Don Alfred, 86, of Tyler, was a B-29 navigator for the Army Air Corps in World War II when he was ordered to provide rescue support for the 1945 atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima, Japan.
“The trip was made for the ground crew, so they would know what they contributed to,” he said. “We were to take them up, fly at a low level and show them Hiroshima, and we did. It was just gray looking. … We leveled just about everything that was there.”
Alfred served in the 6th Bomb Group, crew No. 4018, in a B-29.
“I was the youngest on the crew, I was just 19,” he said. “We were as close as brothers, maybe closer.”
Because of the experimental nature in the early stages of the aircraft’s production, Alfred said he knew problems could arise at any time, so he stayed deeply focused on his duties.
“Just thinking about the size of the B-29 was scary enough, much less thinking about being shot at,” he said, noting the wing span holding four prop engines measured more than 150 feet. “I was a navigator. I had to watch those instruments.”
Alfred experienced hair-raising experiences in the B-29, ranging from a forced landing in a blizzard because of electrical problems to a near crash into the ocean due to instrument failure.
But it was the B-29’s role in an Aug. 6, 1945, mission to bomb Hiroshima that history recalls.
Alfred’s job that day was to direct the plane to a designated location and then wait, prepared to act if another bomber encountered trouble and needed assistance.
Alfred said he and the other crew members were unaware one of the six planes participating in their mission, the Enola Gay, had been modified.
Pilot Paul W. Tibbets had named the craft after his mother.
Guns on the Enola Gay had been removed to create additional cargo area, Alfred said, and the identifying tail marker was altered to resemble the other aircraft in the group, records show.
“They (military) changed it (marker) to be the same as ours, a circle R,” he said.
As the planes headed toward Japan, Alfred said he and his crew never suspected the Enola Gay was carrying a secret cargo, an atomic bomb weighing almost 10,000 pounds, code named “Little Boy.”
The Dearly Beloved was among the support aircraft that stayed off the Japan shoreline as Tibbets headed inland, toward Hiroshima.
After releasing the bomb, Tibbets quickly turned the Enola Gay away from the area and rushed to regroup with the rest of the 6th Bomb Group, which returned to Tinian Island.
“They (military) didn’t talk to us about it,” he said. “We didn’t know what happened until later.”
Three days later, a second atomic bomb, code name “Fat Man,” was dropped from B-29 bomber “Bocks Car,” piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney, 393d Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, records show.
“We flew over Hiroshima and gaped at the devastation of war,” Alfred said. “
More than 67 years later, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are recognized as the only wartime use of nuclear weapons to date, records show.
Alfred received credit for 22 bombing missions for his time during the war.
Over the course of his career, he received several awards for valor, including the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross and Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal with two battle stars, to name a few.
He returned to the U.S., where he later married, raised a family and preached the gospel as a Methodist minister.
Alfred said he didn’t make the last reunion of the 6th Bomb Group, but he may attend the next one planned for October in South Carolina. He is one of four of the original 11 member crew still living.
“We were awfully close,” he said. “And still are.”