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70 years later, those in harm’s way still praise choice to drop atomic bomb

The world’s first atomic bomb explosion on Aug. 6, 1945.
The world’s first atomic bomb explosion on Aug. 6, 1945. Courtesy of John McGlohon

Overheard poolside this week: Two precocious boys discussing the Iran nuclear deal brokered last month.

“What’s the big deal with it?” one boy asked.

“President Obama wants to make sure Iran can’t make atomic or plutonium bombs,” his friend replied.

“Why?”

“Because they are the fiercest weapons in the whole world,” the friend said.

Seventy years ago Thursday, the world first witnessed just how fierce. That was the day Tom Ferebee, a farmboy from Mocksville near Winston-Salem, flew bombardier in the nose of a B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay. From 32,000 feet over Hiroshima, Japan, Ferebee placed a T-shaped bridge in the crosshairs of his Norden bombsight and released a 9,000-pound uranium-235 bomb named “Little Boy.”

When it exploded 43 seconds later – at 8:16 a.m. Japanese time – the blast generated a flash brighter than 100 suns that was estimated at 50 million degrees Fahrenheit. In an instant, 80,000 died and thousands more were poisoned by nuclear fallout.

Its impact was intended to force Japan’s unconditional surrender to bring World War II to a close. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

Yet the Hiroshima bomb had already made its mark on history, and the world had been propelled into a frightening new age.

Twenty years ago, the bombs’ 50th anniversary sent me to Florida to spend three days with Ferebee. He told me that 12 miles from the blast, the Enola Gay’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, turned the plane so the crew could see the explosion. Ferebee and navigator Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, who spent several years in Charlotte, were the first two crewmates Tibbets chose for the atomic bomb mission. They’d flown 64 missions together in North Africa and Europe.

In his Davie County drawl, Ferebee described what he saw:

“The ground was like boiling tar, just a mass of rubble flowing in all directions toward the docks and toward the mountains ... There were parts of buildings, all colors – browns, reds, whites – going up the stem (of the explosion). It ran up to about 35,000 feet, and it formed a cloud. The top of that cloud was about 45,000 feet.”

As he’d told reporters many times, he never felt guilt for his part in the mission – his 65th.

“We were just following orders,” said Ferebee, who died in 2000 at 81. “We were trying to win the war.”

Released without warning

Seventy years later, the ethics – and necessity – of using the bombs will no doubt be debated again, except by the surviving warriors who were training for the invasion of the Japanese mainland.

The debate historically has fallen on the humaneness of the acts and other options President Harry Truman had to consider.

By mid-1945, the war in Europe over, Japanese civilians faced imminent starvation, some historians point out. They argue that continuing the fire-bombing of Japan’s major cities and blocking supply lines would have been more humane and brought the same results.

Some scientists on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret mission that designed and built the bombs, had misgivings, concerned about the morality and the potential for a nuclear arms race.

Yet, hearing estimates that as many as 250,000 to 1 million Americans would die in the invasion, Truman chose to drop the bomb without a warning.

Over the years, I’ve written stories about Japanese who survived the blasts. One was Francis Tomosawa, now a former head of a U.S. group of A-bomb survivors who was an American student studying in Hiroshima when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to draw America into the war. He was forced to remain there until the war ended.

Tomosawa repeated last week that Japan was ready to surrender, but it wanted to spare Emperor Hirohito from war crimes. Truman was adamant there be no conditions. Still, Tomosawa said the Americans were winning the war and had the advantage of waiting it out.

Saved American lives

Waiting was no option for Wally Duncan of Charlotte, a Marine who survived the battle of Iwo Jima, and American POW Wayne Carringer of Robbinsville, west of Asheville, who survived what is known as the Bataan Death March.

After Iwo Jima, Duncan’s division was shipped to Hawaii to train for street fighting in Japan’s cities. “They had pop-up targets and fake storefronts set up,” said Duncan, 89. “We were expecting to go into the cities and fight – our leaders were expecting to lose a lot of men.”

Duncan was on another maneuver when stunning news came from officers: “We had dropped a new bomb and they were looking for the Japanese to surrender.

“We got back to the base and had a helluva beer party,” he said. “That bomb saved a lot of lives – probably mine too. ”

Now he worries about his grandchildren and generations beyond. “We’ve been darned lucky not to have another one of those bombs dropped,” he said. “But it’s a dangerous world we live in and they will have this hanging over them. If we have an atomic war, we’ll burn this planet up.”

Carringer by early August 1945 was in a POW camp mining coal 50 miles across a bay from Nagasaki. On Aug. 9, he was walking to the mines when he saw the second bomb’s fallout.

“For as far as you could see, the horizon was full of dust and smoke,” said Carringer, 95, now in a VA Hospital in Asheville. “I heard what sounded like thunder and felt the ground shake.”

A few days later the guards suddenly left the camp with the gates open. He and four friends simply walked out. Yet before the POWs left, they found startling military orders: If the Americans invade the mainland, kill all the prisoners.

“I just know they saved my life and thousands of others, too,” he said. “The Japanese soldiers were savages. There would have been hell to pay if we had invaded.”

The last time I saw Ferebee was at a reunion of death march survivors that Carringer hosted in the N.C. mountains. I told him the survivors revered him.

“They’re the real heroes,” Ferebee replied. “I was in an airplane. They were on the ground getting the hell beat out of them.”

‘This can’t happen again’

Calls to Tom Ferebee came from reporters every five years on meaningful anniversaries. Now they come to his children.

Robin Ferebee of Huntsville, Ala., Tom Ferebee’s youngest of four sons, said his father rarely talked about the mission unless he was asked.

I asked the son about his father’s legacy. “To tell you the truth, he had a greater regard for the time he spent in Europe,” he said. “They had hair-raising experiences. He had only the one mission against Japan. He said it was routine.”

Twenty years ago, Ferebee told me he went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to witness what the bombs had done. “It was horrible,” he said.

At the end of the interview, I asked him what he thought of the bombs. He contemplated the question, then said: “I’m sorry an awful lot of people died from that bomb and I hate that something like that had to happen to end the war. But it was war and from 32,000 feet in the air, there’s no way you could tell a soldier from a woman or child on the ground.

“Now we should look back and remember what just one bomb did. ... Then I think we should realize that this can’t happen again.”

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