The Manhattan Project

Bob Caron's Interview

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Bob Caron served as the tail gunner on the Enola Gay under the command of Colonel Paul Tibbets. He witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima, capturing photographs of the destruction. In this interview with radio host Ross Simpson, he describes the immensity of the weapon and his memories of the flight over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Caron recounts a conversation with Colonel Tibbets in which Caron deduced that the crew intended to drop an atomic weapon, before any official announcement was made. He also discusses the aftermath of the bomb and the responses he has received from both service members and civilians.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
August 1985
Location of the Interview: 

Ross Simpson: I’m talking with Bob Caron, who was the Tail Gunner on the Enola Gay, the day it flew to Hiroshima, Japan and dropped the first atomic bomb. Bob, what do you remember about that day? It’s been forty years. Forty years is a long time.

Bob Caron: Well, there’s a number of things I remember about the mission. The one that strikes in my memory as the first thing, was the briefing we had about two days before, when Colonel [Paul] Tibbets called all the crews that would be involved in the mission to a briefing, and told us that we would be carrying a new type of weapon. He said it would be the equivalent of twenty thousand tons of TNT, which was flabbergasting.

They showed some pictures; they had some slides of the explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was kind of hard to really visualize it because it was done at night. It seemed immense, but there was no depth perspective that you could really get a true picture of it, but it just seemed tremendous.

Then, I guess it was two days later, when we finally got the go ahead on the weather, if I remember correctly. We were told we were going to fly that night. We took off on all our missions usually about 2:45 in the morning to get up to Japan in early morning daylight. Us enlisted men stuck together. We went to get some chow. When we got out to the hardstand after chow, it looked like a Hollywood movie set, with lights set up, and cameramen, and brass hats floating around—generals, admirals. We were trying to prepare for a mission, get the airplane ready. I had to get my guns in out of the tent and installed. I remember getting stopped from that work to come out and pose for pictures.

The take-off. I do remember that take-off. I took off from the tail, because that was the safest place to be in the ditching. Colonel Tibbets took every inch of that runway, and I can remember sitting in that tail, wondering when he’s going to lift that thing off the runway. But he waited till the last minute and picked her off the runway.

As soon as we got out far enough from the island, I checked my gun turret, get all the electrical controls running, and see that the turret was operational, and test fire the guns. Then it would be a long, slow climb to altitude, and it got kind of lonely back in that tail. Once you were pressurized, you were stuck in that. So I came into the waist and I would ride for a few hours in the waist section, on the left side of the airplane. We called it left scanner, where we would watch the engines, and just watch things because the pilot couldn’t see that part of the airplane.

Simpson: Now, you had an idea though that something was up, because you were a man who read a great deal. Tibbets said that you, more than any other member of the crew, kind of suspected what you were carrying, although you really didn’t know what it was. But you had read something. You had seen something somewhere and you began to put one and one together, and you came up with two. Because he came back to your area, and you had a brief conversation, didn’t you?

Caron: Yeah. Tibbets came back to the waist section to talk to us. Of the fellows in the back of the airplane, he had known me the longest because I had been flying with him since the days of the XB and the YB-29s on his test crew. So he talked to all of us, but he sort of addressed this to me. He said, “Bob, have you figured out what we’re doing this morning?”

I said, “Hell no, Colonel. With all the security you’ve had us up against in all this time, I don’t want to get stuck up against a stone wall and shot.”

He laughed and he said, “It’s too late now. We’re on our way. You can guess whatever you want.” Amongst ourselves, we had been guessing a new British explosive that we had heard rumors of. I asked him if it was a chemist’s nightmare, and he shook his head and he said, “No, not exactly.”

Well, something came to mind. A few months previously, back in Wendover, after I had sent my wife home, I spent a lot of time at the base library. I was reading a book on physics, and there was a story about a cyclotron, I think at UCLA or one of the big universities. The power generated when atoms were split. I thought at the time, “If we could only make something like that small enough to carry in an airplane, we’d have it made,” and promptly forgot it.

But when he said it wasn’t a chemist nightmare, it came back to mind. And I said, “Colonel, is this a physicist’s nightmare?”

He gave me kind of a funny look and he says, “You might call it that.” We chatted for a few minutes and he started forward, through the tunnel, and just as his foot was sticking out, I reached up and I yanked on his foot, which you usually don’t do to colonels. And he slid back in and said, “What’s a matter? What’s a matter?” He thought something had gone wrong back there.

I said “Colonel, are we splitting atoms this morning?”

He gave me the funniest look, and he shook his head and said, “Yes.” Shortly after that, why, he got on the intercom and announced that we were carrying the first atomic bomb.

