Tuesday, August 09, 2005


UPDATE: See my Telly-Award-winning video, "Nagasaki: The Commander's Voice" here on eDefense Online. --MP 3/22/06

UPDATE 2: eDefense is no more, so I have posted the video here on my website. --MP 6/15/06

In January 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing Maj. Gen. Charles Sweeney, USAF (ret.), commander of the Nagasaki atom bomb mission. From the roughly hour-and-a-half of tape, I assembled the following narrative, which was published in JED, the Journal of Electronic Defense, in March 2002. On the 60th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, I thought it would be fitting to provide an account of the event in the commander's own words.

Nagasaki Mission Flight Crew, Tinian, 1945

Pictured from left to right standing: Captain Kermit Beahan (bombardier), Captain James Van Pelt (navigator), Lieutenant Charles D. Albury (pilot), Lieutenant Fred Olivi (co-pilot), and Major Charles Sweeney (aircraft commander).
From left to right kneeling: Staff Sergeant Edward Buckley (radar operator), Master Sergeant John D. Kuharek (flight engineer), Sergeant Raymond G. Gallagher (assistant flight engineer), Staff Sergeant Albert De Hart (tail gunner), and Sergeant Abe Spitzer (radio operator).

Maj Gen Charles W. Sweeney, USAF (ret.)

The atomic bombing of Japan forever changed the meaning of strategic bombing.

I had been waiting along with everybody else when shortly after noon on August 1, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets came and told me that the mission would be carried out on August 6, weather permitting. Tibbets would fly the strike aircraft, soon to be named Enola Gay, carrying the bomb. After rendezvous over Iwo Jima, I would fly The Great Artiste in formation with him to the target and drop the instruments that would measure heat, blast, and radiation. It was unusual in a combat mission for instruments to be dropped.

My crew was the only one that was on both atomic missions. That is to say, we flew the wing for Tibbets with three sets of instruments and three scientists. When Tibbets told me that we would go again on August 9, and that I would be carrying the bomb, he also said that we would use the same tactics, the same small formation that was highly unusual. I guess it was to write a signature for the raids that the Japanese could identify. The idea was to give the enemy the one-two punch. The US had only two atomic bombs, but we wanted the Japanese to think that we had them coming, and coming, and coming.

Bock's Car wasn't my airplane. I had all the instruments on my airplane from the Hiroshima raid, and I thought rather than making the enlisted men move all the equipment from one plane to another, we'd just change airplanes. So Fred Bock flew my airplane, and I flew his.

The Air Force had experimented in the States to determine whether or not a Japanese fighter could get up to us in a B-29 Superfortress and be effective. The higher we could fly, the better. Therefore, we stripped training aircraft of all guns except the two 20mm cannons in the tail, which didn't affect the streamlining, taking 80 percent of the gun and ammo weight out of the aircraft. We had input from an Operations Analyst, on contract to the Air Force, who was a university president and a mathematician. He figured that the Japanese Zero fighters could get up to our altitude and make a head-on pass. But they could only make one, because they would fall out of a turn at that altitude. In other words, they were underpowered for what they would love to do.

When we stripped the turrets, we were not happy with the way they had to patch the bombers up, so Tibbets put an order in for 25 new airplanes, custom made. The Air Force ran it by Boeing, and the company accommodated the custom run with no turrets on one of its B-29 production lines. While we were at it, we ordered the planes with direct-injection engines and Curtis adjustable propellers. We got 25 new airplanes from the factory, and they were beautiful. There was also a lot more room inside. The aircraft were modified to carry the two atomic bombs we had. Any plane in the squadron was capable of carrying either atomic bomb, which were different from each other.

Before we got our new, stripped-down airplanes, we jury-rigged a regular B-29 to train with. This was adequate. We didn't have the tackle necessary to handle the bomb in our inventory, because we had never dropped a 10,000-pound bomb. So we sent my bombardier, Kermit Beahan, over to England to see what the Royal Air Force was doing with their blockbusters. They gave us drawings and a sample of their shackle, and we put the same thing into our aircraft. The custom planes we got from Boeing had the rig.

We were not going to worry about fighters, but antiaircraft was another story. Thirty-thousand feet was our new cruising altitude, and we didn't expect to get much up there. Nevertheless, a lucky shot could wreck the whole program. Our 509th Composite Group did not have any organic electronic-intelligence (ELINT) aircraft, as some of the other B-29 groups did. We used the resources of the other theater forces, namely the 20th Air Force. The B-29s were all based within 60 miles, on the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. We had other groups doing regular bombing missions and mining of Japanese harbors and approaches, and they would collect ELINT as a matter of course, and we had access to that. We took the information we got from theater intelligence, and that was as good as anybody had. For example, we might know that just northeast of a particular city there might be an emplacement, or just east or west or both.

