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Joseph Papalia’s Interview

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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.

Date of Interview:
June 13, 2016
Location of the Interview:


Alexandra Levy: This is Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation here in New Jersey on June 13, 2016, with Joseph Papalia. My first question is to please say your name and spell it.

Joseph Papalia: Joseph Papalia, P-A-P-A-L-I-A.

Levy: Can you tell us where and when you were born?

Papalia: I was born August 20, 1936, in East Meadow, New York.

Levy: Can you tell us briefly about your life and career, and how you became involved in the 509th Composite Group?

Papalia: I picked up on it when I was going to college. I was a history major in college. I was always interested in looking into something that I thought would be very interesting historically, and possibly something to be collecting in as well. The more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that the atomic bombs and the guys who participated in that would be something that I would find very interesting. I began to pursue that.

The first person I met who was part of that 509th Composite Group—I met him initially over the phone—was [George] “Bob” Caron, the tail gunner on the Enola Gay. He was selling pictures to support the Confederate [Air Force], which is now called the Commemorative Air Force. I wrote him a letter and I asked to have a picture signed. He wrote me back a letter saying to me, “I used to live in the town next to where you live in New York,” which was Rockville Centre. From there we struck up a friendship, and we did a lot of communicating on the phone. He also communicated by tape with me.

Then from him I got involved with other guys, primarily Fred Olivi, who was the second copilot on Bockscar. Then Fred initially, after talking to him for a period of time, asked me if I would be interested in coming to one of the reunions. That was 1984.

I took him up on it and we went to the reunion in Philadelphia, where I met most of the guys who were on the planes. They were there, both on the Nagasaki mission and the Hiroshima mission. And the more involved I became, the better I got to know these guys, and the more I got to know Fred. We did a lot of communicating.

Then one day he asked me, he said, “Would you be interested in possibly considering the title of Historian of the 509th?”

 I said, “Yeah,” I said, “That’s pretty good.” So I jumped at it.

From ’84, I went to successive reunions, right up until last year at Wendover. Meeting the guys, talking to the guys, knowing what they did and everything, it just got to be something great. My wife came along with me. She became very interested in it, too. That’s how the whole thing evolved.

I had written several articles pertaining to the 509th, and over the years I had a lot of stuff that I collected, which I really, truly enjoy looking at. That’s basically how I got to where I am right now.

Levy: What was your main career? This was just a side project?

Papalia: My main career—initially, I was in the Air Force. I went in from ’55 to ’58. I came out of the Air Force and I went into the landscaping business. I didn’t have an education at the time. I went into the landscaping business, and it eventually evolved into spraying in a tree service business.

By that time, I had gotten married. My wife, who was a schoolteacher at the time, began to push me. She said, “Why don’t you go take some courses?” because she knew of my interest in history. I took a couple of courses at a community college, and then that eventually evolved into an associate’s degree. Then I went to Queens College, New York, and I got a bachelor’s degree with a major in history and a minor in education. I actually have a teaching certificate in history, nine through twelve. Then I completed my master’s degree.

At that time, in the ‘70s, they weren’t hiring teachers. They were excising teachers, because of the budgets in my particular area. So then I decided, “Well, let me look into something else.” I also liked law enforcement, so I qualified to become a Nassau County, New York probation officer, which I was for twenty-five years. Then I retired in 2010.

Since then, I have been just looking more at the 509th. I bought several antique cars, which I work on. I go to antique car shows with them, and that takes up a lot of my time. My wife and I, we travel a lot. We have been to quite a few places in Europe and all over the place.

When I was in the Air Force, I spent eighteen months in Japan. I never got to Hiroshima, never got to Nagasaki. At that time, I really wasn’t thinking about that. It was, “You’re young, you want to go out and you want to have a good time.” Then when I came home, got married, and went through college and became interested in the 509th, that’s when it all came to this point.

Levy: Do you think your time in the Air Force contributed to your interest in the 509th?

Papalia: My time in the Air Force contributed, yes, to the 509th. I love aircraft. I was very interested in aircraft, because I was, like I said, in the Air Force. The members of the 509th were members of the Army Air Force, as it was known back during World War II. It was like a sense of camaraderie there, even though these guys preceded my enlistment by ten years. I was in from ’55 to ’58. That did help, it did help.

Levy: Just briefly, can you explain what the 509th Composite Group is and what exactly goes on with them today?

Papalia: The reunions initially started, I believe, it was sometime in the ‘60s. They just had the reunions for the officers at that particular time, and then it slowly evolved into both officers and enlisted men. They had these terrific reunions. They were having reunions before I even got involved.

But I remember going to the 1984 reunion, and I was really surprised at the number of guys that were there, that were still active, and the camaraderie that went on with these guys. That’s where I met [General Paul] Tibbets, I met [Major Charles] Sweeney, and I met [Captain Kermit] Beahan and a bunch of other guys who were on the plane, [Major Thomas] Ferebee. And some of the guys who were on Bockscar, I met them as well.

