The Manhattan Project

Jack Widowsky's Interview

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Jack Widowsky served as the navigator on the B-29 Top Secret at Wendover and Tinian during World War II. He participated in the mission to bomb Hiroshima as the navigator of the Big Stink, which was the backup strike plane on Iwo Jima. He flew as the navigator of the Laggin' Dragon, one of the weather reconnaissance planes, during the mission to Nagasaki. In this interview, he discusses his time in the 509th Composite Group. He begins by narrating his introduction to the 509th after enlisting in the Air Force. He describes the copious travelling he did as he and his crew trained to be a part of the team that would eventually drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two important themes of this interview are the intense security and secrecy the project necessitated, as well as the jovial camaraderie enjoyed by Widowsky and the other members of the 509th.
Date of Interview: 
June 13, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Union
Transcript: 

Alexandra Levy: We are here on June 13th in New Jersey with Jack Widowsky. This is Alex Levy with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. My first question for you, Jack, is to please say your name and to spell it.

Jack Widowsky: My name is Jack Widowsky. J-A-C-K, which is easy, but the last name is W-I-D-O-W-S-K-Y.

Levy: Can you please tell me where you were born and when?

Widowsky: I was born in Newark, New Jersey, on September 10, 1922.

Levy: We’re talking to you today about your experiences in World War II. When World War II began, where were you at the time? Were you a student somewhere?

Widowsky: No. I was working at the time, for Westinghouse Meter Division in Newark. I was calibrating meters.

Levy: How did you get that job?

Widowsky: Well, when I finished high school, I knew that I would probably be going in the service pretty soon, so I didn’t want to continue with my education. I really don’t recall how I got it. I might have gotten it through a newspaper—no, no I remember now. I had a friend who was working there and he suggested I come there. I applied and I got the job.

I worked the night shift from 12:00 midnight to 8:00 in the morning. So my day was topsy-turvy. I ate breakfast at dinnertime, and dinner at breakfast time.

Levy: And you had grown up in Newark as well?

Widowsky: That’s right. I was born and raised and educated in Newark.

Levy: Do you remember when World War II began?

Widowsky: I certainly do. I do, to the day.

Levy: Can you tell us what you remember?

Widowsky: I remember when it happened. I knew at my age that, not only that I would be drafted, but I didn’t want to wait until I was drafted, so I enlisted. I wanted to go in the Air Corps. If you were drafted, you never knew where they would place you.

Levy: Do you remember when you enlisted? Was it in 1941?

Widowsky: No, I was sworn in the Air Force on October 22nd, 1942, and I was called to active duty on January 30th, 1943.

The first place I went to—and people don’t believe me, but it’s true—was Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Air Force took over all the hotels there, and they had a basic training in Atlantic City. I pounded those boardwalks and did calisthenics on the sand on the beach for, I think, about two and a half months.

From there, I was sent to Nashville, Tennessee. It was a classification center. There they gave us a series of tests and interviews to see whether we qualified as a pilot, navigator, or bombardier, and I qualified as a navigator. That was my first choice. From there, I was sent to Monroe, Louisiana, to navigation school.

Levy: Why did you want to become a navigator?

Widowsky: I just felt that I could do a good job at that, better than the other. I wasn’t interested in being a bombardier or a pilot. That was my first choice.

From there, I finished school, I think it was nine months. I graduated there as a full-fledged aerial navigator and a second lieutenant. As the Air Force and the Army said, then I was an officer and a gentleman; that’s how they put it.

From there, I went to Fort Myers, Florida, to aerial gunnery school, because the navigators manned the upper gun turret on a B-17, and that’s the plane I was going to flying on. From there, I went to Fairmont, Nebraska. I was assigned to a crew, and we went into training in our B-17s.

Incidentally, I just have a comment about our crew. From that first day that we got together, we stayed together until the end of the war. People don’t realize the camaraderie that was there. We ate and we did everything together, every single thing, even [though] some of the men were married. We did everything together. We went into training in Fairmont, Nebraska, and were just about ready to be shipped to Europe, to the 8th Air Force.

One day our squadron, the 393rd Bomb Squadron, received orders to transfer to Wendover, Utah. They didn’t tell us why, what or how or anything, just get there. We wondered why we were being sent there and taken away from the regular squadron.

Everyone managed to get to Wendover, and we were there about a day or so, and we were all assembled in the theater area with enough seats for everyone. This lieutenant colonel got up to give us a speech, and that was Paul Tibbets.

He said, “I’m going to be your commanding officer. We are now called the 509th Composite Group, and we’re going into training, and we’re going to do something that’s going to help end the war as soon as possible.”

Well, from there we had B-29 training planes. We went all over the country, long-range missions, for the navigator, the pilots trained takeoffs and landings, and the bombardiers trained on their dropping bombs at certain bomb sites.

Levy: Did they practice with fake bombs?

