SPRING HILL — John Bombara remembers seeing the war bird for the first time in late 1944. Arriving from its original air base in Omaha, its gleaming, polished aluminum skin nearly blinded him on the tarmac at Grand Island Army Airfield in Nebraska.
As a ground crew mechanic regularly assigned to maintenance of B-17 and B-24 bombers, Bombara had been accustomed to a loose routine. But he soon discovered that the brand new B-29 Superfortress bomber he was assigned to work on was quite different.
Each morning when he reported to work, Bombara had to present special credentials to the military police who stood constant guard around the plane. Cameras were forbidden, and he was told not to ask any questions about the plane.
For four months, Bombara and the rest of the 33-member crew worked in secrecy while the flight crew headed by Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. took the B-29 through numerous test flights.
"It was definitely the most unusual assignment I ever had," Bombara said in the living room of his Spring Hill home last week. "All of us wondered what was up with that airplane."
Although there were other B-29s on the base, Bombara recalled that none had been ordered to be retrofitted like Tibbets' plane. While it was stationed at the base, the ground crew installed oversized bomb bay doors, added special propellers and modified engines, and removed protective armor and gun turrets.
Now 90, Bombara learned what all the hubbub was about when the rest of the world did. The plane, which had been christened the Enola Gay by its commander shortly after it left the Nebraska airbase, went on to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.
The bombing claimed an estimated 170,000 lives and effectively brought about the end of World War II.
Sixty-seven years later, Bombara looks upon his involvement with the Enola Gay with a mix of emotions. The subject isn't one he eagerly talks about.
"I'm proud of what I did in the Army, but I don't consider myself any kind of war hero," said Bombara, who was discharged from the Army in 1946 and spent four decades working as butcher in his native New York.
"There were lots of us guys on the base just doing our jobs," he said. "The ones who fought, especially the ones who died — they're the real heroes to me."
However, Nick Morana, host of Veteran's Voice, which is broadcast on Hernando County Government Broadcasting — Ch. 622 on Bright House cable television — doesn't entirely agree with Bombara's assessment of his Army experience. He thought Bombara story's was fascinating and invited him as a guest on last week's program.
"I just felt that people in our community needed to hear about it," Morana said. "The bombing of Hiroshima is one of the most extraordinary events in history, and there are so few people around to tell about it."
Indeed, Bombara is the last survivor of the original Enola Gay ground crew. Through the years, he kept up with the others. But the only other remaining member died about two years ago.
Bombara, who moved with his now-deceased wife to Hernando County in 1989, said he was never introduced to any of the Enola Gay flight crew, but had known the bomber's flight engineer, Sgt. Wyatt E. Duzenberry, when Duzenberry was assigned to other planes he had worked on. And though he never spoke with Tibbets, Bombara recalls that he seemed to be a man deep in thought.
"I never saw him smile at all," Bombara recalled. "I guess he had a huge load on his shoulders."
The famous B-29 bomber that Bombara worked on for months now sits in National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax, Va. He says he has little desire to visit it.
"I crawled all through it 70 years ago," he said. "Having that memory and knowing that I was part of something important to the world is good enough for me."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]