Over the years, I met Ashworth, Frederick Ashworth, who was the weaponeer on Bockscar, who was really a great guy. I mean, he retired as a vice admiral in the Navy, and he was such an unpretentious man. You could talk to him, and he would listen to you and listen to you. Now, I was an enlisted man in the service. I was what they call an airman second class. Ashworth retired as a vice admiral, and at the time he retired, he was the commander of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. I am saying to myself, “This guy is calling me and asking me advice on the 509th!” I was just awed by him.

I talked to guys, like I said: Tom Ferebee, Tibbets, and many, many other guys. They sharpened my interest in the 509th. So the reunions had been really great as far as getting together every year, and as a sense of camaraderie.

Unfortunately, today, the crew members [of Enola Gay and Bockscar] are gone. The last one to die was [Major Theodore] “Dutch” Van Kirk. Now we have a number of them [other 509th members] who are still alive, but they don’t come to the reunions for various reasons, because of age and other things. At the last reunion, at Wendover, we only had six guys from the 509th show up.

So it has evolved from a mass membership, yearly [event] of guys coming, to now very few members of the 509th, and mostly sons, grandchildren, and relatives.

Levy: What were your initial impressions of Colonel Tibbets, Major Sweeney, when you went to the reunion? And talk about how you got to know them a little bit better over the years.

Papalia: Really down to earth guys. Tom Ferebee was very, very down to earth. So was Dutch Van Kirk. Tibbets was pretty much so, but not so much as they were. I guess he still had that commander’s instinct from being in the 509th. But, he was a nice guy to talk to. We went to lunch with him several times at the Reading Air Show. As he got to be older, he did not want to sign as much material as he used to. Then he put the word out saying, “I’m not signing anything anymore.”

I had known him for years. I had spoken to him on the phone, as well as talking to him at home. I said to myself, “Geez, I got this great thing here. I’m going to send it to him.” So I sent it to him for an autograph.

About two weeks later it came back, and he had scribbled a note and attached it to the—I think it was a picture. “I don’t sign autographs anymore.”

I said to myself, “Well, let me try a different tactic on this.” I wrote back and I said, “Colonel Tibbets,” I said, “Joe Papalia.” I said, “Do you remember me? We met at Reading and at the reunions, and so forth and so on. We had great conversations. We sat down, we had dinner with all the rest of the guys.”

Several weeks later, the picture comes back, it’s all signed. He said with a note, “Okay, Joe. This time, but no more.”

Levy: Why do you think the stories of the 509th veterans are so important for the public today to understand?

Papalia: I think to understand that, you’ve got to have a sense of history to begin with. You have got to know what they did. You have got to know what was going on during World War II. I think Dutch Van Kirk put it very nicely when he said, “The Japanese of World War II are not the Japanese of today.”

I think Americans need to realize—instead of excoriating the dropping of the atomic bombs and taking these guys to task for what they did, which a lot of people do do. Not everybody, but there are some people out there who do do this. I do not think those people really know their history.

You have to understand what was going on in the world at the time, the atrocities that were being committed by the Japanese, the code of bushido, the Samurai code, “Death before dishonor.” They were not going to give up. The Japanese were not going to give up. They had said they were not going to give up. It was death to the last soldier. The only thing that stopped them were the atomic bombs. Had it not been for the atomic bombs, we probably would have ended up invading Japan.

The [Japanese] military did not even tell the people about Hiroshima, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, because they did not want the public to know about it. They kept it quiet as best they could. Then, of course, you had Nagasaki. Then the Emperor got himself involved and he goes, he said in so many words, “Enough is enough.” They had a meeting, and he told them that they had to “endure the unendurable.”

The military tried to have a revolt. They wanted to get the recording that the Emperor had made, his capitulation to the Allies. Even up until that point, even after the Emperor had spoken, they still wanted to fight. They had brought back most of the troops from Manchuria. They had 5,000 kamikaze planes in reserve. They were training the people to meet the soldiers on the beach. The women were training with spears. Everybody had a role in stopping the invasion. The role that the kamikaze planes were going to play in case of an invasion, they were going to crash into the landing barges, which would have been loaded with troops.

So the atomic bomb, as horrific as it is, as it was, still was a necessary thing to do in order to bring that war to an end. If people don’t realize just how fanatical the Japanese were, they should read a little bit about Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and what it took to take those islands.

Levy: How did the member of the 509th—especially Colonel Tibbets and Major Sweeney and those who had lead the bombing missions—feel about their legacy? Were they sensitive when people criticized them for their role?

Papalia: Never. I never sensed any sensitivity on their part, no. They were soldiers, they had a job to do, and they did it. They didn’t question it. It was not their role to question it.

