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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Russell E. Gackenbach’s Interview

Russell E. Gackenbach was a navigator in the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. He flew on both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions. His crew flew aboard the Necessary Evil, which was the camera plane for the Hiroshima mission. Gackenbach photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. His crew flew again during the Nagasaki mission as the weather reconnaissance plane for the city of Kokura. In this interview, Gackenbach describes his wartime experiences, from enlisting in the service, to training in Wendover, UT and Cuba with the modified B-29s, to flying on both atomic bomb missions. He recalls the personalities of other members and leaders in the 509th, including Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew pilot, Capt. George Marquardt. He also describes his life after the war, including being honored at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game as their “hero of the day” and participating in 509th reunions around the country.

Date of Interview:
December 27, 2016
Location of the Interview:


Alexandra Levy: We are here on December 27th, 2016, in Florida, with Russell Gackenbach. My first question for you is to please say your name and spell it.

Russell Gackenbach: My name is Russell E. Gackenbach. G-A-C-K-E-N-B-A-C-H.

Levy: Please tell us your place and date of birth.

Gackenbach: I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, March 1923, on March 23.

Levy: Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of education you received growing up? What your parents did?

Gackenbach: I’m the oldest of seven children. My mother was a housewife and house tender all her life. My dad worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light Company in Allentown. I went to school in Allentown, and I graduated from high school in 1941. At that time, we were not at war yet, and I ended up getting a war job.

I was working for Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as a young inspector of bomb and shell castings. I had a fallout with Bethlehem Steel. They wanted me to work steady nights. I wanted to work steady days. So I told them, “I’m going to enlist.” Famous last words.

“You can’t enlist.”

But I did. I did enter the military service in January 1943. I got my commission as a navigator in February of 1944. I flunked out of pilot training.

Levy: Can you say one more time when you enlisted?

Gackenbach: I enlisted in October ’42. Called to service in January of ’43.

Levy: You enlisted in the Army Air Corps?

Gackenbach: I enlisted in the Aviation Cadet program of the Army Air Corps.

Levy: Why did you want to go into the Air Corps?

Gackenbach: I mean, just in airplanes. It’s just that such as a pilot, my coordination was off. I had a hard time landing, because of depth perception. I could not solo in ten flight training. Then they flunked me out, and sent me eventually to navigator school.

Levy: What did you learn in navigator school?

Gackenbach: I learned how to use the stars, the moon, tides, drifts, radar, to [inaudible], to make sure that we got from point A to point B in the required time.

Levy: Did you enjoy being in navigator school?

Gackenbach: Yes, and I was lucky. Most navigators went to a military school in several air bases around the country. I ended up going to the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, and I was taught by Pan American Airways. The experience with Pan American Airways was better than the stuff we got from the regular Army military schools, because most of our training was over water. In the final 393rd Bomb Squadron, four of the navigators all graduated from Pan Am on the same day.

Levy: Were you friendly with the other people in the navigation school?

Gackenbach: You probably had to be. It made no difference. We did not know who was going to go where. We would just mull around the country. We had to either learn to fly as a navigator or get washed out and go to gunnery school, or be transferred from the Air Cadet program to the U.S. Army. Then we came under the enlistment criterion.

Levy: Where did you go after you graduated from navigator school?

Gackenbach: My first assignment was in B-24s in Langley Field, Virginia. I was supposed to be there for about five months, but I ended up being there a relatively short time.

Levy: Did you continue your training there? Did they have you on practice missions?

Gackenbach: From the time I got out of navigation school to the day I flew a mission that we dropped bombs, we were training. Even then, we trained in how to drop our bombs. Our bombs were different in the 393rd than the rest of the Air Force.

Levy: What happened after you left Langley? Where did you go next?

Gackenbach: I went to Boca Raton, Florida. I went to radar school from 6:00 in the morning to noontime. Then in the afternoon, we had flight training. We had a full training program. We just kept training, training. Nothing special this time, it was just the regular training.

We went next to Fairmount, Nebraska, and there we were training in B-17s. Our training was pretty much complete, and we were starting to get ready to go overseas when two things happened. Overnight, some of the B-17s in the airport disappeared and there were some brand new B-29s. The second was a rumor that the 393rd Bomb Squadron was going to be sent someplace else. It ended up that we were transferred lock, stock, barrel from Nebraska to Salt Lake and Wendover.

When we first met Colonel [Paul] Tibbets, he told us that we were going to be a special outfit, going to have special training, and it was going to be dangerous. He told us a few more things, but did not say what we were going to do, except that it was a new bomb under development and if successful, it could shorten the war.

He told us that it was also dangerous and going to be under tight security. If anybody did not like that, they could get out now without anything showing on their record. Otherwise, he also told us that, “We are going to cut from fifteen crews—pardon me, from twenty-one crews to fifteen crews, and from ten men to nine men. You are not going to have any active guns in our airplane.”

Levy: How did you and the other members of 393rd react when you heard that?

Gackenbach: Well, we were buffaloed. We did not know what was going to happen. But what was interesting was that as soon as Colonel Tibbets was finished with his talk, he said that we each had a ten day leave. But he did not get us the leave out of the goodness of his heart. We had that leave because during that time, we were all investigated. When I went home—I did not know this at that time. It was sometime later, when my grandmother died, that I got an emergency leave.

That time when I went home, everybody was asking me, “What kind of trouble are you in?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

They said, “Well, there was a telephone call, or a military man contacted me, and he said, ‘We just were interested in you.’”

It turned out that they visited my minister, my Boy Scout leader, two of my teachers that I know of, several other people, to find out what kind of, shall we say, young man I was at that time. I evidently passed, because I stayed in.

Some people, when they came back to the air base—there was one man, supposedly a colonel, whose bags were packed for him. He got off of one airplane, got on another airplane, and ended up in Alaska. This was done to let us know they are interested. There was another man who was in Chicago, and he went with his friend to a hotel for a few drinks. He was surprised when he got back to Wendover, his conversation with his friend was revealed. Turned out his friend was military intelligence.