Simpson: You had no idea though of the awesome power of this weapon. You said that you had seen slides of test at Alamogordo, but, because they were at night, there was no definition. There were no mountains behind. There was no distance from the point the picture was taken, so there was no reference point for you. You were the first one ever, in history, to see this bomb detonate through these dark welder’s glasses that you were given. What did you think of that tremendous flash and what later became that mushroom cloud?

Caron: Well, at bombs away, Tibbets threw the plane in a diving right hand turn for about 160 degrees and then straightened out, and called back to me and told me, “Bob, let me know what you see when you see something.” It probably was a minute or maybe less when the flash went off. Through the welder’s goggles, the sun was just a dim light, but through the goggles, the explosion was just a tremendous buildup of light, enough to make me blink real hard. Of course, everybody saw the flash, even up front. He told me to report on the intercom what I had seen, and actually I didn’t see anything yet, except the flash.

I took the welder’s goggles off as soon as the flash was over. It was very shortly after that, I can’t remember the time, when I saw this shockwave. But I didn’t know it was a shockwave. It was just a ring coming out along the ground. It looked like it was on the ground, but actually it was spherical, coming up at us too. It was like dropping a pebble in a still pond. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what it was, when it hit the airplane. It hit it pretty hard, because I understand Tibbets yelled, “Flack!” He thought we got hit by flack. Bounced around in the tail like that, it didn’t bother me that much. But another one came, the ricochet off the ground, and then I called out, “Here comes another one!” And that hit the airplane.

I still hadn’t seen anything yet, outside of the shockwaves. Tibbets called on the intercom again, “Do you see anything yet?”

I said, “Nothing yet, Colonel.” Just about that time, the mushroom started coming in view from behind the turret, just the mushroom, the famous mushroom cloud bubbling up, coming up behind the turret. I had been given a K-20, a large camera to take pictures, and I was told to take pictures and then describe what I saw on the intercom. I was kind of busy doing that, and didn’t think too much about it.

It was an awesome sight. I described the mushroom cloud as it grows. Well, it was white on the outside and it was sort of a purplish black towards the interior, and it had a fiery red core, and it just kept boiling up. I think that’s how I described it on the intercom.

I was trying to get pictures through the windows of the tail turret. The back windows were kind of small, and I do remember calling the Colonel up on the intercom, if he would turn the airplane a few degrees to the left, so I could get better pictures out the escape hatch window. And he did. That’s how I took most of my pictures. As you can see, that one over there is one of them.

As we got further away, I could see the city then, not just the mushroom, coming up. I could see the city, and it was being covered with this low, bubbling mass. It looked like bubbling molasses, let’s say, spreading out and running up into the foothills, just covering the whole city. And fires, I could see fires spring up through this under cast, or whatever you would call it, that was covering the city. Flames in different spots would be springing up. It was about that time that Tibbets turned the airplane around, so that everybody could get a look at it.

Simpson: Do you regret having been aboard that plane, and having dropped the world’s first atomic bomb?

Caron: No, I never thought of any regrets of being on that crew. It was a military mission that our crew was picked to do. Looking back on it, I don’t think I’ve ever had any regrets. I’m not quite sure that I know what you mean.

Simpson: I’m thinking, more of less, when you had time to think about what happened and the awesomeness of the weapon, and where we are today in terms of nuclear weaponry. And the fact that we were the first to use it, and we used it not just once, we used it a second time, three days later. Some people have said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have used it against a target such as a city. Maybe we should have conducted a peaceful demonstration of it offshore, to demonstrate to the Japanese what we had.” Any feelings along those lines?

Caron: Well, I guess that’s going to be a controversy that will never end—whether it should have been tested offshore or some kind of a demonstration, as against being used against a city. Hiroshima was, from what we were told, and from what I’ve subsequently read, a military target. It was headquarters of the–I think–the Japanese Army that was going to head off the invasion.

I do wonder, if a demonstration against some empty island–how would we have gotten the Japanese to be convinced of the immensity of it? Because Japan was a very, in my mind, a very tenacious and tough enemy. She really had lost the war maybe a year before, but wouldn’t give up. I think that the use of the atomic bombs was enough to convince Japan that it was time to stop fighting. Otherwise, they would have fought on to the last man, woman, and child, in my opinion, with the last rock they had to throw. Many millions of lives would have been lost on both sides. That’s my feelings, as to the use of the bomb against the target. 

Simpson: Now, other members of the crew have talked about some of the mail, some of the calls that they have received over the years. Some of them say they’ve stopped now, but people no longer send them the hate mail, the “shame on you” type correspondence. After the war, were you able to live your life privately, or were you harassed by people?