Widowsky: No, they were live bombs.

Levy: Live bombs.

Widowsky: Yeah, but it was a bombing range. There was nothing around there.

In order to give the navigators a better feel for being in the Pacific, which was a vast ocean, we went to Havana, Cuba, on temporary duty to an airfield in San Antonio de los Baños. We practiced long-range navigation trips over the Atlantic Ocean and down there from Cuba. We got into Havana, and we had a heck of a time there. [Laughter]

From there, we were sent overseas. We went to Sacramento, California, which was a staging area. From there, we went to Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, and we end up on the small island of Tinian, which was one of the three main islands in the Marianas group.

Now, I just want to say something about Tinian. By the way it was laid out, they were able to lay out four 8,500 [foot] parallel runways. At that time, it was the busiest airfield in the U.S. Air Force. It was a small island, it was only about 12x5 [miles]. When missions went out there and you saw those B-29s taxiing, it was awesome. Because if you ever saw a B-29, the tail is humongous, and it was just an awesome sight watching them.

Then we went on, I think, four or five missions to different places in Japan, and what we dropped is not a cluster of bombs, one 10,000-pound “pumpkin bomb,” they called them. Then one day we were given orders to fly to Iwo Jima, which we did, which was probably about halfway between Tinian and the Japanese Empire. We went there, we landed, and we had orders to go in a certain spot.

We were under heavily armed guards. No one could come near us, and we couldn’t leave. The purpose of our being there: we were the backup plane for the Enola Gay. That was on August 6th. Then the other planes took off, the three advance weather planes, the instrument plane, the photography plane, and the Enola Gay.

Now, if the Enola Gay encountered mechanical difficulty, they were going to land on Iwo Jima and transfer the bomb into our plane and take our airplane [The Big Stink]. Their crew was going to fly it. They even had a bomb pit where we were, because the bomb was so large it couldn’t be loaded conventionally. It had to be put down in a pit, and the plane rolled over it and a hydraulic lift lifting the bomb up into the plane. But thank goodness, they didn’t need us.

We still didn’t know what was going on. Finally, many, many hours later, we were able to take off and go back to Tinian. Now, that’s when we heard on the radio President Truman announcing we had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the destruction was awesome. 

Now, by the time we got back to Tinian, everyone was in bed. We missed the beer and hot dog party, but they made up for it. [Laughter]

Just to make a comment, we were all charged up for what we did, because we were really—and I say to this day, I am honored and proud that I participated in that. One reason is because we saved thousands of American lives. They had tens of thousands of GIs on Okinawa ready to invade Japan.

Then there was another mission coming up, and our orders, we were to be an advance weather plane to Nagasaki, which was not the primary target. So what we did, we went to Nagasaki, we radioed our weather report, went back to Tinian. I think it was Kokura was the initial target, but by the time the Bockscar got there, it was socked in. They were only ordered to drop the bomb visually, not by radar. So, they went to Nagasaki and dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

Nothing happened for three days. The Japanese didn’t surrender. Two of our crews were back in the United States to get components for a third bomb. Now, on August 12th, before they surrendered, the largest raid from the Marianas Islands went out to bomb Japan from all three islands. Every available airplane was airborne. Our target, strangely enough, was in Koromo: the Toyota plant. Then we got back and, of course, two days later, the Japanese surrendered.

We spent about six weeks there before they allowed us to come back to the United States. But we really had a ball. It was nice. As much as we wanted to get home, it was a tropical paradise. We went to the beach in the morning, came back, had lunch, had a softball game in the afternoon, came back, had dinner. Our mess officer was terrific. We had steak practically every night, which was absolutely unheard of.

We spent six weeks there, and then we came back. Went to Roswell, New Mexico. We didn’t see any flying saucers there, incidentally. From there, I came back to Newark and I was discharged.

Levy: Wow. That’s quite an experience. While you were on your training missions, were there ever any mishaps or injuries?

Widowsky: No, except one time, I was injured.

Levy: Can you tell us about that?

Widowsky: Yeah, I will. In our training planes, they try to simulate the plane exactly like the airplanes that we were going to get as permanent airplanes. So they took the gun turrets out and covered them with aluminum plating. It was either soldered or bolted on. It happens, the lower gun turret is just where the navigator, I was sitting. My leg could have been over the empty spot. 

We were on a mission, a training mission from Wendover to Los Angeles to San Francisco. As we were approaching San Francisco, the copilot called me and said, “Jack, come on up. Look at Alcatraz with all the lights on.” I walked up, kneeled between the pilot and copilot.

The next thing I knew, our copilot—he was about 6’4, weighed about 250—he was sitting on me, pushing an oxygen mask on me. The low gun turret blew, and we had all flying debris in the airplane. My octant, which I used to shoot the stars, hit me on the head, put two gashes, and knocked me out.