We do know that we were all highly investigated, and we learned do one thing: keep your mouth shut. Don’t talk business. Only when you are in the facility, or where it was required. But do not tell tales.

Levy: Did Colonel Tibbets and the other leaders at Wendover emphasize that?

Gackenbach: They never got through doing that. You occasionally had a briefing where you were told. I didn’t find out where we were going until I got up inside the navigator’s seat. Then the map was blank, except an “X” here and an “X” here. Here’s where we were, and here’s where we were going. Secrecy was very much in favor, and everybody was careful.

Levy: What kind of training did they have you do at Wendover? Were you working with pumpkin bombs?

Gackenbach: First, we were starting with regular navigation. We were ten individuals, which is not what the military wanted. They wanted us to be one individual. We just kept doing a lot of flying where we went up to train, to learn to know what each other was thinking, how we were going to react with each other.

In our transfer from Nebraska to Wendover, we lost our bombardier. Our bombardier just didn’t seem to fit in with us. Going across country there, the copilot and I were told, “See the man there with the little coupe? In the next couple of days, each of you is going to ride with him for half a day. He is a potential new replacement for our bombardier.” You were always checked out, always training.

We dropped regular bombs at first. It was in May of 1944 that we got brand new B-29s. These were modified, and the other pilots on the air base could not fly ours. We had several big differences. We had reversible pitch props. We had different engines. We had fuel injection. Our bomb bay in our airplane was modified for a large bomb. You can’t hang a pumpkin, as you called it, on the side of a regular B-29. We had to modify it, because that bomb fit the entire bomb bay.

We also trained in our planes to find out how good they are and how good they are going to be on our mission. We had a lot of training missions. I spent twenty-two hours in one B-29 without refueling. We also flew as high as we could, 34,000 feet. It was very difficult to get up to that altitude. By the time we were at a certain place in our training, where we were considered to be ready to go overseas, we had special missions. On July 20th and 26th, I think it is, we flew to Japan and we dropped what was known as pumpkin bombs.

Levy: This was in 1945?

Gackenbach: This was in 1945.

Levy: How long were you at Wendover for?

Gackenbach: We went to Wendover in September of ’43, and stayed there until we went overseas.

Levy: That’s a pretty long time to be at Wendover.

Gackenbach: Yes, it was, but training, training, training.

Levy: How did you and the other members of the 393rd react when you first got to Wendover, seeing that it is rather in the middle of nowhere?

Gackenbach: We didn’t like the air base, because it was the edge of the salt desert on the Utah/Nevada border. All you saw was sand, sand, sand, rocks of various kind, very little vegetation. It was desolate, and it was easy to get lost. But as long as we did our training and did as we were supposed to and travel, we were lucky. Weekends, we could go into Salt Lake City.

Levy: What would you do there?

Gackenbach: Relax, take it easy. Get a date, go to a movie. Eat in the Hotel Utah. Visit with some friends, if you had any in that area.

Levy: When you went to Salt Lake City, did you have to wear your military uniform, or could you wear civilian clothes?

Gackenbach: We always wore military uniforms. I don’t know of anybody who had any civilian clothing with them as a flyer.

Believe it or not, we were even segregated at the different air fields. The enlisted men were in part of the air base, the lieutenants were in a different part, adjacent to the pilots and copilots. There was still some camaraderie that had to be developed. Things worked out very well. We thought we were one of the hotshots, as far as our training was concerned.

Levy: What was your rank at the time?

Gackenbach: 2nd Lieutenant. As long as you were in the training command, you were not eligible for advancement, and all of our training was in the training command.

Levy: When you were in Salt Lake City, did anyone ever ask what you were doing in the military, and what would you answer?

Gackenbach: One Saturday night, when a copilot and I were walking down one of the main streets in Salt Lake City, we were actually looking for a restaurant. We were stopped by two men who had captain’s bars. They asked us where we were from, what we were doing.

“Sorry, sir. Name, rank, and serial number only.”

They finally let us go. Even in that stage of training, you were still being watched.

Levy: How did you react when you first saw the modified B-29s? Were you and the other crew members impressed by them?

Gackenbach: When we received our first B-29, we were amazed. But after we got the new ones in May, they were better than the first ones we had. We did not have any problem with the engines, like they did with the first batch of B-29s. We knew we had real good airplanes.

Levy: Who were some of the members in your crew, and did you become friendly with them?

Gackenbach: Oh, we became very close to each other. I was in contact with most of them after the war, especially with George Marquardt, who was the airplane commander. I had to pay a business visit to the area. I got in contact with him. I said, “Let’s have a reunion.”

[James] Strudwick, bombardier, he came to several reunions. [James] Anderson, the copilot. I was Pennsylvanian, he was Pennsylvanian; we only lived about sixty miles apart. I saw him several times after the war. At various times, I was in phone contact, or if they came to reunions, then we still went together. Most of my crew was from the northeast.

Levy: So you and the crew meshed together very well?

Gackenbach: Yes, we did.

Levy: Were you friendly with the mechanics crew as well, or was it mostly the plane crew?

Gackenbach: The flyers were mostly friendly with the other crews. Once we went overseas, in my hut I was in, there was just two crews. We had very little contact with the ground crew. They had their job to do, we had ours. But we knew some of them. We did not know exactly what they did, and you didn’t ask questions.

I had a big surprise, when I got back to the United States. I was in the hotel seeing those who were going home. All of a sudden, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. Brother high school grad. He was in the 509th all the time. We did not know it. There were others that were the same. When it came time to go home, that’s when you found out who did what and where you fitted in.

Levy: Were you and your crew regularly assigned to a certain B-29?

Gackenbach: Originally, [0:24:00] we could fly any B-29, and we did not have any special assignments. We did get special B-29s in May of ’44—pardon me, May of ’45. At that time, we were assigned to a special B-29, and we also had a special ground crew. That was our only real contact with other than flyers.