I never heard one of them ever complain or apologize as to the role that they played in the war. Of course, the killing of all of those civilians is something that I am sure that they have had a little bit of sympathy towards. But as far as what they did and how they did it, it never came into play as something, “I should not have done this.”

Levy: What did they feel about the legacy of atomic weapons in the Cold War? I know some of them, like Colonel Tibbets, continued on in the military after the war.

Papalia: They felt that the use of the atomic bombs demonstrated to the world the mass destruction that these weapons could create. And in so doing, in bringing the war to an end, the people could see what atomic bombs can do. And hopefully, they would act as a deterrent for any future use of atomic bombs. Now, we have not had one single atomic bomb dropped since World War II. So they had acted as a terrific deterrence against destruction of the world.

In that particular case, the atomic bombs have prevented mass world war. They have. Because mutual assured destruction means that, “I have bombs, you have bombs. If I use mine, you’re going to use yours. So let’s just step back and not do it.” This has not stopped brushfires from happening, and things like that. But it has prevented a massive world war.

Levy: Did most of the 509th stay on in the military after the war?

Papalia: No, no. Colonel Tibbets stayed on. Ferebee stayed on. Sweeney stayed in the reserves. Olivi stayed in the reserves. Commander Ashworth stayed in the Navy. He was a graduate of [the US Naval Academy at] Annapolis, he stayed in. [Captain William “Deak”] Parsons, a graduate of Annapolis, stayed in. [Technical Sergeant Wyatt] Duzenbury stayed in. He was the flight engineer on the Enola Gay, he stayed in. I cannot think of anybody else who might have stayed in. Most of them wanted to get out, they wanted to get home.

Levy: Colonel Tibbets went on to have a very distinguished career, is that correct?

Papalia: Yes, he did, but there were some problems. Colonel Tibbets was the commander of the 509th, and he had massive powers. All he had to do was mention the word “Silverplate” and he got what he wanted.

Now, there were generals who resented him, because of the authority and the power that he had. After the war, some of these generals tried to keep him down a little bit. At the end of World War II, he was only a colonel. He reached the rank of colonel. When he retired, he retired as a brigadier general.

Later on, because of the massive feelings against the use of the atomic weapons and against Tibbets, he eventually decided it was time for him to leave the military. There is some talk that because of all of that, he never got another star or another third star [i.e., he was never promoted to major general or lieutenant general].

As I said before, there were people in the service who did not like him. He could have an overbearing way sometimes, and they resented it. He had gone to seek different things for the 509th, supplies and so forth and so on. When he had gone to certain military people, they had said, “No, you’re not getting it, you’re not getting it.” Then he would pull the “Silverplate,” and he got what he wanted.

They felt that, you know, “Who’s this guy to come up to me? I’m a two-star or a three-star general.” You know how it is in the military, they don’t forget certain things.

Levy: Just as a little bit of background, can you talk about the “Silverplate” code name and also the modification of the B-29s?

Papalia: The [code word] “Silverplate” was given to the 509th. Anybody who used that word usually had carte blanche as to what they could do, and that was what Silverplate was.

The planes themselves were called “Silverplate bombers.” Why were they called that? Because the turrets were removed: the gun turrets, top and bottom, were removed. The reason for that was to make them faster and lighter, because the bomb itself weighed about 10,000 pounds. That was the reason for that. That was one modification.

The other modification were the propellers. They had these reversible propellers, which let the plane stop faster. They would just literally reverse the propellers. So instead of sucking air, this way it would be sucking air from the back, slowing the plane down. The bomb bays were widened to make room for the bomb, for putting it in and for taking it out. Other modifications, I can’t think of, but those were the basic modifications.

There were fifteen B-29s that were modified. It was for speed and for weight. The only armament they had was the tail gunner. He had a 50-caliber machine gun in the back.

I believe it was a double-barreled 50-caliber in the back of the plane. That was where the tail gunner’s position was. There was no other protection on a Silverplate plane.

Levy: When you say the atomic bombs were at 10,000 pounds—

Papalia: Approximately.

Levy: —how big were the payloads that B-29s typically carried?

Papalia: Now, if I remember correctly, I think they had a payload of around 20,000 pounds. They carried 500-pound bombs, 100-pound bombs. They also carried incendiary bombs. That is how they set Tokyo on fire. It was in March of 1945. They destroyed almost 60, 70 percent of the city. Over 100,000 people in the March raid were incinerated.

The heat that was coming up was so bad that some of the B-29s literally flipped over and came back. The guys in the planes said that they could smell the stench of death, it was coming up. They were flying in at about 10,000 feet. They brought the B-29 down from a height of 30,000 to 10,000, so they could get more precise bombing. That night, the incendiaries really torched that city. More people were killed in Tokyo in that raid than were killed in Hiroshima, initially.

