Alexandra Levy: I’m Alexandra Levy with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I’m here on September 13, 2018 in Chantilly, Virginia with Norris Jernigan. My first question is for you to please say your name and to spell it.
Norris Jernigan: Okay. I’m Norris Jernigan. That’s N-O-R-R-I-S. Jernigan is J-E-R-N-I-G-A-N. You would be surprised how some people pronounce it. It’s comical.
Levy: Please tell us your place and date of birth.
Jernigan: I was born in Eugene, Oregon. Lived there until I was three years old. After my mother passed away, my dad moved my brother and I to New Mexico for his parents to take care of us because he had to work, of course. Lived there until he remarried in 1933.
In 1934 he decided—since he inherited a blended family and they were expecting their own child with my stepmother—best to move the family away from family, and start a new life together. He moved us to California in 1934.
My dad had done many different things during his lifetime in work. He did a lot of construction work. He always wanted to be a farmer, so he bought a little farm near Sacramento. It was between Galt and Elk Grove. That probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but he bought this little ranch. We existed through the Depression off of that little ranch, until I went into the service in 1943.
Levy: What year were you born?
Levy: You went into the service in 1943.
Levy: What made you decide to go into the service at that point?
Jernigan: All of us young guys at that time, we wanted to get into it because the whole country was together. Whether you were in the service or civilians, wherever you were, the whole country was together. Of course, all of us young guys, we just wanted to get into the fight.
I wanted to join the navy. My dad, at that time, was working for Mare Island Navy Yard. They were bringing ships in there that had been shot up, for repair. He said, “No.” He said, “I’ve pulled too many body parts out of those ships to feel right about signing for you to go into the Navy.” But he says, “Your older brother is already in the Army Air Corps. If you would like to go into that branch, I’ll sign for you.” Because I was underage. I was not eighteen yet.
He signed for me, and I was approved to go into the Army Air Corps Cadet Program, and hopefully become a pilot. That was my dream. The day before I was eighteen—I was wanting to get this done because if I had turned eighteen, I would have to register for the draft. I did not want to be drafted. I wanted to choose my own branch of service. On June 10th, the day before my eighteenth birthday, at Mather Field, Sacramento, California, I raised my right hand and was sworn into the Army Air Corps Cadet Program.
Went into active duty in August of 1943, and went through Army Basic Training since the Air Corps was part of the Army, it was a division of the Army at that time. It was not its own branch of service. Stationed at Sheppard Field, Texas for my Army Basic Training.
From there, we were moved to Denver University. I was stationed at the University and we were enrolled in a University program, where I got my first flying lessons at a little field near Denver. After ten hours of flight instruction and one semester at Denver University, we were sent to what they call a Classifications Center, to decide whether you qualify to continue on into the Pilot Training Program, or you’re going to the Navigator Training Program, or Bombardier, or elsewhere.
Daily, we would check that list to see which list we were coming on. The “somewhere else” list got longer and longer, and one day my name was on that list. I knew that was the end of my Cadet Training Program. I would not become a pilot at that point.
I was transferred around several places. Spent some time in Amarillo, Texas, waiting for one of the schools to open up there, for mechanics training. I don’t know why the Army Air Corps thought I could become a mechanic, but that’s the military for you. About mechanically inclined as a cat. Anyhow, after sitting around there for some time, they said, “The school is closing here and they’re closing some of the other trade schools, so you’ll be sent to a redistribution center.” Which was Salt Lake City.
They sent me out there along with several others, on what they call “On-the-job training.” You’re no longer going to one of the trade schools, but you would actually be assigned to a tactical unit in training and be an on-the-job trainee. Was sent to Fairmont, Nebraska, and became part of the 393rd Bomb Squadron, associated with the 504th Bomb Group in Fairmont, Nebraska.
We were there all through the summer in intensive training. At first when I was sent there, they sent me there as a truck driver. I had never driven a truck in my life, but that’s what the classification was. Anyhow, one of the guys that I knew that worked in the administration office—which we referred to as the orderly room—called me in one day and he said, “Norris, I see you were in the Cadet Program. What are you doing driving a truck?
I said, “Well, that’s where they sent me.”
He said, “There’s an opening in the Intelligence Office. If you’re interested, I can send you over there to let you talk to them, but you’d have to be able to do some typing.”
I said, “I took a semester of typing in high school. I think I can hack that.”
I reported to the Intelligence Office and talked to them. They decided to take a chance on me. I remained in the Intelligence Office of the 393rd Bomb Squadron for the rest of my tenure in the service.
In September of 1944, when our squadron was nearing its completion of training and the 504th was destined to move overseas in the next few months, all of a sudden, orders came through transferring the whole 393rd Bomb Squadron from Fairmont, Nebraska to Wendover, Utah. Nobody knew why, and nobody could tell us why. It’s just, “You’re being transferred,” that’s all.
Off to Wendover we went. When we arrived there, we had no idea why we were there. We must have been there a week before we really knew anything, and we thought maybe we were being punished for some reason.
One day, we were told to assemble near the orderly room, somebody wanted to talk to us. We all assembled out there in front of the orderly room, and this lieutenant colonel got up on the back of a truck and said, “Men, you’ve been brought here for a reason.” He said, “You’re going to become part of a unit that will be trained to handle a new secret weapon that if successful, should shorten the war by at least two years.”
At first, he introduced himself as, “I’m lieutenant colonel Paul W. Tibbets.” We never had seen him before or heard of him before. We had not realized that he had visited Fairmont, Nebraska and selected our squadron, because of the three squadrons of the 504th Bomb Group, the 393rd was ahead of the other two squadrons. He wanted a unit that was reasonably trained, so there would be a minimum of training for them to go through to be part of this new group. At that point, we started immediately into some training.