Levy: What was the name of your plane, and when was it named?

Gackenbach: We had one or two or three names for our airplane. There was no identification on our airplane except our tail number. We were not allowed at that time to put any nose art on our airplane. The B-17s are all painted military green or gray, whatever you want to call it. Our planes were all bright, shiny aluminum.

The first time anybody had anything in their plane was on the day of the mission to Hiroshima, when Tibbets had the name “Enola Gay” painted onto his plane. We were only allowed to put ours on starting the next day.

Levy: Can you tell us about the flight from Wendover to Tinian? Did you go anywhere else? I know some flights were first sent to Cuba for navigation training.

Gackenbach: Well, eventually, all of us went to Cuba.

Levy: So you did go to Cuba?

Gackenbach: We spent almost a month in Cuba. Again, navigation training for navigators, bombing training for the bombardiers, and pilot training for the pilots, and so forth. We were sharp, and Tibbets wanted us to be always sharp and ready.

Levy: What was it like to be in Cuba during the war?

Gackenbach: Most of the time, we were up in the air or in ground school. Because again, we did not know who was watching us or testing us out. Again, it was, “Keep your lips sealed.” I know I met a friend or two, a distant relative, overseas. All I could do was say, “I’m in those B-29s.”

Levy: Did you have any time to go and see part of Cuba, or just socialize?

Gackenbach: On weekends, we had no duty. We could go into Havana or elsewhere. I ended up meeting a girl. The first Saturday night, we were at the air base, we went into the officer’s club, and my pilot had a little bit too much to drink. He was starting to make a pass at this one young girl. The copilot comes up and says, “I’ll handle George, you handle the woman.” We broke them up, and I saw her once or twice more while we were in Cuba. By the way, she was an American woman.

Levy: She was an American?

Gackenbach: Yes.

Levy: Did you find the navigation training on Cuba to be helpful?

Gackenbach: Knowing that we were going to be going over to the Pacific, [0:30:00] we knew it was going to be very helpful. Because those navigators who trained from the military, they had a hard time at first getting ready to say, “We know how to navigate properly.”

One thing to remember is that during World War II, we did not have GPS. It was all dead reckoning navigation. Moon, stars, radar, LORAN [long range navigation].  Radar and LORAN were in their infancy. You had the tides. So it was quite some guesswork to do. You got to be sharp. You couldn’t take a slack moment.

Levy: Who do you think had the hardest job on the plane? It sounds like being a navigator was really important.

Gackenbach: Well, the bombardier—if you were lucky, I had a little bombardier training and our bombardier had a little navigation training. It worked out pretty nice for us.

I don’t know who had a tough job. When it came to flying the airplane, all the enlisted men but one had an easy job. The flight engineer could either be an officer or an enlisted man. We had an enlisted man. He had a hard job. He could do everything but almost fly that airplane. In fact, I know he had some hours behind the wheel, but that was after some work was done, he would want to check out. I spent some time on the wheel. So did the bombardier.

Levy: Were most members of the crew enlisted men or officers?

Gackenbach: Four officers. The rest were enlisted men. Some crews had five officers, because of the flight engineer.

Levy: Did that make any difference in how the crew meshed together?

Gackenbach: No, made no difference. We all got along. We all had gripes at various times, but all felt we were treated right. It paid off at the end.

Levy: Now maybe you can tell us a little bit about the flight from Tinian. Where did you fly from and how long did it take?

Gackenbach: I will start off by saying that in our first two missions to Japan, we all started the same way. The missions after the new bomb came out, still the basic same thing. We took off from Tinian and flew to Iwo Jima, and you normally flew individually. Each plane flew individually, meaning the Enola Gay, Great Artiste and Necessary Evil. We flew individually, but we took off within a limited time span.

We flew individually, we met up at Iwo Jima, and then we joined the V formation. We [in Necessary Evil] became the third plane. Then we flew off the wing of the Enola Gay until we got to our aiming point. At the aiming point, the first two planes, the Enola Gay and The Great Artiste, turned in toward the city of Hiroshima. I was in the third plane, and we did have a stranger on board [Bernard Waldman, camera operator]. We stayed behind, and we made a 360-degree turn. When we came out of that turn, we were about four minutes, plus or minus fifteen seconds, behind the Enola Gay and The Great Artiste.

We were flying on that heading toward the city of Hiroshima when a radio went dead. That was on purpose, because that radio, when it went dead, told us two things. The bay door is open, bomb gone. We continued toward the city of Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the other two planes, The Great Artiste and the Enola Gay, turned to a special heading and flew as fast as they could away from the city. Meanwhile, my plane was headed toward the city.

When that radio went dead, the scientist aboard our airplane started a stopwatch. At some point, per this stopwatch, he pushed a button on the camera that was mounted in our nose. The photographs were then taken of the explosion of the bomb in front of us, while the others were going away. I was up in the flight deck. I was timing the turn away, the extra circle we made. As soon as the flash died down, I went to my navigator’s desk, picked up my personal camera, and shot two pictures out of the side of the airplane by the navigator’s table.

Then we were told—it was the only clue we had that things were different—“Don’t be a clod. Don’t go through it, go around it.” That we found out later on was a safety precaution for us, and we did not know at that time.

For most of the flight crews, what we did that day was not that important or special, because we all were going through the training for that. All we knew that was changed that day was, I substituted “Bomb B” for “Bomb A.” It was only the next day that I found out Bomb A was—or Bomb B was the atomic bomb.

Levy: What did the mushroom cloud look like?

Gackenbach: It was very hard, very hard to explain. Because at first it starts off, it’s just 2,000 feet high approximately, straight up. Then she starts blossoming out. You see all sorts of colors in there. By the time we got near the city of Hiroshima, the bomb was higher than we were. The bomb blast was higher than we were. It was just like you see in the photographs. It’s very hard to explain.

