Thirty-four years after it dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Enola Gay rested disassembled and virtually forgotten yesterday in a suburban Maryland warehouse.
Although the National Air and Space Museum brought the B29 to its Silver Hill complex 18 years ago with the purpose of restoring it for public exhibit, the Enola Gay is still in storage - awaiting either the space or the inclination to display it.
"I'm positive it's political," said Rose Ascarelli, who works the information desk at the popular aviation museum. "We have nothing from the Enola Gay. We will never have anything from the Enola Gay. It would cause too much distress to our foreign visitors."
But Donald Lopez, the museum's assistant director for aeronautics, said the plane languishes in a hangar for a much simpler reason - it is too big.
"The wing span is 141 feet," Lopez explained. "It's 99 feet long and almost 30 feet high with the tail. And our largest gallery is 120 feet across."
"What happened basically," added Louise Hull of the museum's public relation office, "is that the museum that was built was not big enough."
In 1961, when the museum moved the plane from the Andrews Air Force Base runway where it sat for nine years, the plans called for a much larger building than the museum's facility at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue.
The larger building was approved in 1965, but when Congress allocated money in 1972, it provided $40 million less than expected. The museum settled for a smaller design.
Lopez conceded, however, that the Enola Gay's political sensitivity has figured in the thinking of museum officials.
"There's no question," he said, "that during the height of the antiwar activity, that was a consideration."
But because of the space constraints of the new building, Lopez said, "we never really had to face that question."
Lopez said he has received a few letters about the Enola Gay. One called the museum's failure to display the plane a "disgrace." Another asked why any institution would want to keep such a terrible thing.
"I would have liked to send each of them the other's letter," noted Lopez.
"We try to present history as it occurred," he said. "Whether people like that the bomb was dropped or not, it was dropped. We feel that we have the right to display it if we get the space."
Meanwhile, the huge fuselage of the Enola Gay, nestled between a German Arado 196 and a Navy A4, draws some attention in its peeling hangar, the largest at Silver Hill. Anyone who obtains permission from the museum can take a peek at it. Al Buchmeier, head of storage at Silver Hill, said that "an awful lot of Japanese" come through.
"I'm amazed that they're not upset by it," he said."They want to see it. Anytime anyone's out here they want to see it."
He, too, claimed that the plane's size was the main obstacle to displaying it. But Buchmeier added: "It's still controversial, so why take the chance that some radical..." His sentence trailed off.
Within the next four years, Buchmeier said he expects the hangar will be opened to the public, as are four other hangars at Silver Hill. So far, the museum's chief worry - vandalism - has not been a problem.
"Since we don't exactly advertise it," said Buchmeier, "we don't have any trouble." CAPTION: Picture 1, B29 that dropped the first atomic bomb has been stored in a Smithsonian warehouse; Picture 2, Cockpit of Air Iar Force bomber, which occupies the largest hangar at Silver Hill, Md., complex. by James M. Thresher - The Washington Post