Oh, one funny thing happened. When we went out on these trips, we were out 10 to 12 to 15 hours. They had to provide us with dinner, and they used to have a hot plate and a warming box, which was about 4x4. Well, that box blew out of the plane, and landed in Oakland on top of a car. There was an article in the Oakland paper the next day, and I still have that article. He said, “What is the Air Force dropping now as practice bombs? Meatballs?” Because that was our dinner, spaghetti and meatballs.

Well, we went to the hospital. They stitched me up, and then we went back to Wendover. That was practically our last training mission.

Then we went to Omaha, Nebraska, to get our new planes, and they were beauties. We lived in those planes and couldn’t have asked for anything due to the circumstances and, you know, the conditions that we were. Our crew stayed together from the first day we were put together to the day we left Roswell, New Mexico, to be discharged.

I just want to say this. Fortunately for me, I’m the only one left of our crew. The last one, our flight engineer, just passed away about two weeks ago.

Levy: What was his name?

Widowsky: George Cohen, from Pittsburgh.

Levy: When you were flying the training missions, were those B-29s, or were they the specially modified B-29s?

Widowsky: No, they were B-29s. The only modifications were that they took the upper and lower gun turrets out, because that’s the way our new planes were going to be. There were other mechanical things. We had fuel injection engines, which was new, because they had troubles with the engines. Even the bomb bays were new. They opened in a second, not slowly. There were other mechanical modifications that I wasn’t involved in. I wasn’t up on everything. But we were comfortable in that airplane.

I have a funny story to tell you, too, about that. There’s only one flying B-29 left in the country now, in the world, the Fifi. Now, I go to airshows in Reading and a few other places around the country. One day, the Fifi was there. I got onboard and someone sitting in the navigator’s seat, a visitor. So, I said, “Hey, mister, get the hell out of there. That’s my position.” [Laughter] I scared the hell out of him, but I soothed him down. I said, “I’m just kidding with you.” I thought that would be a nice little anecdote.

Levy: Can you tell us about what you used to navigate with?

Widowsky: There were several forms of navigation. If you were flying over an area in the daylight, you could look out a window and see where a railroad is or a town, and find it on your map and know where you are.

There was radio navigation, which you tuned in on a radio with a 360-degree compass, and a pointer that pointed to the degrees that you were flying at.

Then of course, there was night navigation, so that’s where you had to shoot the stars, which we had an octant. The difference between an octant and a sextant, which they used on a boat: with a sextant on a boat, they could see the horizon. On an airplane at night, you cannot see the horizon, so you needed a horizon to the star, the angle there. But they had an artificial bubble in this octant that simulated the horizon. We had to learn where these stars were at different times of the year, they’re in different places. It was very, very interesting. Very interesting.

Levy: What kind of navigation did you enjoy doing the most, by day or by night?

Widowsky: Everything, day, night, midday. They gave us everything. We had to be trained in all that, everything.

Levy: What did you think when you first got to Wendover? What was the base like?

Widowsky: Well, at Wendover, everyone made faces because it wasn’t very nice there. It was right at the end of the Bonneville Salt Flats. There was really nothing there. But it turned out it was pretty nice after we got used to it. Any place we went to, at the beginning you didn’t like it, but you got used to it, like anything else.

Levy: What did you do for recreation at Wendover?

Widowsky: Movies, played softball. Not much of anything else. We were busy doing our job. That was the main thing.

Levy: How often did you fly?

Widowsky: Practically every day. We lived in that airplane.

Levy: Did you see Colonel Paul Tibbets very often?

Widowsky: I saw him, but I had no dealings with him. Better off.

Levy: What was the name of the B-29 that you were regularly assigned to?

Widowsky: Top Secret, “TS,” and I won’t say what that stands for.

Levy: Why was it named Top Secret, and who named it?

Widowsky: Well, it just happened, I picked out the name and everybody agreed that that would be fine.

Levy: Was it because the work you were doing was top secret?

Widowsky: Yeah. Well, of course, everything there—I’ll just expand a little. We were told in the original speech by Colonel Tibbets that “You don’t discuss with anyone where you are, who you are, what you’re doing with here, anything, your wife, your mother, your sister, your girlfriend or anything.”

They had a lot of FBI agents around that we didn’t know who they were. Every once in a while, one of our fellows ended up in Alaska because they opened their mouth too much. They shipped them out immediately.

Levy: Did you know anyone that that happened to?

Widowsky: Well, right now, I don’t. I knew of the ones, but, you know, not personally. They weren’t any part of my group.

Levy: Did you and your crew members ever talk about what it was that you might be all doing at Wendover?

Widowsky: No, not really, because we were told, “You don’t even discuss it amongst yourselves, just do what you’re told to do.” That’s the Army. We did it.

Levy: What did you tell your family members? Did they know where you were?

