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Controversy surrounding the conduct of the Nagasaki mission.

Historian John Coster-Mullen, author of "Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man," contacted me in late August 2006 to compliment me on my documentary, "Nagasaki: The Commander's Voice." He also had some interesting information about the late Charles Sweeney, commander of the mission, who apparently was not held in very high regard by some of his comrades at the 509th Composite Group, mostly due to the content and tone of Sweeney's book, War's End, published in 1997.
 
Here is a little of what Coster-Mullen had to say in the end notes of his own book, which he forwarded to me:
 
However, the 1997 publication of Sweeney’s popular book stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of criticism resulting in several personal confrontations between some members of the 509th and Sweeney.  It almost seems as if Sweeney had dropped Fat Man on the 509th instead of Japan.  Some of the 509th have even suggested the book more properly belonged in the fiction category.  A good-natured, affable character, Sweeney laughed off such criticism.  On 10/29/97, Ashworth wrote a three-page letter to Sweeney’s editor at Avon Books detailing numerous mistakes.  Ferebee, Olivi, and others also made comments regarding inaccuracies.  Enola Gay navigator Dutch Van Kirk told the author in an interview on 10/4/02 that all of the things mentioned in Sweeney’s book probably happened to the 509, but that not all of them happened to Sweeney.  He added, “Historically, it’s a bunch of crap!”  The errors range all the way from simply misspelling Bockscar throughout the entire book (a common error that Tibbets repeated in his autobiography) to outright falsification.  For example, on pp. 115-116, Sweeney vividly described piloting a B-29 pumpkin test flight that went awry with Tom Ferebee acting as bombardier.  In a 7/11/98 interview with the author, Ferebee explained the actual pilot of that test was Stan Shields and that Sweeney was not even in the plane, let alone flying it.  During the Saturday afternoon briefing on Tinian, before the Hiroshima mission, the crews were supposed to view movie footage of the Trinity test.  Previously published accounts of this briefing have all described, sometimes humorously, how the projector malfunctioned and the footage could not be shown.  Still photos were shown instead.  At the 1997 509th reunion, those present during the large group question and answer session were asked if anyone remembered seeing this footage.  The collective answer was negative, yet in War’s End (p. 153), Sweeney described viewing this footage during the briefing.  Ben Jordan organized Flight Engineer training for the 315th Bomb Wing.  He also was Staff Flight Engineer for General Curtis LeMay on Guam.  As part of a scathing critique of Sweeney’s book supplied to the author, he wrote on 8/9/98 that “Sweeney documents so many of his violations of Air Force Regulations and so much stupidity as to justify his and Tibbets’ recall to active duty to face court martial.”  After publicly holding his tongue since the end of the war, Tibbets’ response to Sweeney’s book was especially severe.  In a 7/11/98 interview with the author, Tom Ferebee told the author Tibbets got through the first 60 pages of the book and was too disgusted to go any further.  Ferebee was also present during a car ride in Wendover with Sweeney and Tibbets when “Paul turned around and let him have it” for a full half-hour.  Ferebee added, “He just sat there and took it.”  Partly due to the release of Sweeney’s book, Tibbets reissued his autobiography in 1998, adding a new section on the Nagasaki mission.  He bluntly criticized both Ashworth’s and Sweeney’s actions and added that, after Bockscar’s return to Tinian, he was considering “if any action should be taken against the airplane commander, Charles Sweeney, for failure to command.”  He added that General LeMay later decided any investigation would serve no useful purpose.  Sweeney died on 7/16/04.  In a 7/26/04 interview with the author, Tibbets stated that you can never tell in advance how someone will act under fire.  When asked, in hindsight, if he would pick Sweeney again for the mission.  He snapped, “No!  Absolutely not!  I should have chosen Marquardt since George was a good pilot, he had a good crew, he had been shot at, and nobody could BS him.”  In an 8/14/04 speech at the USAF Museum, Tibbets stated, “That airplane flew around for an hour and a half without anyone commanding it.”  He added, “I didn’t have that much to do with Sweeney [after Nagasaki] because he was the only bad mark on the whole 509th all the time it existed.”
Yikes. I didn't know what to say, really. I had spent an hour and a half with General Sweeney over lunch in 2002, where I recorded the interview that I used as the basis of my documentary. We discussed operational and technical matters, mostly. I had no interest at the time in 509th unit history or what the members thought of one another.
 