While he was addressing us from the back of this truck, he said, “This new project is a highly secret project, you’re not to discuss it with anyone. You’re not to tell anyone where you’re stationed. You’re not to answer any questions from anyone. You just don’t say anything. Okay, men, you’re now on a two week leave. Go home, rest up, because we’re going to be in intense training seven days a week for the next few months.”
We all left on leave. I made it fine, but I understand some of the other men, when they arrived home, they had telegrams waiting for them to report back to the base immediately. They didn’t know what it was all about until they got back to the base, and found out that they had talked to someone.
One of the stories that we were told—and I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it certainly caught our attention—is that one of the young men, while waiting for his flight, or bus, or whatever transportation he was using to go home, went into the bar to have a drink. A Catholic priest came in and sat down beside him, started talking to him. “Hello, my son, I see you’re in the service. Where are you stationed?”
“I’m out at Wendover, Utah. Just arriving, we just were transferred there.”
“Oh, and what are you going to be doing there?”
“We don’t know, but it’s something big. It’s a big secret project.”
His surprise, when he responded to his telegram and went back to the base—he was met by this Catholic priest in a business suit. He was not a Catholic priest at all.
It made a good story. Maybe it’s not true. I have no idea. I don’t even know who the guy was. But anyhow, it caught our attention and we thought, “We better keep our mouths shut.” How I survived that, I’ll never know. It’s always difficult for me to keep secrets.
Levy: When you got to Wendover, what was your rank, and what sort of work were you then assigned to do?
Jernigan: I was a PFC, a Private First Class. My job was a Clerk in the Intelligence Office. Whether it was typing, or going to get coffee, or Cokes, or whatever. You were a gopher. No great important job, but I was part of whatever it was to be done.
Mainly typing and helping to prepare folders for the crews when they were briefed to go off on their training missions. That was the responsibility of the Intelligence Office and the Intelligence Officers was to brief the crews on their missions, giving them the location, and so forth. Our job was to put together whatever we could come up with in the way of maps, aerial photographs, or weather inclinations, weather reports, whatever would help them to achieve their mission.
Levy: During the course of the war, did you learn anything about the other Manhattan Project sites, or your role as Wendover being just one place where the Manhattan Project work was going on?
Jernigan: Wendover was all I knew. I never heard the “Manhattan Project” name until after the war was over. We knew that we were going to be using, apparently, a different bomb, because that would be the weapon an Air Corps unit would use. Didn’t know about Los Alamos. I didn’t know about any of it, and you didn’t ask. You knew better than to ask, because you were violating the security instructions that we had.
Levy: When the 393rd was informed in Nebraska that they were going to be transferred to Wendover rather than overseas, how did the aircrews feel about that? Were they disappointed not to be sent overseas directly?
Jernigan: Yes, because they had been in training all summer. Because we were put together in the 393rd squadron in late spring of 1944, and immediately went into training doing practice bombing missions. They felt they were ready for overseas duty, and all of a sudden, they weren’t. They were disappointed. Some of them would have rather go with the unit to Wendover, would have rather transferred into one of the other squadrons of the group, to go with the group overseas because they were ready for overseas duty.
Levy: What was life like at Wendover? I know it was the middle of nowhere.
Jernigan: Certainly was, and that was, of course, one of the shockers when we arrived there. “Good Heavens, where in the world are we? Out here on the edge of the salt flats, there’s nothing around us anywhere.” We learned later that that was the reason it was selected, because it was so isolated and just ideal for security purposes.
The little town of Wendover amounted to nothing. There was just nothing there. There was a little hotel there called Stateline Hotel. You could have dinner there in one state, and gamble on the other side of the building on the Nevada side. It was interesting.
As far as the facility there, some of the areas of the base were fairly nice. The area where we were assigned for housing was in old barracks—single wall, barracks painted an ugly green. Nothing glamourous about it at all. It was not pleasant. Because we had nice barracks in Fairmont, Nebraska. It [Wendover] evidently was an old base, and I’m not sure what the previous use before the war of it was. But to me it didn’t measure up to the standards that you would expect.
Levy: Were you aware of what kind of training the air crews were doing with the dummy bombs and the modified B-29s?
Jernigan: Not really. We knew that they were doing practice bombing. But we also knew that now and then, one air crew or another, one would disappear for a week or so, and we had no idea where they were. They’d come back. “Where have you been?”
“Uh, we were at Destination X.”
You didn’t ask any further than that, because you knew it was none of your business where they had been. Because they did a lot of their practice bombing, I guess, in one of the southern counties in California, out there on the desert. Also, in New Mexico too, I guess. We just didn’t ask.
Levy: Were you among the group that was sent to Cuba for training?
Jernigan: I was.
Levy: Can you talk about why groups were being sent to Cuba, and what it was like to be there?
Jernigan: It was great. We went there in January of 1945. Wendover was bitterly cold, and that wind blows across the salt flats there, freezing cold. And arrived in Cuba. Warm tropic air there. It was nice. We enjoyed that, being there. We all came back with beautiful suntans, and everybody couldn’t believe it when we came back. It was quite an experience.
The reason that we understood was that Colonel Tibbets wanted the crews to do some practice navigational missions over open water because they would be flying missions over open water, from wherever we would be stationed to Japan. He wanted them to experience the navigational training of flying over open waters. They did what they call “camera bombing,” where they would go through an assimilated bomb drop, and it would just be recorded by camera that would show whether they were on target or not. They would do that to places along the east coast of the United States.
Levy: When you were in Cuba, you were still preparing mission briefs and other clerk work?
Jernigan: Yes, and typing the reports after the mission. When they came back, they were always interrogated after the mission to get their response to how successful their mission was, and there was always a report to be typed up. That’s where I came into play there.
