The Crew of the Enola Gay on Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

On August 6, 1945, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Twelve men were on that flight. Some chose to keep a low profile and others spoke out about their place in history. Almost all had something to say after the war.

The 509th Composite Group was formed by the U.S. Army Air Force to deliver and deploy the first atomic bombs during World War II. The group was segregated from the rest of the military and trained in secret. Even those in the group only knew as much as they needed to know in order to perform their duties. The group deployed to Tinian in 1945 with 15 B-29 bombers, flight crews, ground crews, and other personnel, a total of about 1770 men. The mission to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan (special mission 13) involved seven planes, but the one we remember was the Enola Gay.

Captain Theodore Van Kirk, Navigator

Air Force captain Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk did not know the destructive force of the nuclear bomb before Hiroshima. He was 24 years old at that time, a veteran of 58 missions in North Africa. Paul Tibbets told him this mission would shorten or end the war, but Van Kirk had heard that line before. Hiroshima made him a believer. Van Kirk felt the bombing of Hiroshima was worth the price in that it ended the war before the invasion of Japan, which promised to be devastating to both sides.

I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese.

In 2005, Van Kirk came as close as he ever got to regret.

I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life. We unleashed the first atomic bomb, and I hope there will never be another. I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I'm not sure that we have.

After the war, Van Kirk got a masters degree in chemical engineering and worked for DuPont until his retirement. Van Kirk passed away in 2014.

Major Thomas Ferebee, Bombardier

Thomas Ferebee pushed the button that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He slept in the plane both before and after he did his part. After the war, Ferebee stayed with the Air Force, serving in the Strategic Air Command and in Vietnam. He retired as a full Colonel.

Colonel Ferebee, who retired from the Air Force in 1970, always argued that the Hiroshima bomb was necessary. "I'm convinced that the bombing saved many lives by ending the war," he told Newsweek magazine in 1970.

That doesn't mean he had no opinion on the further use of such weapons.

"Now we should look back and remember what just one bomb did, or two bombs," he told The Charlotte Observer in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. "Then I think we should realize that this can't happen again."

Colonel Ferebee died in Florida in 2000, at the age of 81.

Lieutenant Jacob Beser, Electronic Countermeasures

Army Air Force radar specialist Jacob Beser was the only man who served on both the Enola Gay in the Hiroshima bombing mission and the Bock's Car three days later when its crew bombed Nagasaki. He couldn't look at the detonation of the bombs because he was charged with monitoring for outside signals that could have detonated the bomb early and monitoring for signals of the proper detonation. This is addition for keeping an eye on radar for any enemy planes.

In this 1985 interview for the Washington Post, Beser was asked if he would do it again.

Given the same circumstances in the same kind of context, the answer is yes. However, you have to admit that the circumstances don't exist now. They probably never will again. I have no regrets, no remorse about it. As far as our country was concerned, we were three years downstream in a war, going on four. The world had been at war, really, from the '30s in China, continuously, and millions and millions of people had been killed. Add to that the deliberate killing that went on in Europe, [and] it's kind of ludicrous to say well, geez, look at all those people that were instantly murdered. In November of 1945 there was an invasion of Japan planned. Three million men were gonna be thrown against Japan. There were about three million Japanese digging in for the defense of their homeland, and there was a casualty potential of over a million people. That's what was avoided. If you take the highest figures of casualties of both cities, say, 300,000 combined casualties in Hiroshima [and] Nagasaki, versus a million, I'm sorry to say, it's a good tradeoff. It's a very cold way to look at it, but it's the only way to look at it. Now looking into tomorrow, that's something else again. I don't have any pat answers for that.

After the war, Beser was an engineer at Sandia Laboratories where nuclear research continued and at Westinghouse where he worked on classified projects for the military. He retired in 1985. In 1988, Beser wrote a book called Hiroshima and Nagasaki Revisited. He died of cancer in 1992 at age 71.

Sergeant Joseph Stiborik, Radar Operator

There isn't a lot of biographical information available on radar operator Joe Stiborik, except for some of his reminiscences of the mission.

Joe Stiborik remembered the crew sitting in stunned silence on the return flight. The only words he recollected hearing were Lewis's "My God, what have we done." He explained, "I was dumbfounded. Remember, nobody had ever seen what an A-bomb could do before. Here was a whole damn town nearly as big as Dallas, one minute all in good shape and the next minute disappeared and covered with fires and smoke...There was almost no talk I can remember on our trip back to the base. It was just too much to express in words, I guess. We were all in a kind of state of shock. I think the foremost thing in all our minds was that this thing was going to bring an end to the war and we tried to look at it that way."

Stiborik died of a heart attack in 1984 at age 69.

2nd Lieutenant Morris Jeppson, Ordnance Expert

Morris Jeppson was only 23 years old when he was assigned to accompany the atomic bomb on the Enola Gay. It was his duty to arm the bomb and make sure it would work. Jeppson had the power to abort the mission if it didn't. It was his first and last mission of the war. Jeppson had worked in developing the mechanics of the bomb, and after the war he continued on the nuclear path. He studied physics at Berkeley and worked in the radiation laboratory there. Then he worked on developing hydrogen thermonuclear weapons at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Jeppson went on to invent and market hi-tech machinery for medical and industrial uses.

In 1995, Jeppson looked back at the Hiroshima mission.

Until the 509th reunion that year Jeppson hadn't given the mission much thought. "Those bomb plugs were just kicking around in a drawer" for years, he says.

