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The top-secret flights that ended the war

Seventy years after the atomic bombings, time stands still on the island of Tinian

by

Special To The Japan Times

Imagine disembarking on the shore of a remote tropical island. Walking cautiously past swaying palm trees into the heavy undergrowth, you soon encounter what appears to be the fossilized bones of an enormous prehistoric creature. The thick parallel lines might have been ribs, and the long straight stretches its spine or appendages. Naturally you’re moved to wonder how it appeared when alive, how it moved about and what it ate.

For dyed-in-the-wool history buffs or those merely looking for an exotic place off the beaten track to relax, Tinian beckons. It’s an easy trip from Japan. If you take a Delta Airlines flight to Saipan during daylight hours, be sure to request a window seat on the right side of the aircraft. On the plane’s approach to neighboring Saipan, you’ll get a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the “ribs” of that prehistoric creature — the four runways of North Field — which in the waning months of World War II was the largest operational U.S. air base in the world.

Home to barely 3,000 people, the 101-sq.-km island of Tinian is one of three inhabited islands of 14 that make up the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. Over a period of half a century — between 1899 and 1944 — Tinian went from being controlled by Spain to Germany, Japan and finally the U.S., which in July 1944 captured the island in an eight-day campaign that was largely overshadowed by the bigger and bloodier battle on Saipan, located just 9 km to the north.

From the late 1930s, Japan had begun to augment its military presence in the Nampo Shoto (groups of islands south of the main archipelago), sending 1,280 convicts from Yokohama Prison to Tinian to expand Hagoi Field, located at the north end of the island, with a 1,450-meter-long runway.

Once in American hands, teams of U.S. Navy construction battalions (known as “CBs” or “Seabees”) swarmed over the island, eventually moving an estimated 11 million tons of coral to build runways, taxiways, buildings and some 145 km of roads. The former Japanese airstrip was extended for use by the U.S. Air Force’s new long-range B-29 bombers, adding three more 2,440-meter runways.

It was from North Field’s runway, “Able,” that a specially modified B-29 christened Enola Gay, took off in the early hours of Aug. 6, 1945, to drop the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare on the city of Hiroshima.

Retracing history

I’d visited Tinian once before in 2007, but left to my own devices failed to find several of the places I’d wanted to see. This time I had much better luck, thanks to an introduction to the island’s resident historian, Don Farrell.

Farrell, who’s married to a native of Tinian, has taken up the story of his new home with gusto. In addition to publishing an illustrated guidebook for visitors in 2012 titled “Tinian: A Brief History,” he’s currently nearing completion of his magnum opus, a detailed history of the atomic bomb project that promises to shed new light on Tinian’s role in the war.

Arriving at the lobby of the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino clad in sandals, Bermuda shorts, aloha shirt and a baseball cap, Farrell appears like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe — if Crusoe had driven a Mazda pickup truck.

“What would you like to see?” he asks me while delivering a firm handshake.

“What do you say we retrace the actual route the bomb parts took from their arrival on the island?” I suggest.

After stopping for bottled water and gasoline, we head north. Our first destination is Tinian’s small port, where the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, on a top-secret mission, delivered the housing and key components of the uranium bomb on July 26, 1945. (Four days later a Japanese submarine would sink the ship east of the Philippines, with great loss of life.)

No ships, or people, are in port and there’s little left to see. We turn around and head northward on a bumpy, but still negotiable, road marked “8th Avenue.” (The roads in Tinian, named after streets in Manhattan, also include Broadway, Columbus Avenue and Riverside Drive.)

On our way north, we deviate up an overgrown hillside leading to the ruins of the Rasso Jinja, a Shinto shrine at the top of Mount Lasso, which at 171 meters marks the highest point on Tinian. Little remains of the shrine or the B-29 homing tower that stood close by. What can be seen is the concrete foundation of the old U.S. Army hospital.

“Medics would walk over to the edge of the hill and watch the B-29s returning from their missions,” Farrell says. “If a plane was trailing smoke or otherwise showing signs of heavy damage, they knew they’d be getting busy real soon.”