Widowsky: They knew where I was, but that’s it, period. We corresponded, corresponded with my girlfriend.

Levy: Your wife?

Widowsky: My wife of 69 years.

Levy: Wow.

Widowsky: Wow.

Levy: So she just knew that you were in the Air Force, and that you were at Wendover?

Widowsky: That’s it.

Levy: What would you write to her about? Just recreation?

Widowsky: Just general things, just general things. How much I liked her. 

Levy: How did you find out that you were going to Cuba?

Widowsky: We were given orders to go to Cuba. As a matter of fact, we were one of three of the first groups that went on that training. We were told what we had to do there. When we got there, some of our squadron was there—not the flying squadron. But we were told what to do and we were given missions where to go. I know we flew over Puerto Rico. Just training. It was mostly navigation training. 

Levy: So you were the most important person at that point then in the plane?

Widowsky: Well, I had to do my job, and I did it. Everyone did. 

Levy: Did you get to spend much time in Havana?

Widowsky: Yeah, we went to Havana a fairly good amount. Like weekends, we went in. I’m just trying to think of some of the things we did around there. Went to bars, had a few drinks. I’m not a big drinker. The only thing I used to drink is beer. I’m not a drinker.

Levy: Were there a lot of U.S. Army men in Cuba at the time?

Widowsky: Oh, yeah.

Levy: Did you ever talk much with people outside of the 509th? Or did you only talk to the personnel in the 509th?

Widowsky: No, no. We knew better. Of course, you never know who this person you’re talking—it could have been an FBI agent, because they had them filtered all over the place in different positions, and we didn’t know what they were. They could have been a cook or a mess sergeant or anything.

Levy: Did you ever talk to someone who you discovered was an FBI agent?

Widowsky: No, I don’t think so, no.

Levy: Did you and crew members ever find that the security measures impeded your work?

Widowsky: No, not at all. We did what we had to do. Everybody did a good job, and they enjoyed what they were doing, and we knew what we had to do. That was the main thing.

For example, we had a pilot and a co-pilot. Of course, the pilot was our airplane commander, and he did most of the flying and landing and taking off. But he had to give the co-pilot a chance to do it, because you never know what’s going to happen. Everybody became pretty proficient at their jobs. 

Levy: Were you especially friendly with any of your crew members in particular?

Widowsky: No one in particular. But we all, like I said, we did everything together, not only flying. Wherever we went, to the beach, to play softball, to dinner, whatever it was, to a movie, we were always together. People can’t realize the camaraderie that’s there, because first of all, we had to depend on each other. If someone goofed, it hurts everybody.

Levy: You had to trust each other with your lives.

Widowsky: That’s correct.

Levy: And you all trusted each other?

Widowsky: Oh, yeah. We had wonderful training. We knew what we had to do, and we did it without any recourse of any kind.

Levy: Did you become friendly with any of the other crews?

Widowsky: Oh, no, no, no. We were friendly with every—sure, we were friendly with all of them.

Levy: Was there any competition among the crews?

Widowsky: Not really, not to my recollect, no. Like I said, we had to do what we were told to do, and everyone did it. If we went on a mission, practice, there could have three or four airplanes on the same mission. No one was trying to outdo the other, because it didn’t serve a purpose.

Levy: How long were you on Cuba for?

Widowsky: I would say about three months. 

Levy: And from Cuba you went then to where?

Widowsky: We came back to Wendover, to our home base, and we continued training there until we got orders to go overseas. 

Levy: Did you know Colonel [Clifford] Heflin at Wendover? He was one of the base commanders.

Widowsky: No.

Levy: How did you find out that you were going to Tinian?

Widowsky: Well, being the navigator, they told me where we had to go. I had to plot a course. I didn’t know that until we got to Hawaii. Each leg, I got a flight plan from Wendover to California, Sacramento, and then to Oahu, and then to Tinian.

Levy: Were you and the crew excited to go to the Pacific?

Widowsky: We knew we were going to go there. You know, it’s a long time ago. I can’t really, you know, actually remember all that. But we knew we had to go. We knew we weren’t going to Europe, because all the B-29s were in the Pacific.

Levy: When you left for Tinian, at that point, had you ever heard the words “Manhattan Project?”

Widowsky: No.

Levy: So you were still in the dark about what—

Widowsky: We had no idea what we were going to do. We thought we were going there, because in the Marianas, there were squadrons of B-29s that were there making normal bombing missions to Japan. Nothing. We had no idea. We knew it was something special, but what the special was, we didn’t know. We just went along. Like in the Army, they say, we did what we were told to do.

Levy: You didn’t know about any of the other Manhattan Project sites around the country, like Los Alamos?

Widowsky: Not at all. Then when we were on Tinian, there were a number of scientists floating around. We knew it was something special, but not what it was.

Levy: How did you and your crew members find Tinian when you first got there?

