Deadly courier retains its place in history

March 24, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

SUITLAND -- An unheated, poorly lighted warehouse along a rundown commercial strip seems an unlikely place to find the world's most famous warplane. Yet here the immense bomber's fuselage lies in two pieces without wings or landing gear, not seen publicly in one piece since it dropped the first atomic bomb.

Visitors stepping into Building 20 at the National Air and Space Museum's storage and restoration yard encounter first the giant bullet nose of the B-29 Superfortress, looming in dim light like a submarine. The name is painted in black on the aluminum skin below the pilot's window: ENOLA GAY.

Through the nose glass one can look into the cockpit and see where bombardier Maj. Thomas W. Ferebee sat on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, his face pressed to the bomb sight as he peered at Hiroshima, six miles below.

When he got the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the cross hairs, he flicked a toggle switch to unleash a 9,000-pound atom bomb nicknamed "Little Boy." In two minutes, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were dead, and the world was changed forever.

On Aug. 14, after another B-29 dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered to end the war.

A year later, the Enola Gay was retired in storage.

Technicians and volunteers at the Paul E. Garber Facility outside Washington have been restoring the Enola Gay for nine years, taking the plane apart, removing layers of filth and corrosion, replacing parts lost to souvenir hunters or decay while the bomber was stored outdoors for several years. Next spring, the front section of the 99-foot fuselage will go on display to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing at the National Air and Space Museum on the Washington mall.

A half-century later, the job of presenting a piece of this plane and the story of the bombing is as touchy a problem of historical interpretation as a museum might tackle.

"When we began discussions of the exhibit, there were two points everyone agreed on," says Martin Harwit, director of the Air and Space Museum. "One, this is a historically significant aircraft. Two, no matter what the museum did, we'd screw it up," he says.

"It really was a critical moment in the history of the 20th century," says Tom Crouch, chairman of the museum's aeronautics department and member of the team creating the exhibit. "And it's one that people feel very strongly about, one way or another. It's one of those issues on which I think there's very little middle ground."

The Enola Gay is lifesaver, instrument of annihilation; great peacemaker, hideous war machine; totem of American technological triumph, symbol of perennial questions about whether moral lines can be drawn in warfare.

For several years now, the public has been able to see the plane in pieces by making a reservation at Garber for a tour, which focuses strictly on the technical aspects of about 100 aircraft on display there. Garber, where visitors are not allowed to walk around unguided, received 20,000 visitors last year, as compared with 8.1 million at the National Air and Space Museum.

The lack of exposure seems to have magnified the Enola Gay's power. Seeing the fuselage the first time is eerie, like confronting something pulled from the attic of the unconscious, a ghost risen from a grainy black-and-white newsreel.

"Awe" was the word Garber visitor Bob Brooks of Olympia, Wash.,

used to describe the feeling. He spelled it out: "A-w-e. Because I lived through that part of history. I remember the news reports when the bomb was dropped."

"Most of the people who come here say, 'Are we going to see the Enola Gay?' " says Garber tour guide Al Hopkins, adding that in five years he has never heard a negative reaction to the plane from visitors, including many Japanese tourists.

"The Enola Gay is definitely the most popular," he says.

For older Americans, the plane may conjure memories of World War II, of joy at hearing the war had ended without an invasion of Japan's home islands. Their children may recall Cold War anxiety -- learning about hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles and seeing their terrifying destructive power expressed multiples of the first atomic bomb.

Emotions of a different sort run strong among World War II veterans, many of whom have no doubt that the atomic bomb saved their lives by shortening the war. Some veterans are concerned that the exhibit will show the plane and its crew in an unfavorable light, or in some way express remorse for the atomic bombings.

'In the Holocaust Museum'

However, consider the letter written by the Japanese citizen living in Washington to the mayor of Hiroshima. As Mr. Crouch recalls, the man wrote that the Enola Gay "doesn't belong in the Air and Space Museum. It belongs in the Holocaust Museum."

The Air and Space Museum has a file more than an inch thick of letters received about the Enola Gay since August 1991. Almost all are from veterans, many clearly the result of letter writing campaigns.

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