Levy: I know a lot of historians talk about how the atomic bombings in some way were just a continuation of the aerial bombings that were going on, both in Germany and Japan, during the war. Do you see that as an extension, the atomic bombings?

Papalia: I see the atomic bombing as something that was put together to end World War II. To me, it was something that was unique.

As far as an extension was concerned, the bombings going on in Germany and the bombings going on in Hiroshima were similar, because they were mass destruction. The atomic bomb, of course, was mass destruction, but it was something that was, in my mind, aside from the other bombs. It was a project that was not part of that. It was something that was put together solely to end the war.

A lot of people do not know this, but the Japanese were working on their own atomic bomb, as were the Germans. They were getting their heavy water out of Norway. The Japanese were working to get their atomic bomb. And if anybody thinks that the Japanese would not have used the atomic bomb, they do not know the history of Japan.

Levy: To go back to Wendover, why did Colonel Tibbets choose Wendover as the headquarters for the 509th?

Papalia: That’s a good question. He wanted a place that was totally isolated. Because of the nature of their work, he wanted a place where they could be left alone, where people would not notice them, and they could do what they had to do to prepare for the use of the bombs. That place was so bad that Bob Hope at one time gave a show there and he called it “Leftover.” It was secrecy. It was secrecy on the part of Tibbets and the part of what he was doing.

The 509th Composite Group was activated in September of 1944. By May of ’45, they were mostly on Tinian. They had flown to Tinian. The bombers, of course, flew, and the guys who were part of the ground crew and everything else, they went over by boat. They stayed there until they dropped the bombs, and then they started coming back in November of ’45. They came back to Roswell Air Force Base, where many were discharged.

One guy in particular who comes to mind: Paul Metro, who was a 393rd radar operator, said after he got discharged, he literally hitchhiked across the entire country, here to New Jersey where he lived. He lived in Edison, New Jersey. That was the story that he had given to me.

Levy: How many members were there of the 509th?

Papalia: I believe there was something like—I could be mistaken on this—I believe there was something like 1,800 members of the 509th. Tibbets had recruited them from various organizations, out at Fairmont, Nebraska. He recruited his navigator and his bombardier and other members of his crew personally, too.

Ferebee and Van Kirk had flown with him in England on a B-17, which was called the Red Gremlin. That was his B-17. Then when he came back to the United States and the 509th was put together, he called these guys. He called them in and said, “I want you to come with me now.” I do not know exactly where they were at that time, but they ended up in the 509th.

That is the power that he had as the commander of the 509th. This guy could just about do anything. If anybody questioned him, they had [General Leslie] Groves to answer to.

Levy: Why was Tibbets selected as the head of the 509th?

Papalia: Because he was an ace pilot, to begin with. The guy was just an ace pilot. His background was such that his leadership qualities were great. His flying powers were great.

He was interviewed for the job. In one of his books—of course, when they interview you, they know everything about you, and they are going to ask you questions to see if you are going to answer them truthfully. They asked him, “Have you ever been arrested?” during one of the interviews.

Tibbets said, “Yes.” He said, “I had gotten into trouble once.”

They asked him, “What happened?”

Well, he had gone out one night with a girl, and one thing led to another. The cops came and caught them in a compromising position, and it had to go to court or something. He owned up to that, and they looked at it as being a test of his sincerity and honesty.

Then Groves thought he was good. [General Carl] Spaatz and the others, they all looked up to him. He had flown Dwight Eisenhower, I believe, and General [Mark] Clark in Europe to various places where they were having meetings. He piloted these guys, too, that’s how much they thought of him.

Levy:   What is it like to visit Wendover today? What can tourists see and how have the sites been preserved?

Papalia: It’s a lot of gambling casinos there. It’s on the Utah/Nevada border, to begin with. A lot of the World War II barracks are not there, they’re gone. There’s a monument there to the B-29.

Jim Petersen, who is active in the preservation of Wendover Air Force Base, is trying to his best to do as much as he can, and he has done a lot. They have put up some World War II buildings, according to World War II structures. We had the meeting at—I can’t remember the name of the building. But there are several buildings that they have built. It’s mostly in just a little area. But the areas outside of this—where they practiced and where they had their billets and buildings that had ammunition—are still somewhat preserved. But as much as they keep putting up, there is still a lot there that is gone.

Levy: Has the Enola Gay hangar been preserved?

Papalia: Yes, they are trying to take care of the Enola Gay hangar. That is a good point. It was a mess before they got to it, and they have come a long way in keeping it. Yes, they have meetings in there. When they have shows, they have people who go in there and they sell artifacts and things like that.

Levy: Have you ever been to Tinian?

Papalia: No, I’ve never been to Tinian. I have flown over it once, but I have never been there, on my way to Japan.

Levy: Are the bomb pits still there?  

Papalia: The bomb pits are there. They are glass-enclosed, with signs that indicate what they are.

