Tinian is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, now a US territory in the Pacific. In 2020, it’s a sleepy, rustic, tropical paradise of 3,000 residents. There are a handful of restaurants, a few small hotels and a single gas station on its 39 square miles (101 square kilometers).
In 1944, Tinian and its sister island of Saipan, five miles to the north, were the scene of brutal fighting between the United States and Japan.
The US needed the islands so its state-of-the-art B-29 bombers could strike Japan, 1,500 miles away. And in the summer of 1944, after three months of combat that included some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, the US secured the islands and quickly built large air bases for its new bombers.
On a January morning 75 years later, I’m exploring one of those bases, North Field.
At the site of the atomic bomb assembly building, my guide and I hop into the rented Toyota Corolla for the next steps in the bombs’ journey, a short drive to pits into which they were lowered, then hoisted up into the bellies of the bombers that would carry them to their targets.
Tall grasses and brush have grown around North Field over the decades. They close in on the Toyota, even scraping its sides at some points.
But in 1945, this was an open plain filled with acres and acres of workshops and tents and airplanes and men, supporting what at one time during World War II was the busiest airport in the world.
While what surrounds us on this tropical morning has changed, what is underneath is the same asphalt laid by US Navy Seabees, or construction battalions, 75 years ago.
- A timeline of the Hiroshima atomic bomb
- August 1, 1944
US Marines declare victory over Japanese forces in the battle for Tinian island. US Navy Seabees soon begin work on bases for US B-29 bombers, expected to carry the war to the Japanese mainland.
- July 16, 1945
The nuclear age begins with the first atomic bomb explosion in New Mexico. The test is for a plutonium bomb, the kind used on Nagasaki, Japan. Meanwhile, the pieces for a uranium bomb, the kind used on Hiroshima, leave San Francisco aboard the US Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis.
- July 20, 1945
B-29s bombers from the 509th Composite Group, which will carry out the atomic bomb missions, begin practice runs over Japan.
- July 26, 1945
US President Harry Truman issues the Potsdam Declaration, calling for Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” Meanwhile, the USS Indianapolis delivers the parts for the Hiroshima bomb to Tinian.
- July 29, 1945
Japan rejects the Postdam Declaration.
- July 31, 1945
The assembly of the “Little Boy” uranium bomb is completed on Tinian.
- August 1, 1945
The order for the atomic bombing of Japan is drafted by mission commander, Col. Paul Tibbets.
- August 5, 1945
Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the US bombing campaign against Japan, confirms the first mission for August 6.
- August 6, 1945
The B-29 Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb, which detonates over Hiroshima at 8:16 a.m. at an altitude of 2,000 feet.
Source: Atomic Heritage Foundation, National Park Service
The longevity of that construction is in itself remarkable. Think of the roads and freeways you drive on, how potholes develop and surfaces crumble in within your short-term memory. The pavement below us hasn’t been touched in more than seven decades.
The path we’re driving emerges into a clearing about the size of a supermarket parking lot. Two glass structures, maybe four or five feet high, are visible at separate corners on the same side of the small pad.
My guide is Don Farrell, a California native who moved to the Pacific islands in the 1970s. Locals recognize him as the chief historian of Tinian, and he’s detailed the story of what happened here in 1945 in his book, “Tinian and the Bomb.”
He led the effort to get these bomb pits excavated and preserved more than a decade ago, and describes how the atomic bombs were loaded into the B-29s.
Think of when you’re getting your car serviced and a hydraulic lift brings it up above your head so the mechanics can work underneath. That’s how the bombs got into the belly of the planes, he says.
I back up the rental car to the edge of the bomb pit.
“You ever back up a trailer in your driveway?” Farrell asks. “Imagine doing that with a B-29.”
With that, we’re about to make the short trip to the end of Runway Able on North Field, the very runway the B-29, named Enola Gay, took off from at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945.
The journey is a few short minutes in the car. It would have been much longer for the lumbering B-29 and its 9,700-pound (4,400 kilogram) payload.
I stop the car and line it up on the center of Runway Able, trying to recreate the movements of Enola Gay’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, 75 years ago.
My co-pilot, Farrell, nods and I punch the accelerator. I am driving down the very runway where history was made 75 years ago, and as the tarmac passes below me I have goosebumps.
It’s about a two-minute drive down the runway. Farrell provides the imagery as to what Tibbets would have seen — the tents, the troops, B-29s by the dozens.
While it’s two quick minutes for me, it was far from it for the men aboard Enola Gay, Farrell says.
They were doing something that had never been done and something they believed would hasten the end of World War II and certainly change history.
“For the men on Enola Gay, it was the longest two minutes of their lives,” Farrell says.
You can see that airplane now in suburban Washington, DC.
Enola Gay is one of the centerpieces of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.
It sits in the middle of the museum, surrounded by dozens of aircraft of all ages, from the origins of flight to the space shuttle Discovery.
As I walk up to it, seeing it for the first time during a visit in November 2019, I feel a chill.
“This is a very somber artifact,” says Jeremy Kinney, curator at the museum.
On one hand, it represents the best of the US war effort in World War II, a leap in technology, conceived, designed, built and deployed in about five years.
On the other, it carried the first atomic weapon ever used, one that killed 70,000 people in the first moments after it was dropped and tens of thousands more from its aftereffects.
“The Enola Gay has been a controversial object, for the Smithsonian and for the country,” Kinney says.
Kinney and the museum offer some interesting facts about Enola Gay:
The B-29 was designed to be an intercontinental bomber, one that could fly from the continental US to Europe in case Britain fell to Nazi Germany;
It was one of 300,000 aircraft produced by the United States in World War II, and one of only 15 B-29s specifically made to carry atomic bombs;
Pilot Tibbets picked this plane while it was still on the assembly line in Omaha, Nebraska, to be used for atomic bomb missions, but it didn’t get its name — after his mother — until shortly before leaving on its historic mission.
What visitors won’t get at the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit is a complete story of the bombing of Hiroshima. There are no artifacts from Hiroshima, no discussions of bomb victims or whether the use of atomic weapons was necessary.
Plans to include such content in the Enola Gay exhibit were scrapped in 1995, when, under pressure from US veterans’ groups, then-Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman said it would not include analysis, but only commemorate and honor the sacrifice of US war veterans.