Levy: How did you find that kind of work, typing up mission reports?
Jernigan: I didn’t mind it. It was just exciting to be a part of something so spectacular. I didn’t even know what the spectacular was, but knew that it was something big. Quite an experience for a kid my age at that time.
Levy: Where in Cuba were you stationed when you were there?
Jernigan: We were stationed at Batista Field, near San Antonio de los Baños. About thirty, forty miles outside of Havana.
Levy: Were you allowed to go into Havana at all?
Jernigan: Yes. Went to Havana several times on leave. We were never without security people being along with us, and going into the bars with the guys, and so forth. We were aware they were there.
Levy: But you were still able to have a good time, and blow off some steam?
Jernigan: Yes. It was an interesting place at that time, because the communists were getting really strong at that time in Cuba. We were instructed, “If you see any kind of a gathering, get away from it.” Because you would see a flatbed truck come rolling up with a podium mounted on the back of it, somebody would jump on the back and start preaching communism from the pulpit on the truck. We were instructed to, “Get out of that as quick as you can. Get away from it, because you’ll be in trouble if you don’t.”
There was a heavy communist movement at that time. Trying to overthrow Batista. Juan Batista was the dictator of Cuba at that time.
Levy: How did you get to and from Cuba? Did you fly in one of the modified B-29s, or a C-54?
Jernigan: One of the C-54s, both directions.
Levy: Was that a fairly comfortable plane ride?
Jernigan: No [laughs]. There’s nothing glamorous about those, either. Canvas seats, seats lined along the walls. Not seating like you see in airplanes now. It was okay. It was just exciting to be part of it.
Levy: When did you return to Wendover after Cuba?
Jernigan: I was there, for our part, about five weeks. About the middle of February, I guess, we came back.
Levy: Did anything feel different when you arrived back at Wendover? Did it seem like they were gearing up for missions?
Jernigan: Things were just going on as usual. Crews disappearing, flying, on their training missions. Some of them we were aware of. We would know where their bombing target was. Other ones, the crew would just disappear and we would have no contact with them at all during their practice bombing missions.
Levy: You mentioned that at the beginning, they tried to select out people who might talk and reveal secrets. During your time at Wendover, was there anybody who was ever made to leave because they revealed secrets?
Jernigan: Yes, but I don’t recall that it was any of the 393rd, because the other squadrons were starting to form as well. I just cannot remember anyone from the 393rd being sent out, although it was hard to tell because they were changing personnel. Some people wanted out, they wanted to get into the action somewhere.
We had 21 crews when we arrived at Wendover—I think it was 21. The structure only called for 15 crews with the new format, with the 509th. Some crews were being separated out. Some by volunteer, and some were moved to the new troop carrier squadron, which were flying the C-54s.
Levy: Did you get into Nevada much for recreation, or did you mostly stay around Wendover?
Jernigan: Got into Salt Lake City a couple times. It was 120 miles into Salt Lake City. You just don’t walk in. But I had no reason to go in there, because I didn’t know anybody in Salt Lake City. I just didn’t make it a habit to go every weekend like some of the people did that really liked the Salt Lake City scene. It was interesting, but it was okay. At the base, we had the Enlisted Men’s Club and we had the movies. We had recreation there too.
Levy: Did your family know where you were, or were you not allowed to tell them?
Jernigan: I could tell them where I was when I was stationed in the States. But I was never able to tell them where I was going to go outside the States.
Levy: I know in some cases, family members were interrogated as a background check before the person was accepted. Do you know if your family was ever questioned?
Jernigan: They never did say they were, so I don’t think they were. Because a Private First Class is not much risk. “He doesn’t know anything, anyhow. That’s why he’s a Private First Class.”
Levy: Did you see Colonel Tibbets, or Colonel Clifford Heflin, who was the Commander of Wendover, frequently at all around the base?
Jernigan: Oh, yes. I’d see him [Colonel Tibbets] frequently, yes.
Levy: Did you have much interaction with either of them?
Jernigan: Being an enlisted man, you don’t just hobnob around the lieutenant colonel. But anytime I ever talked to him, he was very open and friendly, talking back. He’d answer any questions I had. I didn’t have any close relationship with him, but he never denied anyone access to him, that I could recall.
Levy: This was Colonel Tibbets?
Levy: Did you ever speak with Colonel Clifford Heflin?
Jernigan: No. No. Not that I ever saw him. I probably did, but I can’t remember. There would be no reason for me to remember.
Levy: You and the other members of the 393rd had more dealings with Colonel Tibbets as the head of the 509th, then?
Jernigan: Yes. Of course at that time, when we were in Fairmont, Nebraska, up to the time we were going into training at Wendover, Colonel [Thomas J.] Classen was our squadron commander. Then he was moved up to Deputy Group Commander when Colonel Lutke was transferred out. We always were under the impression that Colonel Lutke talked too much at some point and was shipped out. That was the story we got anyhow, but who knows?
Levy: How did you like Colonel Classen?
Jernigan: I really liked him. All the men at the 393rd really looked up to him. Just the style of leadership that he had, plus the knowledge of what he had been through already, and was ready to do it again. I had a great appreciation for him.
Levy: Do you recall any conversations you had with him?
Jernigan: No. I may have, but I don’t recall any, no.
Levy: When did you and your fellow Air Corps men learn that you were being sent to Tinian?
Jernigan: I guess I didn’t know until we were on the way over. I went over on a ship. I did not fly over. They called us the advance echelon. We went ahead of the flight crews and the other personnel.
They divided the group into about half. Half of us went by ship. The other half were able to fly over. They flew either aboard one of the B-29s or one of the C-54s. We went over on a Victory ship. Shipped out of Seattle, and got in a horrible storm between Seattle and Hawaii. Everybody was sick, especially me.