Levy: So you’ve been to Japan. Have you ever been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Papalia: No, I have never been. I have been close, but I never went. I was in Japan in ’57 to ’58, and I was just a young kid then. I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. I was with a bunch of guys who drove motorcycles, and we just went all over the place. We did the usual things that young guys do. I really was not thinking about history in Japan at the time.

Levy: You’ve done a terrific job collecting documents related to the 509th. Can you talk about some of the most interesting and meaningful photographs and documents you have come across?

Papalia: Sure. I have, in Tibbets’s own handwriting—this was back when he was signing things. There was a time when Paul Tibbets would sign anything that he considered to be relevant to the 509th. He never was looking for compensation. He signed it and he sent it to you.

I have one letter of him describing the dropping of the atomic bomb and what he saw as they circled around the mushroom cloud, the various colors down below, the fires and everything, so forth and so on, in his own handwriting. He signed it, “Paul W. Tibbets, August 6th, 1945, Hiroshima.”

I have [Kermit] Beahan, the bombardier on Bockscar, in his own handwriting, it’s like four pages of him describing the beginning of the mission to the very end of the mission. He ends it by saying, “When I got back to Tinian, I realized it was my birthday. We partied all night.” I have that.

I have a lot of things signed by Frederick Ashworth pertaining to the bomb, pertaining to the mission.

I have a lot of things by Bob Caron, even some tapes that he gave me. Over a period of time, we communicated by tape. He wasn’t really that much for writing. He preferred to talk by tape. It’s good, because he would really talk, and he would talk about a lot of things.

Various pictures of the aiming position signed by Dutch Van Kirk, with an arrow pointing to and saying, “This is the aiming point of the atomic bomb, where Ferebee released it.”

Many other things, but those are basically the big ones. Of course, signed pictures of all the guys, the crews, the planes, just a lot of things that from time to time I like to go and look at.

Levy: You generously had donated your oral history collection to the Atomic Heritage Foundation for publication. How does it feel to listen to the stories of these men, many of whom have passed away?

Papalia: First of all, I have to compliment the Atomic Heritage Foundation in putting these on their [“Voices of the Manhattan Project”] website, because it makes people aware of history and what actually happened.

Listening to the voices, it brings back memories of the different things that they did, the different things that they talk about. It just relives the history. It makes it come alive again, when you hear these people talking about what they did and how they did it. It just makes me think about everything. It is just a great historical experience to listen to these people and their voices, and how they carried on in what they did.

On your website, you have that one of Tibbets with the video, that is a very good one, where he talks about everything. Of course, Bob Caron and Fred Olivi, and there are a few others, too, that don’t come to mind right now.

If you want to relive history, you listen to the tapes. You are listening to the actual voices of the people who were involved.

Levy: What interesting artifacts have you collected?

Papalia: I have a replica of the atomic bomb, which was signed by Tibbets and Van Kirk, I believe, if I remember correctly. Going to the meetings, I picked up certain memorabilia which was there. Like I said, a lot of pictures they signed. Actual artifacts per se, I don’t really have, as physical artifacts of Tinian.

Levy: What about replicas?

Papalia: I have here a replica of two plugs. Now, one is red and one is green, and there is a significant meaning to that. When the Enola Gay took off, the atomic bomb was not armed. They did not arm the atomic bomb at Tinian, because they felt had it prematurely detonated, there would be no more Tinian. So they came up with this idea of a safety plug and a hot plug.

The safety plug was in the bomb when the plane took off. The reason for that was that the inside of this plug, electronically speaking, was such that the bomb could not make a connection. Once they put the bags of explosives inside the plane and they armed it, and the bomb was ready to go, the green plug would come out and the red plug would go in, which would tell everybody, “It’s armed, don’t mess with it.” That is how it flew all the way to Hiroshima until they dropped it.

The plugs were initially owned by Morris Jeppson. Morris Jeppson then put them out for auction, and a fellow by the name of Clay Perkins was the successful bidder, and the value of the plugs at the time of the auction was $150,000 [misspoke: $185,000]. And he to this day has them.

I remember he came to one of the reunions. It was the New Orleans reunion, and he came with the plugs. He took them out and he handed them to me and he put them into my hand and he said, “Joe, you got $150,000 in your hand.”

I said, “Yeah, wow!”

The reason I mention that is because it is the value placed on some of the things regarding those people who were involved with the atomic bomb. To this day, a lot of pictures and artifacts still go for a lot of money. There is a lot of it out there today. The ones that are really the most sought after are the ones that are the most unique. There are certain things that are very unique, and these would be classified as unique.

Levy: Are there many B-29 Silverplates that have survived, or have all those been lost?

