Blog 08/31/2021 - The World's Most Important Bomber

Editor’s Note: This ends the MHT Four-Pack on the Atomic Bombs that began with our blogs on the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), Author Don Farrell’s Atomic Bomb Island and how VJ Day almost wasn't with a blog tracing the history of America’s most famous bomber, the Enola Gay.

The Odyssey of the Most Important Bomber in the World: The “Enola Gay” is a World War II (WWII) Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, named after Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of its pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, United States Army Air Forces (USAAF.) On 6 August 1945, piloted by Tibbets & Captain Robert A. Lewis it became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb in warfare. The bomb, code-named "Little Boy", was targeted at the city of Hiroshima, Japan, and caused the destruction of about three quarters of the city. Enola Gay participated in the second atomic attack as the weather reconnaissance aircraft for the primary target of Kokura. Clouds and drifting smoke necessitated the selection of the secondary target, Nagasaki, being bombed instead.

Norman F. Ramsey Jr., an American physicist (above signing the Fat Man on Tinian), was brought into the Manhattan Project to oversee Project Alberta, to deliver to deliver the bombs being created in the Los Alamos labs. Ramsey’s objective was to find the right aircraft, his first thought was to modifying a Consolidated B-24 Liberator but this plan was discarded as the US Navy had tried and failed to convert Liberators to carry a torpedo in its bomb bay. The second option was the British Avro Lancaster heavy bomber with its cavernous bomb bay and proven lift capability for the 22,000 pounds Grand Slam earthquake bomb) used by Royal Air Force Bomber Command against German U-boat Pens & Viaducts.

Ramsey visited Lancaster's chief designer, Roy Chadwick, who confirmed his bomber could adapt to that size and shape bombs. However, the Lancaster was out as both Chief of USAAF General "Hap" Arnold and Manhattan Project director Major General Leslie Groves Jr. insisted that the American atomic bomb should be carried and dropped by an American plane. The only option left was to modify the B-29 Superfortress, and this project was designated as Silver Plated Project, but was later shortened to Silverplate. In order to further secrecy, a false background story was invented for the project. According to the story, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (codenamed “Fat Man”) and President F. D. Roosevelt (codenamed “Thin Man”) were going to make a tour of the United States, visiting defense industries. Their trip required a specially modified ("silverplated") Pullman railway carriage. This was, of course, all false. Fat Man and Thin Man were the implosion and gun-type bombs, and the Pullman was the B-29 aircraft to be modified to carry them. An unforeseen problem occurred when the War Department innocently allocated the name to an unrelated project not knowing of the secret project so the USAAF ordered that project stopped.

The Enola Gay (Model number B-29-45-MO, [N 1] Serial number 44-86292, Victor #82) was built by the Glenn L. Martin Company (later part of Lockheed Martin) at its bomber plant in Bellevue, Nebraska, located at Offutt Field, now Offutt Air Force Base. The bomber was one of the first 15 B-29s built to the "Silverplate" specification of 65 eventually completed during and after WWII. These B-29s had the primary ability to function as nuclear "weapon delivery" aircraft. These modifications included a modified bomb bay, British bomb attachment and release systems, reversible pitch propellers for more braking power on landing and the removal of protective armor and gun turrets. The final batch of Silverplate Superfortresses were also equipped with improved, fuel-injected engines.

These planes could fly higher and faster than any other version of the B-29, carry heavier loads and have better fuel economy. Ramsey had succeeded in his mission and wrote that "they were without doubt the finest B-29s in the theater." The planes used for testing saw heavy service and suffered much wear and tear, so new ones had to be built to replace them and to fly on the actual missions over Japan. Both missions involved more than just one plane (seven for the Hiroshima mission and six for Nagasaki, with some overlap.) Beside the plane carrying the atomic bomb, there was also one for observation and photography, one carrying instruments to measure the blasts, and several weather reconnaissance planes. After much work and several problems to overcome, the USAAF finally had the plane to take Little Boy and Fat Man on their historic missions.

Enola Gay had been personally selected by Colonel Tibbets, Commanding Officer of the 509th Composite Group, on 9 May 1945, while still on the assembly line. The aircraft was accepted by the USAAF on 18 May 1945 and assigned to the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, 509th Composite Group. Captain Robert A. Lewis, USAAF took delivery of the bomber and with crew B-9 flew it from Omaha to the 509th base at Wendover Army Air Field, Utah, on 14 June 1945.

