Hiroshima, Missing the Target
By Bruce Goldfarb
Jacob Beser was a 24-year-old radar specialist aboard the Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945, when it dropped the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, Beser was aboard Bock's Car when "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki. He was the only person who crewed in the attack aircraft of both missions. His responsibility aboard the planes was to monitor the workings of a fuse-device that set off the bomb when radar beams bounced off the ground indicated that the weapon had fallen to a precise altitude for an air burst of maximum destructiveness. In Hiroshima, the altitude was 1,850 feet. His other job on the flight to the targets was to make sure that there were no enemy radars using the same frequency as the fuse -- which could have set off the bomb prematurely.
Little Boy produced an explosion equal to 12,000 tons of TNT and killed 78,150 of Hiroshima's population of 255,000. More than 25,000 people were injured and 13.425 people were never found. In Nagasaki, 35,000 were killed or never found and 40,000 were injured, out of a population of 195,000.
Beser is a native of Baltimore. Prior to enlisting in the Air Force, he studied mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in the area of firing and fusing. After 27 years of service, Beser recently retired from Westinghouse, where most of his work was classified.
This summer Beser plans to return to Japan for the first time since the war, and has been invited to attend memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He lives with Sylvia Beser, his wife of 36 years, in Pikesville, Md., where he is active in Jewish organizations. The Besers have four sons and five grandchildren.
[Jacob Beser died in 1992 at age 71]
Q: Do you often think of August 1945?
A: Yeah, I think of it because people like you and others don't let you forget it. It's not that I care to forget it, but there's always constant reminders.
Q: Before you were aware of what the mission was, you requested a transfer to a combat unit. Were you pretty anxious to fight?
A: I was quite anxious to get into it. I wanted to go to Europe. Classmates were there. I had family in Germany who had been chewed up already.
I went up to Washington to see the adjutant general of the army, who theoretically could send you anywhere you wanted to go. He said, "I don't know why, but even I can't touch you. Your file has been flagged for some reason."
Eventually I got transferred into the [Army Air Corps] 393rd [Heavy Bombardment Squadron, the one assigned to the Manhattan Project]. A month after that, orders came down from Washington freezing all the personnel in the 393rd. Nobody in, nobody out. And they were alerted for a temporary move to Wendover Air Force Base. They said take everything you own with you, which was quite unusual. All your trucks and your organizational equipment.
We were at Wendover a couple of days and we got called together in the base auditorium to meet Paul Tibbets, our new group commander. He said we were going to form a new group, independent, able to operate anywhere in the world, the purpose of which was not to be told to us for a while. Don't ask questions, just trust me. It was secret. And everybody could go home on two weeks leave except Lt. Jacob Beser, please report to my office immediately.
I was ushered into his office with two more army personnel, a naval officer and a civilian, Dr. Al Brode, who had just come off a college campus. A light came on in my head and I said, "Hey, this guy is a big wheel in physics." They wanted to know where I was from, how old I was, where I went to school and what my background and experience had been.
Brode looked me straight in the eye and said, "How do you feel about flying combat?" "I have a pair of wings," I said. "That's what I was trained for. What's the problem?" He said, "Well, this job we want you to do, itís not that we don't have people that can do it in our organization but they're too valuable to risk." I could see my life expectancy going down, my insurance rates going up.
I was excused from the room and about 10 minutes later invited back and everybody shook my hand and congratulated me. I'd been hired. What for? Nobody was saying, but I was now part of the crowd. I didn't know what I was part of.
Several days later we were told to be on the flight line at 7 the next morning and be packed for three or four days travel. I said, "Where are we going?" "You'll find out when we get there." That's interesting. "And do I take warm clothes or summer clothes or what?" "Take 'em both." They wouldn't give me the slightest clue.
I crawled in the airplane. I didn't know the rest of these fellows too well. But I did know the pilot and I said, "Arthur, where are we going?" He said, "I don't know but when we get near we'll find out. All I know is I filed a clearance for a place called Y. The letter Y. I've never been there before."
