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

The following was written in August 1950 by James H. Payne — then a reporter for The Rock Island Argus — 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.


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

I was accountable for the atomic bomb. Five years ago Sunday, Hiroshima was destroyed. I marked the first bomb off my property account. Three days later, Nagasaki was obliterated. I crossed off the second bomb. A third one, which was not needed, was returned to the United States.

When we left Tinian in the Marianas islands of the Pacific Ocean in October 1945, I’m sure not one member of the 509th Composite Group, including the First Ordnance Squadron, Special, Aviation, for which I was supply officer, had the remotest idea we might ever see the island again.

We left behind a perfect setup for launching another atomic attack. We were well-supplied with Quonset-type warehouses and assembly buildings. Some were air-conditioned and all had concrete floors.

James Payne, second from right, watching fellow members of the 509th Composite Group play cards

I wonder whether these facilities still are intact. Perhaps tropical vegetation has overgrown them, or the “gooks,”¹ the native island Churo population, have moved in from their squalid internment camp.

Every member of the squadron and group probably has a story to tell concerning the then top-secret A-bomb project. Secrecy instilled in us for more than a year during the war and again upon discharge censors some things that otherwise might be related.

A few of us lived with the secret for almost a year before it destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Actually, it wasn’t such a cloak-and-dagger mystery thriller as some accounts of the war have portrayed.

Secret Disclosed

It isn’t hard to keep a secret if you aren’t positive what you are hiding. A few of us were “let in” on the secret in the fall of 1944. But we were told we were developing a uranium bomb. A transocean radio broadcast by President Truman, after the first bomb was dropped, was the first time most of us in the group heard the word “atomic bomb.”

President Harry Truman announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan

When I was told we were working on a uranium bomb, I furtively scanned a dictionary at the base library. I wasn’t too impressed. Uranium was described as: “A radioactive element of the chromium group with its chief value being that of coloring porcelain and glass and for use in photography.”

From the start, however, if the word uranium didn’t impress us, the secrecy and importance attached to the project did.

We were told of the dangers involved and that our lives might be endangered by the experimental work. Entering or leaving the base, we had to be blind to overlook a sign which warned:

What you hear here
What you see here
When you leave here
LET IT STAY HERE!

Most of us never knew how we got into the outfit. Once we were in, we couldn’t get out. We couldn’t discuss our work with our families nor even with other members of the group not specifically working on the bomb project.

Sent To The Desert

I was ordnance officer of the 393rd Bomb Squadron of the 504th Bombardment Group at Fairmont, Neb., in September 1944. The group was alerted for overseas, but the 393rd suddenly was detached from it and ordered to Wendover Air Base in Utah.

The powers that be chose an ideal site for developing the atomic bomb with a minimum of security problems involved. Situated in the vast Great Salt Lake Desert at the Utah-Nevada border, 125 miles from any town or city, Wendover was termed “Leftover” by Bob Hope and “Tobacco Road with Slot Machines” by Bing Crosby.

Abandoned World War II-era housing at the former Wendover Air Force Base (Photo: Mark Hufstetler / Creative Commons)

Once confronted with Wendover, most of the squadron personnel preferred immediate overseas shipment rather than a prolonged stay there.

For two weeks or more, we sat around the base wondering what the score was. One day, Col. Paul Tibbets — who later was to pilot the Enola Gay on the first atomic bombing — arrived at the base. He said the record of the 393rd resulted in its choice for an important mission.

There were more days of unexplained inactivity. Capt. Charles Begg walked into the squadron ordnance office one morning and said he had been assigned to duty under me, a first lieutenant.

“What’s going on around here?” he asked. It was a question everyone was asking.

As the days wore on, a word became more and more prominent in various orders received at the base. It was “Silverplate project.”

Working In The Dark

Begg, several enlisted men, and myself were assigned one day to work on this project. It was the original link of atomic bomb development with the Army Air Forces.

Taking over an abandoned ordnance maintenance building several miles out in the desert from Wendover, we soon became involved in work which occupied some of us seven days a week for an initial period of three months.

We worked in the dark in more ways than one. We often worked the clock around, then attempted to explain to our wives why we were out all night and at the same time not violate security measures.

We found ourselves working on weird objects which were to be assembled into small and actual size models of bombs. Because of the experimental stage of the project, we were called upon to improvise everything from parts of bombs to actual buildings in which to work efficiently.

Getting carpenters to construct these buildings was taboo. Only the personnel we had were permitted in the project area.

The project gathered speed in the winter of 1944-45, and gradually we reached the stage where models of the bomb were dropped for ballistic tests and other test data.