Widowsky: When we first got there, we lived in tents, and that wasn’t too comfortable. But shortly after that, they moved us into Quonset huts that the Navy Seabees built, and we were as comfortable as you could want in a little overseas island. We had nice beds—not beds, well, with frames, but someone built the springs with rubber pieces, and we had mattresses and didn’t need covers there.

It was warm, warm weather. It wasn’t bad. The only thing is, we didn’t want to be there, because of the purpose. But it was all right. I imagine there were better places, but there were a hell of a lot worse places, too.

Levy: Why didn’t you want to be there?

Widowsky: Well, we didn’t want a war to be going on. We wanted to be home with our family, live a normal life. But circumstances called for us to do our duty.

Levy: What did the other squadrons on Tinian think of the 509th?

Widowsky: Oh, they were jealous, because the word went around that we were going to win the war. There was animosity there, a lot. We didn’t care, we just did what we had to do. That was a good question, really it was.

Levy: What did the 509th think of the rumor that you were supposed to win the war?

Widowsky: Like I said before, we did what we were told to do. I just want to mention one thing. What they meant by the “Composite Group”: we were a self-sufficient group. We had everything. We had our air crews, our ground crews, our MPs [Military Police], office workers, whatever you need. They didn’t have to go to any other one, it was one group together. The only one in the Air Force, in the service like that.

Levy: Did you ever see any of the native people on Tinian?

Widowsky: Yeah, we did, yeah. They called them “gooks.” There were a few there, and all they did was sit on their haunches that you and I could never do. They are down like on the ground, and they called them “gooks.” Why, I don’t know. I had no dealings with them. We couldn’t speak their language. They couldn’t speak our language. They were Chamorros. What that was I don’t know, their heredity.

Levy: Did you ever see any Japanese prisoners of war?

Widowsky: No, I don’t think so, I don’t think so. Although on Tinian, there was a mountain there, and there were still some Japanese up there, a few Japanese soldiers. We could see they had caves. From where we stood, we could see the openings of a cave, but they never bothered us. I don’t think the Air Force or Army went after them. As long as they didn’t bother us, they didn’t bother.

Levy: Can you talk about the 509th reunion in 1996, and how the Tinian people welcomed you?

Widowsky: When we back—one of the fellows kind of grouped together, I think there were a dozen of us. We went back to Tinian on a visit. What we did, we took our same route, you know, simulated route. And when we got there, these people treated us like we were God.

Because, as I said before, when the Japanese took the islands, the natives, which were Chamorros, they shipped them to the Caroline Islands, and they brought in Korean slave laborers to tend their sugar plant fields to make their sake. So naturally, when the Americans took over, these people came back, and were seeing us again. They treated us. They brought us ice cream three times a day, and anything, they were glad to see us. 

I really enjoyed going back. It was an experience. You know, under the conditions, comparing from first to second, was a very nice trip.

Levy: On Tinian, did you get to go swimming?

Widowsky: Oh, yeah. They had a nice beach there. The ground in the ocean right there is all coral, and you couldn’t walk on the coral. But the Seabees blasted these coral and made a beautiful, beautiful beach there. We utilized it, too. But we also, as I said before, we had a softball game every afternoon, and loved it.

Levy: At Tinian, as well as Wendover? 

Widowsky: We played softball there. We really enjoyed it. We had a lot of fun. There was more than one, two teams, so as you kept winning, you played the next team, and it was like a rotation. But it was enjoyable, we all liked it. 

Levy: Did the crews of the same plane play together?

Widowsky: No, no, made up teams, because we were all compatible.

Levy: Did you ever swap stories with navigators from other planes?

Widowsky: No, not really. We knew what we had to do. I don’t recollect anything in particular.

Levy: Were there often a lot of B-29s that crashed on Tinian on takeoff?

Widowsky: I saw a couple of them. Not too many, takeoff or landing. I remember I saw one going into the ocean. It was horrible. Why, I don’t know. We just had to overlook it.

Levy: So you tried not to worry about your own flights too much?

Widowsky: Exactly.

Levy: What was your average day like on Tinian?

Widowsky: As a navigator, we went to school every single day, different techniques and everything. We had two or three hours of classes there, practically every day. The other time, of course, when we were preparing for a mission, we had a briefing. It could have lasted two or three hours. Then we went to our planes, and took off. When there was a mission going out, it took a good part of the day.

Levy: Did you fly several missions over Japan before the atomic bombs?

Widowsky: Yes. We flew four other missions over Japan, dropping one 10,000-pound pumpkin bomb, which we called them.

Levy: But it was a real bomb?

Widowsky: Oh, it was a real bomb. Like I said before, the last place we went to was Koromo and we bombed the Toyota auto plant. One of the other towns I can recollect was Ube, U-b-e. I can’t recollect the other one.

Levy: How long a flight is it from Tinian to Japan?

