The Manhattan Project

Bob Caron's Tape to Joe Papalia

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Bob Caron was the tail gunner on the Enola Gay on the mission that dropped the Little Boy bomb on Hiroshima. When Caron agreed to join Col. Paul Tibbets on this secret mission, he did not know until the Enola Gay was in the air that the mission was to drop the world’s first atomic bomb. In this recorded message to his friend, Joseph Papalia, Bob Caron discusses the personalities of Enola Gay pilots Tibbets and Lewis. He explains the friction that has developed between some of the crew members, their response to the publicity of the flight, and their involvement in docudramas and books about the mission. Finally, Caron remembers one small contribution he made to the mechanics of the B-29s, and why the 509th Composite Group spent so much time testing B-29 planes.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
July 2, 1981
Location of the Interview: 
Denver
Transcript: 

Bob Caron: Oh, now for comments on Bob Lewis. I do not know what the hell to say about that, Joe. Bob calls me fairly frequently on his WATS [Wide Area Telephone Service] line, and I kind of feel like I am in the middle of something. He is very bitter, and very bitter towards [Paul] Tibbets. How justified it is I am just not sure. I do not know really the whole story. Bob is very emphatic when he tells his side of the story. When I mention some things, he just tells me, “Oh, you are too damn naïve.” Well, I know I am. Always have been. I have known them both, flew with them both, for many years.

As far as I know, they got along fine. When I served under Tibbets, I always referred to him as “The best Joe in the Air Force,” and to me, he was. He was a very quiet individual, I thought. Very friendly, and would always help the guy out that gave him a good day’s work. I was one of the few that did. I believe I gave Tibbets a good honest day’s work. We used to fly that damn XB [B-29s] and some of the early YBs [B-29s] all day long and work on them all night. I think I did a good job for him because I feel I knew my business and I did a good job, I think. Tibbets was always fair to any of us that turned out some work for him. We had some goof-offs in our little group, and he got rid of them pretty damn fast. He was a very quiet individual, very firm and, I feel, very competent.

Bob was co-pilot with him and then became pilot, as the group got bigger on the test flights. Bob was a very extroverted type of fellow, very loud when he spoke. Sometimes very brash, I thought, and so did some of the other enlisted men. At times he was not the most popular one of the officers among the enlisted men, but I think it was mainly his attitude. He was one hell of a good pilot. Never had any worry flying with him. I felt that him and Tibbets got along.

Bob always has said more recently that it was after the war that Tibbets really changed. I have not seen Tibbets since 1950. I was in Washington on business and paid him a visit, and he took me to dinner at the Pentagon. He seemed the same quiet self. He hated every minute in the Pentagon because he liked to be out on the line flying airplanes, and he was flying a desk. Since then, I have only talked to him on the phone.

He came to Denver one time and was here for a week for a convention. He had written me in advance and said we were going to get together. He had managed to squeeze some time in to see me for a little get-together and have a drink. Well, he was in for a whole week and I never got to see him. I called him a few times and he always had some excuse about being busy. Last time, I told him, I said, “I will even drive you to the airport when you are catching your plane just to see you for a few minutes.” He was just too busy. I felt kind of bad about that.

On the phone talking to him, I sense a change. He talks very loud now and seems to me to be very extroverted. I just sense a change in his attitude. Bob feels that since the war is over, well, I mean since he is out of the service now, that he did get shoveled around in the service, sort of stuck in a corner. I guess maybe the good old U.S. of A., we were not their most popular crew or that was not the most popular mission. At the time, though, it seemed to be.

I believe Bob mentions something of the fact that now that Tibbets is out, he wants to try and reap some rewards. I think maybe he resents the way Tibbets is going about it, I do not know. He said it all boils down, or at least starts, with a story in Saturday Evening Post, where Tibbets tried to grab a lot of credit and did not give enough recognition to the rest of the crew. I do not remember. I did have a copy of that Saturday Evening Post, and that son of a bitching limey author never sent it back to me. I lent him some stuff, and that was one of the things I never got back from him. Those guys just used us, I think. As soon as the book came out, then they dropped us like a hot potato. But I remember when Gordon Thomas [co-author of Enola Gay: Mission to Hiroshima] was here and spent a couple, three days here in Denver with me. The last thing he said to me, he just put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, “Bob, this time we are going to see that the enlisted men get something out of this,” or words to that effect. Well, that is where it stopped, I guess.

