You listened for tales of madness, lost souls, cursed lives and nightmares. But it wasn't like that -- either 35 years ago or last Friday. It just wasn't like that.
Thirty-five years ago and last Friday, both, Jacob Beser climbed aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 chosen to drop the first atom bomb.
And Surio Shimodoi stood looking at it, a citizen of Hiroshima watching a silvery glint in the light of an August morning.
Then and now.
The western Pacific or a Smithsonian warehouse in Silver Hill, Md.
Surio Shimodoi, head of the Hiroshima Survivors Association, had come to Washington to be with the men of the 509th Composite Group as they convened here for a reunion over the weekend.
They didn't even have any ironies to offer. It wasn't like that, they all kept saying.
It was too incredible, it was too ordinary.
Ordinary: Beser, 59, an electromechanical engineer in Baltimore, who flew as a radar man on the Enola Gay, said: "I'd worked for 27 straight hours before we took off. Those wheels weren't off the ground 10 seconds before I was asleep. Later on, the guys were rolling oranges back from the cockpit to hit me and wake me up."
And in August 1945 it had been an ordinary morning for Surio Shimodoi, too, given that particular time and place. There were American planes in the sky all the time, and this time there were only three, one of them being Enola Gay.
Then the bomb demolished the sky, Hiroshima and the sleep of the world for the rest of civilization.
"From where I was sitting in the plane, the fireball was like an electronic flashgun, that was all," says Beser, a short man with a gray goatee.
Much like the electronic flashguns that strobed and flipflashed and sizzled away on Friday in the gloom of the Smithsonian warehouse.
The buses unloaded and they all came walking in to look at the Enola Gay.
It was a dingy, a broken, wingless fuselage. It lay on mattresses on top of wooden cradles. The aft part of the fuselage was broken off from the bomb bay. The wings and tail lay against a wall.
Surio Shimodoi was the first man to reach her.
He stood by the name Enola Gay while his personal photographer flashed away at him. Shimodoi, at 47, last Friday, stood at attention, and was slightly potbellied. He looked very proud. In the Twinkling of an Eye
Thirty-five years ago, Shimodoi was 12, a schoolboy, he had told the 509th Composite Group the night before at a cocktail party.
He spoke in Japanese. He held up a book he published, It had color drawings that were too small for the crowd to see. His translator said: "When I was 12, I remember airplane coming. I was student, in sixth grade. I was standing outside. I saw parachutes. I was right under the explosion but I didn't know what it was."
He turned to a color drawing of a mushroom cloud. The earlier drawings had shown two boys and a girl, schoolchildren, looking up. One of them was pointing, maybe at the parachutes which carried sensing devices to measure the blast.
The children might have been illustrations in a first-grade reader: See the airplane. The next picture showed one parachute and two airplanes, silver silhouettes unlike the broken hulk in the Smithsonian warehouse. The next picture showed the children sprawling in agony. Their hands gripped their eyes. The picture was smeared with red.
And then the mushroom cloud.
Shimodoi was burned on his head and legs, because at 8:16 on an August morning 35 years ago, instead of standing next to the Enola Gay having his picture taken, he was a mile and a half from the Shima surgical clinic, which was 1,890 feet beneath a 9,000-pound atomic bomb whose temperature, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, as the Bible says, became 50 million degrees centigrade.
It burned skin two miles away. It melted cobblestones. It drove the stone columns by the entrance of the Shima clinic straight into the ground."The occupants were vaporized," says the book, "Enola Gay." It fused clothing to skin, it sent a wind of broken glass across the city. Instantly, it killed or seriously wounded 80,000 people; 180 of the city's 200 doctors, 1,654 of its 1,780 nurses. The Dirty Red Cloud
The parachutes Shimodoi remembers carried devices monitored by a physicist named Harold Agnew, who attended this reunion -- his first, although they've been held every few years since the war. There were about 150 men at this reunion, along with wives and families, gathered at the Twin Bridges Marriott for a long weekend of reminiscing.
Thursday night Agnew showed slides and movies of Tinian, the island airfield where the plane was based; and of the explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The pictures were disturbing, at least to someone who hadn't been there. For one thing, they were mostly in color. We're used to black and white pictures of World War II. In color, they might have been shot, say, Friday, rather than 35 years ago.
"There's the beach at Tinian," Agnew said. "The nurses are just below the edge of the picture." That got a laugh.
Agnew apologized for his footage of the crew of the Enola Gay after it returned from Hiroshima. "At one point you'll see a shot of the ground while I rewind the camera." The film showed young men who looked happy and excited, as if they'd just won a softball game and were heading for a beer blast, which in fact, they were. A softball game and four bottles of beer per man, no ration cards needed, as it happened. Plus a jitterbug contest, and a Sonja Henie movie, "It's a Pleasure."
Agnew shot the footage of Hiroshima himself. He was in a trailing B-29, named Great Artiste. The film looked mostly like film of ordinary clouds on a sunny August morning.
For the Nagasaki flight, he gave his cameras to two fliers, who did better.
That film was flickering on a screen in the motel reception room where the reunion was having a cocktail party.
The mushroom cloud that rose over Nagasaki was a dirty, mottled red, like a jellyfish. If we were told that this cloud had, say, saved the lives of millions, we would probably think it was beautiful. But it justified the name "mushroom cloud." It looked dirty and ugly and fungoid.
