Behind The Bomb: filling in the blanks of my grandfather’s role in the atomic bombs that ended World War II

The following was written in August 1995 by Joseph Payne, son of James Payne, who had served in World War II with the special bombardment group of the U.S. Army Air Forces which developed the atomic bombs that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a follow-up article to the account written by James in 1950.

James Payne relaxing on the Pacific island of Tinian, where the atomic bombs that ended World War II were prepared and deployed

My father, James H. Payne, was accountable for the atomic bombs, the first of which was dropped from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

A captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was ordnance (weaponry
and ammunition) supply officer for the special bombardment group
which dropped the bombs. It was his duty, literally, to be able to
account for the bombs from their earliest testing through their
eventual use.

Although he died in 1976, my father left behind a written account of
his experiences, published in August, 1950, by The Rock Island
, where he was a reporter before and after World War II (and
later the city editor). Several influences on his account are evident:

  • The wartime-educated audience he wrote for in 1950 didn’t require much explanation about the terminology and events of World War II.
  • Much of what he knew was still classified information, and some passages of the published version are different from his original (presumably uncensored) version.
  • The full extent of the costs of the bomb — both in human and financial terms — was as yet uncertain or at least not widely known in 1950.
  • Animosity toward Japan was still high, and political correctness (my father referred to the enemy as “gooks”) was decades away.

Manhattan Engineer District

In June of 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer was named director of the U.S government’s atomic bomb development in Los Alamos, New Mexico. For three years prior to his appointment, leading scientists (including Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard) had been working to demonstrate theoretically the feasibility and effectiveness of an atomic bomb, based on the splitting of a uranium atom and the resulting chain reaction. It was an atomic race against Nazi Germany, whose scientists were working toward the same goal.

Oppenheimer’s ID badge from the Los Alamos Laboratory

The cover name for the top secret atomic bomb project was the Manhattan Engineer District. This program was later abbreviated to the Manhattan Project, and under its auspices, huge amounts of money and effort were expended to build an atomic bomb. Enormous manufacturing and processing plants were erected to produce the dangerous materials required, and research work was initiated in several laboratories around the country.

Oppenheimer arrived at Los Alamos with the responsibility of developing the actual bomb — how to detonate it, and how to design it so it could be detonated. Oppenheimer and his peers worked on those problems under the tightest security and secrecy at Los Alamos, code-named Site Y.

Middlemen between scientists and B-29s

By the summer of 1944, the government had produced enough uranium (specifically, U-235) and plutonium needed for the two bomb types being developed. The next steps were to determine how to enclose the atomic devices in bomb casings, and to choose and train the men who would drop the bomb.

Thus began Silverplate, the code name for the Army Air Forces’ participation in the Manhattan Project.

In September of 1944, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, a highly decorated 29-year-old bomber pilot from Quincy, Illinois, was placed in charge of Silverplate. He was assigned the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron, which had just completed training in Nebraska. Its bomber crews would comprise the world’s first atomic strike force.

Col. Paul Tibbets waves from the cockpit of the “Enola Gay”

The 393rd and four other squadrons under Tibbets’ wing — eventually named the 509th Composite Group — were stationed at Wendover Air Force Base on the Utah-Nevada border. The cover name for the base was W-47.

The 509th was a top secret, self-sustaining Air Force unit which would test all bomb-related equipment, conduct ballistic tests, and train pilots on the newly developed B-29s. (Those used by the 509th were modified for their atomic payload.) Eventually, the crews of the 509th would drop the bombs on Japan.

The 509th also was unique in having a special unit: the 1st Ordnance Squadron, Special, Aviation. The group would have technical responsibility for the atomic bombs when the 509th went overseas. At Wendover, the 1st Ordnance Squadron practiced assembling and loading the bombs — minus the atomic devices — and conducted tests of various bombs in the salt flats surrounding the base.

In short, the squadron served as the middlemen between the work being done in Los Alamos and the planes which would drop the final products.

The 1st Ordnance Squadron worked with top scientists on the atomic bomb program for over nine months in a military unit unique to all standard army organization. The squadron’s personnel represented a group of hand-picked officers and enlisted men from all branches of the Armed Forces. Many of the members were skilled in metallurgy and like disciplines; 27 held science degrees.

It was to this squadron that my father was assigned.

A ’90-day wonder’

Like most of the men who served in the armed forces in World War II, my father didn’t have a background that prepared him for the task. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 1941 with a journalism degree and was hired as a reporter at the Argus in June of that year.

Like many others, he felt it his duty to serve the country in the war effort, and in December he entered the Army Air Forces. (The Air Force would not become a separate military branch until after the war.)

