1. Archive

Sparer "Enola Gay' exhibit opens

Tour the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution and you will learn plenty about the painstaking restoration of the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 50 years ago.

You can view the bomber's front fuselage, buffed to a shiny silver, and see one of its propellers and a replica of the 10-foot, 6-inch "Little Boy" bomb that flattened the Japanese city and killed thousands.

But you'll see little hand-wringing about the dawn of the nuclear age. It is not a place for self-doubts about whether the bombing was morally proper.

"I wanted to do everything that I could to subdue Japan," Enola Gay pilot Paul W. Tibbets says matter-of-factly in the exhibit's 16-minute video. "That was the attitude of the United States in those years."

The Enola Gay exhibit that opens today at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is washed of the controversy that tangled the esteemed museum complex and nearly killed the display in the year of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

It is, in the words of Smithsonian Institution Secretary I. Michael Heyman, a "simpler" display that focuses mostly on the fuselage of the Enola Gay and ignores the debate over the use of the bomb. Veterans groups and members of Congress got a chance to view the exhibit last week, followed by the media Tuesday.

"We think most veterans are going to be pleased with the exhibit," said Phil Budahn, spokesman for the American Legion. "It is a straightforward account . . . without a lot of inappropriate educational commentary."

"I am pleased and proud of the exhibit," Tibbets wrote in a letter to Heyman last week. ". . . I firmly believe that you have gotten to the basic facts. There is no attempt to persuade anyone about anything."

Peace activists and some historians were upset with the treatment, though they have a chance to view a more thorough look at the bombings and the nuclear age. American University in Washington, D.C., is sponsoring a small exhibit on the atomic bomb this summer.

The original Smithsonian approach offered artifacts from the Hiroshima bomb site, photographs of victims and a discussion of the reasons President Truman dropped the two bombs on Japan. In one early script, the war in the Pacific was described as a "war of vengeance."

"For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism," that early script said.

Even after Smithsonian officials rejected that script and added material describing the Japanese aggression during the war, veterans groups said the museum was reaching too far into judgments about the bomb and the war.

So, after months of controversy and some 30,000 letters, Heyman canceled the show in January. The director of the Air and Space Museum, Martin Harwit, quit in anger.

When the dust settled, the new exhibit was set up in the northwest corner of the huge Smithsonian complex's most popular museum. The Enola Gay exhibit fills 5,000 square feet _ the same space as planned for the earlier display.

Outside the entrance to the display sits a restored Hellcat fighter plane _ built to counter the deadly Japanese Zero. Nearby, an enlarged copy of a letter from Heyman explains the controversy and the resulting display.

Visitors entering the exhibit learn that 15 Boeing B-29s were specially built to prepare for the super-secret atomic bomb mission. Photographs show factory workers assembling the planes.

Then comes the plane's huge, silver rudder and vertical stabilizer painted with a dark circled R _ the insignia of the 6th Bombardment Group stationed on Tinian island.

Several wall panels and a six-minute video describe the elaborate restoration _ the biggest plane restoration in the Smithsonian's history.

On a nearby wall is a brief explanation of the Enola Gay mission and the awesome age it ushered in: "As it lifted off on that mission, it carried a weapon of unprecedented power that would bring both death and destruction. When the airplane released its load, banked sharply and turned toward home, history turned with it."

". . . After all this time, it still evokes intense emotions, from gratitude to grief, its polished surface reflecting the myriad feelings and meanings and memories we bring before it."

The 60-foot-long fuselage fills one room. You can see into the plane from the pilot's compartment, from another opening on the side and from a rear window.

Among the nuggets of trivia: The Enola Gay was named for Tibbets' mother. The Enola Gay carried an 11-member crew that trained in Utah. The plane weighed 70,140 pounds and traveled up to 375 mph. The bomb weighed 8,900 pounds and carried a blast equal to between 12,000 and 20,000 pounds of TNT.

Other panels and a second video reinforce military veterans' passionate belief that the bomb saved Japanese and American lives by forcing Japan to surrender sooner and avoiding an otherwise inevitable U.S. invasion.

"Each island we got closer to Japan, the casualties increased," Enola Gay radio operator Richard Nelson recounted in the video.

The video presents the training of the crew, and their recollections of the flight to Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The weather was clear, and they could see Japan from as far as 75 miles away.

The bombardier picked out the pre-assigned target, a bridge in the middle of the city. He dropped the atomic bomb and watched it fall, as Tibbets turned the B-29 and headed away from the blast. They felt the concussion and turned to see the mushroom cloud growing over the city of 350,000.

"The only thing that I could see of Hiroshima was one of the docks and the bay," tail gunner George Caron said in the video.

"The sight that greeted our eyes was quite beyond what we had expected," Tibbets says.