Caron: I was never harassed by anybody. In all the years, I received one hate letter and from the context of the letter, I wasn’t too impressed with the intelligence of the writer. Of course, it was unsigned. It seemed to me that he had just taken out of context something that was a statement that I had made in the paper. He took out of context, and it wasn’t what I really meant. But that’s the only real nasty letter I received.

I’ve received many, many letters from people, and I’m sure the rest of the crew have too, some from fellows that were waiting on Okinawa to invade. I’ve even received letters from sons of fellows that were on Okinawa waiting to invade, and they all say the same thing: they don’t think they ever would have made it back alive if they had had to invade Japan.

Simpson: Well, my father was one of those people. He had fought in Europe on the ground. He was loading at Liverpool, England for the invasion of Japan, when your crew dropped that bomb. That ended his combat in World War II. It put it to an end. He often says that had they gone ahead with the invasion of Japan, that he did not expect to survive that one. That it was rough enough in Europe against the Germans, and to go up against the Japanese was just a nightmare that was not going to end for years. He credits people such as yourself with having brought it to a quick end.

How often do you and the other crewmembers get together? Is that crew still tight? Do you still stay in touch with each other?       

Caron: Well, some of us do. I don’t know how tight I would call us. I keep in pretty close touch with Tibbets and Dick Nelson, the Radio Operator, and with Bob Lewis, when he was alive. The rest of it is just occasional letters, maybe a couple of years go by. I’ve only been to one reunion.

Simpson: I know, when I was in the service, I made a lot of acquaintances. I didn’t make many friends. I don’t know if it was just the transit nature of the profession that we were in, or whether you’re just there for a short time. Your lives are very much together when you’re there, and then when you separate, it’s very difficult. Things get in the way. Has this been true for you?

Caron: I really don’t know how to answer that question. You mean, in regards to the other members of the crew? Well, as I say, I just made the one reunion. Due to circumstances, I haven’t been able to make the other ones. The last one in Washington I couldn’t make, and it’s lucky I didn’t go because my dad passed away on August 6, at exactly 9:15 a.m., which sent a chill down my back. I had to rush to Phoenix, rather than go to Washington to the reunion.

Simpson: Do you think that’s just a coincidence? As you said, it had to send a shock down to shake you because of the hour, because of the date.

Caron: The date and the hour, I think it was just a coincidence. But that’s what’s on the death certificate, and it did send a little chill down my back.

Simpson: Now, what is significant about that? I know what’s significant about the date, but the hour, specifically 9:15?

Caron: Well, it was 8:15 Japanese time that the bomb exploded. But it was 9:15 Tinian time, which is what my watch said.

Simpson: What year did he pass away?

Caron: Last year in ’84.

Simpson: But you have a grandchild born on the anniversary date, don’t you?

Caron: Oh no, no. No, I have a great-granddaughter born on Halloween, which is my birthday.

Simpson: I thought maybe you’d had a double twist there.

Caron: Yeah, no, no.

Simpson: Do you think the people you’ve received letters from, people who were in the service–do you think this event would ever be duplicated again? Do you think that man would be to the point that he would use a nuclear weapon, which is much more powerful now than what was dropped on August 6 or August 9? Do you see, in your wildest imagination, maybe not in your lifetime, but in mine, that these weapons will be used again?

Caron: I really don’t think so. I think the people in power, the various countries, know enough of the destruction that these new weapons would cause. They are so much greater than the ones that we used. The only thing that does worry me a little bit, once in a while, is if some dictator, like Muammar Gaddafi, got ahold of a nuclear device and wanted to make trouble with it. But as far as any of the big superpowers, I think the defenses of each are at such a point that neither would be foolish enough to try, because they know it would be the end of the world as we know it.

I’ve said a number of times when people have asked me, and I think it probably echoes what almost everybody else in the world might say: let’s just hope and pray that never again does anyone ever see one of these set off in anger again, like I saw that day on August 6.

Simpson: You talked of the colors of this, and the fact that it was difficult for you to really comprehend what was happening on the ground. But you could see it begin to spread, and it spread up into the foothills. Was it like looking into hell? 

Caron: Oh, I didn’t think it was like looking into hell. It was like looking into the biggest explosion imaginable. I had seen some of our regular bombs explode on regular missions, and this was so much more immense. It was mindboggling for the area that it was covering. I know shortly afterwards, I guess we were on our way back when Tibbets had us all make a few comments on the wire recorder. When I put my two cents in, I said something to the effect of, “I think we’ve got this war won.”

Simpson: You were confident that it was over at that point?

Caron: Yeah and of course I had no idea another one was going to be dropped. But it just seemed to me the immensity of it, compared to regular bombs, that it would convince the Japanese to give up