Levy: When was this? And when did you find out you were being sent overseas?
Jernigan: We knew we were getting ready to go overseas. We didn’t know exactly where, until we were on our way.
Levy: But what month was this, that you were sent?
Jernigan: We left out of Wendover in April. I can’t remember exactly the departure date, but it was in April. Then went to Seattle, the embarkation point. We were there for a week or two, and then boarded the USS Cape Victory to head out.
I have forgotten how long it took us. It took us a week to get to Hawaii, because we were battling that storm out there. Then we were in Hawaii for two or three days. Then shipped out of there, and the next stop was in Eniwetok and from there to Tinian. I’d never heard of Tinian before we got there. I knew about Guam. I knew that it was in the Marianas. But I didn’t even bother to know the names of the other islands in the Marianas.
Levy: Can you talk about what Tinian was like as an air base?
Jernigan: We arrived there at the end of May. They didn’t have any housing for us when we first arrived. We were living in pup tents and outdoors most of the time, until a tent area opened up and we moved into a tent area. We were all housed in the tents, and so that wasn’t too bad. I forgot just how long we were in that area, until the Seabees moved out of their area, which was one of the nicest bases on the island of Tinian. That’s where the 509th then was moved to.
Levy: What kind of facilities did you live in, once you moved into the more permanent facility?
Jernigan: I’m sorry?
Levy: What kind of barracks did you have once you moved into the—
Jernigan: Oh, we were in Quonset Huts.
Levy: What were those like to sleep in?
Jernigan: They were nice, yeah. Yeah, it wasn’t the Hyatt Regency but it was certainly better than the tents. They were comfortable.
Levy: How did you handle the weather after winters at Wendover?
Jernigan: It was hot and humid. We were allowed to wear shorts, cut-offs, whatever, to try to keep cool. It was something to get used to.
It rained every day, especially in the afternoon. It would all of a sudden cloud up and rain like mad. Then the clouds would clear and the sun would come out, and then the steam would start rising from the ground. The farmers on the island there had used human feces for their fertilizer. You could just imagine the odors that came up from that steam. It wasn’t pleasant. [Laughs]
Levy: Did you ever encounter or see any of the Tinian natives, or Japanese prisoners of war on the island?
Jernigan: They had what they called Camp Churo, but it wasn’t Japanese. It was natives of the island that were put in—I guess you’d have to call it a concentration camp, almost. But they were fenced off, so we had no access to them at all. You could drive by and see them behind fencing, but there was no interaction between us.
Levy: As the advanced echelon, what kind of work were you all doing?
Jernigan: Same thing we were doing in Wendover. Because when the air crews started arriving, they started flying practice bomb missions to some of the small islands around Tinian, and as far away as Marcus Island. I think there were several missions there. But they were just using conventional bomb.
We were getting kind of antsy, wondering, “Well, what’s our big weapon that we’re supposed to handle?” Then they started introducing missions for them to fly to Japan proper, using this huge bomb, what they called the pumpkin bomb, which was the same housing that they used for the Nagasaki bomb mission. Things started getting a little more exciting then. Then we thought for a while, “Do you suppose this is what they’re talking about?”
Then things started happening differently. People started showing up that we didn’t know. People in khaki clothing, but no military designation, so we knew they were civilians. High-ranking people all of a sudden, milling around our area and being, meetings and so forth.
We knew things were beginning to happen. Things started looking up for us. Then we thought, “Well, maybe we do have one.” We always referred to it as “the Gadget” or “the Gimmick,” prior to the first drop. We never referred to it as an atomic bomb until after the Hiroshima mission.
Levy: When did you first learn of the atomic bomb, or Gadget, or Gimmick? Did you know when the parts started arriving from the continental U.S.?
Jernigan: Not really, no. That was not our squadron. The 1st Ordnance took care of assembling the bomb and so forth, so we had no contact with 1st Ordnance. Even though they were a squadron of our group, we had no interaction between that squadron. In fact, every squadron had their job to do. You didn’t ask what they were doing, and they didn’t ask what you were doing. They just were following instructions. “Do your job, do it well, and this thing will all come together.”
Levy: When did you find out about the atomic bomb missions?
Jernigan: Actually, the first I heard about it being called an atomic bomb was after it was dropped on August 6th. They said they had dropped the first atomic bomb. I thought, “What in the world is an atomic bomb?” Soon to find out, but had no prior knowledge.
Some of the people that were more knowledgeable, as far as physics and so forth, had figured out that it probably was going to be an atomic bomb. I had no clue that’s what it was going to be. I just knew it was some new secret weapon that had never been used before and if was successful, should shorten the war by at least two years. Of course, that was our goal, that was our dream, that was our hope. That’s what we were all working for, working toward.
Levy: How did you find out about the mission? Word of mouth? Through the radio?
Jernigan: I guess within the Intelligence Office, we started talking about what it actually was then. I was not part of the officers. I was an enlisted man, a clerk, Private First Class. I didn’t make Corporal until I came back from overseas. Just were no promotions for the lower ranking people.
Anyhow, just from hearing and being part of listening to what was going on, I learned that it was an atomic bomb. I had no prior knowledge to what it actually was, other than that it was something very special.
Levy: Did you see the Hiroshima mission planes take off or return, or were you kept in your own intelligence area?
Jernigan: We were in the Intelligence Office after the briefings were all done and the crews had gone down to the flight line, waiting for time to go down to the flight line to see them off. My buddy and I that did the same job, Eddie [Edward P.] Schlesinger and myself had the same job and the same rank. We were getting so heavy-eyed, the sergeant said, “You guys just look terrible. Why don’t you go on back to the Quonset and lay down? When it comes time to go to the flight line, I’ll come and get you.”