I remember a frigid day when we stood on the desert and watched a B-29 high overhead, waiting for the test bomb to be dropped. The bomb itself left a vapor trail when released from a high altitude.

Although we stood a half-mile from the designated target, it appeared for an agonizing minute the bombardier had erred and the bomb was coming directly at us.

After early test drops, we grubbed in the bomb craters, often at night and with the aid of searchlights, for fragments of the bombs to determine whether there were failures of design or materials under the stress of the bomb’s descent.

During the winter, I was appointed supply officer of the project at Wendover. It was then my headaches began, and if I had been the nervous type, I probably would have been the first atomic bomb casualty long before Hiroshima.

By this time, we were aware Wendover was only one of three sites included in the project. We didn’t know where the others were located, but knew them only by code designations. Wendover was “W-47.”

A special telephone hookup brought us into immediate contact with the other code sites, but mentioning locations was taboo.

I was called upon to “borrow” base property and send it to code sites. Thus, I was responsible for property I not only didn’t have but also didn’t know where it was.

Special project material began arriving from code designations after passing through rail terminals en route for transshipment. Our property records were filled with one, two, or more “boxes of machinery,” the only identification appearing on shipping tickets.

We chose our own names for equipment because no one else bothered to classify them previously.

Many days, as much as 50,000 pounds of material was unloaded from planes, freight trains, and express cars. About the same amount often was shipped from Wendover.

Where Was “Y”?

I almost swung a means of finding out where “Y”, one of the code sites, was located. I told Begg I ought to check with the property procurement officer there on stock record reports, which we were required to submit to him.

The captain agreed, and a plane flight was set for a Sunday.

The day of the trip, the plane flight was delayed twice because of necessary repair work. At last, we took off across the desert. Ten minutes out, the plane developed engine trouble and the pilot thought it unwise to attempt to climb an approaching mountain range.

The plane turned back, and the trip to Y never materialized. Once overseas, I found out the plane would have ended up in New Mexico had we kept going.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of “Y”

I soon found the Silverplate priority overshadowed any priority in the nation. I’d average two or three phone calls a day — none under a 1,000-mile radius — on property procurement business. If we needed anything — even seemingly insignificant sandpaper — we would send a plane to the nearest available depot rather than wait for normal means of shipment, which might delay project work.

Keeping an up-to-date knowledge of personnel working on the project was as difficult as classifying experimental equipment.

Who’s Who?

Every day brought countless civilians, and Army and Navy personnel into our project area. Once we got overseas, we were surprised to find some civilians actually were Army enlisted personnel and vice versa. The masquerading apparently was for security purposes

One of the top-ranking civilian scientists on the project was Norman Ramsey, son of a former commanding officer of the Rock Island Arsenal.

Original plans called for ordnance personnel working on the Silverplate project to be attached to other squadrons in the 509th group for overseas duty. However, when it became apparent administration, supply, and technical problems would cause difficulties, we found ourselves in the enviable position of “writing our own ticket” for personnel and equipment requirements for a separate squadron, the First Ordnance.

Such an organization apparently caused considerable confusion at the headquarters of the Second Air Force, then at Colorado Springs, Colo. As a heavy bombardment unit, we still were assigned technically to this air force. However, most of our orders originated in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after the First Ordnance Squadron was activated, I answered a phone call from Second Air Force headquarters. The conversation went something like this:

“This is Lieutenant Colonel so-and-so at Colorado Springs.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve been assigned as commanding officer of the First Ordnance Squadron.”

“We already have a commanding officer, Captain Begg.”

“Well, I’ll take over when I get there.”

“Yes, sir.”

So, I told the captain and he told the group commander. The lieutenant colonel, who pooh-poohed the idea a mere captain would remain in charge, never showed up.

Tight Security

I’ve read somewhere that the atomic bomb, taking into account the work required for its development, cost several million dollars.

Being accountable for this amount could make a nervous wreck of anyone. Actually, I had little to worry about. No one was going to steal the physical properties of the bomb with FBI and Army intelligence personnel hovering about us like flies.

Warnings of loose talk were not to be taken lightly. Intelligence men were everywhere. Some we knew as such. Others were integrated in squadrons of the group.

Two lieutenants during the early stages of the bomb development violated orders while on detached service near the Mexican border. They crossed over the border one night on a joy ride.

We never saw them again. Rumors, pretty well-substantiated, were they had been sent to a distant post for the duration.

A group executive officer reportedly met the same fate when he allegedly got drunk off base one night and talked too much.

Record Shipment

I was assigned to command an advanced echelon of three officers and 70 enlisted men when we headed overseas. We chaperoned most of the squadron’s equipment on the trip. The equipment included 1,987 pieces, 578 long tons, and 2,549 measured tons — a record amount for a single unit packed in that area.

One reason for the record amount was unlimited authorization in our equipment list for tools and supplies.

Inasmuch as necessary equipment was entirely different from that of any established Army organization and naming of individual pieces would violate security, we were authorized 11 kits by name only. There was no limit on the number of items per kit.

At the Seattle port of embarkation, I had to ascertain all equipment — slated for shipment to the port direct from supply depots — had been received.

One item missing was a boom for a Navy-type crane. Port authorities said we would sail without it. Reinforced by an intelligence agent assigned to our echelon, I returned to the port official’s office. The agent made a few phone calls. The port authority was a wiser man and the boom was flown in the next day.

Open To Enemy Fire

Our advanced echelon was the only unit assigned to a small Navy ship which took us to Tinian. With all the advanced preparations and attached importance of our mission, I could never understand why our ship made the trip without benefit of escort or in a convoy.

Tinian

Reports of enemy submarines west of Eniwetok failed to make a difference. Had the ship been sunk, loss in equipment would have delayed the atomic bombing by several weeks or months.

When we arrived at Tinian, July 3, 1945, we were told a “special unit” (an atomic bomb) had to be ready in six weeks. It was ready in 33 days.

Headquarters of the 509th Composite Group on Tinian

Even on Tinian, we had little difficulty in securing necessary materials not previously included in shipments. We no longer had the Silverplate priority to help, but we had bimonthly shipments by water and almost daily transportation through the group’s troop carrier squadron, equipped with C-54s — appropriately dubbed Green Hornets because of plane markings. 31 island-hopping donkeys were stenciled on the squadron’s five planes, each representing a round trip to the States.

Douglas C-54 Skymaster

Our supply and assembly areas were off-limits to other island personnel. This, plus the “clam-mouth” attitude drilled into our personnel, rubbed other bomb group personnel the wrong way.

They couldn’t understand all the secrecy. “We’re fighting the same war, aren’t we?” was the general remark we heard.

Mission Accomplished

Our silence and minimum of bombing missions before Hiroshima prompted a clerk at base operations to write:

Into the air the secret rose.
Where they’re going, nobody knows.
Tomorrow they’ll return again,
But we’ll never know where they’ve been.
Don’t ask us about results or such,
Unless you want to get in Dutch.
But take it from one who is sure of the score,
The 509th is winning the war.
When the other groups are ready to go,
We have a program of the whole damn show.
And when Halsey’s 5th shells Nippon’s shore,
Why, shucks, we heard about it the day before.
And MacArthur and Doolittle give out in advance,
But with this new bunch we haven’t a chance.
We should have been home a month or more,
For the 509th is winning the war.

Most of us felt vindicated when we circled about Tibbets’ plane upon his return from Hiroshima and saw Gen. Carl Spaatz pin the Distinguished Service Cross on Tibbets’ chest. We celebrated the same afternoon at a gigantic beer party.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” landing after the atomic bombing mission on Hiroshima

After Maj. Chuck Sweeney’s flight to Nagasaki with another form of the bomb (there were reports his bomb made the first one obsolete), the war ended.

The mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945

I had tons and tons of special equipment, which I thankfully found was ordered to be disposed of overseas. To this end, the supply and ammunition section joined forces with the Navy, and dumped previously valuable items into the ocean off the Tinian shore. The logical explanation was the equipment probably would be obsolete before it again might be needed.

General opinion of First Ordnance expressed the belief that the atomic bomb is capable of two things: a weapon which can easily bring the world to ruin, or, a weapon which is so potent, its availability to a united peace organization would prevent a future Hitler or Hirohito from ever daring to violate world security again.

Since then, we have gotten a united peace organization² which has the atomic bomb available. Those of us on Tinian in 1945 overlooked Uncle Joe³.

James Payne working at his desk on Tinian

[1] “Gook” is a derogatory term for people of East and Southeast Asian descent that gained widespread use during World War II. Even though this article was written in 1950, anti-Japanese sentiment was still very much alive in the years following the War.

[2] “International peace organization” refers to the United Nations, which was established in October 1945.

[3] “Uncle Joe” refers to Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union was among the “Big Four” powers of the Allies of World War II, along with the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of China. However, tensions worsened between the US and the USSR following the War, leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear warfare during the Cold War.

All photos used in this post are in the public domain, unless otherwise noted.