Coster-Mullen also sent me copies of some speeches he gave recently about the atomic bombings. Of particular interest is "Fat Man," which he gave as a keynote address on Tinian on August 9, 2005:
 

Click here for PDF.

 
He also added a copy of a memo by a General Farrell outlining who is in charge of what activity in atomic bomb operations as evidence that there was some confusion about this during the conduct of the Nagasaki mission:
 

Who_s_in_charge_1.jpg
General Farrell Memo Page 1

Who_s_in_charge_2.jpg
General Farrell Memo Page 2

 
After reading Coster-Mullen's account assembled from witness interviews and his own research, and the Farrell memo, I responded thus:
 
I have to say, that the Sweeney-Nagasaki controversy strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. Having studied military history, I have learned the following:
 
1. Murphy was an optimist.
2. No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
3. Military men criticize each other relentlessly. Particularly if there is credit or honors to be shared. Particularly after the passage of many decades.
 
I don't see much evidence of Sweeney's so-called failure to command. I see a relative lack of operational experience and an aircraft-weapon combination that was not yet mature as a strike system. This seems to be the gist of General Farrell's memo.
 
Whatever disagreements or criticisms exist over the conduct of the mission, Sweeney tried to follow his orders with regard to the rendezvous point and attacking the primary target of Kokura through visual bombing, in both cases fuel permitting. When pressed, he attacked the secondary target of Nagasaki as expeditiously as possible, and successfully brought his aircraft back to Okinawa.

I don't have a dog in this fight. Although I was provided with a copy, I didn't even read War's End. I'm not so interested in personal memoirs, because I find that they will [usually] involve faulty memories, sometimes active imaginations, and nearly always self-serving points of view. While it is interesting to deconstruct complex missions, especially when they carry great historical importance, I try not to get too excited about who criticizes whom.
 
To which Coster-Mullen responded:

I agree with your 3 points about military history.  However, at the time, this was certainly not a tempest in a teapot.  I’ve included a few more parts from my endnotes and some of these [points were included in the Tinian speech].  Tibbets was very specific in telling Sweeney before takeoff not to wait more than 15 minutes at the rendezvous and Sweeney did not follow Tibbets orders at the rendezvous.  He did however, do a good job at Kokura and Nagasaki...
 
Sweeney knew about the fuel situation, yet he waited far too long for Hopkins and the weather had a chance to deteriorate at both Kokura and Nagasaki.  If he had previous combat experience he would have known what to do and how long to wait.  Because of the fuel, there was a point-of-no-return.  As Tibbets rightly pointed out to me, Sweeney put people’s lives at risk through his inaction.

So there you have it. A little controversy to ponder. Or a big one, depending on your point of view. I'm still of the opinion that if you dissect any military operation, even highly successful ones, you will find mistakes, lapses in judgment, blunders, and dumb luck. As the years pass, add backbiting, jealousy, and recriminations.
 
In other words, SNAFU. Medals all around...
 
I have not interviewed many of the principals of the atomic bombing missions as Coster-Mullen has, nor have I done nearly as much original research into the Manhattan Project and the operations of the 509th Composite Group. Still, I remain of the opinion that a mission successfully concluded with all hands safely returned is worth something.
 
Please have a look at John Coster-Mullen's thoroughly researched and well-reviewed book.
 
You may also be interested in some of his other recent speeches he has given on the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan and the end of the Pacific War:
 
* "Enough!" Presented at the USAF Museum at Dayton Ohio (home of Bockscar), April 14, 2004.

Click here for PDF.

* "Fat Man Loading Pit Wreath-Laying Ceremony," Tinian, August 9, 2005

Click here for PDF.

* Letter to the "Saipan Tribune," August 30, 2005.

Click here for PDF.

 
My thanks, John, for your permission to post this material, as well as your efforts to bring history to light.