We went up on August 9 with the primary target of Kokura. We did get flak, and we had some visibility restrictions at the target. We also had orders that we were to drop visually. The scientists wanted to get a visual record of what happened. So we were going into the target and began getting some flak that was breaking level, and Beahan the bombardier said that he could not see the aiming point. The aiming point was a big arsenal right on the river. We could have bombed by offset bombing. We knew where the target was from the contours of the river and various other known points on the ground.

We had trained to do offset bombing with these unique bombs. We had dropped lots of so-called "Fat Men." This was the same bomb casing as the Nagasaki bomb. They were 10,000-pound bombs filled with concrete, and we trained with these. In addition, each crew dropped a couple of Fat Men on Japan, filled with Torpex instead of nuclear stuff. Each airplane went to a different target. For example, Fred Bock went up one day to a chemical company -- a big, tremendous chemical company -- and dropped a Torpex bomb. It hit right smack on the nose, and it set off some sympathetic explosions -- one building going off after another, like dominoes going over.

But we had the orders to drop visually. When Beahan said he couldn't see the aiming point, I took a look myself and confirmed what he was seeing. By that time, we were beyond the target and had to set up for another run. So I changed my altitude to 31,000 feet to screw up the anti-aircraft guys and their fuzing. We came in again and still got the flak -- a little heavier -- and took another look. We did this a total of four times. I was still getting flak at 31,000 feet so I went to 32,000 feet. I could almost see the target, but not quite; it was hazy and smoky. Well, the smoke is what did us in. The big city of Yawata had got a firebombing the night before, and that was right next to Kokura. I wish they hadn't bombed them that night. The wind had shifted, and it was blowing that smoke over the target.

Now we had a fuel problem. Earlier, we had to wait for an aircraft at the rendezvous point over Fukushima, and we didn't have enough fuel to keep making passes over Kokura hoping that the visual conditions would improve. So, it was time to go to the secondary target of Nagasaki. The weather was fairly good over there. There were lots of cumulous clouds up to about 10,000 feet -- fluffy, summer clouds but lots of them and fairly high for that type -- and they were obscuring angular visibility. But we were able to see the aiming point. Beahan said, "I've got it! I've got it!"

There were no fighter or antiaircraft defenses. We made the run, with Fred Bock right on my wing with the scientific instruments. He also had Bill Lawrence, science writer for the New York Times, aboard. This was his lead:

"Guam, Thursday, Aug. 9 - Gen. Carl A. Spaatz announced today that a second atomic bomb had been dropped, this time on the city of Nagasaki, and that crew members reported 'good results.

"The second use of the new and terrifying secret weapon which wiped out more than 60 percent of the city of Hiroshima and, according to the Japanese radio, killed nearly every resident of that town, occurred at noon today, Japanese time. The target today was an important industrial and shipping area with a population of about 258,000.

"The great bomb, which harnesses the power of the universe to destroy the enemy by concussion, blast and fire, was dropped on the second enemy city about seven hours after the Japanese had received a political 'roundhouse punch' in the form of a declaration of war by the Soviet Union."

When I was first told about this thing, it was in September of '44 and a lot of my friends had been killed in Europe, guys to whom I was very close. My heart was broken for them, not to mention the Marines and the others throughout the Pacific and elsewhere in the war. I thought, wouldn't it be nice if we had a wand that we could wave to stop the war. One day a certain military- intelligence officer picked me up in a jeep, took me out into the desert, and told me that I was going to be briefed on what the US was planning. He told me that we were working on one bomb that would turn a whole city into this, and he just threw a handful of that desert sand. And I said to myself, "My God. This could be the magic wand."

All we do for the next ten months is work, work, work. We build the organization and train it. And then we get over Hiroshima and bingo, it works. We get over Nagasaki, and it works again. I wasn't surprised. There were a couple of million guys sitting in boats that would be able to go home instead of invading Japan. Maybe they were surprised.

We had a plane in the group called Necessary Evil. That about says it.

Major Charles Sweeney, Tinian, 1945

In Memoriam
Charles W. Sweeney joined the US Army Air Corps in April 1941 as an aviation cadet. In 1944, he was selected to train all aircrews assigned to Project Silverplate, part of the Manhattan Project. In May, 1945, Major Sweeney became commander of the 293rd Bombardment Squadron, part of the 509th Composite Group assigned to the island of Tinian in the Western Pacific, where he was awarded a Silver Star for the Nagasaki mission. He retired from the Air Force in 1976, with the rank of major general. General Sweeney died on July 16, 2004.


At 1:02 AM, Blogger Some Random Dude said...

Thanks for this article. I wasnt aware that there were two aircraft flown in the formation, one with the bomb and one with sensors. I was hoping to watch the film you made and hear Mr. Sweeney's voice but cant get it to play. Thanks again for putting this up on the internet for people to see.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Michael Puttre said...

Thanks, Dude. I'm going to put the Nagasaki film up on a video hosting service at the end of May to make it easier to access. Check back for an update and the URL. Best, --MP


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