Controversy heating up a year before Enola Gay's museum debut

May 09, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- In the honor roll of aviation, the Smithsonian Institution is hallowed ground. Here are aircraft that changed the world -- flown by the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

Next year another famous airplane will be added. It's the Enola Gay, the legendary B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and brought a swift and terrible end to World War II.

But unlike the proud display accorded those other famous aircraft, officials at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum have more chilling plans for the Enola Gay. And that rankles a growing number of World War II veterans who wish to evoke the pride of their wartime sacrifice -- not have it overshadowed by gruesome photos of dead children and radiation victims.

Ben Nicks, 75, was a B-29 pilot who flew his last mission the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He is delighted the Smithsonian is painstakingly restoring the Enola Gay and plans to exhibit it again.

"The Enola Gay, the aircraft itself, is nothing but a piece of tin," said Mr. Nicks. "But as a symbol, as a reminder to the generations who followed World War II and to whom it's only a memory, we hope that the symbol is one that reflects credit on us."

But this is not quite what he expected. According to plans, the plane is to be exhibited with charred artifacts from Hiroshima's Ground Zero: carbonized remains of a schoolgirl's meal, melted religious artifacts, a clock forever frozen at 8:15 a.m.

Along with proud memorabilia from the 509th bomb group, there will be ghastly photos of Japanese women and children, representing some of the 100,000 who died from the fireball on Aug. 6, 1945, or from the slow poisoning of radiation.

But most troubling to Mr. Nicks and other veterans is their belief that the exhibit slights their sacrifice. Some even felt Americans would be portrayed as the Bad Guys -- a charge Smithsonian officials vigorously deny.

"What we're really looking at here is a reluctance to really tell the whole story," insisted Tom Crouch, chairman of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum Aeronautics Department. "They want to stop the story when the bomb leaves the bomb bay. This is an exhibit which goes beyond that, including what happens when it hits the ground."

A full year before the exhibit opens, the controversy shows how the shock waves from Hiroshima reverberate still. Was dropping the bomb a deliberate slaughter of 100,000 Japanese civilians and the birth of nuclear terror -- or a godsend that ended the world's bloodiest war and saved American (and Japanese) lives by the hundreds of thousands? Was it both?

The Smithsonian wants visitors to answer those questions for themselves. The museum intends to present context, history, facts, multiple viewpoints -- and no moral judgments.

Yet for Mr. Nicks, and for thousands of surviving veterans like him, there's an aspect that is troubling.

To win World War II, the nation demanded -- and received -- immense sacrifice in a black-and-white, life-or-death struggle.

Today, from a distance of two generations, even the Good War contains shades of gray.

Smithsonian officials say they'll tell it all -- Japan's aggression, the scientific challenges to building the bomb, the political and military decision to drop it, the story of the Enola Gay crew led by Col. Paul Tibbets, the destruction at Ground Zero, the bomb's nuclear legacy.

Still, the Enola Gay's atomic mission is troublesome.

"I don't think anybody is looking for glorification," argued John Correll, the editor of Air Force Magazine. "We certainly would recognize that the mission of the Enola Gay was grim."

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, heard of the controversy and promptly sent a frosty letter to the head of the Smithsonian.

"For 44 years, the Smithsonian has been in possession of the historic plane, and in that time it has never been properly and prominently displayed," she wrote. "It seems a travesty that when the Enola Gay is finally exhibited, it will be in a manner that many veterans find objectionable.

"In order to resolve this situation, I suggest the famed B-29 be displayed with understanding and pride in another museum." She suggested three Kansas museums.

Politely but firmly, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams said no way.

"I must state unequivocally that this is not an option," he replied. "The Enola Gay is, without question, one of the Smithsonian Institution's and the Air and Space Museum's premiere artifacts . . . we have spent thousands of man hours and significant funds during the past decade to conserve and restore the Enola Gay to its original condition."

About the exhibit, he added, "Its basic, explicitly stated posture is that while the use of atomic weapons is hardly something our nation would want to celebrate, neither is it anything for which we should apologize."

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