Papalia: Out of the original fifteen B-29s, the two that I am aware of are Bockscar, which is at the Wright-Patterson Museum [The National Museum of the US Air Force, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base], and the Enola Gay, which, of course, is at—   

Levy:   The Udvar-Hazy Center [of the National Air and Space Museum]. 

Papalia: Yeah, it’s at that museum. The Enola Gay is there, they put the whole thing together. I remember when they were doing it, there was a lot of controversy involved from a lot of people, pacifist groups, who felt that that plane should not be honored because of what it had done.

Levy: Were you involved at all in the debate over the exhibition on the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian in 1995? How did the 509th veterans feel about it at the time?

Papalia: Well, they were very upset about it. The veterans felt that they were getting a raw deal. They felt that they had contributed something to end World War II, and because of what they did, they were being excoriated. They just didn’t think that was the right thing to do.

Eventually Tibbets got into it, and a lot of other people got into it. I had written some letters, things like that. Eventually, they prevailed. As you know, the Enola Gay now is on display in Washington, D.C. [Chantilly, VA].

They [the 509th veterans] wanted the Enola Gay to be displayed in the museum. They felt that they had the right to have it displayed, because the plane itself had done something to help the end of the war, although it took a second atomic bomb to drop.

Now that plane, for many years, sat in a museum in Maryland, in Suitland, Maryland. It sat in a museum. I remember going there. When I got there—I mean, back then, people were very much laid back, this was like in the ‘80s. I went in there and I spoke to somebody and I said, “Look, I got a camera. Can I go up and take a picture of the Enola Gay?” The fuselage was here, the tail was there, the wings were there, it was all in pieces.

The guy said, “Yeah,” he said, “Go ahead.”

I literally walked up to the plane, I walked through it, I took pictures up in the fuselage. I still have these pictures today. Then eventually they restored it from there, and they took it and they trucked it into Washington, where it rests today at the museum.

Levy: So the controversy at the time was that some of the pacifist groups were against showing it?

Papalia: Well, not only were there pacifist groups there, I believe there were people in Japan as well. They were people—I’m sure they were well-intentioned—who just were against war. To them it was a symbol of war, and they just felt that it should not be placed up on a pedestal. It was not just, you know, pacifist, resistant groups. It was a combination of people.

But then again, the guys who wanted it pushed back, and eventually it got restored. I think they just showed the fuselage to begin with, and then eventually they put the whole thing together where it sits. It is a very beautiful plane to go look at.

Levy: Do you know if any of the veterans have been to see the restored Enola Gay or Bockscar?

Papalia: Oh, yes. We’ve had reunions, both to Wright-Patterson and to the museum in D.C. We went there, they had a special showing for us. Normally, people can’t go under the plane, they can’t go near the plane. They have borders around it, where you’re not supposed to cross. When we went there, they let us walk into the plane. Now, when I say “Us,” myself and the guys from the reunion. I am not a member of the 509th; like I said, I’m a historian. We walked under the plane, we looked up into the plane, we got right up to the plane.

I remember looking around, and there were these guys in uniforms watching us. I am sure that they were guards for the museum. They wanted to make sure that nothing happened to the plane. But they let us walk all around the plane, look up into the plane, and they were very nice to us. They were very nice.

At Wright-Patterson, they let us do the same thing, although I think one year they would not let us go near it. But then another year, we walked under Bockscar.

To the best of my mind, those are the only two Silverplates. A lot of them after the war ended up in crashes and on the scrap heap.

Levy: How did the veterans feel seeing the Enola Gay and Bockscar again?

Papalia: Oh, they were moved by it. I mean, they are very proud. They are very proud. Just the fact that they come to the reunion and look at the planes and everything, I mean, that tells you something. A lot of them travel hundreds, thousands of miles just to come to the reunions. Like I said, over a period of time, the ranks thinned out because of what was going on, you know, health-wise and age-wise and everything.

Yes, they were a very proud bunch of guys. There were some guys who never came to the reunion, and there were some guys that really didn’t care. But that’s their prerogative.

Levy: Now, when you said there about 1,800 who were in the 509th?

Papalia: Yeah, maybe more or less, I am not sure of the exact number.

Levy: Were all of those on Tinian as well? Did all of them move from Wendover to Tinian?

Papalia: Most of them moved from Wendover to Tinian. Now, I believe that some of them stayed at Wendover, but I cannot think of the exact number who might have stayed. Now, I could be mistaken on this, I am not sure.

But I know that the Silverplate bombers were worked on at Wendover, even after, I think, they had gone. I think they had come back for the bomb-bay doors, but I believe there were some that were still there. But then again, I can’t be sure.

Levy: Do you know anything about Colonel Clifford Heflin, who was the—

Papalia: He was the base commander at—

Levy: —base commander at Wendover.

Papalia: Yeah. They called him “the second Tibbets.”

Levy: “The second Tibbets.”

Papalia: Yes, they called him “the second Tibbets.” They feel that he did not get the recognition that he should have gotten.

