On August 9, 1945, on the tiny island of Tinian in the South Pacific, a twenty-five-year-old American Army Air Corps major named Charles W. Sweeney climbed aboard a B-29 Superfortress in command of his first combat mission, one devised specifically to bring a long and terrible war to a necessary conclusion. In the belly of his bomber, Bock's Car, was a newly developed, fully armed weapon that had never been tested in a combat situation. It was a weapon capable of a level of destruction never before dreamed of in the history of the human race, a bomb whose terrifying aftershock would ultimately determine the direction of the twentieth century and change the world forever.
The last military officer to command an atomic mission, Major General Charles W. Sweeney has the unique distinction of having been an integral part of both the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombing runs. Now updated with a new epilogue from the co-author, his book is an extraordinary chronicle of the months of careful planning and training; the setbacks, secrecy, and snafus; and the nerve-shattering final seconds and the astonishing aftermath of what is arguably the most significant single event in modern history: the employment of an atomic weapon during wartime.
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About the Author
Major General Charles W. Sweeney, USAF entered military service on April 28, 1941 as an Army Air Corps aviation cadet. He was awarded the Silver Star for piloting the atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki and retired from the military in 1976 with the rank of major general. General Sweeney died in 2004. James A. Antonucci is a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School and a former Assistant District Attorney for Suffolk (Boston) County, MA. He is presently practicing law in the metropolitan Boston area and living in Marblehead, MA. Marion K. Antonucci was a schoolteacher and speechwriter for Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and served as assistant to Boston University president John R. Silber. Marion died in 2005 and is survived by her husband James.
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The bomb sat in its cradle in the assembly hut, six inches off the concrete floor at its lowest point, sixty-six inches at its highest. Ensign Don Mastick walked into the hut and saw Arthur Machen straddling the rear end of the 10,300-pound plutonium weapon, working feverishly to file down a hole in the bomb's tail assembly, which was suspended in front of him from a block and tackle.
"Hey, cowboy, what the hell are you doing?" Mastick hollered to the bomb assembly technician.
Sweat poured down Machen's forehead, even though he was in the only air-conditioned building in the Pacific. He was racing against time, and filing through the .2-inch-thick aluminum plate was proving to be excruciatingly difficult. The Bock's Car, the B-29 that would carry this weapon to the target in its bomb bay, was scheduled to take off in a few hours.
The tension and exertion were taking their toll on the young scientists and technicians of Project Alberta who anxiously watched Machen's progress. They were the representatives on Tinian Island from the Manhattan Project who were responsible for the assembly, arming, and loading of the weapon on board the Bock's Car. Any delay might cause the mission to be scrubbed, a prospect they did not want to entertain. Too many lives hung in the balance.
"Son of a bitch," whispered Machen as he wiped away the sweat, trying to keep his eyes clear. He didn't hear Mastick.
Earlier in the day, the delicate internal mechanism of the Fat Man had been carefully set into the bomb casing and the two spherical halves had been bolted together. Work had progressed slowly and methodically on this complicated nuclear weapon, which contained fifty-three hundred pounds of Composition B and Baratol, high-grade explosives, laid out in a precise configuration around an eleven-pound sphere of plutonium. This quantity of high explosives made Fat Man the most powerful bomb in the Pacific theater, even without the plutonium. A single spark could detonate the explosives, and in a flash, destroy the entire compound in which the assembly building sat.
The tail assembly — "the California parachute" — which would allow the bomb to drop on a predictable and stable trajectory, was about to be attached to the bomb's skin as the final step before transport of the bomb to the loading pit on the flight line. But as Machen had moved the tail section to jigger it into place, he was stunned to see that the upper hole on the tail didn't match its counterpart on the casing. They weren't aligned! Although the holes were off by only a fraction, maybe a hundredth of an inch, it was enough to keep the bolt from going through.
