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Obituaries

Charles Sweeney, 84; Pilot Who Dropped A-Bomb on Nagasaki

July 19, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Charles W. Sweeney, a retired Air Force major general who was the only pilot to observe from the cockpit both nuclear blasts that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought World War II to an end, has died. He was 84.

Sweeney died of unspecified causes Thursday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He lived in nearby Milton, Mass.

The future general was a 25-year-old major when he piloted the borrowed B-29 bomber nicknamed Bock's Car that dropped a plutonium bomb dubbed "Fat Man" on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

Three days earlier, he had watched the Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, drop a smaller uranium bomb called "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people. Sweeney was flying his own B-29, the Great Artiste, 30 feet off Tibbets' wingtip, and dropped blast-gauge instruments by parachute.

When Japan failed to surrender by nightfall of that fateful Aug. 6, Tibbets told Sweeney he would be flying the second atomic bombing run. It would be the first bomb Sweeney ever dropped on an enemy target.

Although "Fat Man" was the U.S.' second and only remaining operable atomic bomb, authorities hoped by a second attack to force Japan into thinking it had a vast stockpile and hasten surrender.

About 70,000 people were killed in the explosion of Sweeney's plutonium bomb. Six days after Sweeney's mission, Emperor Hirohito gave up, ending the war.

An outspoken defender of the bombings, Sweeney appeared on television, at universities and before Congress, and wrote a 1997 book, "War's End: An Eyewitness Account of America's Last Atomic Mission."

The book, written with James and Marion Antonucci, who produced a documentary about his mission, and his speeches were designed to counter what Sweeney considered "cockamamie theories" that the bombings were unnecessary.

The renewed debate was sparked by a controversial Smithsonian Institution exhibit planned for the 50th anniversary of the bombings. Veterans' protests, including Sweeney's, forced changes in the exhibit, which originally stressed the suffering of the Japanese and questioned the necessity of the nuclear bombing.

"I looked upon it as a duty. I just wanted the war to be over, so we could get back home to our loved ones," Sweeney told the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., in 1995. "I hope my missions were the last ones of their kind that will ever be flown."

Bock's Car, now on display at the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio, is not as well-known as Tibbets' Enola Gay. But its mission was more harrowing for the crew. Sweeney's flight had fuel problems from the start, and clouds and smoke were covering the mission's primary target, the industrial city of Kokura.

After making several dangerous passes over Kokura, Sweeney abandoned the primary target for Nagasaki. That secondary target also was overcast, and only a break in the clouds allowed the bomb to be dropped.

"Suddenly the entire horizon burst into a super-brilliant white with an intense flash -- more intense than Hiroshima," Sweeney said in his book. "The light was blinding."

Relieved of the 5-ton bomb, the lighter Bock's Car with its 12-man crew still had too little fuel to return to its starting base on Tinian Island. Sweeney pointed the B-29 toward Okinawa, which the United States had wrested from Japan only a month earlier.

Shooting off flares to signal an emergency landing, the pilot lost two engines on the way down but landed safely with hardly enough fuel for one more minute of flight.

Sweeney's co-pilot on the historic mission, Fred Olivi, who died April 8 in Chicago, had joined Sweeney in defending their bombing of the Japanese city, commenting in 1995: "While thousands died, I feel sure the bomb had to be dropped because, if the Americans had been forced to invade Japan, it would have been a bloodbath."

In 2001, when Sweeney lunched with a couple of fellow veterans and took in the Disney film "Pearl Harbor," he told the Boston Globe that he was aware of strong criticism of America's decision to use the atomic bomb.

"I've never had a man who was in combat ever say that to me," he added. "I've had thousands of letters saying thank you."

As for the movie, starring Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, Sweeney said that he was "no judge" of its artistic merits but that he was glad to see the public reminded of a fading piece of history.

A plumber's son from Quincy, Mass., Sweeney envisioned a business career. But he developed a passion for flying at a local airfield and became an Army Air Forces cadet. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was playing golf at Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, where he was stationed. Informed of the bombing, he said, "Nah, you're crazy."

But he was soon reassigned to become a test pilot of developing war planes and talked his way into working with Tibbets. Once the B-29 was built as the first bomber big enough to carry the nuclear bomb, they had to figure out how to deliver the bomb and drop it without blowing up the plane that carried it.

"As much as I respected and trusted the scientists," Sweeney wrote in his book, "a voice in the deep recesses of my mind reminded me that ultimately, it was the weapon we would carry that was important to the scientists, not our safety. They wanted the bomb to work.... Success for them didn't necessarily mean our survival."

Sweeney achieved the rank of brigadier general in 1956, at the time the youngest man in the Air Force to reach that rank. He retired in 1976.

As a resident of Milton, Mass., he married, brought up 10 children and was the grandfather of 23. After leaving the military, he worked as a leather broker, selling leather to New England shoe companies.

Sweeney held on to his tenuous niche in history until his death. "As the man who commanded the last atomic mission," he had said in the 1997 book, "I pray that I retain that singular distinction."

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