Retired Navy Vice Adm. Frederick L. "Dick" Ashworth, who served as the weaponeer on the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, hastening the end of World War II, has died. He was 93.
Ashworth, who lived in Santa Fe, N.M., died Dec. 3 during heart surgery in Phoenix, said family spokesman Glen Smith.
Ashworth was an accomplished naval aviator before he was ordered to join the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. He had served as commanding officer of an aircraft torpedo squadron in the Solomon Islands and as staff aviation officer of the Central Pacific Amphibious Force.
Ashworth was deputy commander and operations officer of the Manhattan Project, which was overseen by Army Gen. Leslie R. Groves.
"Gen. Groves insisted on having someone in that airplane who had a technical background on the bomb, what it was supposed to do, what it was like when you were trying to monitor the various components of the bomb while in flight. And make decisions, more importantly," Ashworth told a Los Alamos Historical Society audience in August, the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Ashworth, who was involved in developing the detonation components of the two atomic bombs, trained at a remote base in Utah and on Oahu with the B-29 crews that would drop them on Japan. He also recommended the western Pacific island of Tinian as their base and was operations officer for the final testing and assembly of the bomb components on Tinian.
The first of the two atomic bombs, code-named "Little Boy," was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Before dawn on Aug. 9, Ashworth and 12 other B-29 crew members took off from Tinian to drop the second bomb.
"The White House wanted very much to try to drop the two bombs that we knew we had in order to remove any thoughts Japan might have that if we only drop one, it might be the only one," Ashworth told an audience at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2004.
As the weaponeer on the flight, Ashworth was in charge of the plutonium bomb, code-named "Fat Man" for its rotund shape, and was responsible for arming it.
"We flew to a rendezvous point, where we'd meet two other airplanes, one with instruments to measure the blast and another holding observers," Ashworth recalled in a Time magazine article in August. "The observer plane didn't show up. We circled, and after about 35 minutes I said to Sweeney, 'Damn it, proceed to the first target.' "
Their primary target was Kokura, site of a large army arsenal, but clouds prevented them from finding their target.
So the pilot, Maj. Charles W. Sweeney, turned the B-29 toward an alternative target: Nagasaki, a major supply port for Japanese military and naval operations and a key shipbuilding and repair center.
Although a report had indicated that the skies above Nagasaki were clear, the city also was obscured by clouds.
Having used up almost an hour's worth of fuel at the rendezvous point, Ashworth told Time, "I went up to Sweeney and said, 'We're going to be able to make one run on this target -- if we're lucky.' I told him to be prepared to use radar. This was in contradiction with orders we'd received that prohibited us from bombing without a visual target sight."
They were making their approach on radar and preparing to drop "Fat Man" when Capt. Kermit Beahan, the bombardier, cried out, "I've got the target" and released the bomb.
"We saw the flash and then the mushroom cloud," Ashworth recalled. "It's pretty spectacular, like a roiling mass of burning smoke and fire. The colors varied between salmon and pink and yellow flame in color."
Casualty estimates vary widely, but the "Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II" says the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki resulted in 23,753 known dead and 23,345 injured. Survivors have called the blast "the nearest thing to doomsday."
With not enough fuel to return to their home base, Sweeney diverted the B-29 to Okinawa. While finally heading to Tinian, Ashworth recalled in August, the crew heard a radio report that the Japanese had approached the Swiss to surrender. "That gave us a pretty good inkling that maybe, by golly, the war might be over," he said.
On Aug. 15, Japan surrendered unconditionally.
Looking back, Ashworth told Time, "I think that what we did was entirely the thing we had to do under the circumstances. It was a major contribution to the end of the war, and I was fortunate to have participated in it."
For his work on the Manhattan Project, Ashworth received the Legion of Merit in 1946.
At the end of Ashworth's appearance at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2004, an unidentified laboratory employee rose to pass on a message from his father, who had fought in the war.
As reported in the Albuquerque Journal, the lab employee said his father had survived the Bataan Death March and was a forced laborer in a Japanese coal mine when he heard "Fat Man" detonate.
"Son," the man said his father told him, "I got to hear the last hostile blast.... Someday I'd like to thank that man" for helping to free thousands of soldiers in Japanese captivity. The lab employee said his father died before getting the chance. "As my father's personal representative," he said, "I'd like to thank you."
Ashworth was born in Beverly, Mass., in 1912 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933. Among his postwar assignments were serving as the first executive secretary of the Military Liaison Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and duty in the commission's Division of Military Applications.
After being promoted to vice admiral in 1966, he assumed command of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. He retired from the Navy in 1968.
Ashworth, whose first wife, Natalie, died in 1997, is survived by his second wife, Ercie; sons Frederick Jr., David and Stephen; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.