Remembering Hiroshima by restoring an artifact of the Atomic Age

Stripped of its wings and tail, the primary artifact of the Atomic Age lies immobile in a relic-filled warehouse. Once a powerful weapon, it now looks defenseless. A thousand B-29 bombers took part in the war against Japan, but this one helped deliver one of the final blows. The black block letters under the cockpit window are still distinct: ENOLA GAY.

``The bombadier would sit here,'' says Robert Mikesh, Smithsonian aerospace curator, pointing to the open nose of the aircraft. ``He then looked out and down, toward the target.''

Forty years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay's target was Hiroshima. At 8:16 a.m. local time, it dropped on that city the world's first atomic bomb. Four square miles were devastated. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and on Aug. 14 Japan surrendered.

The two bombs that ended World War II began a new era in history. Nuclear warheads now threaten with a destructive power that was unimaginable before 1945. After Hiroshima have come ICBMs, Trident submarines, and state-of-the-art B-1 bombers.

The Enola Gay, measured against these modern weapons, seems a museum piece. That, in fact, is what it will become.

Last year, the Smithsonian Institution began restoring the historic bomber. The job will take five years and will be the biggest airplane restoration ever. When it's over, Smithsonian officials hope the Enola Gay will be the centerpiece of a new aerospace museum at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

The Enola Gay (named for the mother of its pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets) was plucked from the Boeing B-29 assembly line in Omaha, Neb., especially for the atomic mission.

It remained in active service for only 13 months, from June 1945 to July 1946. Mothballed back in the United States, it made its last flight in 1953, en route to the Smithsonian storage and restoration facility here in Silver Hill. For more than 20 years, pieces of the plane have been gathering dust in various Smithsonian buildings.

Work is already progressing on the fuselage, a giant silver sausage that now occupies half of a Smithsonian hanger.

Two men labor on the plane full time, in a hanger-like building filled with old planes and metal-bending machinery. While stripping the interior they have yet to turn up any historic souveniers, such as pilots' gloves or 1946 matchbooks, but they have found out about Elizabeth Yunas.

``She must have worked on the production line,'' says David Peterson, one of the two men working on the restoration.

He points inside a newly opened panel, to a signature scrawled on the fuselage wall: ``Elizabeth Yunas, Clarksville Penn., Box 378, April 3, 1945.''

Mr. Peterson, who majored in English in college to ``balance my motorhead tendencies,'' is a relative newcomer to restoration work. His partner on the Enola Gay project, Rick Horigan, is a 15-year Smithsonian veteran.

When the plane is finished, it will be 90 percent flyable, they say. Not only will seats be restuffed and switch covers made immaculate, but engine timing will be authentically reset.

``We're not only preserving the history of the airplane, but the technology as well, so that 300 years from now people will know how the plane flew,'' Mr. Horigan says.

If they want to, they will also be able to see the Enola Gay's original finish. After the wings and tail are plugged back into the fuselage, acrylic sealer will be applied over the entire aircraft to preserve its battered paint.

The plane will then be waxed, and repainted to make it look as if it had just rolled off the assembly line.

``You'll be able to take a hair dryer, heat the finish, and scrape it off, down to the original layer,'' says Robert Mikesh, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian.

Stooping under the fuselage, Mr. Mikesh leads the way into a large opening in the bottom of the plane: the bomb bay. It is an eerie space, about 30 feet long and 6 feet high, the waiting room of the Atomic Age.

Normally equipped to carry up to 80 100-pound gravity bombs, the bay had to be specially refitted to accommodate the 10,000-pounder known as ``Little Boy.''

Mikesh points to the notch in the ceiling where a special Royal Air Force shackle held the bomb.

``It filled the whole forward bomb bay,'' he says.

Through a crawl space in a bulkhead is the cockpit. The seats are gone, and wires brittle with age hang from dusty panels. The bomber's bulbous glass nose has been removed. Levers, gears, and switches would seem crude compared with the controls of a modern jet.

Six of the Enola Gay's 12-man crew crammed into this small space during its historic, 20-hour flight to and from Hiroshima.

In August 1945, Japan still had 5 million men in its Army, though its Navy and Air Force were practically destroyed. President Truman and an advisory committee felt dropping the atomic bomb was the only alternative to an invasion of Japan, which they believed could cause up to a million US casualties.

[Two researchers Thursday said such statements by Truman and others were ``vast exaggerations'' and contradict military documents that predicted fewer losses. The two did their research for the Kyodo New Service, which is publishing parts of it in Japan.]

A warning explosion over an uninhabited area was rejected by the Truman administration as impractical. What would happen if such a test were a dud?

Leaflets were dropped over several target cities, warning of unprecedented destruction if Japan refused to surrender.

The Hiroshima bomb killed 90,000 people. The Nagasaki bomb killed another 60,000. The Japanese government equivocated a few days, then surrendered at Emperor Hirohito's insistence.

``The bomb thus served exactly the purpose we intended,'' wrote Henry Stimson in Harper's Magazine in 1947.

The weapons dropped on Japan also ``made it wholly clear that we must never have another war,'' he continued. ``This is the lesson men and leaders everywhere must learn. . . . There is no other choice.''

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