On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first time a nuclear weapon had been used in warfare.
There were three strike planes that flew over Hiroshima that day: the Enola Gay, which carried the bomb, and two observation planes, the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil.
Russell Gackenbach was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps and a navigator on the mission. Today, the 95-year-old is the only surviving crew member of those three planes.
Gackenbach enlisted in the Army Aviation Cadet Program in 1943. After completing his training, he was approached by Col. Paul Tibbets, who was recruiting officers for a special mission. Tibbets said it would be dangerous but if they were successful, it could end the war.
The 509th Composite Group, lead by Tibbets, spent months training in Wendover, Utah, before being shipped off to an American air base on the Pacific island of Tinian.
Their planes were reconfigured B-29 Superfortress bombers. They had different engines, fewer guns and a larger bomb bay.
The Enola Gay carried the weapon, nicknamed "Little Boy." It weighed nearly 10,000 pounds and could produce an explosive force equal to an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT.
But at the time, Gackenbach didn't know any of this.
"I never heard the words 'atomic bomb,' " he tells Radio Diaries. "We were only told what we needed to know, and keep your mouth shut."
The planes took off around 2 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Gackenbach was part of the 10-man crew that flew on the Necessary Evil.
"We were told that once the explosion occurred, we should not look directly at it, that we should not go through the cloud," he says. "We were not told anything about the cloud, just [told] don't go through it."
As they made their final approach to Hiroshima, they were flying 30,000 feet over the city. Then, the radio went dead: that was the signal from the Enola Gay that the bomb had been released.
The first thing Gackenbach saw was a blinding light and then the start of a mushroom cloud. He got out of his seat, quickly picked up his camera and took two photographs out the navigator's side window.
The plane circled twice around the mushroom cloud and then turned to head home.
"Things were very, very quiet," Gackenbach says. "We just looked at each other; we didn't talk. We were all dumbfounded."
The casualties on the ground were staggering. An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly. Another 80,000 died from effects of the bomb in the months and years following. Hiroshima was destroyed.
Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb, on the city of Nagasaki. And on Aug. 15, Japan announced its surrender, bringing an end to World War II.
Gackenbach was discharged in 1947 and went on to work as a materials engineer for 35 years. In 2011, he returned to Japan to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
"After 73 years, I do not regret what we did that day. All war's hell," he said. "The Japanese started the war; it was our turn to finish it."
This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries along with Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. This story is part of an ongoing series from Radio Diaries and NPR called Last Witness, which features portraits of the last surviving witnesses to major historical events. Send us your ideas for the series by using the hashtag #LastWitness. To hear more stories from Radio Diaries, subscribe to the podcast at www.radiodiaries.org.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
On this day in 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. It flew three strike planes over Hiroshima, Japan. The Enola Gay carried the bomb. Two other planes, the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil, escorted it. Most of the 34 crew members didn't know they were carrying what was then the most powerful weapon in the world.
Russell Gackenbach was a second lieutenant and navigator on the mission. Today he is the sole surviving member of the crew that dropped the bomb. As part of our series Last Witness, Radio Diaries brings us his story.
RUSSELL GACKENBACH: My name is Russell E. Gackenbach. I'm 95 years old. And I joined the military in 1943.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE BUZZING)
GACKENBACH: My plane was a B-29 special. It was called the Necessary Evil. It was built for speed and distance.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE BUZZING)
GACKENBACH: One day we were all called in and told our next mission was going to be an important one. We were on a special assignment, but we did not know what that assignment was. I never heard the words atomic bomb. We were only told what we needed to know, and keep your mouth shut.
It was August 6, 1945. We took off around 2 o'clock in the morning, the target Hiroshima, Japan. I was seated at the navigator's desk. And we were told that once the explosion occurred, we should not look directly at it and that we should not go through the cloud. We're not told anything about the cloud - just says, don't go through it.
As we were making the final approach to Hiroshima, we were flying at 30,000 feet over the city. And then the radio went dead. This was on purpose. Shortly after that, the bomb was dropped. We saw a very, very bright light and the start of a mushroom cloud. At the first chance I had, I got out of my seat. I went to the side navigator's window and quickly picked up my camera and took two photographs. I'll never forget that. After we turned away, headed home, things were very, very quiet. We just looked at each other. We didn't talk. We were all dumbfounded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. Let there be no mistake. We shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war.
GACKENBACH: After 73 years, I do not regret what we did that day. All war is hell. The Japanese started the war. It was our turn to finish it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: That was Russell Gackenbach. He's the last surviving member from the mission to bomb Hiroshima.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly. Another 80,000 died in the months following. Three days after bombing Hiroshima, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. On August 15, Japan announced its surrender.
CHANG: After his service, Russell Gackenbach went on to work as a materials engineer for 35 years. Since the war, he has returned to Japan to visit Hiroshima twice. His story was produced by Nellie Gilles and the team at Radio Diaries. You can hear more stories from the Last Witness series on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.