Passing near the marine invasion beach at the island’s northern extremity, I expect Farrell to turn inland, toward the Y-shaped B-29 parking areas that once housed the two atomic bomb loading pits. Instead, he turns toward the ocean and heads past the rusting remains of a gate and along a trail with heavy undergrowth to an open area with the concrete foundation of a building. Here, he says, was one of three workshops built here to assemble the atomic bombs.

Manned by technicians from the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists developed the bomb, they were equipped with state-of-the-art tools, designed to prevent sparks from setting off an accidental explosion.

“In addition to the nuclear material, the bombs contained a considerable amount of conventional explosive,” Farrell explains. “An accident risked extensive damage to the planes and their crews, so the assembly shacks had to be isolated.”

Three workshops indicate the U.S. was preparing, if necessary, for several more atomic bombs, as fast as the plutonium, intricate bomb components and their housings could be produced and transported to Tinian. Had the war not ended, by one Los Alamos scientist’s estimate two or three bombs could have been produced and dropped in September, three in October and as many as four in November.

Still following the route taken by the bombs, we next drive a few hundred meters to Tinian’s best-known attraction — the two bomb loading pits that were used to hydraulically lift the bombs into the low-slung B-29s. The pits are covered with thick protective glass. Inside, several large photographs show images of the bombs being loaded into Enola Gay and Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.

A memorial midway between the pits explains that the one to the west was used for loading the uranium bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” into Enola Gay and the one to the east, called “Fat Man,” into Bockscar. (One theory suggests the bombs’ names were inspired by actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Sydney Greenstreet, characters in the 1941 Hollywood film “The Maltese Falcon.”)

Farrell’s research, however, has found photographic evidence that contradicts the story on the memorial. The same pit, on the west, was used to load both bombs, he says.

We then deviate to a clearing in the vegetation to see the remains of North Field’s air operations building, originally a Japanese structure, and adjacent air raid shelters.

For the climax of the tour, Farrell rolls up his truck to the west end of the runway and begins to pick up speed. The runway, having gone unused for nearly 70 years, is a bit bumpy. As we approach its end, Farrell says, “Enola Gay would have left the runway about right here.”

A short distance ahead is a line of tangantangan trees hiding the cliff line at the runway’s end and beyond that, an endless expanse of blue Pacific and then Japan, six hours to the north by plane.

Headed back toward the island’s populated southern third, Farrell brakes to a halt at Broadway Circle, and we visit a weathered roundabout called the “American Memorial,” which is built from stone lanterns and other items the Seabees had collected from the island’s Shinto shrines. These days, it vaguely resembles a miniature Stonehenge.

My curiosity more than satisfied, we head for a lunch of pork adobo and chilled beer at JC’s Cafe in the village of San Jose, where Farrell related his interest in obtaining historical details about the dilapidated Shinto shrines on the island. It’s clear he’s committed to preserving not only American military relics on Tinian, but the native Chamorro and Japanese sites that preceded them.

Fading legacy

From its inception in October 1941 to the first test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, in July 1945, the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon took just under four years.

Tinian’s selection as base for the 509th Composite Group, the unit specially organized to fly the atomic missions, was unexpected. The initial choice had been the U.S. territory of Guam, which in addition to being headquarters for both Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz and head of the XXIst Bomber Command Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, had a deep-water harbor and good machine-shop facilities.

But in early February 1945, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Frederick Ashworth, who was dispatched from Washington on a fact-finding mission, quickly realized that Guam’s airfields would have difficulty accommodating the new air wing. Tinian, on the other hand, had sufficient labor resources and good security. Equally important, Tinian was 195 km closer to the main island of Honshu than Guam, reducing the need for a commensurate amount of extra fuel to fly the round trip.

Returning to Washington, Ashworth advised Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, that if construction started immediately, “the island of Tinian (could be) made ready for the basing of the 509th Composite Group (by) June.” His recommendations were accepted.

While Seabees were swarming over Tinian in preparation for the new unit’s arrival, the 509th’s commander, Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., had been training air crews to fly specially modified B-29s, nicknamed “Silverplates,” at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah and later, briefly, in Cuba to give them experience flying over water.

Tibbets’ crews practiced with actual-size mockups of the Fat Man bomb, known as “pumpkins,” releasing them from a height of about 9,000 meters and veering away rapidly at a sharp angle to avoid the anticipated shock wave from the bomb’s detonation. (Out of security concerns, none of the unit’s members except Tibbets had been briefed on the nature of the new weapon until Enola Gay flew its mission on Aug. 6.)

