, Captain Lewis writes in his letter home “the under cast has begun to break up and the day is very beautiful. We are now about two hours from bombs away”.

7:30 the Lewis letter “Captain Parsons is putting the final touches on his assembly job. We are now loaded. The bomb is now alive. It is a funny feeling knowing that it is right in back of you, knock wood.”

8:00 Lewis writes “We have set the automatic pilot for the last time until bombs away.”

8:30 Lewis “We have reached proper altitude and have just received a radio report from the weather plane that left an hour ahead of us that our primary is our best target so with everything going well so far, we will make a bomb run on Hiroshima right now.”

8:35 the other two planes in the flight peel off and leave the Enola Gay. What she must do, she must do alone.

Welder’s goggles have been provided to shield the men’s eyes from the bomb glare, some of them remembered to put them on. It is 9:11.

At 9:16 AM, August 6, 1945 Captain Bob Lewis writes the last entry in his letter home, just two words “My God”.