Maybe it was a mechanic's error. Or maybe the heat and humidity on Tinian had caused the metal to warp. But whatever the reason, after two billion dollars' worth of research by the best minds in the world, years of top secret military planning, and the combined efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, at the eleventh hour a technician was relying on a $1.98 rat-tail file and brute force to finish assembling the first plutonium bomb that would be dropped from an airplane.
This was to be the first of many surprises and near misses that would plague my mission to Nagasaki and test the dedication and skills of my flight crew and me.
I hadn't gotten much sleep since our return from Hiroshima on August 6. Colonel Paul Tibbets had told me on that evening that I would command the second atomic mission, on August 9, if a second drop was necessary. With barely enough time to recover from and reflect upon the Hiroshima mission, my crew would be flying another atomic strike in less than three days. It would be my first combat mission command.
I sat alone on a hilltop overlooking the massive runways on the northern tip of Tinian. The sky overhead was ink-black. Not a star was in sight. In a few hours we would be taking off from these runways. The men from Project Alberta were completing the final assembly of the Fat Man. This would be no concrete-filled "pumpkin" of the sort we had practice-dropped from our B-29s over the salt flats of Utah for the past several months. Our cargo would be live, with an expected explosive yield calculated to be equivalent to at least 46 million pounds of TNT.
This bomb would be the first weapons system ever used by the United States that had not been extensively field tested. Only one other plutonium bomb had ever been detonated, and that had been a static test in the middle of the desert in the Southwest with the bomb sitting secure on a tower, connected by wires to a command center several miles away near Alamogordo. In a few hours, we were going to drop a similar weapon from an airplane, where it would free-fall from 30,000 feet — with no wires attached. Although the scientists had ingeniously designed the physics package to fit within the confines of a bomb ten feet long and five feet across, none of them was sure exactly what the bomb would do. They expected it would be more powerful than the uranium bomb, the Little Boy, dropped over Hiroshima. But that was about it. How much more powerful? They weren't sure. Some thought it was possible our airplane would be blown out of the sky. Others speculated that a chain reaction that could destroy the world might be triggered. A few weren't even certain it would work.
I began going over in my mind every step of Colonel Tibbets's mission to Hiroshima. It had gone like clockwork. Perfect weather — not a cloud in the sky. Perfect execution — no fighter intercepts or antiaircraft fire at the target. Bomb away within seventeen seconds of the scheduled release — and a bull's-eye on the target. Then a flawless return to Tinian. It was up to me to live up to his expectations for this crucial second mission. He had chosen me to carry it out. I had to succeed.
"We must make the Japanese believe we can keep them coming every few days until they surrender," the colonel had told me. In truth, there was no third bomb behind us ready to go.
There had been no word of surrender from the Japanese after the bombing of Hiroshima, so I knew that our hope of quickly ending the war depended on this mission. After witnessing the blast at Hiroshima, I believed Japan would finally surrender. But her military seemed prepared to continue in a glorious and suicidal defense of the mainland. We were getting closer to the invasion of Japan, which was scheduled to begin on November 1, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands more American casualties in an invasion was not just some abstract concept to me — it was a sobering reality.
I focused on the steady flow of B-29s taking off from the runways below into the darkness for their firebombing missions over Japan. The burned-out hulks of the planes that never made it off the ground on earlier missions lay in the shadows of the runways. A lot of good men had died in them.
My mind drifted back to my last trip home in late 1944. By sheer coincidence, my friend Colonel Jim McDonald, with whom I had gone through flight school before the war, was home, too. Jim had just completed twenty-five B-17 missions over Europe with the Eighth Air Force. There were very few B17 crews who survived the twenty-five-mission rotation. I knew that I would soon be going overseas, and since I had no combat experience, I was anxious to learn what advice my old pal might give me.
We met for dinner at the Parker House, on the corner of Tremont and School streets, on a snowy evening in downtown Boston. Jim was six years older than I. He had been just below the maximum age and I just over the minimum age when we entered flight school in the spring of 1941. Jim had advanced to become a lead pilot in Europe, which meant that he led the formations of bombers into the target. It was a job that required skill, courage, and maturity.