Well, he didn’t. We slept through it. I was not there to see the takeoff. We got pictures immediately because the photo department worked under the Intelligence Office as well.
Levy: What was the reaction like when the Enola Gay and the other planes returned?
Jernigan: Oh, elation. The whole day, August 6th, was sort of a celebration day, because we knew that they were going on this big mission that everybody had been waiting for since we first arrived at Wendover. They were sort of having a picnic, a fun time. Then when they came back to the area, Colonel Tibbets got up in front of the guys and said, “Mission accomplished. City sighted, and city gone.” Something to that effect. He said it was a success.
We were greatly elated because if it was true that it was going to shorten the war by two years, we could see the end of this thing coming, because we saw no end to it. It just was grinding on and on. The Japanese just would not surrender. They were pretty well bombed out in most places in Japan before we dropped the two atomic bombs. They had firebombed Tokyo brutally, and just literally burned Tokyo down. They were doing the low-level bombing there so they could drop those Napalm bombs, which were firebombs. The type of structures that made up most of Tokyo were just like kindling. They just burned.
Some of the crews were talking. Of course, we weren’t over there when they were doing this, but some of our guys said that flying over the area, you could smell the stench of human flesh burning. He said, “It was horrible. Terrible, terrible.”
But war is terrible. You get so much criticism that you should just try to bomb military targets. Even if you just bomb military targets, you’re going to kill civilians. There’s no way you can fight a war and keep from killing innocent people. It’s one of the unfortunate things about war. Tokyo was pretty well bombed out. Some of the other cities were, too.
As I recall—and I could be wrong on this—we were instructed on five cities that our group could do the bomb runs on: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki. I cannot remember the other two for the life of me [Yokohama, Niigata]. I’m sure I have record of it somewhere in some of my files. Those cities, each one of them had not been bombed, not at all or not very much.
Levy: What were the few days in between the two atomic bombing missions like?
Jernigan: Oh, we were just excited and ready for the next one, and knew it was coming. Couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t write home and say that, “We had dropped that first one and getting ready to drop the second one,” because all of our letters were censored. When your folks get a letter at home, it would be so cut up with words cut out that sometimes they couldn’t make sense of what kids were saying to their parents.
But we knew there was a second one coming. We knew that there would be another one shortly, because we knew that one of our crews had flown back to the States to pick up the third bomb. We knew that one would have gone to Kokura. That much we knew, anyhow.
Levy: What are your memories of the second atomic bombing mission? Did you get to see those planes take off?
Jernigan: No. No, I didn’t go to the flight line, because they take off at about 2:00 in the morning. That’s not the best time to be out of bed. You know, we were just kids, all of us. Even the flight crews were just kids. We thought, “No big deal. They dropped one, they’ll drop another, and there will be another one until they quit. That’s all.” Which was true, that’s the way it would have been, unfortunately.
Levy: Were you there for the return of Bockscar or the other planes?
Jernigan: Same thing. When they came back, we were so glad to see them back and that they made it okay.
I was housed in the same Quonset hut with the enlisted men from both missions, so I knew the guys. They were buddies, they were friends. Of course, you were glad to see them back. Because each of the missions, there was a possibility that you wouldn’t see them again. Especially on that first one, Hiroshima. That had never been tested before. They had tested a plutonium bomb, which they dropped on Nagasaki. But they had never tested the uranium bomb before. There was always that possibility, that the plane couldn’t get out of the area in time.
Of course, we didn’t know all that much about it at the time. But we knew that it could be a one-way trip. We knew that much.
Levy: I’ve heard that there were a number of B-29s that crashed during takeoff on Tinian.
Jernigan: Yes, there were, yeah.
Levy: Was that something that you and the other crews were well aware of?
Jernigan: Oh yes, yeah. In fact, I saw one airplane just barely make it off the ground, and flew straight out and splat right into the ocean, and went right under. None of them got out. It’s just sad.
Then at night, the other groups taking off at night to go on their bombing runs. Most everybody took off at night. But you’d suddenly see a big flash in the sky where the plane blew up, then you knew that that’s another crew gone.
We didn’t lose one crew, one airplane. But our bombing missions flew at such a high altitude, their [Japan’s] fighter planes weren’t that effective, plus they didn’t have that many left. Their anti-aircraft, same thing. Their anti-aircraft was not that effective at that altitude, which is about 32,000 feet. They were fairly safe up there, but anything can happen.
Levy: Can you talk a bit about some of the enlisted men that you knew that were on those missions? Were there any that you were particularly friendly with?
Jernigan: I was familiar with and friendly with the crews, both the crew members from the two missions.
There was one young man, Richard Nelson, that was in our Quonset hut. We always just thought he was a kid—well, we were kids, too. But we always called him “Junior” because he looked so young. I just found out recently, he was older than I was. I did not know that at the time.
But they were all super guys. They were just guys.
Levy: When did you find out that the Japanese had surrendered?
Jernigan: It was about midnight. I don’t know why we were all up, probably playing cards or something. We heard somebody yell, “It’s all over!” We wondered what this yelling was about. We all went out, and then we could hear other voices, “It’s all over!” They had picked up radio announcements that the Japanese had surrendered. Of course, “Bingo!” What we did, did it.
Levy: Was there a lot of partying and drinking after that?
Jernigan: Oh, of course, yeah.
Levy: Were you allowed at some point to write back to your family about where you were and your involvement, or did you have to wait until you were back in the States?
Jernigan: We had to wait until we got back. At first, they made up a press release that was going to be sent to everybody’s hometown paper, and then orders came through to put a stop on that. I have copies of that somewhere.
Levy: Did you have any interaction with any of the scientists that were involved, or the New York Times Reporter, Bill Laurence, who was there?