Q: And that turned out to be Los Alamos?
A: Yeah. I was escorted there by Col. Tibbets and Navy Capt. Richard Ashworth. We went right to the office of Dr. Norman Ramsey, who was a young PhD from Columbia University. He ran the fusing and firing section.
Q: Nobody ever said atomic in that briefing?
A: No, no. No way. They just told me "a weapon." Ramsey said that they wanted this weapon to burst over the ground at a precise altitude and they had been working on the problem but they weren't nearly as far along as they should be.
We would have lunch at the lodge and there were names like Nils Bohr bandied around, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe. It all began to add up. Then in conversations with Ramsey one day he pretty much filled me in without ever saying words like atomic bomb. He talked about fundamental forces of the universe. He hit all around it, and it spelled mother.
Q: You were the only crew member who was on both missions. On the second mission, you were already a veteran.
A: Yeah. But sometimes I wish I hadn't been, the things that went on on the second. The second mission was not nearly as smooth as the first. The first one was textbook. The second mission, the weather forecast was a bust to start with so one of the aircraft missed a rendezvous point. He was up in the air up there tooling around but he never found us right away.
Q: And the second bomb was wide of its mark.
A: The first one missed its mark too, you know.
Q: Just by a few hundred feet.
A. Well, it missed. I mean people tell us how hot we were, we dropped 'em in practice better than that. But it's academic how many you kill whether you missed by 500 feet or not.
But the second one, there is a story around that we had 600 gallons of gas in the bomb bay that couldn't be touched because the pump [for the auxiliary tank] malfunctioned. Our primary target based on weather reconnaissance was Kokura. We got over Kokura and it was all smoked and hazed in. They had bombed Yawata two nights before and it was still burning. Kokura was downwind of that. So we tool around there for an hour, burn 900 gallons of gas, and now we don't have enough to get back because we can't touch this [tank]. We hadn't dropped the weapon yet and the Japanese were getting curious and coming up to take a look at us. A decision was made to get the hell out of here.
We were going to go to Nagasaki and I told Ashworth if we wanted I could ride a scope in the back there and bring him right dead over the center of Nagasaki. If he would tell me what part of town he wanted hit I could do it. I saw no reason to abort the mission, dump it in the ocean. What the hell, that's ridiculous. So we decided to go on down to Nagasaki.
The rest of the world was keeping the Japanese pretty busy that morning. There were B-24s from Okinawa bombing and there were P-47 beating up the railroads and there were naval aircraft all over the place. It was a flying circus. We get down close to Nagasaki and it's still socked in just like the reconnaissance aircraft told us it was. So we started a radar run. The last 10 or 15 seconds of the run a hole opened up in the clouds and Behan (the bombardier] said "I got it, I got it, I got it," and he dropped visually.
The only trouble was he had a hole about one-millionth the size he really needed to tell what he was bombing. He had something in his the crosshairs of his sight that he thought was his briefed aiming point. It was three miles to the northwest. Right smack in the middle of this industrial valley was the Mitsubishi plant and the heavy industry. Nagasaki was to be the convincer, the antipersonnel type bombing, and we were going to bomb the residential areas of the city. Well we didn't. We bombed the other end, so the casualty rate wasn't nearly as high.
Q: At Wendover, did you know the weapon would end the war?
A: They told us it would. First thing Tibbets told us: If what we are going to be trained to do works, it will tremendously shorten the war.
Q: You've worked for the military nearly your whole adult life. Do you consider yourself a hawk?
A: You have to define a hawk. I don't know. Am I a warmonger? No. I'm scared. I don't like getting shot at. I don't want my children and my grandchildren shot at.
Q: Do you think the world is safer now than it was in 1945?
A: The only thing good I can say for it is that deterrence has worked. I don't think [there's] any more real peril now than there's ever been. I think the consequences if you ever cross that like are greater.
Q: Did you go to Japan afterward?
