CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – Seventy years ago today the world entered the Atomic Age. A B-29 Superfortress bomber called Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In an instant, that bomb killed 70,000 people.
After that, World War II quickly came to an end. But the Enola Gay was not the only plane over Japan that day. Of the 33 men aboard three different planes, only one is still alive: 91-year-old Russell Gackenbach of Clearwater. “Didn’t mean that much to me at the time. It took several years after the fact to realize that we entered the Atomic Age,” Gackenbach told News Channel 8.
Gackenbach’s story began in his native Pennsylvania, where he was a bomb casing inspector for Bethlehem Steel. He was given the choice to remain on the home front or join the Army Air Corps. “I was always looking at the planes when they went by,” Gackenbach said.
After training in South Florida and Cuba, Gackenbach was sent to Utah, where he was assigned to Colonel Paul Tibbets’ bomb group. “He told us that a new bomb was under development. If successful, it would shorten the war,” he said.
Security was tight. The unit transferred to the airbase on the tiny island of Tinian, where Gackenbach flew his first missions against Japan. On the morning of the mission to accompany the Enola Gay, he still didn’t know the assignment was to drop the first atomic bomb.
“After the bomb dropped, we saw the explosion. This was a bright light, vanished. I went to, got off the flight deck, went down to my station, grabbed my camera, and took two shots out of the navigator’s window,” Gackenbach said. “When that explosive went off, you knew it was something new. But I did not hear the word atomic until Monday morning.”
He is still proud to be one of the men who brought the Atomic Age. “It hasn’t affected me, and I have no regrets. I just hope we never drop nuclear weapons again,” he said.
Three days later, Gackenbach flew over the city of Kokura in support of dropping the second atomic bomb. But, bad weather there forced the mission to switch to Nagasaki. That brought an end to the war.