Levy: The 509th members?

Papalia: Yeah, yeah, they called him “the second Tibbets.” He did a lot, I believe, with the planes. Getting the planes ready, so forth and so on.

Levy: So they respected him?

Papalia: Oh, yes, he was highly respected as the base commander. 

Levy: Soon after the bombings, two of the planes went back to the U.S. in case they needed to collect the third bomb. Did they go to Wendover, do you know?

Papalia: As far as I know, they got to California. When they got to California, the word went out to them, “Don’t come back, the war is over.”

Levy: So they stayed in California?

Papalia: I don’t know where they went from California. Chances are they probably went to Roswell, or they could have gone to Wendover, then from there to Roswell Air Force base.

Levy: What goes on at these reunions? Is it just mostly conversation? Are there air shows?

Papalia: We have had flyovers for the guys. The B-2 bomber has flown for us. As a matter of fact, it flew at Wendover at the last reunion we had. The speaker at the last reunion was Colonel Paul Tibbets IV, Brigadier General. He’s in charge of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. He was there, he was the main speaker. We have had flyovers at other bases.

I was impressed at the Los Alamos reunion, when we went to Los Alamos from Albuquerque. We were traveling in buses. At that time, they had to rent three or four buses, because of the number of guys that came. The side of the road was lined with Boy Scouts, and as the buses passed, they were saluting.

There is camaraderie. There are places to go and see. We have a banquet where everybody goes Saturday night, because the last day is Sunday, where we just have a business meeting for the next reunion. We have a guest speaker. Then there are free hours and so forth. It is just a great get-together with things to do, places to go. The last night, being Saturday, is the banquet night. The next day is the business meeting: “Where we going next year?”

One year I know that they were talking about just discontinuing the reunions. But they were overruled.

Levy: Where is it going to be this year?

Papalia: It’s going to be in, I believe, San Antonio, Texas.

Levy: So will you going to that one?

Papalia: Yes.

Levy: Is that something you look forward to every year?

Papalia: Yeah. We are going to go. It initially started out as not an official reunion, it was just going to be a get-together, people from previous reunions. Then they changed it around.

It’s going to be at San Antonio. From what I have been reading in the newsletters, we are going to be going to places like the Nimitz Museum—Admiral [Chester] Nimitz, who was in charge of the Navy in the Pacific during World War II—the Alamo, and a few other museums that don’t come to mind right now.

Levy: Do the other 509th historians, Bob Krauss and John Coster-Mullen, also attend the reunions?

Papalia: Yes. Bob Krauss is the chairman of the reunions. He has been the chairman since the ‘90s. Coster-Mullen came to the last reunion. He has been coming to the reunions, yes. John Coster-Mullen comes, and he always brings artifacts and pieces of atomic bombs with him. He is very much into that. He is a very knowledgeable man, knows a lot, he really does. He has been into this for twenty years, more than twenty years.

I remember the first time I met him. It was in Albuquerque. He had just written his book, and nobody knew him. He was standing off to the side. As I walked by, I saw he was standing with some books. So I went up to him and I struck up a conversation with John. I asked him about the book and so forth. He said, “Yeah, I just wrote the book.” He attended the reunion before in Chicago, but I did not meet him there, I met him the following year. I bought the book, and he went around introducing himself.

Ashworth read the book, and he critiqued the book. He told John, he said, “John, no,” he said, “You got this stuff all wrong.” So John went back to the drawing board, and he put it all back together again. Now today his book [Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man] is sought after by, actually, foreign countries, diplomats and things like that. Because it is considered the book on the bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am talking about the mechanical and the electrical aspects of the bomb and how it functions.

He is interviewed all over the place. He’s given a talk at the University of Chicago. I don’t know if he has spoken at the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I knew he was there the last time [AHF’s 70th anniversary events in June 2015 in Washington, DC], but John has been all over the place. From time to time, you will pick up articles of his in the New York Times. Very knowledgeable, and he is a pretty nice guy.

Levy: It seems like you all have slightly different interests as the historians.

Papalia: Yeah. Bob is more into the photograph end of it. Bob has written a book, too, The 509th Remembered, which is an excellent book as well. A very good book, detailed about the 509th. Very good.

Levy: What have you published?

Papalia: I have written articles. I haven’t published anything. I have written articles, several articles pertaining to the bomb and the use of the bomb. I wanted to devote my time more to meeting the guys and talking to them, and I did not want to get locked up in writing a book and spend a year.

It took me a year to do my thesis, my Master’s degree. It was called “The Evolution of American Strategic Doctrine.” That took me a year, and I just did not feel like spending a year writing a book. Besides, so many books have been written. I think, what more can I add to it?

Levy: You’re more interested in the human stories.

Papalia: Yes, and the collecting and so forth and so on. The books, I prefer to read them than write them.