Widowsky: It’s a long flight. First of all, like I said, Iwo Jima was a central point. From Tinian, we went to Iwo Jima—it was practically due north—and then from there got on a flight path to our target. So, I would say it was about 700 miles, nautical miles. We were in the air ten, twelve hours. Like I say to people once in a while, every once in a while someone complains, saying, “Oh, they just came back from Europe, four or five hours, a terrible trip.”

So I say, “You should have flown with us. We didn’t have cocktail waitresses handing us glasses of champagne.” 

Levy: During the flights, where did you sit? Did you have a seat?

Widowsky: I had a seat and a table right behind the pilot, and we communicated by radio. Off to my right was the radio operator, and right toward the front next to him was the engineer, and the engineer was behind the co-pilot. The only other ones we had was a tail gunner. In the plane there was a tunnel going from front to back, they had to crawl to get to the front or back. 

Levy: Did you always fly in Top Secret?

Widowsky: No. As a matter of fact, on the two atomic missions that we flew on, we were in different airplanes. Why, I can’t recall. It might have been out for an engine change or something. I don’t remember why, but we were interchangeable, actually.

Levy: It didn’t feel strange to fly in a different plane?

Widowsky: No, no. Same thing, exactly the same. 

Levy: What were the names of the planes that you flew in on the bombing missions?

Widowsky: We flew to Iwo Jima on the Hiroshima mission in the airplane called Big Stink, and on the Nagasaki mission we flew in Laggin’ Dragon. The planes were interchangeable. Our plane might have been down for an engine change or for some mechanical difficulty, because they kept those planes in perfect, perfect condition. They had to.

Levy: Did you interact much with your ground crew?

Widowsky: Oh, yeah, we knew them.

Levy: They had to be very good mechanics.

Widowsky: Yeah. I remember the head ground crew’s name, Arnold Sleipnes.

Levy: So there was a lot of camaraderie between the crew that flew and the ground crew?

Widowsky: Yeah, yeah. They knew they had to take care of us, and we trusted them to take care of us.

Levy: Before the bombing of Hiroshima, there was a big briefing. Were you part of that briefing, or had you left for Iwo Jima already?

Widowsky: No, we didn’t have to attend the Hiroshima briefing. We were just given orders to go to Iwo Jima. I think they had a special thing—when we got there, our airplane commander had an envelope with instructions what to do.

Levy: How did you feel when you found out that it was an atomic bomb that they had used?

Widowsky: Well, I didn’t know what an atomic bomb was, even though I studied physics. But I certainly felt that it would be help ending the war.

Levy: Is that how your crew mates and the other members of the 509th felt?

Widowsky: Oh, we all felt that way. We discussed it, of course.

Levy: After you got back to Tinian, after the bombing of Hiroshima, did the other squadrons outside the 509th then treat the 509th better?

Widowsky: No. They were more jealous. We didn’t pay any attention to them. We knew we—I repeat myself—we knew we had a job to do, and we did it to the best of our ability.

Levy: When did you find out that there would be a second bombing mission?

Widowsky: Exactly, I don’t remember. But we assumed there would be. Then there was a briefing, and we were assigned the advanced weather plane to Nagasaki. So maybe the day before.

Levy: Were you given any specific instructions about the mission? For example, I know they were told to rendezvous at Iwo Jima.

Widowsky: Just the normal thing. As far as we were concerned, all we had to do is go to Nagasaki, report the weather, and come back home to Tinian. The airplane that had Bockscar, that had the atomic bomb, had to meet up with a photographic plane and an instrument plane. That was one of the problems, that they never got to the initial target on time, because they didn’t meet up and they spent a lot of time.

Levy: When your plane flew by Hiroshima [misspoke: Nagasaki], did you see any of the city?

Widowsky: No, no. Never saw anything.

Levy: Did the plane just fly right over Nagasaki and then turn around and go back?

Widowsky: That’s it.

Levy: You weren’t there when they dropped the bomb?

Widowsky: Oh, no, no, we were practically home then. All we had to do was report the weather at that time. Like I said, the reason they wanted to have to know the weather, they did not want these bombs to be dropped by radar. They wanted them bombed visually. Because of the problem that they had at the second mission, they almost dropped the bomb in the ocean to get rid of it, not to fly back with it. But then it worked out all right.

Levy: How did you find out that the bombing mission had been successful?

Widowsky: We got a report. We were debriefed.

Levy: Once you got back to Tinian?

Widowsky: When we got back.

Levy: Were there any concerns among the 509th about how the Nagasaki mission went, since it wasn’t quite as smooth as Hiroshima?

Widowsky: No, there was just talk about it. There were a lot of rumors went around about how, I guess, the atomic energy would affect us. There was a rumor around one of the airplane commanders, the stories, and it’s all in the book here, too, that he was sick, he went to the hospital. But he was a cut-up anyhow. That was [Claude] Eatherly.

