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Public Affairs : World War II vet recalls historic bombing mission

World War II vet recalls historic bombing mission
West Point Museum hosted former Army Air Corps officer, navigator of Necessary Evil

Story and photo by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

On Aug. 6, 1945, Russell Gackenbach, a young second lieutenant and Army Air Corps navigator, witnessed history.

Assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Composite Group, Gackenbach was on board Necessary Evil, the B-29 aircraft providing photographic support while accompanying the Enola Gay during its atomic bombing mission over Hiroshima, Japan.

Gackenbach shared his recollections Oct. 10 at the West Point Museum to a crowd of more than 50 attendees.

Born and raised in Allentown, Pa., and employed as an inspector at Bethlehem Steel, the 20-year-old Gackenbach decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps program hoping to become a pilot. Gackenbach said he “washed out” of the program and was transferred to navigation school at Pan American Airways in Miami Beach, Fla. He earned his navigator wings and commissioned as a second lieutenant in February 1944. His first duty assignment was at Langley Field, Va., with a B-17 crew preparing to head overseas. He soon found himself back in a training environment, this time attending radar school in Boca Raton, Fla. When Gackenbach first laid eyes on the shiny new B-29 bombers arriving at the air base, he immediately knew what was next.

“…we were going to need more training,” he said wistfully.

The squadron trained at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah and Gackenbach described it as vigorous. He remembers meeting their commanding officer who told them they would become an elite outfit for a developing mission which could shorten the war.

“He stressed from that time on we were under tight military security,” Gackenbach said. “There was a big sign there: What you see here, what you hear, when you leave here, let it stay here.”

The unit was allowed 10 days of leave, not out of kindness from their command, but to determine their security risk. Gackenbach said everyone was trailed by military intelligence or another security agency. Later, they were assigned temporary duty in San Antonio for overseas navigation training.

“Fortunately for me and a few of my buddies, we all came out of American Airways and already had the knowledge needed for celestial navigation—that was our specialty,” Gackenbach said.

Much of what they did was shrouded in secrecy and Gackenbach recalled a special meeting where they had to produce identification and empty their pockets before entering a guarded room.

“They showed us maps of Japan and targets,” Gackenbach said. “We were told not to tell the rest of the crew.”

He talked about the training missions using 10,000-pound pumpkin bombs—often filled with high explosives or a combination of sand and concrete. They knew eventually the plane would be carrying a new type of explosive, but didn’t know it was an atomic bomb.

Russell Gackenbach was an Army Air Corps second lieutenant who served as navigator on board the B-29 bomber Necessary Evil during the atomic bombing mission over Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945. Standing next to the atomic bomb casing on display at the West Point Museum, Gackenbach provided insightful recollections of his service during World War II during a lecture Oct. 10 at the Lucas Military Heritage Center.

Necessary Evil was one of two aircraft to accompany the primary bomber, though there were seven B-29s attached to the mission. His own craft remained nameless until a later time and Gackenbach said it was known simply as #91.

“At no time up until now was there any identification on our planes,” Gackenbach said. “Originally, our tails had the symbol of a circle with a forward facing arrow, and even that was taken off our planes.”

Gackenbach detailed the unique specifications of the bomber which contained no weapons systems except for two tail guns so that it could carry five-ton bombs. It also had quick-release bomb bay doors, among other variations.

He remembers a stranger on board Necessary Evil en route to Iwo Jima, dressed in Army gear but not a Soldier. He was a scientist. Gackenbach described the flight over Hiroshima and remembers the radio going dead and then the crew donned protective goggles before the bomb exploded. Then there was a bright flash of light. There’s always a lot of chatter through the aircraft’s microphone, but Gackenbach said after Hiroshima there was none.

“We were all stunned, awestruck and very quiet,” Gackenbach said. “We didn’t realize we helped usher in the atomic age at that time.”

He also spoke about the bombing mission where he served as navigator on the Enola Gay three days after the Hiroshima bombing. The primary target was the city of Kokura, but, as Gackenbach described it, the mission did not go according to the original plan. The order was to drop the bomb on sight, not by radar. The target was clear on board the navigational craft, but by the time the primary bomber arrived it was covered by clouds and smoke and so the target of Nagasaki was chosen.

Gackenbach has no regret or remorse about participating in those missions. After all, it was war, he said, and he believes it has been well-documented that those missions to end the war ultimately saved the Japanese empire.

His talk and the Q&A that followed drew about 50 attendees to the Lucas Military Heritage Center, as part of an ongoing lunchtime lecture series sponsored by the West Point Museum. David Reel, museum director, described this lecture as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, which tied directly into its mission of educating the Corps of Cadets, Soldiers and families stationed at West Point, as well as the greater community surrounding the academy.

To learn more about this series and other happenings at the museum, become a fan on Facebook or call 845-938-3590.

The story of this bombing mission was documented in the 2005 televised program, “Hiroshima: BBC History of World War II” which Gackenbach was interviewed for and is available to Netflix subscribers or available online for free here.