"That's Nagasaki," said Jacob Beser, the only man to fly both missions.
Beser, a feisty Jew whose father fought for America at Chatear-Thieery and who wanted more than anything to kill Germans in World War II because Germans were killing his father's relatives in concentration camps, will tell you: "I wish we'd had it earlier so we could have dropped it on Berlin."
He will also tell you: "I get a lot of hate mail when I say that in public."
Like every other member of the 509th who was questioned about guilt, Beser will tell you they saved millions of lives that would been lost by both Japan and America if we had been forced to invade. They were proud to end the war.
Veser will also tell you -- and you listen, since he's the only man who flew both missions -- that: "After Nagasaki, we kind of hoped we wouldn't have to do it again."
"We didn't have a party after Nagasaki, no" said Charles Perry, right after the films were shown. Perry was the mess officer who put together the beer blast after Hiroshima.
Why not after Nagasaki?
"Well, the plane didn't come back to Tinian, it came back to Okinawa . . .," he says, in a voice that trails off into a silence suggesting that the three days between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world had changed totally and forever, and there would be no jitterbug contest, no "extra -Added ATTRACTION, BLONDE, VIVACIOUS, CURVACEOUS, STARLET DIRECT FROM ???????" as the mimeographed invitation he wrote for Hiroshima party read.
Perry had retired from a career of running mental hospitals in Massachusetts. He seemed to understand that the sight of that invitation in his scrapbook might provoke a sense of irony, or cognitive dissonance, as psychologists say. But he didn't share that sense, any more than Shimodoi felt queasy about having his picture taken next to the Enola Gay.
Maybe the ironies of history belong to those who weren't there, merely a spice for the intellect, a compensation for some anguish that is a mixture of nostalgia, guilt, terror and who knows what else.
Perry said: "I'll tell you a story, though. When my mother died, I bought a gold chalice in her memory and gave it to the church. They said, 'we're overflowing with these things, we don't know where to put it.' So they gave it to the Augustinians, and the next thing you know, it turns out they sent it to a mission they'd started in Nagasaki. Isn't that something"? t Poker Over History
Eugene "Lefty" Grennan, flight engineer on the weather reconnaissance plane, a B-29 named Straight Flush, argued 35 years ago over the intercom that it "wouldn't be smart" to stick around.
He argued this because the pilot, Claude Eatherly, had suggested that they circle, then follow the Enola Gay into the target "to see what happens when the bomb goes off."
The whole crew argued back and forth. The decided to leave, one reason being that they wanted to get back for the 2 p.m. poker game on Tinin.
At the cocktail party, Grennan, 65, said: "We didn't have a real concept of what it would be. From 30,000 feet even a big bomb doesn't make a big impression."
Asked if he was sorry that they chose poker over history, he shrugged a whatta-ya-want-me-to-say shrug.
"Sure," he said.
Claude Eatherly, who died recently, acheived some notoriety for his stays in mental hospitals and some petty crimes. His is the only one of the 509th to experience what dramatists and ironists and the people who send hate mail might think of as being only natural.
But 35 years ago, or last Friday, it wasn't like that. Looking Proud
Someone who had been asking questions of Surio Shimodoi felt a hand on his arm. It was the translator, who said.:
"Mr. Shimodoi says you should know that in war Japanese also work to make atomic bomb."
Shimodoi is a very successful businessman. He resents the fact that leftwing politicians monopolize the peace and anti-war issue. He worries that he will get cancer. He looked very proud to be among the 509th Composite Group at the cocktail party, and on Friday morning he looked very proud to have his picture taken by the Enola Gay.
When asked if he wasn't angry still, he answered in a sentence that included the words "Pearl Harbor." The Bom Bay Switch
A lot of the men were disappointed at the conditions of the Enola Gay.
"It's a disgrace," said Beser.
"It's all broken, a hell of a note," said Agnew.
The Smithsonian had no building large enough to house it intact.
Besides, it's unrestored. The tape some crew member patched across a heater switch box in the cockpit was still there on Friday.
Wires hung down into the green gloom of zinc chromate primer. There was junk in the tunnel down which the oranges rolled to wake Jacob Beser. There was dirt on the old switches and dials, the big switch that opened the bomb bay with a snap, which is still decisive, 35 years later.
The crowd gathered by the plane, the men holding up pointing fingers as they studied it. The wives of the 509th got into the plane first, all women for the first 10 minutes or so, clambering into the cockpit.
Women, and some actors who will appear in a fall TV movie called "Enola Gay." The actors were there as guests of the reunion, and took advantage of the opportunity for some publicity.
Then, with slow decision, the way people stand up in church to go to the communion rail, the men of the 509th crawled under the bomb bay and through the pressure hatch that made it possible to fly at 31,000 feet without oxygen masks.
They sat in the pilots's seats, they said "Oh my," they smiled or they winced or something in between. They said it looked smaller, that it sure brought back memories, thay they remembered close calls.
Thirty-five years ago, at 8:15 and 17 seconds, the Enola Gay, 9,000 pounds lighter, lifted 10 feet. Last Friday it had fallen 10 feet to the floor of a warehouse in Maryland.
The 509th, along with Surio Shimodoi, seemed to leave the warehouse all at once for their buses.
It was good. It was bad.
It was like that. It wasn't like that.