Levy: How high were you flying at that point?

Gackenbach: 31,000 feet. We were about fifteen, sixteen miles from the city of Hiroshima. The pictures I took were taken about one minute after detonation.

Levy: That makes them very unique photos, from what I understand. What is so unique about them?

Gackenbach: There are no other pictures of the bomb, either atomic bomb, taken that early that we have. I took two photographs. One got away from me; where it is, I do not know. But about five years ago, it was offered for sale in England, and it was put up for sale by an American company. It was not taken. Then a little bit later, it was offered, asking price $50,000. The other one is safe. I put it at my university [LeHigh], and it is in the archives.

Levy: When the bomb detonated, were you instructed to wear goggles?

Gackenbach: Oh, yes, we did. We wore welder’s goggles. Also, we had the [clap], three of those to our plane. That was when we went through the sound barrier.

Levy: Could you still see how bright the light was through the welder’s goggles?

Gackenbach: I’ve been quoted as saying that I made the remark that, “If I would have had a small print Bible, I could have read it without difficulty.”

Levy: That’s how bright the light was?

Gackenbach: That’s how bright the light was.

Levy: What did you think when you saw the light and then saw the mushroom cloud? Did you realize how different this bomb was?

Gackenbach: We realized the difference, but we did not know its makeup, and we did not know what it could or could not do. It took a couple of days before we had an assessment of the damage.

Levy: Do you remember how your other crew members reacted to the light or the mushroom cloud?

Gackenbach: Normally, when you are up there flying, you are worried about getting to the target. After you drop your load, you are worried about getting home. So going up, that’s just business as usual.

After the bomb was dropped, we were stunned. On the way home, we hardly said a word or heard a word spoken. We were very quiet. At this time, you normally out there laughing, “Hey, we got another one. We only got three more to go to get our twenty-five [missions].” “Hey, since we got close to the target within three minutes, you owe me a beer,” or something like, things like that. None of that. It was all solemn business.

Levy: You all recognized that this was a pretty big deal?

Gackenbach: Yes. We were surprised on the return to see all the people around Runway A. There was also a crowd on Runway A before takeoff, but we did not see that, because we took off from Runway C. Coming back, I do not know what runway we were on, but it made no difference. We went to our parking spot, which we did not do the first time. We saw this revelry going on. We did not fully understand, until we saw the photographs.

Levy: What plane were you on for the Hiroshima mission?

Gackenbach: The Necessary Evil.

Levy: What was the celebration like when you got back? Were you part of it, or was it more centered on the Enola Gay?

Gackenbach: Most of the activity was around the Enola Gay at its parking spot. On my plane, we were taken by a bus to a debriefing room. Had our debriefing. Giving us our shot, if you wanted it—that is, a shot of liquor. And that was it. We were dismissed. As for the rest of the revelry going on, I have no idea what and how long.

Levy: Did you get a special meal afterwards, or you just went to sleep?

Gackenbach: That I can’t answer. I don’t know.

Levy: Just to back up a little bit, can you tell us about when you first got to Tinian and some of the regular combat missions that you flew before the atomic bombing missions?

Gackenbach: My crew only flew two missions prior to the one on August 6th. Those were on the 20th, the 26th or 27th of July. Those were 10,000-pound bombs filled with explosives.

Levy: Do you remember where those were dropped, or what cities you had targeted?

Gackenbach: I would have to go back in the records to be sure.

Levy: What was life like for the 509th on Tinian during that period?

Gackenbach: Well, in one way you could say we were called the laughingstock, because we always went when the other planes were down, and when we went up, they stayed down. They always said, “The 509th is winning the war, but not going up with the rest of them.”

We stuck with our bomb, while the other B-29s could not get up as high as we were in a reasonable time. They dropped maybe from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, and they dropped firebombs at the end. We did not drop any firebombs. Their training was entirely different than 509th training.

Levy: Did the mood change toward the 509th after the bombing of Hiroshima?

Gackenbach: Yes, but it didn’t change that much. Everybody was getting ready for more training, until the second one came along. We didn’t lose any time in our training program.

Levy: When did you find out about the first mission? Did they give you a briefing the day before?

Gackenbach: We had a special mission, a special session briefing—well, actually, we had one in July, but they didn’t tell us what it was. We were shown the first thing that had to be identified to go in, identified to come out. We had to get the air pockets. They showed us some photographs of target areas, but nothing real definitive that we could say, “This is what we’re flying.” This was attended by the bombardier, the copilot, the pilot, and one enlisted man. It was the radar operator.

Levy: Were you present at that briefing?

Gackenbach: Yes. But we didn’t really know what we were told. “Keep your mouth shut,” but we don’t know what value that had at that time. To this day, it was a little strange, and we couldn’t find out if anybody else did this.

Levy: The briefing the day before, did they give you more information?

Gackenbach: We got the usual information that we had for every mission to Japan. The only piece of information that I remember them talking about was, “Since it’s a new bomb, do not fly through the cloud.” Nothing more definitive than that. That’s all I seem to remember on that mission.

Levy: Were you told then what the targets were supposed to be?

Gackenbach: Well, it’s in our regular briefings, we were told primary was Hiroshima, then Kokura, then Nagasaki. That we were told at the mission on the night of August 5.

Levy: Was everybody present for that briefing, or was it just a few of the crews?

Gackenbach: To my knowledge, it was the whole crew. We had our regular group briefing, then it was special navigation training, special for bombardiers, for flight engineers.

Levy: You said your navigation route looked rather different for the Hiroshima mission, that it just had an X?

Gackenbach: No, no, that was one of the training missions I had.

Levy: Oh, okay.

Gackenbach: No, we were told the coordinates, this one.

Levy: How long before takeoff was the briefing?

Gackenbach:  Well, there was actually two. One was around 10:00 on the 5th, short, not much information. You get that, eat, do what you want.

