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"We Were a Flying Bomb"

South-sider Fred Olivi recalls the day he flew to Nagasaki.

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By Susan DeGrane

"I didn't want to give my address and phone to people in the 60s, when the hippies were around," said Fred Olivi, a 79-year-old resident of the south-side Mount Greenwood neighborhood. "I received threatening letters and nasty phone calls. People were calling me a murderer, asking why we did what we did."

The retired air force lieutenant colonel was talking to an audience of about 50 gathered in the auditorium of the Washington & Jane Smith Home, a senior citizens' residence in Beverly. World War II vets in tweed jackets and suit coats and elderly women with plucked and penciled eyebrows had come to hear Olivi talk about his self-published book, Decision at Nagasaki: The Mission That Almost Failed—and about his experience as a copilot on the Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

Even before he published his book in 1999, Olivi frequently gave talks about his military past for community organizations and schools. His appearance at the Smith Home was organized by the Ridge Historical Society, and like his usual presentations it included a 20-minute video of the loading of both atomic bombs onto the planes that dropped them.

On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy on Hiroshima, killing 150,000. Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that hit Nagasaki, was a more powerful device than Little Boy. But due to weather conditions in Nagasaki and its mountainous terrain, which blocked the blast, Fat Man killed fewer people. The exact number of deaths is unknown; published estimates range from 28,000 to 80,000. A memorial at the site is dedicated to 73,884 killed and 74,909 injured. Then there are the many who died years later of radiation poisoning.

"People have asked me how I feel about the mission, if I have any guilt for those who died," Olivi told his audience. "I say, 'Absolutely not.' What we did saved thousands of lives. The U.S. was planning an invasion of Japan on the order of Normandy. We would have experienced casualties of over a million. That many Japanese may have died too.

"A lot of the kids you see alive today wouldn't be here if their grandfathers had been killed. So you see, a lot of good things came from the bombs."

Olivi's references to the Japanese have mellowed over the years. Hours after the mission, he wrote in his diary: "I've never seen anything like it! Biggest explosion I've ever seen. Those poor Japs. But they asked for it." For this talk, however, his word choices were more neutral, with more respectful references to "the Japanese" and "Japanese people."

Olivi's diary became an official military record. Later he tape-recorded additional recollections, and eventually he put them into book form with the help of his wife, Carole McVey Olivi, who served as proofreader and grammarian (and who has since died). William R. Watson Jr., a retired advertising copywriter, transcribed and edited the manuscript. Olivi has sold all but 400 copies of the 5,500 he printed.

He wanted to publish his personal account partly to preserve history, but partly for other reasons. "Over the years there were rumors that the guys who flew the plane had all cracked up," he told the audience. "We didn't. We were fine. I wanted to set the record straight."

In his book Olivi details growing up in Pullman, the child of Italian immigrants who operated a restaurant in the basement of their home. He speaks highly of his education at Pullman Technical High School. He also explains his preparation for the mission.

Olivi was already trained to command a B-24 bomber when he was chosen by the Army Air Corps for B-29 training. Like the 12 other Bockscar crew members, he was told only that he was being trained for a secret mission, and he was given the chance to decline the assignment "with no questions asked," he said. "We were all volunteers. That's the way it had to be. We were trained and not one of us refused."

The crew was assigned to Tinian Island, then the largest military air base in the world, home to the Army Air Corps' 509th Composite Group, which dropped both atomic bombs. Tinian Island was three miles from Saipan in the Mariana Islands chain.

Olivi's summary of Mission 16 for the Ridge Historical Society group followed the basic facts of his book. Departure: 3:48 AM, August 9, 1945. Round-trip flying distance: nearly 3,000 miles. Flying time: 17 hours. Time of actual bombing: 11:02 AM. Five feet in diameter and ten feet long, the bomb "was an ugly mustard yellow," said Olivi. "I know because we wrote our names on it." At 23, Olivi was the youngest member of the crew.

"Taking off," he said, "we knew we carried enough explosive power to blow up the entire island, the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT." Tinian Island is 42 square miles, about twice the size of Manhattan. "We didn't even use the word 'atomic' because so little was known about it," Olivi told his listeners. "We called it the gadget, the gimmick. . . . To me it was mind-boggling to think this could blow up an entire city."

The bomb weighed five tons, and the plane was heavy with gas, in all 7,250 gallons. Olivi heard a loud bang during takeoff. "I thought we blew a tire right underneath the cockpit, but [Major Charles] Sweeney and [Captain Charles] Albury [the commander and another copilot] didn't hear it." The primary target was supposed to be Kokura, a weapons manufacturing center on Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. That's where the crew was headed when thunderstorms caused the plane to ride "like a roller coaster." They took the Bockscar up to 17,000 feet to clear the storm clouds.

