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The Enola Gay at the National Air & Space Museum
by Paul Straney and Robert Sacchi

Page 1

On June 28, 1995, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum opened its Enola Gay exhibit. (1) The Enola Gay is the airplane that dropped the first of two atomic bombs ever used in anger. (2) The interest in the exhibit is so great the Smithsonian ticket controlled the exhibit. The museum plans to keep the exhibit opened until March 1997.


The B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had the name "Enola Gay" painted on it's nose. The pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, had the name painted on as a tribute to his mother (Enola Gay was her maiden name.) The 'streaky' appearance of the letters is due to the haste with which they were applied; the name was added the night before the mission against Hiroshima was flown.

Visitors first enter a roped off area where they can watch a video. Some of the surviving crew members share their thoughts and recollections on the video. (3) The late George "Bob" Caron, the Enola Gay's tail gunner, is one of the crew members on the video. He took the picture of the Hiroshima bomb's mushroom cloud. Bob Caron died on June 3 at age 75.

Next the visitors follow a line that takes them around a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat. The US Navy credits the Hellcat with 5,156 air to air kills for only 270 losses. This is more than any other US Navy aircraft. A video shows combat footage of World War II in the Pacific.

Just before entering the exhibit proper the visitors see I. Michael Heyman's explanation for canceling the previous exhibit, The Last Act, in favor of the present exhibit. The Enola Gay's tail is the first part of the aircraft the visitors see. The next room contains the Enola Gay's forward fuselage, a propeller, and two engines. Beneath the forward fuselage is an atomic bomb casing identical to the casing that housed the "Little Boy" bomb. The Enola Gay's radar antenna, bomb site and other parts are strewn about the exhibit. Another video tells how the Smithsonian restored the Enola Gay. A vandalism incident forced the museum to install Plexiglas over some photographs and artifacts. There is a collage of US newspaper front pages dated the day after the bombing. The exhibit has a theater where visitors can see the same video they watched in the holding area. Before visitors leave they can write their comments on cards.

Aviation buffs may find the exhibit interesting. The exhibit adds little to the average museum patron's understanding of the events surrounding the atomic bombings. At the exhibit's media preview on 27 June Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman said:

"I thought very seriously about putting more pictures that would show that (The atomic bombings') devastation. I decided to leave it more to the imagination."

The Smithsonian spent over $450,000 (4) and has only a shadow of an exhibit to show for it. The United States missed an excellent chance to show over a million people the atomic bombings' full story. (5)


A replica of the atomic bomb, known as "Little Boy", that was dropped on Hiroshima. It is housed in a display cabinet next to the Enola Gay.

The Last Act was a comprehensive exhibit. The Last Act's initial script clearly lacked balance. A Smithsonian internal reviewing group called the "Tiger Team" admitted this. Many viewed The Last Act as part of a continuing effort to disparage America's past. AIR FORCE Magazine (6) Editor in Chief, Mr. John T. Correll (7), explained:

"This had been coming on for years. They had been pointing this way with the statements that they have made."

Museum critics frequently cite The National Museum of American History's exhibit A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution as an example of a Smithsonian campaign to disparage America's past. Mr. Herman S. Wolk, an Air Force Historian, pointed out; "Two hundred years of the American Constitution and the lead focus was on the (Japanese) internment." Critics also believe the National Air and Space Museum's World War I exhibit, Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air, is inappropriate for an aerospace museum. The World War I exhibit has a section that resembles a World War I trench. It has some gory pictures and a diorama of a soldier hanging on barbed wire. The museum says the exhibit "compares popular perceptions of World War I aviation with the war's harsh reality." (8) Mr. Correll called this exhibit, "A strident attack on airpower in World War I."(9)

Veteran's groups, notably the Air Force Association and the American Legion, initially pressured the Air and Space Museum to make a balanced exhibit. The museum staff made a number of major revisions. The museum staff could not escape the mistrust they caused with their early scripts. The American Legion eventually formed a tenuous working relationship with the Air & Space Museum. The relationship ended abruptly when Museum Director Dr. Martin Harwit changed Operation Downfall's casualty estimates. (10) Stanford University professor, Barton Bernstein, told Dr. Harwit the 250,000 casualty estimate mentioned in the museum's script was too high. Mr. Bernstein said 63,000 was a more appropriate figure. The American Legion considered this change a breach of faith. On 18 January The Legion called for The Last Act's cancellation. Other groups and lawmakers, including President Clinton, followed suit. Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman canceled The Last Act on 30 January. Soon after the cancellation Dr. Harwit resigned.


A display of newspaper headlines reporting the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is part of the Enola Gay exhibit.

President Clinton summed up the feelings of many exhibit opponents. At his April 18, 1995, news conference he said:

I do not believe that on the (50th anniversary) celebration of the end of the war, and the service and sacrifice of our people, that that is the appropriate time to be asking about or launching a major reexamination of that issue.

Air Force Historian Dr. Richard Hallion, (11) an exhibit opponent, indirectly gave an excellent reason why the Smithsonian should reexamine these issues:

The anniversary is a kind of an artificial construct. What happens is it gives you a data point where interest leaps up, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th. It is kind of artificial but it acts almost like a piston engine, a power stroke for remembering history.

-- -- --

    1 Then Colonel Paul W. Tibbets named the B-29 Superfortress, tail number 44-86292, after his mother. He commanded the aircraft on the atomic bombing mission that devastated Hiroshima.

    2 An aircraft named Bockscar dropped the second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Bockscar, tail number 44-27297, is on display in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

    3 All the Enola Gay's crew members survived the war. Some have died in the 50 years since the war ended.

    4 This does not include money spent to restore the Enola Gay

    6 AIR FORCE Magazine, is published by the Air Force Association.

    7 The Air Force Association gave Mr. Correll and the Air Force Association's Enola Gay Action Team the Gill Robb Wilson Award for the most outstanding contributions in the field of Arts and Letters.

    8 National Air and Space Museum Fact Sheet, June 1995, Office of Public Affairs, Smithsonian Institution.

    9 AIR FORCE Magazine, War Stories at Air and Space, by John T. Correll, April 1994.

    10 Operation Downfall was the code name for the planned Japanese invasion.

    11 Dr. Hallion is an Air Force Historian, however his views are his own and do not express the views of the US Air Force. The Department of Defense has no opinion on the exhibit.

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      Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1996