Music History #15: "Enola Gay"
Written by Andy McCluskey (1980)
Performed by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (better known as OMD)
“We were both geeks about World War II airplanes,” said Andy McCluskey. “The most famous and influential single bomber was Enola Gay. Obvious choice for us, really.”
In 1980, McCluskey and his musical partner Paul Humphreys scored their first hit as OMD with “Enola Gay.” Though it borrowed the name of the famous Boeing B-29 plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the lyric was vague enough to be interpreted as a love song. The only overt war references were to “8:15,” the time that the bomb was dropped, and “Little Boy,” the code name for the bomb itself.
The song reached #8 on the UK singles chart.
The most famous war plane in history was built in 1945, as part of a batch of 15 Silverplate B-29 bombers specially modified for atomic bombing missions.
The plane arrived on the South Seas island of Tinian in July 1945. The island, formerly under Japanese control and used as a sugar plantation, had been seized by U.S. forces the year before. The Navy turned it into a 40,000-person military base.
In the month leading up to the Hiroshima bombing, the plane, still unnamed, flew eight practice missions and two regular bombing missions over Japan. On one, it dropped a 6300 “pumpkin” bomb, designed to simulate the “Fat Man” atomic bomb (the code name reportedly referred to Sydney Greenstreet’s character in the movie The Maltese Falcon), which would soon be dropped on Nagasaki.
The planned attack on Hiroshima for August 1st was postponed for a few days because of a typhoon. On August 5th, while preparing for the mission, pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets named the B-29 after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets. Tibbets later said, “My dad never supported me with the flying. He said, ‘If you want to go kill yourself, go ahead, I don’t give a damn.’ Then Mom just quietly said, ‘Paul, if you want to go fly airplanes, you’re going to be all right.’”
Tibbets was born in 1915. After dropping out of college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Over the course of the combat missions he flew in Europe during the first part of World War II, Tibbets earned a reputation as one of the best fliers in the service. He even served as a personal pilot to General Dwight Eisenhower.
After returning to the US in 1944, Tibbets did test flying of development B-29s. This led to him being chosen to command the atomic bombing mission in Japan.
Tibbets was not completely briefed on the nature of the Little Boy bomb. He later said, “[They said] the only thing we can tell you about it is, ‘It’s going to explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.’ I’d never seen one pound of TNT blow up. I’d never heard of anybody who’d seen 100 pounds of TNT blow up. All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.”
The Bomb and Its Aftermath
At 8:15 am on August 6th, the Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima. From the bomb’s fall to the initial 2,000 foot burst altitude (its mushroom cloud eventually climbed to 40,000 feet), it lasted 43 seconds (Tibbets would describe the cloud as “black as hell, and it had light and colors and white in it, and the top was like a folded up Christmas tree”). Little Boy’s explosion moved with a vertical velocity at just over the speed of sound.
As Tibbets maneuvered the Enola Gay away from the blast, the plane was rocked by a series of shock waves. Below there was instant death and obliteration. In a split second, Hiroshima ceased to exist. The radioactive fallout from the bomb caused horrific damage for years afterwards.
In the years since, both Tibbets and the Enola Gay have been at the center of various controversies.
In 1976, Tibbets performed a re-enactment of the bombing in a restored B-29, at a Texas air show. There was even a mushroom cloud. Afterwards, the US government made a formal apology to Japan.
After its mission, the Enola Gay was kept at various air fields, before ending up at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. In 1960, it was disassembled by a team from the Smithsonian Institution. Its parts were kept in storage for over twenty years. In 1984, a restoration of the plane began. Then in 1995, the partially rebuilt Enola Gay was displayed at the Smithsonian’s 50th anniversary exhibition about the Hiroshima bombing. Critics, including the American Legion and the Air Force Association, said the exhibit focused too much on the Japanese casualties, rather than what they felt were the legitimate reasons why the bomb was necessary to end the war.
The restored fuselage of the plane went on display. Protests continued, and there was one incident where three people were arrested for throwing ash and human blood on the plane.
In 2003, the Enola Gay's restoration was finally complete. It is now on regular display in a museum annex at Washington Dulles Airport.