A: No. I'm working on that right now. Asahi [a Japanese news agency] has contacted me and they're working on plans for taking me over, 15th of July through the 15th of August or the end of August. Speak to Japanese business people ans also, I hope, to participate in these Hiroshima and Nagasaki ceremonies.
In 1980, I entertained the head of the Hiroshima Survivors Association. He's also president of Sanyo Corporation, a big conglomerate like GE in Japan. He has invited us to come over also.
Q: How often do the people from the 393rd get together?
A: About every two years.
Q: A full-blown reunion?
A: Yeah, they're getting tame. A bunch of wheelchair basket cases. The guys are beginning to drop off., too. We don't live forever. I guess we're paying our dues for misspent youth. War is hell, and all those other things, but I wouldn't trade the 4 1/2 years I spent in the service for anything.
Q: Do people in the aerospace industry still think of you as Jacob Beser from the --
A: Sometimes, sometimes.
Q: Does it make you feel uncomfortable?
A: No more than there's a guy who's a golf pro. It's just something that happened in my life. My close associates here in Baltimore at Westinghouse, they think it's great. Every time we get a new customer in, they make sure he knows, especially if he's a blue suiter [a member of the Air Force]. And it bears some weight with the young Air Force people. But you gotta do your job. If you don't do your job, you can take all of that and 50 cents and buy a cup of coffee. You can trade on it after hours, you get kinda close, in a bar, and these guys start telling me their Vietnam war stories and after a while we get to fighting World War II. Veterans are no different. I remember my father and my mother both used to talk about France, the first war. I used to wonder if he'd ever run out of stories. And I guess today people wonder if I'll ever run out of stories.
Q: What was it like when you were on the Enola Gay and the bomb went off?
A: I wasn't watching the radar screen. I had my own instrumentation I was concerned with. I saw the fuse come on after the bomb separated from the aircraft, fixed time delay of about 10 seconds, give it time to clear. I saw the fuse come on to get the whole thing rolling and then the thing disappeared. At the same time it disappeared there was this big flash which illuminated the inside of the airplane. I couldn't wear the goggles like they were supposed to. I was busy analyzing the environment making sure there was nothing [unplanned] happening. I was looking for the presence of signals.
Q: Which could accidentally have set it off?
A: Yeah. When I got to the window two, three minutes later, the cloud was already up there, the mushroom that you see. It was still boiling and changing colors and I looked out and couldn't believe my eyes. It looked like -- you get down here at Ocean City and you get about two feet out in the water and you start stirring up the sand and how it billows? Well, it was like the whole goddamned ground was doing it. And I could see new fires breaking on the periphery all the time. I never saw the cities in either place.
Q: Had they told you about what effects to expect?
A: At the briefing they showed us a picture of the mushroom cloud. They talked about these high yields, you know, high explosive effects, but that's about as far as it could go. There wasn't much they could do.
Q: When people talk to you about the whole experience, what question do they ask you most often?
A: Would you do it again.
Q: Would you do it again?
A: Given the same circumstances in the same kind of context, the answer is yes. However, you have to admit that the circumstances don't exist now. They probably never will again. I have no regrets, no remorse about it. As far as our country was concerned, we were three years downstream in a war, going on four. The world had been at war, really, from the '30s in China, continuously, and millions and millions of people had been killed. Add to that the deliberate killing that went on in Europe, [and] it's kind of ludicrous to say well, geez, look at all those people that were instantly murdered. In November of 1945 there was an invasion of Japan planned. Three million men were gonna be thrown against Japan. There were about three million Japanese digging in for the defense of their homeland, and there was a casualty potential of over a million people. That's what was avoided. If you take the highest figures of casualties of both cities, say, 300,000 combined casualties in Hiroshima [and] Nagasaki, versus a million, I'm sorry to say, it's a good tradeoff. It's a very cold way to look at it, but it's the only way to look at it. Now looking into tomorrow, that's something else again. I don't have any pat answers for that.
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The Washington Post, May 19, 1985
© Copyright 1985, 2007 Bruce Goldfarb. All rights reserved.