Levy: How many documents and photographs do you think you have?

Papalia: It is impossible for me to give a count. I would say it’s in the hundreds, maybe more.    

Levy: Do you still get people who write to you and say, “I found this great photograph, are you interested?”

Papalia: No, not so much anymore. It has been a number of years. A lot of people have not been as interested as they were in the past, only because of generational changes, and that is it.

Levy: Now, I know in your collection there was a bunch of letters from Paul Filipkowski.

Papalia: Yes.

Levy: Who was he?

Papalia: Paul Filipkowski lived in Gainesville, Florida. He was a mailman. I got him involved in the 509th, but he initially started out with collecting Manhattan Project memorabilia. He had a tremendous amount, and I know he donated a number of it to the Smithsonian after his death. I have letters from him pertaining to certain things. Nothing really historical, just conversations back and forth of people he wrote, people he spoke to and things he had collected. He had a lot of badges.

I have copies of his letters. His mother had sent me everything he ever collected, and I put it together for her and sent them back to her. He was very much involved in the Manhattan Project collecting. He was a good guy. Unfortunately, he died prematurely. Like I said, his stuff was donated—not all of it, some of it went on the auction block—but he donated a lot to the Smithsonian. From there, I do not know where it went.

But he was in contact with many, many, many scientists and physicists involved with the Manhattan Project, and I have copies of many of those letters. I had them all in front of me and I’m looking at them and I’m going, “Wow, they have got to go back.”

Levy: What are your thoughts on the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, and how this history should be presented?

Papalia: I think it’s a great thing that the Atomic Heritage Foundation is doing. I think it’s the preservation of history. I think it’s good for generations to come. I think it should be balanced between the Manhattan Project and World War II, and the reasons why the Manhattan Project came in.

I think that people can’t judge it by today’s standards, looking back. It is a preservation of history, and I know there are people who criticize it. But you can’t criticize it by today’s standards. You have got to go back into history and read history to understand what it is all about. It’s great; it’s a place for great research; it’s a preservation, again, as I said, of American history. I think you are doing a great job.

As long as it’s balanced. I do not think that people should take the feeling that, “It was terrible, it was terrible.” No, it was not terrible. What was terrible was what was happening in the world during the war, a world war of 1945. It was a means to an end, that is what it was, and it served the end rightfully. The manufacturing of the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project, it saved more lives than it took more lives. Had we invaded, it would have been horrific.

You people are doing a good job, and I look at your website all the time.

Levy: What else would you say about the legacy of the Manhattan Project in the world today? It spawned so many different things, from nuclear weapons to the national laboratories.

Papalia: Out of the Manhattan Project came a lot of medical discoveries, and it served the people well. A lot of things that these scientists had been looking into and making, later on, became great things medically for the population of the world. How is it serving? I don’t know what other words I can put this into.

Just keep up the good work. It is just doing a great job. As long as you keep in front of the people and you present it fair and square and explain to them what it is, what it is all about, as you have been doing. The preservation of these historical sites for the people, I think it is a great idea. It’s a great idea. You are doing a great job.

Levy: Do you have any other funny stories or moving stories that you would like to share about your work with the 509th and the veterans?

Papalia: I have had some good times with them. I had some funny times with them, too. I had heard this one story where Bob Lewis had stolen a plane—he was the copilot on the Enola Gay—to come to New York City to attend a wedding. He took a plane, he landed at Mitchell Field, which is not too far from where I live. He went to a wedding and he went back, and he got called in. He really got ranked out.

Tibbets really chewed him up one side and down the other. By “stealing,” I mean he took it, he was not authorized. The only thing that saved him from Tibbets really going after him was because he was such a great pilot, and Tibbets wanted to keep him.

Levy: That was during the war?

Papalia: That was during the war.

Levy: I have read that Tibbets would send people who talked when they should not have about what was going on to Alaska.

Papalia: Yes.

Levy: And there were people who got sent to Alaska?

Papalia: Yes, there were, from what I understand. One was a lieutenant colonel, if my memory serves me.

Levy: Wow. Are there any other things you would like to share?

Papalia: No, I think that’s it. I just want to end it by saying that the 509th was a great outfit. Not the only great outfit in World War II, but they did their fair share of bringing the war to an end, like all the other guys who fought in Europe and elsewhere. I think Groves had a good idea when he decided to do it.

I think Groves had to be reined in a little bit, which he was. The one story that I like is the one where Groves wanted to bomb Kyoto, and Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson stepped in and said, “No, you’re not touching Kyoto. It’s cultural center, and we need to keep that intact. If we destroy that, we are destroying their cultural heritage, and they will hate us forever.”

So Groves took it off the list. Groves was made by Stimson to take it off. But Groves still tried to push it a little bit more, even though it was taken off. But Stimson said no.

Copyright 2016 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.