Levy: What did you and the other 509th members think of Colonel Tibbets and Major [Charles] Sweeney?

Widowsky: I never really had any dealings with Tibbets. I did with Sweeney, because the incident—after we had that problem over San Francisco, where I got injured, I think Sweeney should have been there to meet us, greet us when we landed, but he never said anything to us. I have some friends that I meet at airshows, and they were high-ranking officials. I’ve told them this. This is unheard of. But look, I have no feeling.

Levy: So the 509th was generally pleased with its leadership?

Widowsky: Well, of course, the 509th is very unusual, because this fellow that runs the reunions, he keeps the 509th together, and I think it’s terrific. Most of the people, even these reunions, are family members, not only the veterans. He’s the one who put this book together, The 509th Remembered.

Levy: That’s Bob Krauss?

Widowsky: Bob Krauss. Did you ever meet him?

Levy: I haven’t met him, but we’ve exchanged emails on many occasions.

Widowsky: Oh, yeah.

Levy: How did you find out that the war was over?

Widowsky: We were on Tinian, and I guess the word came down that the Japanese surrendered. Of course we had a big celebration. A lot of the fellows—not in the squadron, different people there—they went shooting off their guns. I’m not a gun man.

Levy: How did you and your crew feel about having been the backup plane on Iwo Jima?

Widowsky: Well, we thought we did our part, and I still do. Like I said, I feel honored and privileged that I participated. Everyone can’t fly in the number one plane. The other planes had jobs to do, and you had to do it right. Otherwise the whole mission would have been cancelled, or not run the way it should have been.

Levy: That’s very well said. So there were no people who felt disappointed that they hadn’t been—

Widowsky: No, never heard a word.

Levy: Where did the radar operator sit in the plane?

Widowsky: The radar operator was in the back, but I had a radar scope to look into. He was in the rear of the plane.

Levy: What was the radar scope?

Widowsky: That we could look into. It was almost like looking into a camera, and it makes out the mountains, lakes, anything. You can identify a place by radar, because during training, we dropped bombs by radar. I guided them almost to the initial point, almost to the dropping of the bomb. I was the radar interpreter, plus many other jobs. [Laughter]

I want to say this. I loved what I did, I really did. One of the reasons is, I just wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, had to keep busy, and I was busy every minute of the time our airplane was airborne.

Levy: Did you and the other crew members talk a lot about how the war was going?

Widowsky: No, not really, not really. We were real glad when we had a mission to go on. As I said, including the two atomic missions, we went on four other missions, which, again, we did our job.

Levy: Did you ever interact with any of the scientists who were there?

Widowsky: Not really. Once in a while, you say hello.

Levy: Did you ever see any of the bombs, the Little Boy or Fat Man?

Widowsky: Not really, no.

Levy: Did you see any of the other—you saw the pumpkin bombs?

Widowsky: Oh, yeah, yeah. See, they had those atomic bombs in a shed, hidden.

Levy: I’ve seen some photos on Tinian of some of the women nurses or Red Cross people who were around. Were there ever any women who came into the 509th base? 

Widowsky: There were nurses, there was a hospital there. I think some of the fellows dated the nurses. Like this one airplane commander, Eatherly, he dated some of the nurses. I personally wasn’t interested.

Levy: Where did you meet your wife?

Widowsky: I came home one day on leave, and I went to visit a friend of mine’s parents. Some of the other fellows were home, and we had made up to go to the Latin Quarter. I didn’t have a date, and I just mentioned it to my friend’s parents. “Oh, wait a minute.” Florence lived upstairs, and she was home from work, because she had her appendix out. So she was recuperating. She came down and that was our first date, to the Latin Quarter in New York City.

Levy: So that was during the war?

Widowsky: After that, it’s history. That was our first date, yeah. We corresponded.

Levy: What were some of the biggest challenges that you and your crew members faced?

Widowsky: Well, I know the biggest challenge I had was continually, because I had to keep the plane on course. What affects the direction of the airplane is the wind velocity and the wind direction. Sometimes you can run into some strong winds that can push you off course many, many, many miles. I had to be on top of that every minute of the day.

Like I said before, I was glad, because I was kept busy all the time. There were different things navigating to check, recheck, and so forth.

Levy: What was the name of your airplane commander?

Widowsky: Charles McKnight, from Washington, D.C.

Levy: Had you all joined the military after the war started? 

Widowsky: No, I know he was in before. All the airplane commanders were in before. I guess most of them, then the copilots and everyone else, started, enlisted, going in when the war started.

Levy: Do you remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor and when that happened?

Widowsky: Oh, absolutely. I think, if I remember correctly, I went to a movie with some friends of mine, and they stopped the movie. Someone got up on the stage and announced that Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Levy: How old were you when the war started?

Widowsky: Oh, boy, nineteen.