Jernigan: I saw him there, and knew that he was somebody other than military.
You ask about any contact. After the August 1st, there were all these higher-ranking officials showing up, higher-ranking officers. One day, a bunch of us were just sitting around talking, and I was talking to the guy next to me. I was talking, and I look a little further and he had a star on his shoulder. That was General [Thomas] Farrell, and he was just a regular guy. He just sat down and talked with us guys. It was kind of an exciting experience.
I had my twentieth birthday on Tinian, soon after we arrived over there. Like I say, we were just kids.
Levy: Were you able to interact with any of the crews that were non-509th? Or were you very much isolated within the 509th?
Jernigan: Pretty much isolated, by choice. We weren’t too popular when we arrived on Tinian, because these other groups had been over there several months before we arrived, and had lost crews and had bad experiences. Here we show up with almost 1,800 men and 15 B-29s with no gun turrets or anything. There was a lot of animosity toward us.
Another reason was that we showed up with all kinds of high priorities. Whatever we needed, we got, for completing our operation. Some of the other people had been there a long time through hardships, bad weather, and being shot down. It didn’t make us too popular when we arrived there.
Then after the war was over, we started hearing rumors about us going home. We were the last group to arrive over there, and the first group to leave to come home. That didn’t increase our popularity any, I’ll tell you. Some of those guys had been over there quite a while and really had been through a lot.
Levy: Did the atomic bombing missions change the other groups’ attitudes toward you in any way?
Jernigan: I think they realized, “Hey, maybe we weren’t right,” because they thought we were just another bomb group showing up with all these men, and no airplanes with any protection. Because they had been flying low-level missions around 5,000 feet, and they were just shooting ducks for any anti-aircraft for the Japanese. They thought we were crazy. I can understand why.
Levy: How do you feel about the decision to drop the atomic bombs?
Jernigan: I think it was the right decision. I’m glad they were dropped. I’m glad they’ve never been dropped again. I hope they never will be, but it very likely could happen again someday. But it will be by a rogue nation that just hates everybody. It seems to be the way the world turns. But I still feel it was the right decision.
There was a lot of controversy immediately after the drops of the atomic bombs, and all kinds of experts. Maybe they thought they were experts, announcing things. One of the craziest ones I heard was that because of the radiation, nobody would be able to go into Hiroshima for at least 100 years because of the radiation in there. That wasn’t so. But it was just somebody that the press thought was knowledgeable, and spouted off. They believed, it I guess.
Levy: How do you feel, looking back, about your role in the 509th and the Manhattan Project?
Jernigan: How I feel about my involvement? It was an exciting time, and I’m just glad that I was part of it, because it brought the war to an end. Of course, that was the dream of everyone, no matter where you were.
But the war was over in Europe. I understand that when the unit was originally put together, the intent was to train the group and then split it in half, and send half to Europe and half to the Pacific, and drop two atomic bombs simultaneously. The same date, for the effectiveness of hitting Germany and Japan.
By the time we went overseas, it was winding down enough that I think that was abandoned or never happened. I’m not sure which. But it didn’t happen. The Germans were working on developing the atomic bomb as well. In fact, they started before we did, so it was a race to see who got it first.
We learned also that the Japanese had started doing some research on it as well. Didn’t know that until after the war. But Albert Einstein is the one that warned President [Franklin] Roosevelt that he thought the Germans were already working on it. That was in 1939, that he did that. That’s when it all started.
It started from a very small scale to be able to develop the thing in that short of time. It was an amazing accomplishment.
Levy: When did you learn about the larger scope of the Manhattan Project, that there had been sites all over the country involved?
Jernigan: After the war was over. I had never heard of the Manhattan Project. I just never gave it a thought, what it all would take to develop such a thing. It has to have some kind of organization that’s dedicated to doing that. You just didn’t think about what it was or who it was, or anything.
Levy: When did you leave Tinian to return to the US?
Jernigan: It was sometime in October, as I recall. Very suddenly, we were told, “Pack your duffle bags. You’re going to board the ship this afternoon.” That was the first I heard about it. Maybe some others had some advanced notice. Just, “Pack that duffle bag.” We did it in a hurry, and we were on our way.
Boarded the USS Deuel, which was a troop carrier ship. Left Tinian, and went over to Saipan to pick up some additional troops to take them home. Nineteen days later, we pulled into the open pier.
Levy: When were you eventually discharged from the Army?
Jernigan: I was discharged on March 17th, 1946.
Levy: Where were you in between when you landed in Oakland and you were discharged?
Jernigan: We got off the ship at the Oakland pier. There was a troop train waiting for us, and transported us directly to Roswell. I was at Roswell until orders finally came through for me to go to a separation center, which was Camp Beale, California, because it was the closest separation center to where my home address was.
Levy: When you were in Roswell, again, you were working as an Intelligence Clerk?
Jernigan: Yes. Even after I was back at Roswell, it was the same thing there. By then, Ed Schlesinger and I were both running the Intelligence Office on the enlisted men’s side. The job I was doing there called for at least a staff sergeant, so they made me a corporal. That was my first real promotion.
Levy: One thing I should have asked earlier is: did you collect any intelligence reports after the atomic bombing missions, or was that left more to the officers?
Jernigan: That was pretty heavily guarded, because it was top secret stuff. I cannot recall if I typed any of those interrogations or not. I very likely did. But it was just a routine job, so I didn’t make any great note about it, that I typed the report or anything. Because to me, it would have just been, I did the same job for all the other missions.
Levy: When you saw your family, was that when you were able to tell them of your involvement in the 509th?
Jernigan: I told them before I went overseas, that we were headed overseas and that they probably would hear about us, because we were going to do something different. I thought surely, they would have figured that out. But they did not know until I came home that I was a part of the group that dropped the two atomic bombs. I thought for sure they would figure that out. It was just the kid talking, you know.
