‘Bomb-Away’: The Enola Gay’s Navigation Log Sold at Auction
As he stepped from the Enola Gay into the Tinian sunshine on August 6, 1945, Capt. Theodore Van Kirk felt he had just completed the perfect mission. “Everything went exactly the way it was supposed to, and we were all in a state of euphoria,” the flight’s navigator, now eighty-six, told World War II. After 1,200 miles of navigating over water, the Enola Gay had dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima only fifteen seconds behind schedule. A phalanx of high-ranking generals waited for the crew on the tarmac. After four years of war, there was victory in the air. “The briefing,” chuckles Van Kirk, “was more of a bull session than a debriefing.”
Following protocol, Van Kirk, known as “Dutch” to his friends, handed his navigation log—a minute-by-minute record of the mission—to Capt. Hazen Payett, the flight’s intelligence officer. Payett glanced at the notations— including the moment, at 9:15 that morning Tinian time, when Van Kirk recorded the birth of the atomic age with the words, “Bomb-Away”—and filed the log in the official record.
For the next four decades, Van Kirk’s record of the beginning of the end of World War II seemed to disappear from the public record. Historians weren’t quite sure what had happened to the book; some of the mission’s documents had been thrown out, and it wasn’t clear if the log had even made it off Tinian. Then, in 1990, Christie’s auction house announced plans to auction off the log, which it had received from the widow of Robert Lewis, the Enola Gay’s copilot. But just before the auction was held, Christie’s received a call from Van Kirk. “I said, ‘You’re advertising that you have the navigator’s log for sale, and I’m wondering how that is,’” he remembers, “‘Because I have it in my possession, and I was the navigator on the Enola Gay.’”
In October, “Dutch” Van Kirk’s log finally did sell at auction—at the Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, for $358,500—and the tale of its whereabouts all these years and its mysterious duplicate finally was told.
The morning after the mission, Van Kirk awoke with a pang of regret about the log. “The more I thought about it,” he remembers, “the more I thought, hey, that [log] could be valuable to somebody, and if to nobody else, it would be valuable to me.” He tracked down Payett to make his case. “I said I’d like to have my log back; I want to keep it,” Van Kirk says. “He says ‘Dutch, I can’t do that, I need it for our official records.’ I said, ‘Haze, you don’t need that log for your official records. You need a log.’” Payett asked him what he meant. “I said, ‘I’ll make you an exact copy of it.’”
Van Kirk jokes now that there weren’t any Xerox machines on Tinian in 1945, and there weren’t any secretaries. But what there was, when he wasn’t flying, was time. So he sat down at a desk and made an exact copy of his original log. He neglected a few details here and there— he didn’t include the scribbles in the margins he’d made during the flight trying to sharpen his pencil—but he did copy all of the notes he’d made, including “BombAway.” Payett took the copy, and Van Kirk kept the original, putting it in his briefcase. He suspects that copilot Lewis, who died in 1983, later came across the copy in a trash bin and rescued it.
The original log spent the next forty years in acid-free paper, in a dark envelope, “in a box full of junk,” says Van Kirk. Only in the mid-1980s, when a TV crew asked to go through his World War II memorabilia, did Van Kirk rediscover the book and move it into a safe-deposit box. When the other version came up for auction in 1990, Christie’s compared it with Van Kirk’s and, unable to verify they had the original, canceled the auction.
In 2002, Van Kirk decided the time had come to let go of the log. “These things should be kept and maintained,” he says. “They have to be properly cared for, and I had absolutely no plan to do anything with it.” He asked his four children if they wanted the log, and all said no. He thought briefly about giving it to the Smithsonian, but after the crew’s dustup with the museum during the controversial Enola Gay exhibit in 1995, he rejected the idea. (“I wouldn’t give them a pencil,” he says.) He was momentarily stymied by a lawsuit filed by the U.S. government, which claimed the log was its property. The suit was thrown out by a judge in federal court, and this year, Van Kirk decided to try again.
