“My God. What have we done?”
--Captain Robert A. Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress, over Hiroshima, Japan, shortly after 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945
William L. “Atomic Bill” Laurence (1888-1977) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer on leave from the New York Times to cover the top secret work of the Manhattan Project. In August of 1945 he traveled to Tinian Island to accompany the crew of the Enola Gay on the world’s first atomic bombing run. But at the last minute the journalist was told that he had been “deleted” from the mission, so he had to think fast and improvise.* Laurence wound up asking the co-pilot of the soon-to-be famous B-29 Superfortress, Robert A. Lewis (1917-1983), to keep a flight log with his impressions of the historic mission. The airman readily agreed and, during the flight, he jotted down his notes in a 9 1/4” x 6” War Department “Line of Position” notebook. His observations from the mission take up eleven pages including the front, back and inside cover of the book.
Upon the Enola Gay’s safe return to the base at Tinian, Lewis was advised during the debriefing to keep his freelance document to himself. But after several days, during which he performed some additional writing (dated August 10, 1945), the officer honored his commitment and loaned the notebook to Laurence. The journalist could not immediately use Lewis’s descriptions due to security restrictions, so he marked the notebook “hold for top secret clearance” and placed it in a safe deposit box. Laurence eventually quoted a portion of the material in his 1946 book Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb. The most famous words from the log that the author chose to excerpt are from the section revealing the co-pilot’s reaction to the explosion: “My God.”
Perhaps because of the patriotic fervor of the immediate post-war era, or due to his own timidity, Laurence omitted Lewis’s dramatic follow-on question: “What have we done?”
At some point, Lewis got his notebook back and, on November 24, 1971, he sold it at auction for $37,000. He was quoted by New York Times reporter Deirdre Carmody at the time as saying that he decided to sell it because “experts in the field have described it as one of the most historical documents of our era, and I don’t know what else to do with it.” The log would be auctioned off two more times in the ensuing years: In 1978 for $85,000 to publisher Malcolm Forbes and in 2002 for $391,000 to an unknown buyer.
The increasingly high value of Lewis’s original document is understandable—It is the only in-flight, first-hand narrative account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.** But why is it that no full transcription or photocopy of the historically significant log exists for scholars to study? CONELRAD has checked with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the National Archives and none of these agencies has a copy. Of all the books that have been written about Hiroshima, it appears that Laurence’s is the only one that quotes directly from the original source. The New York Times also quoted from the notebook at the time of the 1971 auction. The marketing material from Christie’s also quotes directly from the log, though they omit Lewis’s pejorative for the enemy.
In 1988, the Forbes Museum in New York City displayed the log in an exhibition entitled “And If Elected: Two Hundred Years of Presidential Elections: An Exhibition for the 1988 Election Year.” The famous notebook was kept in a small room in the gallery along with Malcolm Forbes’s “most unique and important Presidential acquisitions.” In this space, an interview with Mr. Forbes concerning his collection was played in a videotape loop on a television monitor. That same year, writer Lynne Tillman described the rare experience of seeing Lewis’s notebook in an article published in Art In America magazine:
…Next to President Truman’s famous letter attacking Paul Hume, the music critic who attacked the musicianship of his daughter, Margaret, sits the diary kept by a crew member of the Enola Gay…The positioning is curious, and just as I am staring at the Enola Gay logbook, I hear Malcolm Forbes on the videotape say that he thinks of this diary as “human documentation.” Human documentation of an event inhuman in its effects placed next to Truman’s all-too-human letter defending his daughter. Side by side we share these pieces of evidence—awesome and awful presidential power and a president’s personal tantrum. It’s often said that position is everything in life. In an exhibition position is, if not everything, almost everything; objects very obviously “mean” in relation to what’s around them, how they’re arranged. Is this position a bad joke on the part of the curators? Or a bit of irony?Of course, even during this short-lived exhibit, the log was under glass and visitors could only see—depending on how the document was displayed—one or two pages. As we indicated earlier, the current owner of the notebook is unknown—he or she is not named in the news accounts of the 2002 auction and the Christie’s auction website reveals only the amount paid for the item.
All that we can offer at this point is a transcript of excerpts from Robert Lewis’s log that we have found in previously published sources. Perhaps, someday, the owner of the document, or Lewis’s survivors, will be magnanimous enough to share a transcript with the National Archives. If the Archives has the text of the angry Truman rant referenced by Ms. Tillman, shouldn’t they also have a transcript of the only real-time eyewitness account of the first combat use of the atomic bomb?
Because Lewis was concerned that the log might be confiscated, he addressed it like a letter, “Dear Mom and Dad” and closed it with the words “Love to all Bud.”*** The language of the text is casual, in keeping with that of a typical letter home. The informal writing style is difficult to reconcile with the enormity of what is unfolding, but that is what makes it so interesting. It isn’t just a bloodless military document. Indeed, there is a human being behind these words.
Little Boy [the name of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima] Mission # 1 Briefing at 2400…We started engines at 0227 and taxied out to take off at 0235. Then we got off the ground at exactly 0245…at the last minute before take-off our cruising altitude has been changed…which meant a rougher trip…nothing unusual encountered.
At 0320 Items 1-11 were completed by [Weaponeer and bomb commander] Capt. Parsons.
The fact is 45 minutes out of our base everyone is at work…Colonel Tibbets has been hard at work with the usual tasks that belong to the pilot of a B-29. Captain Van Kirk, navigator, and Sergeant Stiborik, radar operator, are in continuous conversation [on the interphone], as they are shooting bearings on the northern Marianas and making radar wind runs.
At 0420 Dutch Van Kirk sends me word that we will be at Iwo Jima at 0525, so we’ll just have to check on him to see if he is right.