It was during this wild part of the mission that Olivi, one of three pilots, surveyed the plane and realized the weaponeers had activated the proximity fuse on the bomb that made it live, able to detonate below 5,000 feet. "We were a flying bomb," Olivi told the audience, echoing the words in his book.

Twenty minutes after takeoff they discovered another problem with Fat Man: a rapidly blinking red light warned that two switches had been reversed, and that the weaponeers had less than one minute to change them before the bomb detonated. It was close, but they did it.

The Bockscar had used up extra fuel climbing to avoid the storm, and it burned up more in a rendezvous with two other planes, one carrying photo equipment and a New York Times reporter, the other carrying scientific instruments. After circling for 45 minutes waiting for the plane with the instruments, the Bockscar finally went on to its primary target.

At Kokura, clouds and smoke from incendiary bombs obscured visibility completely. The bombardier had specific orders to drop only when he could see the target, and after three unsuccessful runs, using up even more gas, the plane went on to its secondary target: Nagasaki. Fuel levels were already low, and a trip to Nagasaki meant the plane would not make it back to Tinian. They'd have to land at the air base at Okinawa.

Over Nagasaki, clouds again compromised visibility, but the crew couldn't delay because of the plane's dwindling fuel supplies. At 28,500 feet, 1,000 feet below the optimum drop level, bombardier Kermit Beahan was forced to act. "I don't know why I made a note of the altitude, but I did," Olivi said. "A normal bomb run took anywhere from three to five minutes; this guy did it in 45 seconds that day."

Fat Man was so heavy that "the plane actually jumped when the bomb was released." Though wearing welders' goggles, crew members were momentarily blinded by a white blue flash that lit up the inside of the Bockscar. The pilot made a tricky 155-degree turn to avoid the mushroom cloud, and three shock waves hit the plane. "They shook us pretty badly, but it didn't knock me over," he says. The mushroom cloud rose like a pillar, black on the surface with a "salmon pink" boiling underneath, Olivi said. "I'll never forget the color."

Approaching Okinawa, "we radioed the control tower four times of our low-fuel situation," Olivi said, "but several other planes were lined up to land." Getting no response, the crew radioed once more with a Mayday signal. The plane hit the runway at 150 miles an hour, and the only thing that prevented it from sliding off the end of the landing strip and into the ocean was its ability to reverse its engines. "This was a special feature, so that it could back up over the bays used for loading the atomic bombs," Olivi said. One of the plane's gas-starved engines conked just as the plane came to a stop on the runway. Only seven gallons remained in one of the tanks.

The plane's landing attracted a lot of attention, but Sweeney instructed the crew to keep quiet about the mission. While the Bockscar was being refueled and Olivi and the others were eating lunch, they heard their first bit of gossip when an Okinawa-based pilot in the chow line announced that he'd heard a second bomb had been dropped. The man bragged that the bomb was the size of a baseball, and that it was dropped by a P-38 fighter from Okinawa.

Several days after bombing Nagasaki, Olivi and the crew were sent up again, this time to drop a conventional bomb over Koromo. This one was filled with Torpex, an explosive used in torpedoes. "No one wanted to go back up," Olivi said. "We wanted the war to be over." On August 15, within hours of the crew's return from the Koromo assignment, they got the news that the war had ended.

In Pullman, neighbors were telling Olivi's mother she would probably get to meet the president. "That never happened, because this was far too controversial," Olivi said. But the Bockscar's crew members received distinguished flying crosses.

Olivi sold 41 books to the crowd gathered at the Washington & Jane Smith Home, taking time to write personal notes on the inside cover. His customers included both fellow veterans and young history buffs like Eric Lager of Orland Park, a student at Moraine Valley College.

"It upsets me to think that people protested," Lager said, referring to the crank calls Olivi received. "They were objecting to the bomb in general, but for him to have to explain himself is wrong."

"These guys are heroes," said Bill Knorr, a member of the Greater Legion Post of Pullman, who spent two years in Okinawa with the navy. "I don't care what anybody says. If it weren't for them, we'd all be speaking Japanese."

Olivi stayed on as a pilot with the Army Air Corps until 1947, when he was assigned to intelligence work. When he realized he would no longer fly, he asked to be discharged and opted for reserve status. Three years later he joined the bridge division of Chicago's Public Works Department as a draftsman, and eventually became manager of bridge operations. He married his high school sweetheart in 1965.

The Bockscar crew has had several reunions over the years, though only four of the original 13 are alive. Olivi plans to attend a reunion this summer at Wendover Air Base in Utah, where he and the others trained to fly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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