92-year-old radar operator has vivid memories of WWII atomic bomb raid

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress called 'Bockscar' sits in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.<br>U.S. Air Force photo
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress called 'Bockscar' sits in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

(Tribune News Service) — Seventy years ago this month, Bill Barney was part of the mission that effectively ended the most destructive war in human history.

The 92-year-old from Columbia City, Ind., still remembers it like it was yesterday.

In August 1945, Barney was a radar operator on Bockscar, a B-29 Superfortress based at Tinian as part of the 20th Air Force. The mission of many of his B-29 compatriots was to bomb mainland Japan with conventional weapons in an attempt to induce surrender.

But Barney and his eight crewmates — including Fort Wayne, Ind., native Robert Stock — were different. Bockscar was one of 15 B-29s assigned to the 509th Composite Group, now known as the unit that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The hope was that the Japanese would cease hostilities after the first nuclear weapon was delivered Aug. 6, 1945. When that didn't happen, the 509th was called upon again Aug. 9 to drop a second bomb.

Despite several missions aboard Bockscar previously, Barney and his crew were assigned to the B-29 called "The Great Artiste" for the three-aircraft flight on Aug. 9 because of logistical reasons.

Instead of being the radar operator on the Bockscar, Barney flew aboard The Great Artiste with a scientific mission due to another crew having trained to drop the atomic bomb called "Fat Man."

Earlier this week, Barney traveled to Atlantic Aviation at Fort Wayne International Airport to reminisce and see the B-29 "Fifi," the lone flying example of the Superfortress in existence.

“We were switching planes back and forth all the time,” Barney said. “Just because it was our plane didn't mean we were going to fly it.”

The Bockscar and The Great Artiste flew to the city of Kokura after the observation plane named "The Big Stink" failed to arrive at the rendezvous point, but cloud cover obscured the target. The two-plane group then redirected to the backup target of Nagasaki.

Barney represents the lone surviving crew member of any of the three planes involved in the dropping of the second atomic bomb.

After the bombing of Hiroshima, Barney knew that this was a new weapon to be dropped.

“We realized it was an entirely different kind of bomb being dropped,” Barney said.

John Wassell is a resident of Fort Wayne and serves as the historian for the 509th Composite Group.

“On the mission to Nagasaki, Bill was responsible for monitoring the blast gauges (on The Great Artiste),” Wassell said. “The plane dropped canisters with little parachutes to send back a signal recording the impact of the blast from the bomb.

“You have to remember, before the last 30 days, the atomic bomb didn't exist. They were trying to get all the technical data they could.”

After the Nagasaki mission, Barney returned to the Bockscar for one more mission prior to Japan's surrender. In fact, it's thought that his crew was one of the last to drop bombs on the home islands prior to the war's end with a mission to northern Honshu on Aug. 14.

Japan sued for peace hours later.

“There were an awful lot of planes going back and forth; it was hard to tell,” Barney said.

After the war, Barney returned to Indiana to farm. He started a family while keeping in touch with his crewmates of the Bockscar over the years.

In 1985, the crew reunited at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, to trade stories and see the plane they took to war. The Bockscar is a centerpiece exhibit at the museum, fully restored to its wartime appearance.

Barney still resides at his farm just north of Columbia City, a living legend to one of the most impactful events of the 20th century.

“It was just the job we were trained to do,” Barney said.

©2015 The (Fort Wayne, Ind.) News-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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