Then there was a meeting around 2:00 in the morning. This is where we got the latest. There was one thing that was special for our group over there. There was erratic winds over this Japanese empire. Tibbets and his staff did not like the forecast that came out of Guam, so Tibbets sent up three airplanes to observe the weather at the primary, secondary and tertiary target. Then additionally they sent up another plane as a standby plane, in case something happened to the Enola Gay. That plane went to Iwo Jima.

Levy: But the winds didn’t really end up being a problem?

Gackenbach: Oh, yes. We went through quite a few levels going down. You just hoped that everything was simple at that. You could not predict where the bomb was going to go. You thought you were right on target, but you were not.

Levy: At the August 5th briefing, was that when you found out you would be in Necessary Evil?

Gackenbach: I’m not sure if it’s the other one or that one. I would probably say it was on the first one.

Levy: It was on August 5th or 6th that Colonel Tibbets had the Enola Gay painted with its famous name?

Gackenbach: Correct.

Levy: Do you remember the reaction to that?

Gackenbach: No. Kind of funny, put a name on his plane. Didn’t surprise us. Maybe it surprised some. But one person who was very, very surprised was the copilot. He said, “This is my plane.”

Colonel says, “It’s my plane.”

Levy: You said at that point, none of the other planes had any art or names on them?

Gackenbach: That’s right, that’s correct.

Levy: What was the reason for that? For security purposes?

Gackenbach: All security. After all, there were still a lot of Japs on the island, and they were communicating with the empire.

Levy: Did you ever see any of the other Japanese on the island, or the prisoners of war on Tinian?

Gackenbach: I saw what we called the “gook plant,” or camp. That was the Navy’s reportedly special compound area. Occasionally, you saw a prisoner, but that was rare.

Levy: It was feared that they were still communicating with the empire, or that some of the people who hadn’t been captured yet were?

Gackenbach: Well, we knew there was some on there. Every now and then they reported, “They caught a Jap the other night.”

Levy: I understand that there were a lot of crashes by B-29s on takeoff on Tinian. Were you and your crew members afraid of that?

Gackenbach: I had the experience two different ways. Before May, when we were flying a regular B-29, they were a problem. After May, when we got our new engines, no problem. At least, we didn’t worry about it. I don’t know what the pilot was thinking about. Nothing was ever said.

Levy: Did you see any B-29s crash on takeoff on Tinian?

Gackenbach: The first couple of nights we were there, one went off the end of the runway. My airplane commander, George Marquardt, on one of the pumpkin raids, he substituted on another airplane, because the airplane commander got sick. He was one of the lucky ones. He came in with a dead engine, but it ended properly. He did not even know he was on fire. It was told him he was on fire. He landed safely.

Levy: Were you and your crew surprised that you were assigned to the Necessary Evil instead of your usual plane? Did that cause any consternation?

Gackenbach: No, no, no problem. Our planes, twenty-five, were so identical a pilot could go from plane A to plane B, C, D or E without any difficulty. We were safe about that. We had no concerns.

In fact, the reason we got into the Necessary Evil is that our plane flew the day before, and it had to go to maintenance for 24-hour checks before it could be flyable again. It was the way the Air Force is set up today. The day after you come back from a mission, your plane is checked over.

The other innovation that Tibbets came up with, each plane had its own ground crew. The job went to central maintenance.

Levy: Can you tell us now about the lead-up to the second mission, the Nagasaki mission? When did you find out that there would be a second atomic bombing mission?

Gackenbach: First of all, I don’t know what they told us, but you assume, since you were trained for special missions, that it was going to be another atomic bomb. As it turned out, my crew from the Up an’ Atom was selected to be the weather ship over Kokura, which was the target. Again, our regular plane was out of service, being checked over. We did fly, and I found Kokura. My navigation was correct for that day. That was always a relief, when you find your target.

The one plane out of—I’m trying to think of the name of the thing—was the Bockscar, was the one dropped. That mission had a few costly errors in it that affected our program, but did not affect my plane at all.

Levy: Which plane were you on for the Nagasaki mission?

Gackenbach: The Enola Gay.

Levy: You were with Captain Marquardt and your usual crew?

Gackenbach: That’s correct.

Levy: I understand that on the way to Kokura one of the planes didn’t show up at the rendezvous and that caused a delay. Were you there at the rendezvous, or had you already gone onto to Kokura?

Gackenbach: No, I didn’t want to mention that. One crew didn’t make it. On top of that that same airplane had a tank full of gas, which it could not transfer. They were supposed to get to the area, then no more than fifteen minutes there. They were searching for almost forty-five minutes before they left Iwo Jima for the target area.

Levy: At that point, were you already at Kokura, or were you also waiting for the plane?

Gackenbach: When we were a weather ship, we took off one hour early from the strike planes, and we were only supposed to be away about an hour, then to head back home. Things just didn’t work right on that second one. The first mission went like clockwork.

Levy: What did you find when you got to Kokura?

Gackenbach: Limited clouds, but there was radioed back, “Bomb primary.” But by the time the strike plane got there, it was either smoke from a raid the previous day or the cloud cover had moved over. That made it so that they could not see the ground, because the orders were to drop the bomb visually, not by radar.

Levy: So that’s why they had to move on to Nagasaki?

Gackenbach: Then they moved on to Nagasaki. By that time, they were low on fuel. Also at Nagasaki, cloud cover was coming in. They just had to be very careful what they did so that they could get to Okinawa, which was a close airfield or place of landing for the U.S. forces.

Levy: Did your plane turn around after sending the weather report back on Kokura?

Gackenbach: Yes. We made our observation and got out of the area and headed home.

Levy: Why do you think the second mission had more problems than the first mission? Was it just pure luck, or were there things that could have been done better?

Gackenbach: Probably human error. They didn’t follow the flight plan the way they were supposed to. Because, as I said before, the weather over the islands was very fickle.

