What is the Enola Gay?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
The Enola Gay carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
The Enola Gay carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

The Enola Gay is an aircraft that was famously used to drop the atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945. After the bombing, the plane flew only one other combat mission, a scouting mission to prepare for the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, before being preserved at the Smithsonian Institution as a historic artifact. Today, the restored Enola Gay can be viewed at the National Air and Space Museum.

The Enola Gay is the U.S. bomber that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during the second world war.
The Enola Gay is the U.S. bomber that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during the second world war.

This B-29 Superfortress bomber was manufactured at Lockheed Martin's Omaha plant. It was selected along with a group of other aircraft for modifications designed to allow it to carry a nuclear weapon while flying above antiaircraft guns. This modification mission, codenamed "Silverplate," turned out a number of aircraft equipped to handle nuclear weapons. When completed, the plane measured 99 feet (30.2 meters) long and had a wingspan of 141.25 feet (43 meters).

When the order was given to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 5 August 1945, Captain Paul Tibbets, the pilot in charge, decided to rename the plane. He christened it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets. The plane took off from Tinian, in the Marianas Islands, with a 12 man crew aboard, accompanied by The Great Artiste and Necessary Evil. Notably, the Enola Gay's bombing mission over Hiroshima was considered a textbook perfect mission, proceeding precisely as planned and scheduled.

In addition to Captain Tibbets, the crew included Captain Robert A. Lewis as copilot, Captain Theodore van Kirk as navigator, and Major Thomas Ferebee as bombardier. Technical Sergeant Wyatt E. Duzenberry was flight engineer and Sergeant Robert S. Shumard was assistant flight engineer. Lieutenant Jacob Beser handled radar countermeasures, while Sergeant Joe S. Stiborik was radar operator, and the VHF radio operator was Private First Class Richard H. Nelson. The assistant weaponeer was Second Lieutenant Morris R. Jeppson, Technical Sergeant George R. Caron was tail gunner, and P. Captain William S. Parsons of the United States Navy was seconded to the mission as the weaponeer because he had nuclear training.

For its role in the bombing of Japan, the Enola Gay has become famous. Tibbets later expressed some regret for naming the aircraft after his mother. Many members of the crew were interviewed about their experiences on board the Enola Gay and several of them also wrote about the Hiroshima mission and their role in it. Models of the bomb dropped by the Enola Gay, known as "Little Boy," are on display in several locations in the United States.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@JimmyT: General William T. Sherman said it best: "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace... They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride."

Japan started the war, the U.S. ended it. Japan woke up the sleeping giant with the unprovoked bombing of Pearl Harbor that killed 2,402 non-combatant military personnel and civilians. Japan alone could have prevented the deaths of its own citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by signing the paper that said: "Surrender now or face a rain of ruin from the air the like which has never before seen on this earth". Japanese leaders clearly rejected the treaty and as a result, as promised by that treaty, they received a rain of ruin from the air with the newly-developed atomic bombs and more attacks from conventional firebombs.

Also, it was not millions of enemy civilian deaths in Hiroshima. It was estimated 80,000 people died, but while most of the dead were enemy civilians (half of them were shown to be employed in munitions factories), 20,000 were enemy military combatants. Hiroshima was a legitimate military target that housed the 2nd General Army and 5th Division with 40,000 enemy military combatants stationed in the city. If it weren't for the atomic bomb, Hiroshima would have been bombed with conventional weapons, which had been going on for months long before the atomic attacks.

The U.S. Air Force was attacking Japanese cities with conventional firebombs, killing 500,000 Japanese civilians (half of them were munitions workers). The purpose of the atomic bomb was to show the Japanese we had a single bomb that could destroy as much of the enemy's war industry far more effectively than requiring 500 bombers carrying 1,000 tons of little conventional firebombs to do the job.

The Japanese was scared as hell and decided to wave the white flag and surrender. We actually broke the Japanese ability to fight, thanks to the nuclear weapons and thus, nuclear weapons did their job very well in ending the war, saving millions of U.S. lives. The Japanese war industry was partially cottage industries, or in other words, spread out throughout Japanese cities. About 50 percent of important war materials were made in residential neighborhoods in most Japanese cities.

For example, the firebombing of Tokyo reduced industrial output by about half. Those war industries could not be destroyed with precision weapons because those weapons did not exist then. High level bombing with explosive bombs had proved ineffective many times. Carpet bombing by whatever weapons we had was the only option, if the U.S. was interested in stopping the production of those war materials completely. It also has the side effect of killing many enemy workers who worked in those industries, therefore rendering the weapons manufacturing lines worthless and encouraging the enemy civilian population to withdraw from working in war industries.

Also, the Japanese government had basically made the entire country into one vast military, silly as that was, by forming the "Patriotic Citizens Fighting Corps" in March 1945, which included all men aged 15 to 60 and women 17 to 40 for military service. School girls were given bamboo sticks and farm implements and told to fight the Americans. So in theory, even by today's standards, they were combatants. Invading American troops would have been fighting Japanese soldiers and the "Patriotic Citizens Fighting Corps" house to house, city to city, street by street, etc. Can you imagine what the death toll on both sides would have been, including due to starvation, if the U.S. had invaded? Millions.

