In 2008, I had the privilege to accompany WWII veteran Hap Halloran and Jerry Facey to Tinian for a day tour. There we rendezvoused with local historian Don Farrell who served as our tour guide and shared with us the stories behind the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Don was behind the wheel with Hap seated next to him. Jerry and I were at the back. As the four of us left the airport on Tinian, we turned north onto a boulevard that runs from the palatial Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino in the south to the Hinode Shrine Circle in the north—a road now known as Broadway.
Don said the segment of the road was was originally built by the Japanese, using mixed coral and dirt as a roadbed.
When the Americans took over Tinian in 1944, part of the development plan included extending the road south to the harbor and then hardening it, according to Don.
“The Seabees built the road for exactly the same purpose as the Japanese—to get bombs from the south end of the island to the airfield on the north end where Ushi Airfield was located. The U.S. called it North Field.”
He said the senior Seabee commanders began planning the development of Tinian shortly after the first aerial photograph missions from a carrier raid were conducted against the Marianas from 22-24 February 1944.
“The Marianas invasion was originally scheduled for November; however, Admiral Nimitz pushed the invasion up to June 15. Consequently, the construction planning team in Hawaii had only three-and-a-half months to prepare for the development of Tinian. The job was given to Captain Paul J. Halloran, USN, CEC,” narrated Don.
Captain Halloran was originally from Manhattan, New York. When he glanced at the Japanese map of Tinian, he thought it resembled Manhattan. Having the authority and liberty to do so, he began naming the roads and locations after those in New York—Broadway, 8th Avenue, 86th Street, even a China Town Strip.
The Tinian Seabees
Don described what driving up Broadway in December 1944 might have looked like. “Right now these fields look like something right out of Virginia, a lot of cattle grazing on vast grasslands. During Christmas 1944, however, bulldozers cleared sugarcane from pre-designated sections where thousands of Seabees pitched two-man pup tents. The road we are riding on was being hardened so Seabee trucks could get to the new quarry pits. From the pits, Seabee drivers were hauling coral to what they called Air Strip Number 1, located on top of the old Ushi Air Field and which would one day be the runway for atomic bomb missions to Japan.”
While the war moved on to Iwo Jima, there were 12,500 Seabees working on the Tinian airfields, night and day, seven days a week.
As we crossed 86th Street, pointing left, our friend-historian said, “Down there is the monument to the 107th Seabees—one of the 13 Seabee battalions stationed on Tinian with each battallion composed of about 1,100 men. It is on 8th Avenue, which leads south to West Field. There was a traffic cop stationed here 24 hours a day making sure the trucks kept moving. This was one of the busiest intersections on the island.”
Next Stop, Invasion Beach
At Invasion Beach, locally referred to as Unai Chulu, Don continued narrating, “This could have been a nasty fight, but the plan developed by the Navy, Marines and Seabees ‘made the day’ and saved a lot of lives.”
He said the Second and Fourth Marine Divisions had just won the battle for Saipan and were “pretty beat up”. He said the Japanese had thought the Americans would land on the broad sandy beach in front of Tinian Town and the Americans knew the Japanese expected them to land there, which meant the Marines and Seabees would be landing into the teeth of the enemy again. “Consequently, they were able to concoct an invasion plan that was acceptable to Admiral ‘Terrible’ Turner, commander of all landing forces. To overcome the six- to eight-foot cliffs between beaches White I and White II, the Seabees improvised a portable ramp that could be carried on the back of an amphibious tractor called a ‘Doodlebug.’ Amtracs that followed used the ramps to gain access to the beach to unload their troops.”
He said Turner ordered the Second Marine Division to load up into their troop carriers and fake a landing at the previously proposed site in front of Tinian Town. Meanwhile, the Fourth Marine Division, with its Seabee detachments, loaded directly into amphibious tractors near Saipan’s Sugar Dock. At midnight of July 24, the invasion fleet began its move to southern Tinian. Sentries standing right here on the beach would have watched the fleet, with a conspicuous number of lights on, moving south. General Ogata, the commanding officer of all the Japanese Army forces on Tinian gave the order for his mobile battalion on Mt. Lasso to move south into pre-designated locations for a defense at the beach in front of Tinian Town. “Only a small force was left here for a ‘just in case’ scenario. Those poor souls would be the first to die.”
Don concluded, “Bottom line is, the Fourth Marines faced only what they called “light resistance” and drove on toward Ushi Airfield. The Second Marines then steamed back up here and began to land as soon as the Fourth moved off the beach.