Bob has also said on the phone, he said when we were together with Tibbets and his test crew, he used to room with him, and he said he was the greatest guy in the world. It seemed to be that after the war was over and just after that article, I guess, which was a good twenty years ago, if I remember right, maybe longer, that is when he claims Tibbets has changed.

I like them both. As I say, I feel like I am in the middle of something, and it is kind of an uncomfortable feeling, too. I really do not know whose side to take, if I can ever take a side. I do not know. I do not know what is going to come of it.

Bob is very bitter. Some of it may have to do with the way Tibbets took over the crew. You see, we went over as Bob Lewis’s crew. I seem to remember that Tibbets was not, as group commander, was not allowed to have his own crew. My understanding, and I do not remember the details, were that when a big one came up, if it came up, that Tibbets would be the airplane commander, that we were his crew because Bob and [Wyatt E.] Duzenbury and I flew with Tibbets on a test crew. As far as the bombardier and navigator, I did not know them too well. They flew with Tibbets. They were on his crew in Europe on B-17s.

So a short time before the mission, when we were getting ready for it and crew assignments, it did not surprise me. Bob, I think, was kind of bitter about it, because our regular bombardier and navigator were dropped, and co-pilot, Bob’s co-pilot, was dropped off the crew. Then Bob moved over to the co-pilot’s seat. Then, of course, [Thomas] Ferebee and [Dutch] Van Kirk came in as bombardier and navigator. I sense Bob resented that. We flew with Bob on our other missions. He was our aircraft commander and he always thought of us as his crew. I thought of it that way also on regular missions, but it did not surprise me when Tibbets took that mission. I feel that was his prerogative, to take that mission. It was his responsibility.

I always remember incidents when we were in training in Wendover [Airfield]. I am looking at it in retrospect. Tibbets must have had an awful lot on his mind. He must have really been carrying an awful load. He always had time for a friendly hello, or you could stop him and talk to him for a few minutes.

I went to his house a few times. I managed to finagle a little apartment off the base, right up from where he lived. It was [inaudible]. Some cement block blockhouses they had built. I worked a deal with one of the other enlisted men, where I moved ahead of a ten-year list of officers that were waiting for apartments. Tibbets grabbed me one day and wanted to know how the hell I worked that deal. I said, “Colonel, us enlisted men stick together too once in a while.” He sort of laughed. But other times I stopped by his house, and if I had some kind of a question or a problem, he always had time for us. It was always very friendly. Looking back on it, I appreciate the fact that he did, because he must have really been carrying an awful load.

I do not know if Bob ever had occasion to talk to him like that or noticed it, but I sure did. Even overseas when I would see him in the area. I know I went up to the headquarters a couple of times with a couple of questions. He always had time to see me, even though he was busy. Always very friendly to the old bunch.

But as I say, just talking to him on the phone, I just sense a change. And then also it still hurts for the fact that he could not have spared a few minutes to see me when he was in Denver for a week. I was going down to the hotel to try and get him after one of the meetings. But then I said, “If he wanted to see me bad enough, he would have asked me to come down to the hotel and spend five minutes with him.” 

I know Bob has no friendly feeling for the two British authors of that book. They did not treat him too kindly in there. I understand in the TV movie that he was portrayed as kind of a real loud character.

Dick Nelson, you know, the radioman, was in town, oh about a month and a half ago before I went on vacation. He makes it to Denver twice a year and always takes me out to supper. We shoot the breeze up in his hotel room afterwards or he comes out to the house. This last trip, he told me that he was invited to the preview of that TV show. I guess it was a preview they had for the television writers. So his daughters were all excited about going because they were going to meet all the actors from the show. Junior said he and his wife, they got all dolled up and went to the show. They saw the preview and there was a cocktail party. He said Tibbets was there. Tibbets showed up. He did not know Tibbets too well. Junior was one of the last guys to join the crew at Wendover. Him and Joe Stiborik were new to the crew, and Bob Shumard. They did not know Tibbets too well, like Duze [Wyatt E. Duzenbury] and I did.

But anyway, Tibbets asked Dick how he liked the show. Dick says, “I thought it was lousy.”

He said, “How come they could not have portrayed the enlisted men? Or had a little mention of the enlisted men, or a little credit for the enlisted men?” Just about ignored – I guess I was the only one whose name was mentioned. I do not know. That is what I have been told.

Tibbets looked at him and he said, “I thought it was a pretty good show.” As far as portraying the other members of the crew, he says, “That is just the way it is.” He said he turned around and walked away and did not speak to him for the rest of the evening. I do not know. Tibbets was not anxious to – it is possible any money paid to him might have been, had to have been shared with the rest of the crew. I do not know.

