The Top-Secret Flights that Ended the WarPosted: August 1, 2015
70 years after the atomic bombings, time stands still on the island of Tinian
Mark Schreiber writes:Imagine disembarking on the shore of a remote tropical island. Walking cautiously past swaying palm trees into the heavy undergrowth, you soon encounter what appears to be the fossilized bones of an enormous prehistoric creature. The thick parallel lines might have been ribs, and the long straight stretches its spine or appendages. Naturally you’re moved to wonder how it appeared when alive, how it moved about and what it ate.
For dyed-in-the-wool history buffs or those merely looking for an exotic place off the beaten track to relax, Tinian beckons. It’s an easy trip from Japan. If you take a Delta Airlines flight to Saipan during daylight hours, be sure to request a window seat on the right side of the aircraft. On the plane’s approach to neighboring Saipan, you’ll get a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the “ribs” of that prehistoric creature — the four runways of North Field — which in the waning months of World War II was the largest operational U.S. air base in the world.
Home to barely 3,000 people, the 101-sq.-km island of Tinian is one of three inhabited islands of 14 that make up the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. Over a period of half a century — between 1899 and 1944 — Tinian went from being controlled by Spain to Germany, Japan and finally the U.S., which in July 1944 captured the island in an eight-day campaign that was largely overshadowed by the bigger and bloodier battle on Saipan, located just 9 km to the north.
From the late 1930s, Japan had begun to augment its military presence in the Nampo Shoto (groups of islands south of the main archipelago), sending 1,280 convicts from Yokohama Prison to Tinian to expand Hagoi Field, located at the north end of the island, with a 1,450-meter-long runway.
Once in American hands, teams of U.S. Navy construction battalions (known as “CBs” or “Seabees”) swarmed over the island, eventually moving an estimated 11 million tons of coral to build runways, taxiways, buildings and some 145 km of roads. The former Japanese airstrip was extended for use by the U.S. Air Force’s new long-range B-29 bombers, adding three more 2,440-meter runways.
It was from North Field’s runway, “Able,” that a specially modified B-29 christened Enola Gay, took off in the early hours of Aug. 6, 1945, to drop the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare on the city of Hiroshima.
I’d visited Tinian once before in 2007, but left to my own devices failed to find several of the places I’d wanted to see. This time I had much better luck, thanks to an introduction to the island’s resident historian, Don Farrell.
Farrell, who’s married to a native of Tinian, has taken up the story of his new home with gusto. In addition to publishing an illustrated guidebook for visitors in 2012 titled “Tinian: A Brief History,” he’s currently nearing completion of his magnum opus, a detailed history of the atomic bomb project that promises to shed new light on Tinian’s role in the war.
Arriving at the lobby of the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino clad in sandals, Bermuda shorts, aloha shirt and a baseball cap, Farrell appears like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe — if Crusoe had driven a Mazda pickup truck.
“What would you like to see?” he asks me while delivering a firm handshake.
“What do you say we retrace the actual route the bomb parts took from their arrival on the island?” I suggest.
After stopping for bottled water and gasoline, we head north. Our first destination is Tinian’s small port, where the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, on a top-secret mission, delivered the housing and key components of the uranium bomb on July 26, 1945. (Four days later a Japanese submarine would sink the ship east of the Philippines, with great loss of life.)
No ships, or people, are in port and there’s little left to see. We turn around and head northward on a bumpy, but still negotiable, road marked “8th Avenue.” (The roads in Tinian, named after streets in Manhattan, also include Broadway, Columbus Avenue and Riverside Drive.)
On our way north, we deviate up an overgrown hillside leading to the ruins of the Rasso Jinja, a Shinto shrine at the top of Mount Lasso, which at 171 meters marks the highest point on Tinian. Little remains of the shrine or the B-29 homing tower that stood close by. What can be seen is the concrete foundation of the old U.S. Army hospital.
“Medics would walk over to the edge of the hill and watch the B-29s returning from their missions,” Farrell says. “If a plane was trailing smoke or otherwise showing signs of heavy damage, they knew they’d be getting busy real soon.”
Passing near the marine invasion beach at the island’s northern extremity, I expect Farrell to turn inland, toward the Y-shaped B-29 parking areas that once housed the two atomic bomb loading pits. Instead, he turns toward the ocean and heads past the rusting remains of a gate and along a trail with heavy undergrowth to an open area with the concrete foundation of a building. Here, he says, was one of three workshops built here to assemble the atomic bombs.
Manned by technicians from the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists developed the bomb, they were equipped with state-of-the-art tools, designed to prevent sparks from setting off an accidental explosion….(read more)
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