Selling the log had its financial advantages, of course, but Van Kirk’s primary motivation was to make it available for posterity, “so young people could see it and understand what the Enola Gay did and why,” he says. The log was purchased by a longtime collector of historical items who chose to remain anonymous, and who may display the log with the rest of his collection at some point in the future, a Heritage spokesman said.
‘Nuisance Diplomat’ Peter Bergson Gains Recognition
Two things shocked Peter Bergson about the article he read in the Washington Post on November 25, 1942. First was its contents: under the headline, “Half of Jews Ordered Slain, Poles Report,” the story cited sources within the Polish government who confirmed that the Nazis had killed 250,000 Polish Jews and intended to exterminate half of Poland’s Jewish population by the end of the year. But Bergson, a young Jewish Palestinian who had moved to the United States in 1940, was just as shocked by the article’s location: one of the first reports of the Holocaust ran on page six.
Bergson’s outraged response has been largely overlooked in popular history. The activist, then thirty-two, had come to America to create a Jewish army, but confronted with the scope of Hitler’s genocidal intentions, his priorities changed. Instead, he and a group of friends began to push the United States government to do something—anything— to save Europe’s Jews.
The Bergson Group, as it came to be called, was unapologetically provocative: raising money, organizing huge rallies, and taking out full-page advertisements in major American newspapers demanding government action. (Their first effort, in response to Romania’s offer to send its Jews west if the Allies would pay for them, was an ad that read: “For Sale to Humanity 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece.”) Eventually, the group grew to more than 125,000 members. In 1943, it reached its high-water mark, bringing resolutions to the House and Senate asking the president to organize a rescue commission. Before Congress could act, President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in January 1944, a government agency that was ultimately responsible for saving about 200,000 Jews.
After the war, Bergson— whose activism earned him the nickname “the nuisance diplomat” in Washington— faded into obscurity. “Most of what Americans know about our country’s response to the Holocaust is that the Jews in Europe were abandoned,” Rafael Medoff, director of the Washington-based Wyman Institute, recently told the Washington Post. “There were some Americans who did speak out, and it is important that their work be highlighted.” Responding to a petition signed by more than a hundred scholars and Jewish leaders, including Elie Wiesel, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recently agreed to include the Bergson Group in its permanent exhibition. The new exhibit will be complete in spring 2008.
Okinawans Protest Schoolbook Revisions Downplaying Army Role in Suicides
More than one hundred thousand protestors rallied in Okinawa in September, furious over proposed revisions to Japanese high school textbooks that would eliminate references to the Japanese military ordering mass suicides of civilians there during World War II. Similar attempts by the Japanese government in recent years to delete mention of Japanese army atrocities such as the massacres in Nanjing and the sexual slavery of Korean women set off angry protests across Asia, but this was the first time the issue has triggered such a protest within Japan itself. It was the largest protest seen in Okinawa in the thirty-five years since the island was returned to Japanese rule by the United States in 1972.
In ordering the revisions last spring, the government’s Ministry of Education asserted that accounts of Okinawan villagers being told by Imperial Army soldiers to lay down their lives “for the sake of the emperor” during the American invasion of the island in March 1945 were “historically debatable.” Although the textbook changes amount to only a few words, Okinawans were incensed because the new wording suggested that the civilians had simply decided to commit mass suicide on their own. The issue is particularly sensitive on Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom until the late nineteenth century with a language and culture distinct from Japan proper. During the war Okinawans were viewed by Tokyo as potentially disloyal, and the military particularly disdained the idea of protecting Okinawan civilians.