He spoke reverently of the 18th and 121st Seabees, who landed with the Fourth and Second Marine Divisions during the invasion of Tinian. All the while under fire themselves, their job was to make roads and clear debris so the Marines could advance. Seabee bulldozers cleared the beachhead and cut a road toward the airfield.
Hap acknowledged the great job the Seabees did on Tinian, not realizing how extremely important their mission was in order for the invasion to succeed as well as operations that followed.
Marine Corps General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith called it “the perfect amphibious operation of the Pacific war.’”
The Marines fought off a banzai charge early the next morning and fought their way to Ushi Airfield, while “the Seabees immediately went to work filling the bomb holes and getting the airfield ready for airplanes from Saipan to land, take out our wounded and bring in supplies.”
In hindsight, Don said, “there were a lot of screw-ups during the war, many that will never be written about. But when you look at the magnitude of death and destruction that occurred from the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor until VJ Day, which includes the victory in Europe—that war was such a huge world event. However, the American team, in battle and at home, did the really big things right, whereas our enemies, Japan and Germany, made dreadful mistakes.”
From the invasion beaches, the group proceeded to the bomb pits.
North Field, Tinian
Turning onto Lennox Avenue, we drove around to the official bomb pit entrance. Don drove past one bomb pit and stopped at the other nearby.
Serious work began on developing an atomic bomb after President Roosevelt gave it his official “OK, FDR” in June, 1942, Don said. It took two and a half years to refine uranium and produce plutonium, design a simple bomb, and modify an airplane to carry the 9,500 pound beast. The 509th Composite Bomb Group was created as the “delivery mechanism” in September 1944, under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., US Army Air Force; however, Admiral Nimitz got wind of the plan in December 1944, which was to send something called a “Composite Group” to the Marianas, without his permission. He was not happy.
At a hurriedly called meeting in D.C., and later in Los Alamos, New Mexico, plans were made to decide on just where in the Marianas America’s first atomic strike base should be established. Navy Commander Frederick L. Ashworth was chosen to be the one to break the news to Nimitz. He arrived on Guam in early February with a letter from Nimitz’ boss, Admiral of the United States Navy Ernest J. King, telling Nimitz to cooperate. Ashworth went on to explain to Nimitz that they created this new bomb with an explosive force of 20,000 tons TNT. To provide a better picture how destructive the atomic bomb was: A single B-29 could carry a maximum load of 10 tons. It would take 2,000 B-29s all dropping their bombs simultaneously to equal this one bomb. This got Nimitz’s attention.
General Curtis LeMay, commanding officer of all B-29s in the Pacific, then gave Ashworth a letter of introduction to the Tinian Island Commander, Brig. Gen. Frederick Von Harten Kimble, who took him directly to North Field. Meanwhile, the 313th Wing had already set up and was busy carrying bombs to Tokyo. As he surveyed the area, Ashworth noticed the coastline just west of North Field was not being used, was large enough to house the ordnance and bomb assembly buildings, and could easily be fenced in. Without telling Kimble why, the Navy commander said he would take it. Ashworth flew back to Guam and pointed to an area he had circled on a map of Tinian. Nimitz nodded his approval. The commander then flew back to Washington where he reported his findings to General Leslie Groves, Commanding Officer of the Manhattan Project. The decision for Tinian was made.
Groves, according to Don Farrell, then turned the project over to one of his engineers—Lt. Col. Elmer E. Kirkpatrick, Jr., a West Point graduate and a civil engineer, whose two brothers were Naval Academy graduates. He would slide into Tinian the following month, disguised as an Air Force engineer with some sketchy plans under his arm. The plan for the 509th Composite Group was underway.
Atomic Bomb Pits
Don also debunked the claim by some that the Americans used two pits. “We talked it over with several other historians and we all pretty much believe that both bombs were loaded in one pit… There was no bomb pit No. 1 or 2. It was created in the minds of the people when they put up the original monuments. From studying the pictures of the pits after they were excavated for the 60th (commemoration), it looks pretty clear that they were both loaded in this pit because there are slight differences in the insides of the pits,” he said.
Hap concurred. He said he remembered a conversation he had with Col. Paul Tibbetts that he didn’t know why they had to build the second pit because they never needed it.
To this, Don said everything had to have a backup. “Because everything in the Manhattan Project had redundancies—sometimes three or four times. Everything had a backup.”