After being stationed at several stateside air bases, including Scott Field in Illinois and in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, my father decided to enroll in officer candidate training school. (A corporal’s salary wasn’t much on which to support a wife and baby.)

In 1944 he successfully completed officer training in the army ordnance department at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland; such graduates were nicknamed “90-day wonders.” He was commissioned a second lieutenant.

James Payne

He left Aberdeen and eventually became ordnance officer for the 393rd bomb squadron of the 504th bomb group. When that squadron was assigned to Col. Tibbets’ command and sent to Wendover, my father’s involvement with Silverplate was sealed.

My mother and oldest brother, Mike — then just one year old — moved into the spartan government housing at Wendover to be with my father. If married life in the military wasn’t already a strain, it was nothing compared to what lie ahead.

‘These guys are something else!’

All the men in the 1st Ordnance Squadron were subjected to a loyalty check previous to assignment to the organization. Once the men were accepted and commenced operations, they were placed under a cloak of military secrecy, and no transfers from the organization were permitted. They were not allowed to inform their families, nor anyone not connected with the squadron (including other members of the 509th Group) as to the type of work they were doing.

Only members of the squadron were quartered in the same area at Wendover. When troop movements commenced for overseas, the men were accompanied by members of the military intelligence department. While traveling by troop train, the men were not permitted to mix with other travelers. No other passengers — military or civilian — were allowed entrance to dining cars while these men were eating. Many men traveled to their overseas destination by air and these too were kept segregated from other personnel at all island stops.

Wendover Air Force Base, 1943

Even Capt. Robert Lewis — Tibbets’ eventual copilot on the Enola Gay — remarked of the 1st Ordnance Squadron, “If we think we’re something special, these guys are something else!”

In a scene repeated in countless other towns across America, military intelligence officers visited tiny Glenwood City, Wisconsin, my father’s hometown. My father’s parents and others who knew him were questioned. No one knew why he was being investigated. Presumably the agents also checked on his past associations at college as well as at the Argus.

An intelligence officer also paid a visit to my mother in Wendover. Under cover as a house painter, the agent spent a day painting walls at their government-housing apartment. The “painter” casually asked questions of my mother about what her husband was doing at the base.

She didn’t know a thing, since my father hadn’t told her. Had he, he undoubtedly would have been transferred to a remote base, most likely in Alaska, where those who did talk were often sent.

After the atomic mission had been carried out, and some secrets revealed, my parents learned of the painter’s true identity.

Few knew the U.S. was going to split an atom

At Wendover, the 1st Ordnance worked with the more traditional-looking cylindrical bombs — the shape of “Little Boy,” the uranium bomb originally named “Thin Man” for FDR and dropped on Hiroshima.

“Little Boy” on trailer cradle in pit on Tinian

They also worked on mammoth, odd-looking, spherical bombs nicknamed “pumpkins” — the shape of “Fat Man,” the plutonium bomb named for Winston Churchill and dropped on Nagasaki.

“Fat Man” being placed on a trailer cradle on Tinian

As supply officer for the 1st Ordnance Squadron, it was my father’s job to procure and keep track of the parts, tools, and other equipment used for the testing and assembly of the bombs at Wendover, and later, overseas on the actual bombing mission. He also was involved, at least occasionally, in other work, such as retrieving bomb fragments from the salt flat test site surrounding Wendover. From the fragmentation patterns, the scientists and engineers could determine how various bomb types would work.

In addition to the supply section of which my father was in charge, the 1st Ordnance included three assembly sections, an ammunition section and a prefabrication section. Duties varied among the personnel, and not all arrived at Wendover at the same time. Many of the men knew they were working on something incredibly powerful, but most did not know specifically what it was.

“We were advised, and realized, that we were working on something that was very great, very big, very immense,” said Curt Havekotte, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, who was a first lieutenant in one of the assembly sections. “A few in our group were present at the preliminary firing of the first bomb down in Alamogordo (Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, in New Mexico), and so they relayed to other people in the group that it was a super bomb.”

0.016 seconds after the explosion of the Trinity test, the first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, which occurred in a remote area of New Mexico three weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima

P.J. Chaussy, of Martinsville, Virginia, was a first lieutenant in another of the 1st Ordnance’s assembly sections. A replacement for another officer who had done too much talking, Chaussy was one of the men who loaded the plutonium bomb onto Bock’s Car, the B-29 sent to Nagasaki. “Very few of the officers and very few of the men really knew that we were going to split an atom. I could not put that together, even though I had a lot of physics,” said Chaussy, who had a degree in mechanical engineering.

