Saturday, August 6, 2005 Contact Us Archive
Escondido man was in flight group that bombed Hiroshima 60 years ago
By: GARY WARTH - Staff Writer
As he relaxed on his cot that night 60 years ago, Milton Sprouse heard the announcer on U.S. Armed Forces Radio report what had happened in Japan that day.
"They said some outfit dropped a bomb, and it destroyed a town of Hiroshima and killed thousands of people," Sprouse recalled. "I wondered what the hell that was."
None of the six men in the tent made the connection with what had been their own mission that day. Suddenly, a friend who had been listening to the radio in the next tent ran in.
"That was us!" he told the others.
Finally, after more than a year in the dark, Sprouse knew the 509th Composite Group's mission.
"That's when I knew what the hell we'd done," he said.
What the 509th had done, Sprouse, many veterans and many historians believe, was hasten the end of World War II, saving countless lives that would have been lost had the United States been compelled to invade Japan.
They also had ushered in the atomic age, and in the 60 years that followed, mankind has lived with the image of the mushroom cloud and the knowledge that the stakes of war had reached a heretofore unimaginable threshold.
In later years, some historians have questioned America's use of the atomic bombs, saying that Japan was ready to surrender and that the bombings were unnecessary and downright barbaric.
'We didn't know beans'
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, a 9,000-pound atomic bomb named "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay, a B-29 flown by Col. Paul Tibbets from an air station on Tinian, a Pacific island about 1,270 miles south of Tokyo.
Three days later at 11 a.m., the atomic bomb "Fat Boy" was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, from the B-29 Bock's Car, flown by Maj. Charles Sweetney.
On Aug. 14, President Harry Truman announced that Japan had surrendered. Historians believe the two bombs killed up to 120,000 people.
Sixty years later, Sprouse, 83, lives in Escondido and speaks several times a year to high school students about his days with the 509th Composite Group.
"We didn't know beans back then," the Mississippi native said. "They didn't talk to us about when we were going, what we were going to do."
Sprouse was drafted into the Army in 1943, studied with the Army Air Corps for 18 months in Florida, and was then sent to a base in Topeka, Kan., where he assumed he was waiting to be sent to the European Theater.
But then one night, well after lights out, an officer walked down the aisle of his barracks, calling his name. When Sprouse finally responded, he was told, "Pack your bags. You're leaving immediately." He had no idea where he was going or why he had been selected, and still doesn't.
There was no official train stop for Wendover Air Force Base ---- Bob Hope used to call it Left Over Base because of its desolate location on the Arizona/Utah border ---- and Sprouse remembers the train barely stopping when their bags were thrown out and the men told to step off.
Without a building in sight, the seven men waited until a military policeman arrived to drive them to the base, where they were greeted with the cryptic sign: "What you see here/What you do here/What you hear here/Stays here."
By 1943, scientists working on the top-secret Manhattan Project were close to designing a working atomic bomb, and the government began preparing for its use. Top aviator Col. Paul Tibbets was directed to form a self-sufficient group specifically to drop the bomb, and he chose remote Wendover to train the 509th.
"He was one of the few who knew what was going on there, and we kept pressing him: 'Colonel, what are we doing here?' " said Sprouse, one of more than 3,000 men at the base.
Tibbets fed them various stories, at one time telling crews they were training to drop one-man rafts for downed pilots in the Pacific.
Cpl. Sprouse was assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron, where he was on the ground crew for engine four of Big Stink, one of 15 modified B-29 Superfortress aircraft at the base.
After training for a year at Wendover, the 509th arrived on Tinian on May 30, 1945. Marines had secured the island the previous summer after a fierce, monthlong battle, but still were fighting Japanese on the southern end.
Navy Seabees from the Sixth Brigade built the largest airfield in the world on Tinian, which had six runways and was used as a base for fire-bombing raids on Tokyo.
Shortly after his group's arrival on Tinian, Sprouse heard the taunting, English-speaking Japanese disc jockey Tokyo Rose "welcome" a new squadron of "black arrow" bombers, a reference to the black arrows painted on the tails of the 509th's bombers. Shaken that Japanese spies had so quickly spotted his top-secret squadron, Tibbets had all markings removed from the bombers, which were then scattered among other planes on the base.
A sharp-eyed spy still could pick out the 509th's modified bombers, however, as the planes had been stripped of all turret guns to make them lighter to hold the massive atomic bombs.
"Little Boy" and "Fat Man" were so large, planes could not taxi over the bombs so they could be lifted into the bomb bays. Instead, pits were dug in the airfield to hold the bombs and allow enough clearance to hoist them into the planes.
Sprouse and other crew members were kept in the dark about such details. When they were called out to the flight line in the predawn hours to witness Tibbets climbing into the Enola Gay (which he had named after his mother just that day), they did not understand the hubbub surrounding what they knew simply as Bombing Mission No. 13.
"There were all these lights and photographers," said Sprouse, who remembers someone asking Tibbets to wave from the cockpit as someone snapped what was to become a famous photo from that day.
Bombing mission 13
The Enola Gay took off with an escort of six B-29s, including its backup, Big Stink. Members of the 509th were treated to a picnic with beer and country music at the base ballpark while the planes were gone, and the crew was recalled to the flight line at midafternoon to greet the planes as they returned.
Despite the picnic, the military brass swarming the base and all the photographers, Sprouse still had no hint that anything had been unusual about the mission.
But then came the radio report about thousands dead and a city destroyed. Japan did not surrender, and President Truman gave the order to drop the second bomb.
"It was a little different then," Sprouse said about the morning Bock's Car took off on the second bombing mission. "We knew what the hell the Enola Gay did, and we knew this was going to be just as bad, if not worse."
Sweeney's target was Kokura, but the city was obscured by clouds, so Nagasaki was bombed instead. The extra flight time used more fuel, and Bock's Car barely made it back to Okinawa.
Sprouse said Truman ordered two of the 509th's B-29s back to the United States to retrieve a third atom bomb, but Japan surrendered before the crews could return to Tinian.
"We applauded because we were all glad we could go home," Sprouse said about the news of the surrender on the radio.
But the men of the 509th would not be leaving for home just yet. The squadrons had to stay until November to act as a "deterrent force," Sprouse said. The 509th then was sent to its new home in Roswell, N.M. Sprouse served for 30 years, eventually becoming a flight-crew member with 1,300 hours in B-29s. He and his wife, Peggy, moved to Escondido in 1973, and he was general manager of the Escondido Swap Meet for 25 years.
Debates about the use of the atom bomb against Japan have continued for 60 years, but Sprouse said he has no second thoughts.
"I'd do it again," he said. "I've got a lot of buddies who came up to me at reunions and said, 'I was on a ship in a harbor, waiting to go over there (Japan). When you fellows dropped those bombs, I got to go home."
Contact staff writer Gary Warth at [email protected]
or (760) 740-5410.