Levy: So, they were surprised?
Levy: I seem to remember in the article I read about you online, that you met your wife shortly after returning?
Jernigan: Yes. I was discharged on March 17. On March 29, I met this young lady. We were married on December 29, the same year. We were married sixty-eight years when she passed away.
Levy: How did you meet her?
Jernigan: It was really strange. When I came back, I started attending a church in North Sacramento, California, and they invited me to the youth meeting. They were having a party. “Why don’t you come to the party?”
We were supposed to go to this young lady’s house. As it turned out, where we were supposed to go, the young lady’s dad became ill and they had to move it somewhere else. She called her friend, who was not part of the youth group, to see if she could have the party at her house. Her mother said, “Sure, bring the kids over.”
We met at her house, and that’s where I met Marilyn. We seemed to just hit it off right from the beginning.
Levy: That’s lovely.
Jernigan: It was a strange beginning, just by chance, because I was not part of the group prior to that. But anyhow, it was through a church youth group.
Levy: What kind of work did you do in your later career?
Jernigan: I wanted to get back to school as soon as I could, so I enrolled in college. I had not completed high school, because I enlisted at the end of my junior year of high school because I wanted to get away from having to register for the draft. I knew I had to finish high school. But I went ahead and enrolled in college because I did have one semester at Denver University, so they let me enroll. And took the GED test and got my high school diploma that way.
I took courses in pre-dentistry. I determined I was going to become a dentist. As time progressed on, and it looked like Marilyn and I were getting serious about each other, I thought, “You know, I’ve got four years of college, three years of dental school. I’m going to be almost 30 years old before I can get out and earn a living.” I thought I better change my major. I changed it to accounting. Became an accountant. That’s what I did all my adult life.
I never became a CPA [Certified Public Accountant]. I was offered a job with a construction firm, managing their accounting procedures, managing their office. I took that, and didn’t feel the urgency to go ahead and go through the tests to become a CPA. I was with that construction company many years.
Then moved to the area where I am now, and eventually went to work for a construction firm there. I was with them twenty years. They liked what I was doing apparently, because they elected me to the Board. I served as their Secretary and Treasurer of the Board almost the whole time I was there.
It was a fairly large corporation. Our contracts were all large government contracts—sewer treatment, water plants, that type of thing. “Heavy concrete construction,” we were referred to. We were a subsidiary by another very large firm, which proved to be very, very beneficial.
Levy: Did you find that your military service had any impact on your later career or life?
Jernigan: Oh, yes. I think military experience would be good for everybody. In Israel, any child that turns eighteen years old automatically goes into the military for training, and I think it’s good. It teaches you responsibility, it teaches you discipline, it teaches you respect, the whole thing. I think it’s excellent training, and I think it would be good for anybody and everybody to experience that. I certainly have no regrets and would do it again if time rolled back and had the same responsibilities, advantages, and so forth.
Levy: Did you stay in touch with other members of the 509th Composite Group after the war?
Jernigan: Yes. My two best buddies, one lived near Buffalo, New York and the other one lived right near Elmira, New York, in a little town called Waverly, New York. Also, with Eddie Schlesinger. We connected up again in later years and kept in touch, and enjoyed each other. Others, not the same contact as I had with those three guys.
Levy: Did you go to many 509th reunions or gatherings?
Jernigan: I went to the first one in 1975 and never missed one after that, right up to the last one, which was a year ago this month.
Levy: What did you enjoy most about these reunions?
Jernigan: Oh, just seeing everybody. Renewing friendships that we had when we were together. Especially anyone from the 393rd Bomb Squadron, because we had been together the longest of any of the squadrons, having started out in Fairmont, Nebraska and then going on to be part of the 509th.
Levy: What were some of the most serious challenges that you and your fellow service members faced, and how did you overcome them?
Jernigan: Learning patience. It was in September/October that we knew we were going to be a part of this—this is 1944—and going through all the training for the rest of 1944. December 17, 1944, I think it was, the 509th was officially activated.
Becoming part of that, going through more training up to the time we went overseas. It was almost a year from the day we had been told that we were going to be a part of this big mission before it actually happened. I guess we were getting restless and thinking, “Is it really going to happen?”
So, patience I would say. Then patience afterwards, waiting. Because what do you do after the war is over? You don’t keep going and bombing some place.
Levy: How did the top-secret nature of the project and the 509th effect day-to-day operations?
Jernigan: I think it had a very heavy impact on us, because we knew that it was secret enough that we better do our individual job well if we’re going to remain part of this. Because it was, “If you can’t perform the task you’re given to do, no matter how menial or how great it is, you have no business being there.” You strive to do the best you can, and stick with it. If it’s that secret, then it’s something big. You want to be a part of the finish.
Levy: Did the emphasis on maintaining secrecy make your job harder in any way?
Jernigan: I don’t think it made it any harder. It just made you more intense on making sure you didn’t talk to anybody about what you were doing, because it was nobody’s business. You had your own job to do and you did it. You don’t go around, “What is your job?” Because you don’t know who you’re talking to. You might be talking to a security person.
It was strange, because we would have people show up. I remember one time, we had this master sergeant, when we were still at Wendover, walk into our office. He said, “I have been assigned temporarily to your office, until I get a further assignment. But for now, I’m assigned to your office.” Here’s a master sergeant. Well, the top sergeant in our office was a staff sergeant. What kind of a task do you give him to do?
Anyhow, he just hovered around. Very friendly with all of us. For oh, maybe a month or so, and one day he didn’t show up to the office. He was gone. Who was he? Was he security? Because we knew there were security people all over the place.