Still, he maintains that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was a necessary means to help end the war. He points to wartime concerns that Germany was developing nuclear bomb technology.

"If that had happened, the world would be an entirely different place (today)," he says.

Jeppson passed away in 2010.

Private Richard Nelson, Radar Operator

Richard Nelson was the youngest of the Enola Gay crew. He was 20 years old in August of 1945. He relayed the news of the atomic bomb to his superiors in code, who forwarded it to President Truman: "Results excellent." After the war, Nelson got a degree in business administration and made a career as a salesman. Fifty years later, he had no regrets about his part in the mission.

"War is a terrible thing," he told The Riverside Press-Enterprise on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. "It takes and it destroys. Anyone feels sorry for people who are killed. We are all human beings. But I don't feel sorry I participated in it. If I had known the results of the mission beforehand, I would have flown it anyway."

Nelson died from emphysema in 2003 at age 77.

Staff Sergeant Robert Caron, Tail Gunner

Enola Gay tail gunner Bob Caron wrote a book about the mission called Fire of a Thousand Suns. Despite his description of the bomb's effects, he never regretted being part of the mission.

In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News published two weeks before he died, Mr. Caron said he had no regrets about his role in the World War II bombing.

"No remorse, no bad dreams," he said. "We accomplished our mission."

Caron died of pneumonia in 1995. He was 75 years old.

Staff Sergeant Wyatt Duzenbury, Flight Engineer

Wyatt Duzenbury kept tabs on the Enola Gay's engines and other systems while others tended the bomb and the mission itself. He considered it an honor to be chosen for the secret bombing mission that was to shorten the war. After 1945, he stayed with the Air Force. In his retirement, he looked back at the mission.

...he told the Lansing State Journal in 1985, "We were told to go, cranked up, dropped it, and came home." He told the newspaper that he didn't feel guilty about his mission, but did "not feel good about the 100,000 people who died."

In an earlier interview, he said, "Personally, I feel that if we hadn't dropped that bomb, and the other crew hadn't dropped its bomb on Nagasaki, it would have cost thousand of US soldiers' lives establishing a beach head for the invasion of Japan."

Duzenbury died in 1992 at age 71.

Sergeant Robert H. Shumard, Assistant Flight Engineer

Robert Shumard assisted flight engineer Wyatt Duzenbury in keeping the Enola Gay running. In a 1960 interview, Shumard said he didn't feel honored to do what they did, but he felt honored to be selected for the mission. And given the circumstances, he would do it again.

"Nobody actually wants to cause the destruction we caused," he said. "But it was through a necessity rather than a wanton type of destruction. It was something that had to be done. As much as a man has gangrene in his leg, and they have to cut it off. It's something that has to be done. It was a cancer in the world situation that had to be removed, that's all."

Captain Deke Parsons, Weaponeer

Naval gunnery officer William "Deke" Parsons was pulled from sea duty to work on the Manhattan Project in 1943. He helped turn the nuclear bomb into a weapon of war, from development to assembly to delivery. He armed the first atomic bomb while the Enola Gay was airborne. After the war, Parsons continued in nuclear weapons development, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. He oversaw the Operation Crossroads nuclear testing project and also served on the Atomic Energy Commission. Parsons witnessed seven of the first eight nuclear explosions. There are no quotes available from Parsons as he was still serving in the Navy when he died of a sudden heart attack in 1953. He was 52 years old.

Captain Robert Lewis, Co-Pilot

Air Force flier Robert Lewis was a pilot first and foremost. He was upset that commander Paul Tibbets had named his plane the Enola Gay. But he was also dedicated to the mission, and earned Tibbets' respect despite the animosity between the two. Lewis wrote a diary of the mission in a notebook during the flight to Hiroshima, against orders. He later sold it for $37,000. It was resold in 2002 for almost ten times that much. He is often quoted:

"As the bomb fell over Hiroshima and exploded, we saw an entire city disappear. I wrote in my log the words: 'My God, what have we done?'"

Some sources say that quote was a revision after the fact. Later in life, Lewis defended the mission.

Over the past half century, some of the crew have returned to the city to take part in the annual commemoration celebrations. Lewis never did. For him "it was just a job of work. I helped make the world a safer place. Nobody has dared launch an atomic bomb since then. That is how I want to be remembered. The man who helped to do that."

Lewis died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1983.

Colonel Paul Tibbets, Commander and Pilot

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets was chosen to head the bomb delivery mission in September of 1944, and he selected the rest of the crew. At that time, the Manhattan Project was preparing to drop a bomb on Europe as well as Asia. After the mission, Tibbets remained in the Air Force until 1966, achieving the rank of Brigadier General. He worked as an aviation executive until his retirement in 1970.

In a 2002 interview with Studs Terkel, Tibbets said he never had second thoughts about the mission:

Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That's what I believe in and that's what I work for. Number two, I'd had so much experience with airplanes... I'd had jobs where there was no particular direction about how you do it and then of course I put this thing together with my own thoughts on how it should be because when I got the directive I was to be self-supporting at all times.

On the way to the target I was thinking: I can't think of any mistakes I've made. Maybe I did make a mistake: maybe I was too damned assured. At 29 years of age I was so shot in the ass with confidence I didn't think there was anything I couldn't do. Of course, that applied to airplanes and people. So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we'd be doing that I thought, yes, we're going to kill a lot of people, but by God we're going to save a lot of lives. We won't have to invade [Japan].

Tibbets died in 2007 at age 92. He had requested cremation and no physical memorial, because it would become a pilgrimage site for nuclear protesters.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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