We were seated in the ornate, mahogany-paneled main dining room. Waiters in crisply starched aprons moved about on the thick carpets without a sound. Jim and I reminisced over drinks and sirloin steaks. At one point, I told him I would be going into combat with a bomb group. Secrecy precluded my mentioning anything other than conventional aerial warfare. I asked him what advice he could offer me. Anything special I should know? Any mistakes I should avoid?
He thought for a moment and then answered with a smile, "Promote your men as fast as you can."
We both laughed. Then he turned serious, leaned in toward me, and in a precise, slow cadence said, "Never go over a target a second time. Never! If they didn't get you the first time, they'll get you the second time around with antiaircraft fire or fighters."
The activity on the runway below pulled me back. I caught sight of a B-29 lumbering down, laden with a full load of high-test aviation fuel and incendiary bombs. It appeared to be struggling to make it into the air. It was overloaded. It did get up for a moment, then hung in the air before plunging into the ocean. A burst of flames erupted in the darkness. The sounds of explosions punctuated the night.
Rescue boats stationed offshore sped instantaneously to the scene. Standby emergency vehicles moved in. There would be little they could do to stop the napalm spilling from the exploding ordnance from fueling the fire.
It was not the first or the last B-29 I would see crash on takeoff at Tinian. These ten Americans would be added to the statistics of the war — a war we had not started and did not want.
"No second runs," I murmured aloud, as if reciting instructions. But first things first. I'd have to get the plane into the air. In a few hours my crew and I would be rolling down one of these runways with a bomb and extra fuel that would put our airplane thousands of pounds over the manufacturer's specifications for maximum takeoff weight. With all that weight, we'd barely have enough runway to reach the proper air speed for liftoff.
Further complicating matters, our bomb, because of its complex detonation system, would be armed when it was loaded into our bomb bay, unlike the Little Boy, which had been unarmed on takeoff. The Enola Gay could have hit a brick wall and the bomb probably would not have detonated. For us, a crash on takeoff could vaporize my crew, Tinian, and me. But as I looked down on the runway, I had total confidence that I would get the airplane into the air and on to Kokura, Japan, our primary target.
I stood up to leave. At that moment I had no idea that my crew and I were about to confront a series of problems that would start at the moment of takeoff and continue until our forced emergency landing at an unplanned location ten hours later — any one of which could have doomed us and our mission and hundreds of thousands more in a prolonged war.
It was time to go.CHAPTER 2
The single event that changed my life happened on a sunny, cloudless Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1939 in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Like most of my generation, I didn't give much thought in 1939 to the troubles that were building "over there" in Europe and in Asia. The important pursuits of my life were in the U.S.A., which was secure and stable. For almost half of my twenty years, one man had been president. He was a reassuring presence who had brought us through the Great Depression. For this, he was idolized by my parents and their working-class friends and neighbors. His picture hung over our dining room buffet, next to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where Mr. Roosevelt watched over our family dinners every Sunday afternoon. One day in the not-too-distant future, my mother would hang another picture on the opposite wall. She would cut it out of the Boston Post, and it would show five marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. But for the time being, "America First" was the refrain, which was fine with me. And even if worse came to worst on the Continent, I figured we could always shore up the English and French and let them fight their own war.
My friend Charlie McCauley had other ideas. He was twenty-one, and with the new peacetime draft, it was only a matter of time before he would receive personal greetings from President Roosevelt inviting him to a preinduction physical for the army. But Charlie didn't want to be a gravel scratcher. "I'm not going into the infantry," he insisted when we talked about the draft. "I'm going to be an air cadet."