Thirteen days later, the aircraft left Utah for Guam, and flew on to North Field, Tinian, on 6 July joining the 313th Bombardment Wing, Twentieth Air Force. It was initially given the Victor (squadron-assigned identification) number 12, but on 1 August, was given the circle R tail markings of the 6th Bombardment Group (BG) as a security measure and had its Victor number changed to 82 to avoid misidentification with actual 6th BG aircraft. During July, the bomber made eight practice flights, and flew two missions, on 24 and 26 July, to drop pumpkin bombs (a single conventional bomb in the shape of the Fat Man on industrial targets at Kobe and Koriyama. The Enola Gay also conducted a rehearsal flight on 31 July for the actual mission.

The partially assembled 10,000-pound Little Boy gun-type fission weapon L-11 was contained in a wooden crate that was secured to the deck of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35.) Both the L-11 and projectile was dropped off at Tinian on 26 July 1945. See the fate of the Indy at

Since the atomic bombs were relatively complicated weapons, a new crew member was also needed, just to handle the special payload. The "weaponeer" sat in the cockpit in front of a special panel, and had to monitor the release and detonation of the bomb. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions also had an assistant weaponeer onboard. Captain William “Deak” Parsons, USN (US Naval Academy Class of 1922) who had been working with the bombs since the inception of Silverplate participated in the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Flying on the Enola Gay as weaponeer and Senior Military Technical Observer, shortly after takeoff Parsons clambered into the bomb bay and carefully carried out the procedure to arm the bomb that he had rehearsed the night before. It was Parsons and not Tibbetts, the pilot, who was in charge of the mission. He approved the choice of Hiroshima as the target, and gave the final approval for the bomb to be released. I believe the long-departed Nuclear Weapons Training Group Atlantic was located at the “Deak” Parsons Center at Norfolk, VA Naval Base.

 While the kinks were being worked out with the B-29s, bomb development at Los Alamos took an unpleasant turn. Plutonium made at the Hanford Engineering Works in Washington had impurities in it, which increased its fissionability making it unstable. This was a blessing in disguise. The plutonium in the Thin Man was changed to uranium, which was less efficient but quicker to produce. Also, uranium did not run the risk of pre-detonation, and in fact allowed for a shorter barrel, one that would fit in an unmodified B-29 bomb bay. With these changes, the Little Boy was born.

Below: The Joint Chiefs of Tinian (Left to Right): Rear Admiral Purnell, USN, Manhattan Project’s Deputy for Operations; Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, USA, XO to MajGen Groves, Director Manhattan Project; Colonel Paul Tibbets, USAAF, Pilot of Enola Gay & Captain William Parsons, USN, Director of the Gun-Type Nuclear Bomb and armed the Little Boy on the flight to Hiroshima.

Read about the Atomic Bomb Island from Excerpts from Don Farrell’s informative book of the same name:

Post WWII: After the war, on 6 November 1945, Lewis flew the Enola Gay back to the United States, arriving at the 509th's new base at Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico, on 8 November. In May 1946, it flew to Kwajalein to participate in the Pacific’s Operation Crossroads nuclear tests, but was not chosen to make the weapon drop at Bikini Atoll. After the war, The USAAF was shrunk rapidly after the war. So much so, that in 1947, Strategic Air Command realized they no longer knew where all the Silverplate B-29s were and what condition they were in. They had to send out inspectors to track down and find the planes. The Silverplate name itself was also compromised and was discontinued. A new codename, Saddletree, was introduced in May 1947 to deal with a new potential enemy, the Soviet Union, and included "winterization" so the new generation of special nuclear weapons carrying planes could take off from and land at Arctic bases.