Levy: Was Colonel Tibbets upset that they had not followed the flight plan, do you know?

Gackenbach: I have no idea. I don’t even remember debriefing for the second one.

Levy: Was there a celebration after Nagasaki, or just after Hiroshima?

Gackenbach: Just after Hiroshima. The number of planes on the second raid were not as many as on the first raid. But the three strike planes had problems.

Levy: In either mission, did the Japanese notice the B-29s and shoot flack at you, or was it pretty clear sailing on both?

Gackenbach: We were never targeted by the ground crews of the Japanese, nor were we subjected to flack. We never saw flack, my crew.

Levy: I guess the cloud cover over Kokura, that’s what led to the term “the luck of Kokura,” is that correct? That it was spared that day?

Gackenbach: Right. I don’t which airfield I was at, but a fellow pulled me over, he says, “You saved my life.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He says, “I saw your plane up there when it went by.”

It turned out that he was a prisoner of war in the prison camp. He was finally put on a derelict boat, taken up to the area of Kokura. He was a slave laborer in the steel mill. He saw us go by, and he said, “You saved our lives.” That was a little hard moment to live.

Levy: When did you find out that it was an atomic bomb that had been dropped?

Gackenbach: August 7, when the daily newspaper came out. It was just a little notice in there. I think I still have a copy of that notice.

Levy: Did you understand what an atomic bomb was, or did the newspaper article explain it?

Gackenbach: I was never sure what they meant by an atomic bomb at first.  After all, I was only a high school grad. Some of those who had more education than I did surmised that it was atomic, but we didn’t tell each other. We didn’t know. The crews sort of stuck together. Even the enlisted men in their barracks worked together, rather than spread out. It was just gesture, and the papers were scarce. You had to go by radio and even that, nobody knew what the word “atomic” meant at that time. The only thing I knew was the atomic number.

Levy: When did you see photos of what the bomb had done to Hiroshima?

Gackenbach: Couple of days later, there were some photos displayed. I was stunned as to how much damage was done by it.

Levy: How did you feel about that at the time?

Gackenbach: At that time? We had to go out and kill every one of them.

Levy: Have your thoughts changed over the years?

Gackenbach: No. We were at war. They started it. It was our turn to finish it, and we did. We saved lots of lives, both in our military and in their military. If they would not have capitulated when they did, there would be some more atomic bombs coming along.

Levy: When did you find out that the Japanese had surrendered?

Gackenbach: I don’t remember. That I can’t answer.

Levy: Do you remember if there was a celebration when the surrender was announced, or later on?

Gackenbach: I know we were happy, because that meant we were going home. Other than that, I don’t remember.

Levy: Did any members of the 509th participate in the surrender aboard the USS Missouri?

Gackenbach: I don’t know. If there was one, I don’t know about it.

Levy: Did the Enola Gay participate in the flyover?

Gackenbach: I always tell people that I was the last one to fly the Enola Gay in combat. That was August 9th. The Enola Gay did fly in the flyover in signing the peace treaty, so they did fly. Shortly after the bombs were dropped, all we heard was that, “We are going back to the States, and we are going to practice.”

Levy: When did you go back to the States, then?

Gackenbach: Virtually everybody in the 509th was not covered, did not obey the points you were supposed to have to get out of the service. They just picked up the whole shebang, the whole 509th. We got aboard airplanes and boats, and came home to the States. We went to Texas, as fast as we could. We wanted to go home.

I actually signed up to stay in. I was thinking of making it a career. It was April of ’46, the executive officer called me in, told me, “We don’t need you anymore.”

They said, “You can resign, or we can resign for you. If we resign for you, you are out, period. If you resign, you are in the reserves.” Well, I signed up to stay in.

I went home, and went to college. However, 1951, guess what? They wanted B-29 navigator. But I didn’t have to go. I appealed my request for immediate release and I got it. I went home and gave no more thought about making the military my career.

Levy: When you were navigating on the combat missions and the atomic bombing missions, did you just have to get them to the city, or did you have to get them to the exact aim point?

Gackenbach: My job was to get them to the city. After that, it was the bombardier’s. He was at the bomb site, and he was looking down at the maps and what have you. He would say, “We are supposed to be here, and you are over here.” But that was not a real big problem, because even though they knew they was supposed to be over here and you were over here, but the bomb had landed someplace in between, just because of the winds.

Levy: Did the bombardiers use the Norden bombsight for missions like that?

Gackenbach: Yes. My bombardier used the Norden bombsight.

Levy: Did they consider that to be very reliable and helpful?

Gackenbach: It was a good technology, but remember, no GPS.

Levy: When you were on Tinian, outside of all the missions you were flying, did you have any time to socialize, either within the 509th or with the other—

Gackenbach: Oh, we had movies every night. The officer’s club was open. Had no problems with that. You could visit, if you had somebody.

Somebody from another outfit were to come into our area—I had a distant relative. He called me up first, came over. I had to go to the gate and watch for him, then he could come in. But after the war was over, that all changed. Things got away from military as quick as they could.

Levy: So security became a little more lax?

Gackenbach: Well, I don’t how much security there was afterwards.

One thing about it was, the colonel knew I took photographs. To this day, nobody said anything. I have them. I had them. 

Levy: That’s very interesting, because I know General [Leslie] Groves tried to confiscate Harold Agnew’s photos that he took [of the bombing of Hiroshima], and Agnew insisted on keeping a copy.

Gackenbach: That was scientists. What their rules were compared to ours, I have no idea.

I made a deal with our intelligence officer, that I always flew with a camera. He said, “Tell you what. How do you get them developed?”

“I don’t do any of the developing.”


“Squadron lab.”

He says, “Well, any photograph you take out of that lab, I’m allowed to see.” The only one he took from me was the only picture of a lone B-29 up in the air that showed no guns. He kept that for about two weeks, and gave it back to me.