Many questions and accusations have been raised about the perceived necessity of dropping the atomic bombs at a time when Japan’s defeat appeared all but inevitable. From perusal of archival materials, it becomes clear that the timing of both atomic bombings were influenced to a great degree by weather conditions. The crews had orders not to drop without visual confirmation of their targets. Typhoons were frequent in the western Pacific and least five days of cloudy weather were forecast after Aug. 9, so the date of the Nagasaki mission was hurriedly moved up. The Soviet Union’s Aug. 8 declaration of war on Japan — three months to the day of Nazi Germany’s capitulation — may or may not have figured in Japan’s decision to surrender, but from examination of the historical record, the close timing of the two events appears coincidental.

As Soviet forces attacked Japanese forces on the Asian mainland, U.S. military planners were proceeding with preparations for “Operation Olympic,” the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for Nov. 1, and “Operation Coronet,” the invasion of eastern Honshu, planned for March 1, 1946. The latter would require 25 army divisions — twice the number that initially landed at Normandy.

As horrific as was the dropping of atomic bombs on two population centers, the other scenarios for ending the war — mining of Japan’s ports, more B-29 air raids using conventional incendiaries and the landing of over several million troops — promised even greater death and destruction.

Foreseeing “fanatical resistance,” including suicide assaults by air and sea, casualties were expected to far exceed those of Okinawa, where the U.S. suffered over 12,000 deaths and more than 40,000 wounded. U.S. planners estimated casualties ranging from 1.7 million to 4 million, with between 400,000 to 800,000 deaths. It is not pleasant to contemplate how the conflict might have ended if the strategy advocated by Japan’s hardliners had prevailed. One of them, Vice Adm. Takijiro Onishi, vice chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff, stormed into a ministerial meeting on Aug. 13 to harangue against surrender, saying, “Zenkokumin nisenman-nin gisei no kakugo wo kimereba, shori wa wareware no mono” (“If the entire nation commits to accepting the sacrifice of 20 million people, then victory will be ours”). Twenty million in 1945 would have been roughly one-third of the adult population of Japan’s main islands.

Buoyant over Germany’s surrender on May 8, the war-weary American public yearned for an end to the conflict, and both politicians and the military were in accord that any means to end the war as speedily as possible could be justified.

Farrell hopes his upcoming book will set straight the “armchair revisionist historians” who treat the issue, in his words, as a “philosophical toy.”

As for Tinian, most of the surviving air crew members, Seabees and others who served there during the war are too old to make the long trip any more, but the monuments they erected on previous visits stand as testimony to their presence.

If you’re interested in seeing it, go soon, because the future of North Field and other historic sites on Tinian is uncertain. The U.S. Navy maintains a lease on the northern two-thirds of the island and, with the planned “realignment” of up to 5,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Tinian, which is likely to be put to use as their training area, may soon once again resound with small arms and artillery fire. While Farrell and other locals are campaigning for assurances that spots of historical significance will be protected, some areas may be declared off-limits to visitors.

Now, at least, on the runways that once roared with hundreds of B-29s, visitors encounter only intense tropical sunshine, creeping vegetation and an almost eerie solitude. Seven decades on, Tinian’s fading legacy of the war in the Pacific seems destined to pass into oblivion.

Read a related story: Exploring Japan’s military past

  • Liars N. Fools

    A nice balance to the stories from Japanese, with good insight to the perspective of those faced with the prospect of assaulting Kyushu and then Honshu.

  • My sources say that it is far too optimistic to think that the US were able to procure any more atomic bombs within the six months following Hiroshima. The opposite is much closer to the truth: the bombing of Nagasaki became unavoidable because the miltiary leadership informed Hirohito that the Americans certainly had not more than this only atomic bomb. We know this since the publication and evaluation of the Japanese messages that were intercepted and deciphered by MAGIC and ULTRA. This was 2005.

    • Satan Baalzvoov

      I’ve heard that version of the story too, but this raises the question of why were three very expensive high-tech bomb assembly sheds constructed on Tinian? Being top secret, I doubt if their purpose was to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy.