hiroshima bombing
August 7, 2018

Russell Gackenbach was told one thing about the mission he was about to embark on: It could end World War II.

Gackenbach was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and had been approached by Col. Paul Tibbets about a mission that was dangerous, but also a potential game-changer. "I never heard the words 'atomic bomb,'" he told NPR. "We were only told what we needed to know, and keep your mouth shut."

Now 95, Gackenbach is the only surviving crew member of the three planes that took part in the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima. The Enola Gay carried the bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," and there were two observation planes: the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil. Gackenbach was one of 10 men on Necessary Evil, and they were all told "once the explosion occurred, we should not look directly at it, that we should not go through the cloud. We were not told anything about the cloud, just don't go through it."

Gackenbach told NPR he saw a blinding light and the mushroom cloud, so he grabbed his camera and took two photos out of the navigator's side window. "Things were very, very quiet," he said. "We just looked at each other; we didn't talk. We were all dumbfounded." It's estimated that 80,000 people were killed instantly after the bomb dropped, and 80,000 more died later from its effects. Gackenbach, who visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2011, told NPR that "after 73 years, I do not regret what we did that day. All war's hell. The Japanese started the war; it was our turn to finish it." Catherine Garcia

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