Toward that goal, Charlie was planning to take his first ride in an airplane on that sunny afternoon in Quincy, and he wanted me to tag along. I sat on my front porch waiting for him to pick me up. Our two-story, wood-shingled house was not unlike most of the houses on our street. In our neighborhood, just ten miles south of Boston, almost everybody knew everybody else. Charlie lived two streets over. His brothers played with my brothers. During the summer, we all congregated on the street to play kick-the-can or to toss bubble gum cards from the curbstone after rubbing them with candle wax for added weight, investing in each toss all the gravity of a World Series game. I was watching just such a championship match across the street when Charlie pulled up in his father's car.
I hopped down the front steps and got into the passenger seat. Nice automobile. A shiny 1935 gray Plymouth four-door. Charlie had elbow-greased the shine as the price of borrowing the car. I noticed that he seemed a little nervous. "Hey," I thought, "maybe he's afraid of actually going up there."
"You know," Charlie said as we headed in the direction of Dennison Airport, "you really ought to think about being an air cadet, too. You've only got one year left." Because I was his best buddy, it seemed only right that Charlie would keep pushing me to enlist in the air corps with him.
But my priorities were elsewhere in 1939. The draft was not my immediate concern. It could be another year before I reached draft age, and a lot could happen in a year. Certainly the combined armies of England and France could stop Hitler. I'd read that France had the biggest and best-equipped army in the world. And the sun hadn't set on the British Empire yet, either. As for Japan, Asia was an even more distant place, six thousand miles away from the United States. How could Japan threaten us? Thus armed with the confidence of a twenty-year-old kid in safe and predictable surroundings, I encouraged my friend to fly. It would be an exciting way to spend his next few years.
I was working on my future, too. Since graduating from high school I had moved up in the wholesale leather business to become a salesman covering western Massachusetts and New York State. For an ambitious young man, it was a great job with limitless opportunities and good commissions. My boss, Jim Kelley, told me I was a born salesman. But I felt, really, I could be a born anything. All I had to do was keep focused on my goals, get along with people, and keep a sense of humor. To earn a bachelor's degree, I was taking evening business courses at Boston University and Burdett College. For now, I would learn my trade. Later, I would I have my own business. My life was on course.
"What do your parents think about you flying airplanes?" I asked Charlie as we approached the fence marking the outermost corner of the airport. Dennison was a private airport that adjoined the Squantum Naval Air Station. It was only a postage stamp with a half dozen or so open-cockpit airplanes.
"My dad said he doesn't know anything about flying," Charlie answered. "He said it looks dangerous to him. My mother is all upset."
When I'd told my father where Charlie and I were going, he'd just said "Be careful." Although he had never been in an airplane, I was sure he wouldn't be afraid of flying. He was confident. Even during the depth of the Depression he always found work. When everyone stopped building in 1929 he had to close his plumbing and heating business, but he managed to pick up odd jobs and do a little contracting until he was able to start up a business again. We weren't rich, but we weren't poor, either.
In 1926 we moved from a rented house near downtown Quincy into our own home. I was the second oldest of six children, five boys and one girl. Our home was dominated by Catholicism, patriotism, and belief in hard work and individual responsibility. Education was valued as a privilege. My mother and father encouraged us to be the best our abilities allowed. When I was a student at St. John's Elementary School, I won the Greater Boston Spelling Bee at Faneuil Hall three years in a row. I remember that my parents were so proud they showed my gold medals with the red, white, and blue ribbons to just about every Irish man and woman in Quincy. I still have and treasure those medals.
My father used our Sunday dinners, when he had a full audience and our undivided attention, to teach us life's lessons by quoting the Bible or telling us one of Aesop's fables. My favorite fable was the one where the wind and the sun were watching a man who was walking along wearing a heavy coat. The wind and the sun began arguing over which of them could make the man take the coat off. "I'll blow it off," the wind told the sun. But the harder the wind blew, the tighter the man held the coat to him. Then the sun tried. It smiled and shone. Soon the man began taking off his coat. "Now, learn your lesson accordingly," my father would say.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "War's End"
Copyright © 2018 Maj. Gen. Charles W. Sweeney, James A. Antonucci, and Marion K. Antonucci.
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