As far as backups were concerned, he said before the Enola Gay and Bockscar missions, an intermediate base was built on Iwo Jima with two hardstands and one atomic bomb pit. For both missions, Kirkpatrick was the officer in charge on Iwo Jima, standing by in case the Enola Gay or Bockscar had mechanical problems en route. The bomb would be transferred to a standby plane, and the mission would continue.
The Atomic Bomb
The uranium bomb was very simple, he said. “It worked just like a gun. They put a uranium target at one end of the gun barrel, put a uranium bullet at the other end, and then loaded gunpowder behind the bullet. When the gunpowder was fired, the uranium bullet smashed into the uranium target, creating critical mass, and the uranium explodes.
But the Nagasaki bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, was more complex. For the plutonium bomb to work, Don said, “They couldn’t use the gun mechanism. Instead, the scientists took one eleven-pound piece about the size of a baseball and surrounded it with 64 perfectly shaped high explosive charges that would crush the plutonium to a ball about the size of a golf ball thus reaching critical mass. The big problem was figuring out a wiring system that would detonate all 64 within a millisecond. Nobel Prize winner George Kistiakowski accomplished this tasks at Los Alamos.”
They waited for perfect weather over Japan. The three planes in Tibbetts’s strike mission—Enola Gay, a plane carrying instruments to measure the strength of the bomb and a photographic plane—rendezvoused at Iwo Jima, as they had practiced so many times. Then they flew straight to Hiroshima, dropped the bomb, and came straight home, all on a clear and sunny day. Everything was absolutely perfect. There was no reason why it should not have been perfect because they waited for the perfect opportunity.”
The Critical Nagasaki Mission
For the Nagasaki mission, Tibbets picked Charles Sweeney to fly the mission. Don said General LeMay was shocked when he found out that Tibbets was not flying the second mission as well. “He could have flown the mission. The Enola Gay operated perfectly. Same plane, same people, same job.”
When Tibbetts chose Sweeney, Sweeney had the prerogative to pick his own plane. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take his regular plane, The Great Artiste, the same one he flew on the Hiroshima mission as the instrument plane, because they didn’t have time to move the instruments to another plane. So he chose Bockscar instead.
“So Sweeney had to switch to another plane and he took his crew with him but it was a strange plane. All B-29s are B-29s and all Chevys are Chevys. But still, every one of them has its little quirks. Right off the bat, one of these quirks popped up. They couldn’t get the fuel transfer pump on the auxilliary fuel tanks to work. The mission was delayed as they discussed the problem. The decision was made to go with Bockscar anyway. The Nagasaki mission was underway.”
Because of bad weather, a bad omen, Sweeney chose a new rendezvous point at Yakushima, a small island at the southern end of Kyushu that none of them had ever flown over. The photographic plane never made the rendezvous.
When Bockscar and the instrument plane, The Great Artiste, finally got to their primary target, Kokura, it was covered with haze and industrial smoke, possibly caused by General LeMay who had firebombed Yawata, just 60 miles up wind, the day before. The plane made three passes at Kokura without seeing the target as required. It was as if the bomb didn’t want to be dropped.
Fortunately, due to excellent radar coordination, Sweeney made one direct path over the secondary target Nagasaki, the bombardier saw an identifiable landmark, and took the shot.
After Fat Man was released and they began their trip home, they discovered the auxiliary fuel tank was broken and they would not be able to use the 600 gallons of gas stored in it to complete the journey. Since Sweeney was so low on fuel, he had to head for the newly captured base at Okinawa, Yontan; however, his troubles still weren’t over. When he approached the island his gas gauges read empty. He had no choice: It would be an emergency landing. As Bockscar dove for the runway, it lost one engine from fuel starvation. The plane hit the runway hard, bouncing about 25 feet in the air, then making an emergency turn at the very end of the runway. Then all other engines began coughing to death. When the plane was finally parked and they measured the tanks, seven gallons of useable fuel was all that was left.
On the ground, in order to send a message to Tinian, Sweeney met with the Island Commander who turned out to be General Jimmy Doolittle, leader of the first bombing attack on Tokyo from the deck of the carrier Hornet in 1942. With the message sent, Sweeney, along with the crews of the other two strike mission aircraft that also arrived low on fuel, took on half-a-tank for the ride home and left.
The Japanese leadership received the message about the Nagasaki bombing while they were discussing surrender. Later on the night the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, Emperor Hirohito made his final decision to end the war. His tentative acceptance of “unconditional surrender,” was wired from Tokyo at about 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the 10th.
Tinian became the largest operational airbase in the world during World War II with four 8,500-foot runways at North Field and two at West Field and a new harbor to support both. And the Seabees made it happen.
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