“Colonel Tibbets explained to the group that if we were successful on the mission, we would be known throughout the world,” said Walter Dial, of Farmington, New Mexico, who was a corporal in the 1st Ordnance. “It was not perfected, but if we were fortunate that it exploded right, it was going to have a terrific effect on the end of the war.”

As my father got further into the project, “he did know it was going to be a terrible thing, but he didn’t know how terrible,” said my mother, Cecelia. “He was so busy he didn’t have time to think about it.”

Tinian: 1,500 miles from Tokyo

The movement of the 509th overseas began well before the detonation of the plutonium bomb at Alamogordo. (Scientists never did test the uranium bomb, the design of which they were sure would work.)

This map is centered on the site of the Trinity test, which occurred at Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range (which has since been renamed and developed into White Sands Missile Range). Zoom out to see its location relative to the rest of New Mexico.

In June of 1945, my father left Wendover, but he could not tell my mother where he was going. Like other wives, my mother packed up their belongings and moved with the baby to live with relatives. Later, after receiving a letter from my father, my mother learned where he had gone: Tinian, part of the Marianas chain of islands in the South Pacific.

Only 1,500 miles from Tokyo, Tinian had been captured by U.S. Marines the previous summer. The Japanese had started construction of an air base there, and the U.S. completed it.

A U.S. Marine watches atop a cliff on Tinian, as American tanks and infantry fight the last enemy resistance on the shore below. (1944)

When my father arrived on the island in early July, 1945, it looked much different from when the Marines had taken it a year before. It was now the largest operational airfield in the world and was being used by other air force groups bombing Japan with conventional ordnance.

Tinian, April 1945

Tinian had long asphalt runways, rows of Quonset huts and “stateside” paved highways. For recreation, the various bombing groups competed in baseball games or went to the beach. At night, the troops spent their free time at the island’s several outdoor movie theaters, or played cards in the huts. My father was a captain by then, and his quarters in Hut №12 was similar to what the other men had: a canvas cot, a makeshift bookshelf and table, and a clothes rod. Pictures of my mother and brother Mike were taped on the curved wall of the hut above the head of his cot.

James Payne relaxes in his hut on Tinian. Pictures of his wife and infant son are taped on the curved wall.

While the island was sprayed to keep the mosquito population under check, there was nothing that could be done about the heat.

“It was very hot,” said Bill Burgmeir, of Phoenix, who was a lieutenant in my father’s supply section. “We used to have to take salt tablets over there.”

The heat wasn’t the only enemy on the island.

“I remember when we got there, we went up a road to see what the jungle was like,” said Burgmeir. “I expected some Japanese to jump out at any minute. There were some Japanese up in the far end of the island, but they were pretty isolated.”

These Japanese army holdouts waited for reinforcements which never arrived. Several of these men, including Kizo Imai, frequently spied on the U.S. forces. Starving, he and the others also foraged through the Americans’ trash. Imai once even snuck into one of the 509th’s kitchens, stealing away with a couple of roasted chickens.

Eating better than a 5-star general

Imai — whose experiences have been included in various published stories and in at least one book — had grown accustomed to the regular activity of the U.S. forces on Tinian. According to the published accounts, however, during the spring and summer of 1945 he had noticed a new, rectangular compound being constructed, surrounded by fencing and thick coils of barbed wire. One day, looking through his binoculars, he was able to distinguish:


Imai was relieved that the new compound was not a prison camp. But he could tell the 509th’s compound was nothing like the others.

It also was clear to the U.S. military personnel on the island that the 509th was different.

The 1st Ordnance in particular brought with it many luxuries other groups could not procure, such as refrigerators, air mattresses, and hundreds of feet of copper screening. Several of the buildings in which the squadron worked were air conditioned. The 509th even enjoyed food not available to the other Americans on the island; mess officer Charles Perry boasted that “in the 509th, a PFC eats better than a five-star general.”

James Payne driving a Jeep on Tinian

The special treatment the 509th received, its secrecy, and the security under which it worked didn’t sit well with the island’s other military personnel.

“We didn’t have it very rough over there,” said Burgmeir. “We had top priority for everything. Anything we wanted we got, and there were some hard feelings from the other groups.”

At the same time, the 509th “was required to keep up a front and act like a regular bombardment squadron,” said Chaussy. Several raids with conventional bombs were carried out on neighboring islands still occupied by Japanese.

On July 12, in the high-security Tech Area workshops where the bomb would be assembled, several members of the 1st Ordnance prepared for the arrival of the bomb’s component parts.