Levy:   So you knew you’d be ready to go enlist shortly, then?

Widowsky: Either that or we would have been drafted.

Levy: Why did you want to go into the Air Force?

Widowsky: I don’t know. I just felt that I would like to fly in some position. I had never been in an airplane, except I remember when Newark airport opened. That’s the first time I saw an airplane. I was in school, and our teacher made us write a story about the opening of Newark airport. Then they took us down to the airport and walked us around.

Levy: When you were on Tinian, were you aware that they were planning an invasion of Japan?

Widowsky: We assumed so, because figuring that could be the only way the war could end. All these bombing raids were done to weaken the enemy.

Levy: What were some of the key technical innovations that were part of the planes that really made the B-29 a much better plane?

Widowsky: Well, it was a bigger plane, carried a bigger bomb load. They improved on the engines and just improved on everything. That was Boeing, because they made the B-17s, too. They kept working on them and working on improving all the planes. We were very, very comfortable spending so many hours at a time in that airplane.

Levy: How did the Manhattan Project affect your later career after the war?

Widowsky: No way at all. Had nothing to do with it.

Levy: What career did you have after the war?

Widowsky: I became a salesman, selling candy and cigarettes to retail outlets, which I did for many, many, many years.

Levy: You stayed in touch with other members of the 509th?

Widowsky: I saw them, I went to all the reunions up until the last couple of years. I did see some of them, and I kept in touch with my own crew members.

Levy: Are there many other people who participated on the bombing missions who are still alive?

Widowsky: I really don’t know. I don’t think there are too many. You know, we are up in age. Of course, Bob Krauss, who we mentioned before, he writes us a newsletter every couple of months, and in every newsletter at the end, “We lost so-and-so and so-and-so.” So how many there are, I don’t know. There’s none of my crew left.

Levy: Did you spend much time in Hawaii?

Widowsky: No, no. The only time I spent in Hawaii, when I made the trip back after the war, and I think I was there for overnight and next day. I was very disappointed on the beach there, because all you heard about it was Waikiki Beach, which was nothing compared to Bradley Beach in New Jersey, which I regularly went to. It was narrow, very, it was nothing there, when all you heard was about Waikiki Beach. You ever hear of Waikiki? I was disappointed, but it served its purpose when I was there. We jumped in the ocean and had a nice swim.

But, oh, I got another little story to tell. On the way over to Tinian, after we left Oahu, we landed on a small island, Johnston Island. It was tiny. If we went out the back door of the barracks, we could jump right in the Pacific Ocean, and we did! There were two islands between Oahu and the Marianas: Kwajalein and Johnston. Most of them landed on Kwajalein.

Levy: After you were discharged, did you go to college?

Widowsky: No. That was a mistake I made.

Levy: Oh. Can you talk about your education at the University of Vermont?

Widowsky: Well, that was during the Army. I was there for about six months. They called it a college training detachment, and that was before I went to navigation school. They sent us to college training detachments. We took courses there just like a freshman in college, and that was my college education.

Levy: Was that focused on navigation?

Widowsky: No, just general. I don’t know, maybe just to keep us busy until there was enough room to move us up the next step. I think, basically, that was it.

Levy: So that was in Vermont?

Widowsky: Yes.

Levy: You really got around, all over the country.

Widowsky: Oh, yeah, yeah. I have another story to tell. At navigation school, the planes that we flew in had a pilot, and there was a navigator instructor that sat in the copilot seat. Then right behind them was three seats and desks for three student navigators.

Now one day, and I don’t remember where we were, there was a distress call in our plane, “Put your parachutes on, get to the door.” So we did that, we followed it, and then they must have straightened out the problem. But I suspect they were just checking us and giving us training to see if we reacted properly. That wasn’t too good of an experience, because I wasn’t looking to jump out of an airplane.

Levy: Had you ever had to do that in training?

Widowsky: No, not at all.

Levy: So your plane was the Top Secret. Were other planes named at Wendover, or at Tinian?

Widowsky: No, they were all named before, in Wendover. They had some fellows, these fellows were really artists. They really drew.

Levy: How do you feel today reflecting back on your World War II experience?

Widowsky: Well, as I said before, I’m very honored and proud that I participated. The 509th was great. Everyone got along with each other. It couldn’t have been better service. But what we accomplished and what we did is what I’m honored and proud that I participated, because I’m sure we saved tens of thousands of American lives. Maybe even more Japanese, too, because from what I understand, the Japanese even had women with bamboo spears near the invading line to try to stop the Americans from invading.

Levy: So you feel that dropping the bomb was the right decision?

Widowsky: Always. I have a favorite expression: “If there wasn’t a Pearl Harbor, there wouldn’t have been a Hiroshima.” I think that sums it up. I have no bad feelings that I participated in that, because I feel if the enemy had it, they would have used it.