I did get a letter from Jake Beser. I guess he had quite a part in it, and he told me that he did not get a dime. It is just that the company allowed him time off to go and meet with the producers and talk with the guy that was playing his part. But he said he did not get a dime out of it.

Bob Lewis got some. He never said how much. He is sorry he signed the release now. He felt it was not enough. So maybe they were just trying to get away as cheap as they could. Bob said when he was out there talking to the producers, they arranged it so he went out at a different time than Tibbets. He asked the producer, he said, “Are the enlisted men going to receive any compensation for this?” 

The producer says, “No, we do not have to.” What they are doing was called a docudrama and as a historical name, they did not have to be reimbursed to have their name used. They did not intend to. As I think I mentioned in the letter, the enlisted men never even had the courtesy of a letter from them. Junior—Dick Nelson, we always called him “Junior”—at least got an invite to the cocktail party, but that is about all.

The only time I ever really had any close talk with Jake Beser was here in Denver. Back a few years ago, he was passing through Denver on a business trip, and he had a layover and he called me from the airport. I went out and picked him up and we just took a little drive and talked. I never really knew the fellow too well. We correspond once in a while and he is always very friendly to me in those letters. I have gathered that he—at least I just sense that he sort of plays any publicity to the hilt. I know Gordon Thomas told me that he spent an awful lot of time with him, and he said Jake just took up an awful lot of time and had an awful lot of stuff to talk about. So maybe that is how he got such a big part. I do not know.

I gather Bob is going to try and write some kind of a story or a book. He asked me if I would contribute a few anecdotes to it, and I really have not had a chance to. There is a few that I thought I would put down on tape for him. Little recollections, not so much—I do not want to get into that mission deal. But I have an awful lot of anecdotes related to our testing of the XB-29 and the YB-29s – some of the humorous aspects, some of the hairy aspects, and some of the pain in the ass aspects. I told Bob if I ever got a chance, I would sort of set down and put them down, which I will do. I do not know when.

But I gather he is trying to write something. I do not know if it will ever sell. Maybe kind of controversial. The way I feel about it, I kind of think he ought to just let it die. He is so worried about the truth and the history. I think some of the things that he wants to be told more truthfully are kind of minor points that history does not give a damn about. Maybe I am just not aware of the full picture.

 In your letter you ask me about that book Enola Gay and how much is bullshit. I had no need to know a lot of the details. Bob claims some of the stuff they put in are all wrong. I found some things or knew of some things that were chronologically off. And there was a lot of little details that I do not recall as being too accurate. But they are kind of minor, I think. Luckily, they treated me kindly in the book, because I would have felt bad if they did not. I do not think I had anything that could have said against me. But some of the details that I noticed were wrong I do not think were really too critical. Bob seems to think they were. And as I say, there is an awful lot of things that I just never knew about. Us enlisted men had no need to know.

There is one thing Bob harps on a lot. I can understand why he does, and I do not understand why Tibbets or any of the stories ignore it. That is, all the time we spent as a test crew on the XB-29 and the YB-29s. Tibbets just skipped over that whole part in his book. I do not know why. Every story that comes out seems to ignore that phase. Tibbets evidently does not want it known. It is a very interesting time, I think, and a very important time because we really worked our asses off on testing those airplanes out and getting the bugs out of it. I know we put an awful lot of flying time in and an awful lot of hard work nights, so we could get the airplane ready for the next day.

I know one little contribution I made. I remember it very vividly. An upper turret was always getting a jam in the link chute. There is one chute for the shell casing to drop out and another one for the links to drop out. Well, the design of the chute in this General Electric turret did not work. The links would pile up and as soon as they reached up near the gun way, “Wham!” You would have a jam. The whole schmear would jam up. So I designed a new link chute and had them built up at the sub-depot at the sheet metal shop. I made some drawings, got the parts made, tried them out, made some improvements. Had some more parts made, and I believe that was the chute that finally ended up in the airplane. If it was not mine, it was somebody else’s that was an improvement.

It was an important time period in the development of B-29. It had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. I found it a very interesting period of time, even though I worked hard. I found it very interesting. I just loved flying that big ass bird. Whenever I did not have too much to do, Bob or Tibbets would let me ride the nose. I used to love to ride in the nose of that airplane. I mainly flew the waist. I only moved into the tail when I got into the 509th and we got stripped-down airplanes. My classification was the senior gunner up in the top. All these tests, I never cared too much for riding the tail. It was too far back, too lonely and too shaky. But I ended up back there. 

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