Most crewmembers of the Enola Gay feel regret that it had to happen but some them, such as Paul Tibbets and Theodore Van Kirk, said under the same circumstances, they would do it again.

There is also a moral and psychological difference between killing 100,000 persons with bombs from the sky than herding people against a wall and executing 100,000 persons. An infantryman has an ability to shoot or not shoot at close range, so he could easily see the target with his scope. If a guy goes out and stabs to death hundreds of enemy civilians without a cause, that means the enemy civilians themselves were the target. It's obviously why U.S. ground forces did not engage in mass genocide and murder of enemy non-combatants unlike the Nazis and the Japanese. Anyone who was caught doing so was court-martialed and punished.

However, when you fly an aircraft above 10,000 feet, it's very hard to tell if people on the ground are non-combatants or not. The plane goes faster and faster and you don't have time to hit the target easily.

The pilots released the bombs from their aircraft in hopes they would hit industrial factories and inevitably, whether they knew it or not, hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Does that mean non-combatants themselves were the target? No. That's the reason why aerial bombardment of enemy cities in WWII was and is a legitimate form of warfare, period. It just happened to be an extension of artillery bombardment. Yes, artillery bombardment was not as lethal as air bombardment, but it still killed thousands of enemy civilians, as shown in the Battle of Berlin when the Russians used massive artillery strikes from the great distance to drive the German defenders out of the Berlin.

That's the precise reason why it is easier to justify attacking things from the air, as opposed to killing people on the ground. People who bombed from aerial attacks on legitimate military targets and unfortunately caused collateral damage to non-combatants don't feel as much guilt as those who herded people against a wall and shot them.

Yes, in war, you always try to minimize civilian deaths, but aerial bombing in WWII can be indiscriminate due to the fact bombing technology at the time was limited by environmental conditions, plane problems, anti-aircraft weapons, etc. So when presented with the choice between the lives of civilians of an enemy state and the lives of your own boys in uniform, the government is obligated to choose the first. It has a responsibility to its own citizens and its allies that is more important than its responsibility to protect enemy civilians. If strategic bombing disrupts enemy war production and seriously disrupt the enemy's ability to wage war, it can be justifiable as a lesser of two evils.

Paul Tibbets and his crew members who flew on August 6, 1945, are American heroes, and rightly so, for ending the war that saved American lives, not killing enemy civilians. They do not deserve to be hated and bashed for something that actually worked and that's why non-Americans today took things for granted as an excuse to foster their hatred of Americans. Japan sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.


@Emilski - There is still debate over the bombings, and to be honest I see it as being infamous, despite if it were necessary to end the war.

The killing of a quarter million civilians with a bomb makes this plane both famous or infamous depending on how one wants to glorify the event or understand the severity of it.

What I would like to know is if the pilots of the plane felt any regret in carrying out their mission. I understand it may have been necessary to end the war, but knowing that you had a hand in directly killing that many innocent people makes one wonder how someone would handle that.


@kentuckycat - It is entirely possible that this was the only mission real mission the Enola Gay was flown in. The article does say it was used in scouting for Nagasaki, but does not specify if the Hiroshima bombing was its maiden flight.

If this plane really did only take the air in combat twice I find it quite amazing that the two missions that it went on were so important in world history.

In a way since this plane was directly involved in both the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would think that an argument could be made that this is the most famous combat plane in history, or even the most infamous depending how one looks at it.

I would go the infamous route because this plane was used in the deaths of a quarter million people and helped jump start the Cold War. The Atomic bomb may have been seen as a necessity to end the war, but one cannot argue that the act was infamous, even if it were maybe necessary.


@TreeMan - Very interesting and I will have to say I do not blame you for attempting to touch this famous plane.

This plane is so famous for only one mission and I never hear of any other missions that it was sent on. I would think that with such a plane that it would have been flown on other missions during the war besides dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, but I have not once heard a story of such.

I know the one mission that people talk about is one of the biggest events in world history, but is it possible that this was the only mission the plane flew?


I had always wanted to see the Enola Gay simply because of its role in not just American, but world history.

Most people think that this plane is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC, but that is not a case and it is somewhat misleading.

Because of the size of the plane, even though it is not huge compared to other planes, it has to be kept at the National Air and Space Museum, which is just outside of the city.

If anyone wants to go there and see the Enola Gay it is literally right next to the catwalk in the main building and is so close that you can literally tough this famous plane.

I would not recommend touching the plane however, as I got yelled at by a guard for doing so.

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    • The Enola Gay carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
      By: Pontus Edenberg
      The Enola Gay carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
    • The Enola Gay is the U.S. bomber that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during the second world war.
      By: Ig0rZh
      The Enola Gay is the U.S. bomber that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during the second world war.