Years later my father told a trusted friend that during a certain period on Tinian he carried in his pocket a small, vital component of the bomb, not trusting its security to anyone else.

Success near Alamogordo

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Those words — from the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita — were spoken by physicist Oppenheimer in the early morning of July 16, 1945. He and several other scientists had just witnessed the test-firing of the world’s first atomic device, a plutonium bomb, near Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert.

J. Robert Oppenheimer shares what went through his mind after he witnessed the Trinity test, the first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, which occurred in a remote area of New Mexico three weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima.

The successful results of the test were relayed to President Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference in Germany with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. A few days later Truman was informed that the uranium bomb would be ready for use at “the first favorable opportunity in August.”

Six hours to Hiroshima

The first opportunity came on Aug. 6. Favorable weather reports had been received Aug. 5 for the next 24 hours over western Japan. The reports came from China on orders from Mao Zedong, the fanatic guerrilla leader of partisans fighting Japanese in northern China. (Mao had been supplying U.S. air forces in the south Pacific with weather information for months.)

Under tight security, members of the 1st Ordnance Squadron loaded Little Boy onto the Enola Gay, which had recently been named by Tibbets after his mother.

“Little Boy” being raised for loading into the bomb bay of the “Enola Gay”
Capt. William “Deke” Parsons (right) supervises the loading of “Little Boy” into the “Enola Gay”

Around 2 a.m. Aug. 6, Tibbets and his flight crew arrived at the plane, which was surrounded by klieg-light stands and mobile generators, along with close to 100 people — photographers, film crews, officers, scientists, and others. The military paparazzi had been ordered by Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project. Groves wanted a pictorial record of the plane’s departure. Lack of space was the only thing that had prevented a movie crew from flying on the mission.

At 2:45 a.m., after a take-off that barely cleared the runway, the Enola Gay embarked on its six-hour flight to Hiroshima.

At exactly 8:15:17 a.m., the bomb bay doors of the Enola Gay opened, and the world’s first atomic bomb dropped clear of its restraining hook. Forty-three seconds later, at exactly 8:16 a.m., Little Boy exploded 1,890 feet above Hiroshima with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. Some 80,000 people were killed instantly; 70,000 buildings were destroyed. Sixty thousand more Japanese would die by the end of the year from burns, wounds, and the effects of radiation.

The mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945
Aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

Immediately after dropping the bomb, Tibbets put the Enola Gay into a fierce 155-degree right dive, a maneuver designed to get the plane the farthest distance away possible from the bomb’s aftershock. As it was, two shock waves rocked the plane fiercely.

As the plane continued to speed away from its target, its crew took pictures and watched the mushroom cloud build in their wake.

Service members on Tinian await the return of the “Enola Gay” from Hiroshima

At 2:58 p.m. Aug. 6, the Enola Gay touched down on North Field at Tinian. Thousands lined the runways to cheer, and 200 officers — presumably including my father — crowded around the plane to greet the crew.

My father had already checked Little Boy off his supply list. Three days later, after Bock’s Car returned from Nagasaki, he checked off the Fat Man.

Six days later, Japan surrendered.

Back to the States

My father left Tinian in the fall of 1945. Like the other men in his group, he could not foresee the changes in the world order the 509th had set in motion with the beginning of the atomic era, including the dawning of the Cold War with Russia. Indeed, the last line of his 1950 account states his squadron had “overlooked Uncle Joe” Stalin.

My father was discharged from the armed services in April of 1946. He returned to the Argus that same year. Like the others who served in the war, he was glad to be home, and — being a pragmatist — he put his experiences behind him and got on with his life.

‘He felt he had done his duty’

It’s a good thing my father’s written account of Silverplate exists. As a reporter and editor, he believed not only in the economy of the written word but also of the spoken word. Not being a talker, he certainly rarely discussed his involvement with a top secret military mission.

Perhaps his thoughts were similar to those of P.J. Chaussy, who remembered my father as being one of the few officers who were pleasant to work with. Said Chaussy, “When we loaded those two bombs, we loaded them not with revenge in mind, but with an idea of bringing the war to an end — and all the soldiers who would (otherwise) lose their lives in an invasion.”

I’ll never know for sure how my father felt about the use of the atomic bombs and his role in the mission. I was 14 when he died, and these weren’t the types of questions I had ever thought to ask him.

“They said some of the people in the crew had unhappy lives and were going through guilt,” said my brother Mike. “I think Dad was a sensitive person, but I don’t think he ever felt guilty. I think he felt he had done his duty and had done something important.”

James Payne working at his desk on Tinian

All photos used in this post are in the public domain.