Local Hero Series: Last surviving member from Hiroshima nuclear bombing mission reflects on 70th anniversary

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
In a small one-bedroom apartment in Clearwater, Florida, 91 year old Russell Gackenbach, sits on his floral patterned sofa, thumbing through a photo album containing originals of some of the most iconic people and events in United States military history. 

"This is me and Tibbets (Col. Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay)," Gachenback says, as he points to two Army Air Corps officers standing next to one another. "This was me and Necessary Evil, the plane I flew on as we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima."

Gackenbach was a second lieutenant aircraft navigator and photographer who flew into the heart of Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, as Little Boy, a 9,000-pound uranium-235 atomic bomb was dropped onto Hiroshima, Japan. The significance of this event is immeasurable, as it was the first time a nuclear device had been used as a wartime strategy, which ultimately led to Japan agreeing to an unconditional surrender on Aug. 14, 1945 and the end of World War II.

"In September of 1944, we were approached by a colonel who stressed that he was 'forming an elite group that was to be made up from the best in the Air Force,'" said Gackenbach. "The missions were to be dangerous and if anyone was not able to deal with the secrecy of the group, they may leave, because what you see here, when you leave here, must stay here."

Gackenbach stayed with the group.

The group trained for nearly a year--dropping what they called "pumpkins," which were the same weight as the atom bomb, but had slightly different characteristics. Preparation missions continued all the way up until Aug. 5, 1945 the day prior to the dropping of the first atomic bomb.

On August 5th, the crews scheduled for the bombing mission were called to a special briefing. Here, they were given only the information needed for the flight--route and individual job assignments.  Few knew exactly what was aboard the plane.

"We did not know what type of bomb we had;  did not know what type of blast to expect; did not know the effect off it," said Gackenbach. "The only thing we were told was, 'don't fly through the cloud.'"

As we approached Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay and The Great Artiste went forward, as we stayed behind and did a looping 360 degree turn, recounts Gackenbach.  When we came out of the turn, the radios went dead; and when the radio went dead, we were alerted, "Bomb bay doors open, bombs away."  

Shortly after, the Enola Gay and The Great Artiste made diving turns to the right, to get as far away from the bomb as they could. As for Gackenbach and Necessary Evil, because they lagged the first two aircraft, the bomb exploded, on time, in front of them.

"The delay between our aircraft was planned; we were to document the event," said Gackenbach. "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."

From the time the mission began until the time the crews returned, they knew that this was no ordinary bombing mission.

"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," said Gackenbach. "I did not hear the word atomic until the next day."

The significance of the event was unclear until days later, when the crews were shown photographs of Hiroshima--that is when they truly understood the devastation of their mission. 

"Looking back at the event 70 years later, 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?" 

To this day, you can still find Gackenbach, the lone-surviving member from the first atomic bombing, traveling from school to school, city to city, shaking hands and giving his firsthand account from one of the most defining moments in U.S. military history. Ask him if he would do things over and he'll tell you, "I do not regret the part I played in it; it was the right decision."


This feature is part one of the Local Hero Series which highlights former military members from the Tampa Bay community with remarkable contributions and careers.

Feature #2 Small town tobacco farmer flies 29 aircraft, serves in both WWII and Vietnam