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Last surviving crew member of Hiroshima bombing mission has ‘no regrets,’ 73 years later

Russell Gackenbach, the navigator aboard the B-29 Superfortress, Necessary Evil, during the nuclear bombing mission over Hiroshima, japan on Aug. 6, 1945, shows a photo he took during the historic day. (Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro/U.S. Air Force)
August 08, 2018

Seventy-three years after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, the mission’s last surviving crew member has an admission.

Russell Gackenbach, 95, is the only surviving crew member of the mission that dropped the atomic bomb.

“After 73 years, I do not regret what we did that day. All war’s hell,” Russell said, according to an NPR report on Monday. “The Japanese started the war; it was our turn to finish it.”

On the 1945 mission, Gackenbach was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and a navigator. He’d only enlisted in the Army Aviation Cadet Program two years earlier.

After his training, recruiting official Col. Paul Tibbets approached Gackenbach to join a dangerous mission that could end the war, if successful.

Tibbets and a group of officers – the 509th Composite Group – underwent months of training in Wendover, Utah. They were then transferred to an American air base on the island of Tinian in the Pacific.

The group’s B-29 Superfortress bombers were modified to accommodate a larger bomb bay, fewer guns and different engines. The three aircraft were named the Enola Gay, the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil.

However, Gackenbach and his team didn’t know the details of the mission, nor that they would be dropping the first nuclear weapon used in a war.

“I never heard the words ‘atomic bomb,'” he said. “We were only told what we needed to know, and keep your mouth shut.”

The Enola Gay was loaded with the weapon – “Little Boy” – weighing almost 10,000 pounds and capable of an explosive force equivalent to 15,000-20,000 pounds of TNT.

Gackenbach was a member of the 10-man crew assigned to the Necessary Evil observation plane.

“We were told that once the explosion occurred, we should not look directly at it, that we should not go through the cloud,” Gackenbach said. “We were not told anything about the cloud, just [told] don’t go through it.”

As they flew 30,000 feet above Hiroshima, the radio went silent, signifying that the Enola Gay had released the bomb.

Gackenbach said he saw a blinding light following by a growing mushroom cloud. He rushed to the window, where he took two photographs of the explosion from the navigator’s side window.

“The photographs seen around the world were ones I had taken approximately one minute after detonation, at a height of 30,000 feet, roughly 16 miles from the city,” Gackenbach told the 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs.

“We were awestruck; we didn’t know what to say, or do, or anything. We made three turns around the cloud and headed home to Tinian,” Gackenbach said. “I did not hear the word atomic until the next day.”

“Things were very, very quiet,” he said. “We just looked at each other; we didn’t talk. We were all dumbfounded.”

An estimated 80,000 people were killed by “Little Boy,” and Hiroshima was destroyed. Another 80,000 died in the months and years following due to the effects of the bomb. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender, and the end of the war.

Gackenbach was discharged two years later and spent the next 35 years working as a materials engineer. He visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2011.

“I still believe the right decision was made and I think that President Truman knew that as well,” said Gackenbach. “Can you imagine if people found out that we had this capability and did not use it?”

He added: “I do not regret the part I played in it; it was the right decision.”