But the atomic ones, just like I told you—I was waiting for them to come and to ask. I wasn’t going to give them to them. They had to request them. I felt they were mine. I didn’t know they would be valuable or not. They were offered for $50 [thousand]. Whether they were actually sold or not, I have no idea.

Levy: How did you get into photography?

Gackenbach: First photographs I ever developed were in a photo lab. All the guy who ran the lab says, “Leave it in this solution for so long, then rinse and put it in this solution.” It was easy.

Levy: Did you take photos in any of the other combat or atomic missions that you flew?

Gackenbach: Well, there was only the two. I took those photographs. I was too far away. I did not see anything at Nagasaki, so there was nothing for me to take.

Levy: When you got back after the war, what university did you go to and what did you study?

Gackenbach: I went to Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Started out as a chemical engineer, but by the end of two semesters, I transferred to metallurgical engineering. There were two reasons for that. One was my experience before I went into the service working in the steel mill.

The other was that one of the professors and one of the candidates for PhD were giving me a hard time. One day, I confronted them. It turned out both knew each other quite well, because they were at Oak Ridge. They signed the pledge not to drop the bomb, but to drop a demonstration bomb. That’s the story.

Levy: What did you end up doing for your career?

Gackenbach: I got my bachelor’s degree in metallurgy in 1950. Great, I’ll go back to Bethlehem Steel. Whoops. No way. They said since I was an ex-employee and a regular employee, I could not get into the training program. I couldn’t get a training program, no luck.

I tried several schools. I could go to Muhlenberg, but I could only get half credits. I was accepted by Penn State, no living quarters.

Gackenbach: The only one that I could live and go to school was Lehigh. Then when I got my degree, I ended up working for a large pharmaceutical company, and that was my last career.

Levy: Did your service in the military and the Manhattan Project, do you feel, had any impact on your career or how you thought of your career?

Gackenbach: I know it had apparently no effect one way or the other. I had to write an essay to get into Lehigh, and I think it was because when I talked to them previously, there was one there that fit into my category. I wrote it. What they did with it, I have no idea.

At first, most of us veterans in the 393rd, we did not talk too much. We had our first reunion in Chicago. I think it was around our 25th anniversary. The first reunion we had, only flyers were invited. Then there was one in—I think the first one was 1960. ’62, it was in New York City. A few more of the flyers were invited and spouses could come. In this way, it just kept growing. Up until the 70th, I only missed either two or three.

When we really started talking in 1995, that’s when we first started to collect written remarks. Then it went from that to photographs. I saved photographs of some people. I saved articles. In fact, I still sent articles up until recently to the man who was running our reunions. I still send stuff up to Lehigh. But there’s no restrictions.

Levy: You enjoyed keeping in touch with your crew members in the 509th and going to the reunions?

Gackenbach: Once I got bitten, I did my best to go. I enjoyed them all. I enjoyed going to the different air shows, gun shows, military shows, either talking or signing our book.

This is the book.

Levy: Can you hold it up a little higher so we can see it. Ah, yes, The 509th Remembered, by Robert and Amelia Krauss. That’s a good book.

Gackenbach: Right. I don’t know how many I signed. I sold privately quite a few. I remember, I had one order for eighteen. Of course, that was a nephew of mine. Gave them out for gifts. But this has been good, and I have four pages in there. Did you read them? 

Levy: I have, yes, they are really great.

Gackenbach: I figured you had a source for some of the questions. 

Levy: That and Richard Campbell’s book on the 509th was also very helpful.

Gackenbach: I gave most of my stuff to Lehigh. Wasn’t planning that way, but just turned out that way.

Levy: That’s great. Would you see Colonel Tibbets at these reunions?

Gackenbach: He passed away in 2008. The ones he used to attend, he was not a friendly man. You did your job, he left you alone. If you did not do your job, he was on your tail.

While we were still at Wendover in our training program, just as navigators had to go into the CNT trainers, they ought to put the pilots through the pilot trainers, and since the navigators also spent time in the pilot trainers, shouldn’t the pilots spend time in the navigator trainers? So they decided to—someone had to tell the copilots how to navigate. I know of three captain navigators that we had. Who ended up getting the job? Me. I don’t know why.

Levy: Do you have any idea why you were recruited to be part of the 393rd and the 509th?

Gackenbach: We don’t know why or how Tibbets decided to select the 393rd, but I like to think that one of the reasons—he was told he could have any outfit he wanted. If he was looking for over-water navigators, he found them. Because there weren’t so many of them.

Levy: You said you greatly admired Captain Marquardt?

Gackenbach: Yes.

Levy: What was he like?

Gackenbach: Again, he was a good taskmaster. He had the same basic attitude that [inaudible], “Do your job, I’ll let you alone. You don’t do your job right, you’re gone.”

Levy: Was there any jealousy among members of the 509th for those who got to fly in the strike plane, or those who got to participate on the mission? Or did everybody just feel like, “We did our jobs?”

Gackenbach: I can’t answer that one. I just can’t say that I heard anybody. I know a lot of people couldn’t wait to get out of the service, but that was normal.

Levy: At Wendover, did you interact with Colonel [Clifford] Heflin at all? He was the Wendover base commander.

Gackenbach: No. We were told, “This base is the 509th.”

Levy: When you were in Tinian, did you interact with the scientific observers at all, or the New York Times reporter William Laurence, who was there?

Gackenbach: I knew who Laurence was, but never really spent time with him. The only scientist I spent time with was the one who flew with us [Bernard Waldman] on August 6th and pushed the button on the camera. I saw him one other time after the service.

Levy: I assume when you were at Wendover and Tinian, you had not heard the term “Manhattan Project?”

Gackenbach: No.

Levy: Or realize how big it was?

Gackenbach: No. Tibbets had it so set up that there was no interaction between us. In fact, I have been told that when Tibbets left our air base and he had a meeting with the scientists, he did not go from Wendover to the scientific base. He went at least one or two stops before, and he ended up taking off his Air Corps emblems and putting on Corps of Engineers.