There was a lady stationed on Wendover. We called her “Mom Merrill.” Her name was Ms. Merrill. She was in charge of furniture for the recreation rooms. That was her job, just to make sure that all the recreation rooms had good furniture. She was everybody’s mom. She just was mother to everybody.
Then long toward the end of our training, she wasn’t around anymore. Later on we learned that she was a part of the FBI. You didn’t know who you were talking to.
Levy: Wow. Mom Merrill certainly had a secret background.
Jernigan: I don’t know who she was or where she went, or what her real assignment was. But it certainly wasn’t moving furniture around. But she was just a sweet, little old lady, grandmother to everybody. It was a strange feeling when all of a sudden she was gone.
Levy: Do you have any other stories that you would like to share, or anything you would like to say?
Jernigan: I can’t think of anything offhand, other than it was just absolutely an exciting thing for a kid my age to be a part of that. I was not selected individually to be a part of it. I was selected as part of a unit that was transferred in to become part of it. I was with the 393rd, so I came along with the 393rd. Just to stop and think that I would not have been part of that, probably, if I had been sought out and brought there for a specific job. But it didn’t happen that way.
Anyhow, just to be a part of that was the most exciting thing for a kid my age or anybody’s age. But especially a kid eighteen, nineteen years old, and then had my twentieth birthday when we were overseas. Looking back, it just was phenomenal to be a part of something like that.
Levy: How do you feel about the 509th, and the Manhattan Project in general’s, legacy for today, and how it should be taught and remembered?
Jernigan: It should be taught and remembered that we were engaged in a horrible war, and looking for some way to bring the thing to the end. That [the atomic bombs] was used as the method of bringing it to an end.
Many people have said, “Oh, there must have been other, better ways that you could have done it.” What were they? They were doing everything they could, conventional-wise, conventional bombing. Troops—they were massing troops on Okinawa and the Philippines for an invasion of Japan, which was due to happen right around November 1st.
I’ve had so many people through the years say, “Oh, we really appreciate you and what you guys did, because my dad was on Okinawa getting ready for that invasion.” Or, “My grandfather was in the Philippines waiting to be a part of that invasion.”
If that invasion had happened, they had Japanese troops stationed where they knew we would be launching the attack. Plus, they had instructed all the Japanese civilians: “Never surrender. Fight to the death. It’s glorious—you’re doing it for your emperor. Fight to the death. Whether you have to use sticks, stones, pitchforks, whatever. Use whatever weapon you can find, but fight to the death.”
Our troops would not have been only fighting the Japanese troops, they would have been fighting the civilians as well. It would have been a mass slaughter for both sides.
So, yes. People should be taught that that avoided the bloodiest battle in the world’s history, is my opinion.
Levy: How do you feel today when you see the Enola Gay or read about the Manhattan Project?
Jernigan: I just marvel at it [the Enola Gay], because I saw it when it was all taken apart. It’s owned by the Smithsonian, but they have a warehouse out in Silver Spring, Maryland. The thing was stored there, and it was all taken apart. The wings were off, the fuselage was in three pieces, and it just looked so sad. Knowing what it had done and everything, to see it in that situation. They said some day they would restore it, and of course that was our dream.
We had hoped of course, it could have been restored by the fiftieth anniversary. It did not. They brought the front fuselage piece into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum there in D.C., and somebody threw red paint on it. Why? You guys weren’t there. It’s easy to criticize somebody. Like the Indians say, until you’ve walked in your brother’s shoes, don’t criticize him.
Levy: When did you see the Enola Gay taken apart?
Jernigan: That was in 1980. We had our reunion here in 1980. First reunion I attended was in 1975. To that point, they had tried to meet in five year intervals. They had five years earlier than that, which would have been 1970, met in Salt Lake City at Major [George] Marquardt’s home. Well, he wasn’t major anymore, but former Major Marquardt.
They agreed at that time they were going to go to Hawaii in 1975. Three guys, I’m trying to think of their names—King, [Jacob] Beser, and [Raymond] Biel, were the committee to put that together. They decided it wasn’t feasible to try to take the group to Hawaii, so they set it up in San Diego and that’s the first I heard about it. My wife and I were able to attend that.
At that point, they said, “Five years is too long. We’re losing too many guys. Why don’t we make it three years?” In 1978, we met in Dallas, Texas.
They said, “We’re losing too many guys. Maybe we ought to move it to two years.” We met for two years for a long time. I can’t remember now exactly what year we finally said, “Hey, we’re losing too many guys in two years. Let’s make it every year.” We met every year until the very last one, last September, a year ago .
At that reunion, there were only two of us that were original veterans. The year prior to that, we were in San Antonio, Texas and I was the only veteran that showed up. We knew it was time to hang it up. What’s a reunion? Who do you reunion with, if you’re the only guy there?
Even though I loved the people that were following the reunions, that became part of it—wives, relatives, children, and so forth that attended the reunions and, in a sense, were a part of it. They were not part of the original, and that’s what it was. The reunions were of the original group that met. We decided it was time to hang it up and admit that the time had come.
Levy: Were the 509th veterans involved in the effort to restore the Enola Gay?
Jernigan: I’m not sure. It wouldn’t surprise me. But not that I’ve heard of anyone particularly.
Levy: Well, you’ve answered all my questions. Is there anything else that I haven’t asked that you want to talk about?
Jernigan: Not really, other than that I’m proud of the fact that I was a part of it. The people that I’ve met that have come to these reunions, like Bob and Amelia Krauss, for instance, developed a very strong friendship there.
Bob volunteered to take our reunion for us and volunteered again and again, and again, and again. Up until the last one he chaired for us was September 2017. Then we laid it to rest.
It’s part of history now. What people do with it, it’s out of our control. We just hope that they remember it for what it did, and what it would have been had they not done what they did.