The decision was made to preserve the Enola Gay, and on 24 July 1946, the aircraft was flown to Davis–Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Tucson, AZ, in preparation for storage. On 30 August 1946, the title to the aircraft was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and the Enola Gay was removed from the USAAF inventory. From 1946 to 1961, the plane was put into temporary storage at a number of locations. It was at Davis-Monthan from 1 September 1946 until 3 July 1949, when it was flown to Orchard Place Air Field, Park Ridge, IL, by Tibbets for acceptance by the Smithsonian. It was moved to Pyote AFB, TX, on 12 January 1952, and then to Andrews AFB, MD, on 2 December 1953 because the Smithsonian had no storage space for the aircraft. It was hoped that the US Air Force would guard the plane at Andrews but lacking hangar space, it was left outdoors on a remote part of the air base, exposed to the elements. Souvenir hunters broke in and removed parts and insects and birds also gained access to the aircraft. The Smithsonian Institution, became concerned about the Enola Gay's condition and on 10 August 1960, their staff began dismantling the aircraft. The components were transported to the Smithsonian storage facility at Suitland, Maryland, on 21 July 1961.

Enola Gay remained at Suitland for many years. By the early 1980s, two 509th veterans began lobbying for the aircraft to be restored and put on display. They enlisted Tibbets and Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) in their campaign. In 1983, Walter Boyne, a former B-52 pilot with the Strategic Air Command, became Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM), and he made the Enola Gay's restoration a priority. On 5 December 1984, the restoration began at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland-Silver Hill, MD. Some parts and instruments had been stolen and could not be located. Replacements were found or fabricated, and marked so that future curators could distinguish them from the original components. In 1995, a portion of the plane was to serve as the centerpiece of a 50-year WWII exhibition at the Smithsonian’s NASM in Washington, D.C. The exhibit had originally been scheduled to include artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and highlight the debate over the decision to use the bombs. The exhibit, The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War, was drafted by the NASM staff.

Critics of the planned exhibit, especially those of the American Legion and the Air Force Association, charged that the exhibit focused too much attention on the Japanese casualties inflicted by the nuclear bomb. The exhibits massive emphasis on photos of charred bodies, “Ground Zero” rubble, the ruins of a Shinto shrine, a heat-fused rosary and items belonging to dead schoolchildren told one side. US veterans said the exhibit did not represent the other side, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy’s culpability for the war with scant mentions of Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the Genocide of 4,000,000 Chinese, Korean slave labor and comfort women, IJA War Crimes and Unit 731, where the Japanese Army conducted biological and chemical research using lethal human experimentation to murder hundreds of thousands. The cost of millions of US and Japanese lives saved by the two bombs finally convincing the Emperor that following the IJA military plan to defend every inch of the mainland with a plan for every civilian to die killing Allied invaders was underplayed in the motives and bomb's role in ending the conflict with Japan. Below VJ Day Celebration.

Japan planned to use plague as a biological weapon against San Diego, CA in September 1945 but the atomic bombs disrupted the Unit 731 plan as we saw in 2020 what an effective biological weapon can do so another bow for the Little Boy and Fat Man. Amid bitter opposition to the historical context, the original plans were canceled, and a much scaled-back version was staged. The forward fuselage went on display on 28 June 1995. On 2 July 1995, three people were arrested for throwing ash and human blood on the aircraft's fuselage, following an earlier incident in which a protester had thrown red paint over the gallery's carpeting. The exhibition closed on 18 May 1998 and the fuselage was returned to the Garber Facility for final restoration.

While the fuselage was on display, from 1995 to 1998, work continued on the remaining unrestored components. The aircraft was shipped in pieces to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia from March–June 2003, with the fuselage and wings reunited for the first time since 1960 on 10 April 2003 and assembly completed on 8 August 2003 it would eventually require 300,000 staff hours. The aircraft has been on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center since the museum annex opened on 15 December 2003. As a result of the earlier controversy, the signage around the aircraft provided only the same succinct technical data as is provided for other aircraft in the museum, without discussion of the controversial issues. It reads: “Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons.”

Only one other Silverplate B-29 that participated in the historical bombings can still be seen along with the Enola Gay. The Bockscar that on 9 August 1945 dropped the Fat Man on Nagasaki is at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The other Silverplates have all been scrapped, though another older B-29, Hagarty's Hag, was repainted to resemble the Silverplate Straight Flush another of the 15 B-29s flown to Tinian by the 509th CG and is displayed at the Hill Aerospace Museum in Roy, Utah. Looking at his aircraft, Colonel Tibbets recalled, was a "sad meeting. [My] fond memories, and I don't mean the dropping of the bomb, were the numerous occasions I flew the airplane ... I pushed it very, very hard and it never failed me ... It was probably the most beautiful piece of machinery that any pilot ever flew."