There is no serious historical dispute that the Japanese army expelled the island’s residents from shelters and used them as human shields during the Battle of Okinawa. Roughly one-fourth of the island’s four hundred thousand civilians were killed in the brutal fighting. Many aging Okinawans have recently come forward to affirm accounts of being ordered by Japanese soldiers to commit suicide as the American forces advanced. “Please have the good grace to kill yourself to avoid being caught,” one women recalled being told. In some villages, the military handed out grenades to civilians, telling them American troops would rape all of the women on the island and torture and kill the men. Civilians were told to throw one grenade at the Americans and kill themselves with the other. When many of the grenades didn’t explode, some men, mad with fear, killed their own families by beating them to death with tree branches.
“We cannot bury the fact that the Japanese military was involved in the mass suicide,” the island’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, told crowds at the protest. In the villages on the island where there were no Japanese soldiers, there do not seem to have been mass suicides.
Although the Education Ministry insists that textbooks are not influenced by politics, the Japanese government recently passed a law emphasizing “patriotism” in schools. Shinzo Abe, the country’s most outspoken nationalist politician since World War II, recently stepped down in part because of the controversies ignited when he appeared to back away from Japan’s acknowledgment of its war crime record. The new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, said he will try to seek a compromise on the textbooks. They are scheduled to be introduced in classrooms in April.
Cooperating with War Criminals Doesn’t Pay, New Study Reveals
The U.S. government knowingly protected Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II so they could work for American military and intelligence operations— but, with a few exceptions, had very little to show for their efforts. So says the final report of the largest government declassification effort since World War II, an eight-year project, created by two pieces of legislation in 1999, that declassified and opened to the public some 8 million pages of documents—including 1.2 million pages of OSS records and 300,000 pages of Army intelligence files— relating to Axis war criminals during World War II.
The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, made up of a collection of high-level government officials and historians, has been stymied in the last few years by the CIA’s reluctance to declassify some of its files. The total cost of the project eventually soared to $30 million. Still, its unprecedented efforts may be worth the price. The Interagency Working Group, as it is called, has not only combed through and organized millions of once-secret records, it has also published a book, U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis, on its findings, and created several new, publicly accessible databases on high-interest subjects like Unit 731, the notorious Japanese army unit which carried out biological warfare experiments and attacks during the war.
It is the group’s conclusions about postwar efforts to protect Nazi government officials that have been most disturbing, though. In spite of the broad scope of the American spy program—thousands of former members of the SS and SD were recruited to work for the Allies, in spite of their involvement in war crimes—the IWG’s conclusion is stark: “It is not clear that Nazis provided us with any useful intelligence, and we know that in some cases, at least, they were a serious detriment to us,” said Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic congresswoman from New York who served on the committee. German agents with dark pasts were often blackmailed and turned by the Soviets, or simply offered bad information. The most notorious example was Hans Felfe, a former SS officer recruited to direct West Germany’s counterintelligence operation, who was unmasked in the early 1960s as a Soviet agent. According to recently declassified records, the CIA estimated that as many as fifteen thousand secret projects were either blown or compromised by Felfe alone.
French Resistance Fighter and Famous Mime Drew Inspiration from World War II
Marcel Marceau, who gave his first public show as a mime in front of a group of three thousand American soldiers at the end of World War II, died in September at age eighty-four.
Widely considered the first modern mime, he is best known for the white-faced character he created, Bip the Clown. Less well known is that Marceau’s wartime experiences were apparently the inspiration for his art. He was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, in 1923 to Jewish parents, and was still a young man when the Germans invaded in 1940. His family, like many refugees, fled ahead of the advancing army, resettling in Limoges. Marceau changed his surname to disguise his Jewish background, and he and his brother Alain joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces, helping to hide Jewish children from the Gestapo and Vichy government. Because he spoke English, Marceau later served as a liaison officer with Gen. George S. Patton’s army.
In 1944, his father, a butcher, was deported to Auschwitz and was never heard from again. The experience forever changed Marceau, and the specter of the camps always hung over his work. “The people who escaped the concentration camps could not talk about them,” Marceau said. “They didn’t know what to say. I have Jewish origins—perhaps that counted in the choice of silence, subconsciously.”
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.