The Colonel, better known as “Old Bull,” shows signs of a tough day, with all he had to do to get this mission off. He is deserving of a few winks, so I’ll have a bite to eat and look after “George” [the automatic pilot].
At 0430 we saw signs of a late moon in the east. I think everyone will feel relieved when we have left our bomb with the Japs and get half way home. Or, better still, all the way home.
The first signs of dawn came to us at 0500, and that also is a nice sight after having spent the previous 30 minutes dodging large cumulus clouds.
It looks at this time (0551) that we will have clear sailing for a long spell. Tom Ferebee has been very quiet and methinks he is mentally back in the midwest part of old U.S.A.
It is 0552, it is real light outside, and we are only a few miles from Iwo Jima. We are beginning to climb to a new altitude, at which, we will remain until we are about one hour away from the Empire.
After leaving Iwo we began to pick up some low strata and before very long we were flying on top of an undercast. At 0710 the undercast began to break up just a little, but outside of a high thin cirrus and the low stuff, it is a very beautiful day. We are now about two hours from Bombs Away.
At 0730 Captain Parsons has put the final touches on his assembly job. We are now loaded. The bomb is now alive and it is a funny feeling knowing it’s right in back of you. Knock wood.
We started our climb to 30,000 feet at 0740. Well, folks, it won’t be long now.
We have now set the automatic pilot for the last time until Bombs Away. I have checked with all concerned and all stations report satisfactorily.
We have reached proper altitude and at 0830 Dick Nelson (Radio operator, of Los Angeles, California) received a report from the weather plane (that left an hour before us) that our primary is the best target, so, with everything going well so far, we will make a bomb run on Hiroshima right now, as we are now only 25 miles from the Empire, and everyone has a big hopeful look on his face.
It is 0850. Not long now folks.
As we are approaching our primary, Ferebee, Van Kirk and Stibork are coming into their own while the Colonel and I are standing by and are giving the boys what they want.
There’ll be a short intermission while we bomb our target…
A brief blow-by-blow description of the bomb run:
We turned off our I.P. and had about a four-minute run on a perfectly open target. Tom Ferebee synchronized on his brief A.P. [Aiming Point] and let go.
For the next minute no one knew what would happen. The bombardier and the right seat jockey or pilot both forgot to put on their dark glasses and therefore witnessed the flash. Then in about 15 seconds after the flash, there were two very distinct slaps, then that was all the physical effect that we felt.
We then turned the ship so we could observe results and there in front of our eyes was without a doubt the greatest explosion man has ever witnessed.
The city was 50 per cent covered with smoke and a large column of white cloud which in less than three minutes reached 30,000 feet and then went at least 50,000 feet.
I am certain the entire crew felt this experience was more than any one human had ever thought possible. It just seemed impossible to comprehend.
Just how many Japs did we kill? I honestly have the feeling or groping for words to explain this or I might say my God, what have we done?
If I live a hundred years, I’ll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind…
Everyone on the ship is actually dumbstruck even though we had expected something fierce. It was the actual sight that we saw that caused the crew to feel they were part of Buck Rodgers 25th century warriors.
It is worth noting here that Lewis’s written words were, quite understandably, more thoughtful than his immediate spoken reaction to the sight of the rapidly climbing mushroom cloud. According to several crew members he exclaimed, “My God, look at that son-of-a-bitch go!” [See P. 326, “Enola Gay” by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts and page four of Jacob Beser’s oral history].[he can still see the massive cloud from the bomb]…even after an hour and a half, 4,000 miles from the target.
Lewis was so impressed by the cloud (who wouldn’t be) that he made a sketch of it that adorns the back cover of the notebook. He labeled it with the local Tinian time (0930—approximately 15 minutes after detonation) and signed it.
The above quoted log text was derived from the following three sources:
Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb by William L. Laurence [New York: Knopf, first published 1946 and reprinted in 1947, 1950 and 1953], pp. 220-221.
Deidre Carmody, “A-Bomber’s Notebook Sold,” The Corpus Christi (Texas) Times, via the New York Times News Service, November 24, 1971.
Christie’s Lot 172 / Sale 1032 Description from website accessed September 9, 2010.
Editorial Disclaimer: Without access to the original document or a certified photocopy of the original document, it is impossible to know with 100% certainty what liberties the authors of the foregoing reference materials may have taken in transcribing portions of Robert Lewis’s log. Among the three sources, there are minor differences in quotations. That being said, the above consolidated excerpt represents the most complete version of the Enola Gay Flight Log publicly available.
For more on Robert A. Lewis see: Hiroshima: This Is Your Life.
* Laurence was permitted to fly on the August 9, 1945 Nagasaki bombing mission.
** There was also a navigator’s log, but this consisted mainly of numeric tracking of the flight’s course and speed with a few terse notations such as “Bomb Away 091515” [the local Tinian time was an hour ahead of Hiroshima local time]. A wire recording of the crew’s immediate impressions of the bomb was also made, but it was taken into custody after the plane returned to Tinian and seemingly disappeared. According to the 509th Bomb Group commander, Paul W. Tibbets: “It has never been heard of since.” [Source: Page 228 of “The Tibbets Story,” by Paul W. Tibbets with Clair Stebbins and Harry Franken, New York: Stein and Day, 1978].
*** Lewis’s superior, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, claims in his 1978 autobiography that he gave permission to his co-pilot to keep the “unofficial log” for William L. Laurence. On page 214 of his book, Tibbets recalls noticing Lewis “jotting down occasional notes” in a “small notebook.” Tibbets goes on to write that he did not “learn of its contents” until he read Laurence’s book.
Images of the Enola Gay Flight Log are from the Christie’s website.