Levy: Did you meet Captain William “Deak” Parsons on Tinian?

Gackenbach: No. The flyers sort of kept to themselves. The scientists sort of kept to themselves.

Levy: What would you say some of the greatest challenges were during your time on Tinian or on the missions?

Gackenbach: Well, it’s the most memorable one that I can come up with. We interchanged with each other in each other’s job. One day it was our turn, my crew, to practice with a tail gun, [inaudible] the only one we had. We went up there flying. We are making eights in the Salt Lake Desert. All of a sudden, the gunnery position was open. My pilot, George [Marquardt], goes to take the gun and left the copilot. So I sat in the pilot’s seat. Next thing you know, Jim Anderson’s gone back there. The bombardier sits in them. We were flying.

All of a sudden I heard “Pfft, pfft, pfft.” Looked out the window, number three engine. No complimentary words, but I told the pilot to get his fanny up front as fast as possible. I asked the engineer to give me full throttle; I was climbing up to 10,000 feet.

When the pilot came on, “What’s wrong? What are you going to do about it?” I had to go through this whole rigmarole, telling the flight engineer, “Check the other engines.” Then, step-by-step I had to bring it down, and I thank God that I was able to do it all and bring it in.

Levy: You must have kept a pretty calm head on you then to be able to do that.

Gackenbach: I spent a fair amount of time in it. Nobody could understudy the navigator. Nobody understudied the bombardier, except another one. But pilots, they just seemed to have the knack for it. I could fly before, but I just couldn’t do the landing in the right time and sequence. To this day, I have double vision. I don’t know if I had double vision then or not, but I didn’t know what I had. Right now, since I don’t have these glasses around, I see two of you. I see two of him now.

Levy: When you were at Wendover, were you and your crew members eager to get to the Pacific to fight? Or were you content to be there doing training?

Gackenbach: We wanted to get into active service. After all, most officer flyers enlisted to fly. Enlisted men, I have no idea, because every time you talk to them, they are ready to go up.

Levy: Do you remember where you were, how you reacted when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

Gackenbach: Oh, I remember that. We were on an overnight Boy Scout camping trip. We were coming down one of the main roads in the suburbs of Allentown, down toward Freeman’s Dairy, when somebody stopped us and said, “Have you boys heard?” And we did not.

Levy: Do you remember what you thought at the time? Were you eager to enlist?

Gackenbach: At that time, I was still in high school I believe, yes.

Levy: Do you remember where you were when you heard about D-Day?

Gackenbach: Yes. I was stationed at Boca Raton to learn radar. One day I went down, took some exercise because I felt I could use it. I wasn’t on the list to be required to take PT. But the next time I went down there, I was questioned where I was the day before.

He said, “You weren’t here.”

I said, “No, I wasn’t scheduled to.”

He said, “Yes, you are. I’m going to put you on report.”

Well, my report was that I had to serve as service officer of the day—I think that’s the title—which meant I had to go to duty about 8:00 at night until the next morning. They showed me a book, which says, “Read this so you know what your jobs are in case anything comes up.”

Well, word came in, “The landing has occurred.”

I said, “What am I supposed to do?”

“It says so right there. Why don’t you make the call?” He says, “It’s in your instructions, not mine.”

So I had the pleasure to call the base commander about 2:00 in the morning, getting a bawling out for waking him, until I told him, “D-Day started.” Then he dismissed me, and that was it.

Levy: Looking back now, how do you feel still about the decision to drop the bomb on Japan?

Gackenbach: I think we had to drop it. We had no choice. If Truman would not have given the okay, he was in troubleHe could have been a candidate for assassination.

Levy: How do you feel about your role in the missions in the 509th, looking back?

Gackenbach: I enjoyed them. At times I was disgusted, couldn’t do something right or didn’t fit into my schedule. But generally, I had a good military career.

Levy: You mentioned that you have ridden in Fifi, another B-29?

Gackenbach: Yes, I had a ride in Fifi in the navigator’s seat in Reading, Pennsylvania. Brought back a lot of memories.

Levy: That must have been quite thrilling, to be back in a B-29.

Gackenbach: It was thrilling.  

Levy: Do you have any other stories you would like to share? Otherwise, I think that’s everything I’ve asked.

Gackenbach: Oh, nothing special.

Levy: I guess, finally, because I thought it was a nice story, could you tell us about the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers invited you to be their guest?

Gackenbach: I don’t know who was responsible, but they have a system at the Bucs game, “Hero of the day.” Somehow, they got my name. I was contacted and told that I was invited to be the hero of the day, and I was number seven.

I, with an accompaniment, went to Bucs field. I had to contact a certain woman, who then took charge and saw that I followed a schedule. First thing, she said, “We’re a little early yet,” but she took me to a little cafeteria, and told I could have anything I wanted. Later on, she came in and said, “There’s somebody waiting for you. He wants to meet you.”

I said, “Who?”

She said, “I don’t know who it is, but it’s an officer.”

Pretty soon somebody popped in the door, “He’s coming,” she said. “You will see who it is pretty soon.”

It turned out to be [Martin] Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He asked me a few questions, congratulated me. I congratulated him on becoming a four-star general and Chief of Staff, and we sort of went our own way.

Then, I was taken for a walk behind the grandstand to the Pirates room. When I got there, I was told that my job was going to be to start the game.

I said, “What?”

“To start the game.”

Well, anyway, they told me that the mate of the pirate ship was going to start things off, and at a certain point, I didn’t know anymore. He says, “You ring the bell.” This was shown on television in the stadium, but never on television for the public.

Then I was escorted, and I went to the owner’s suite, where I did two things. I had all the food I wanted to eat at any time, and the suite was over the fifty-yard line. I had a beautiful view of the things, so I watched the game there. Not only that, but the four-star general came in and visited for a while and watched the ballgame also. At the end, I ended up with a ball, football.

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