World War II veteran remembers seeing Enola Gay after it dropped atomic bomb over Japan
By GREG JORDAN | Bluefield (W.Va.) Daily Telegraph | Published: May 3, 2020
PRINCETON, W.Va. (Tribune News Service) — Now approaching 102, Robert A. “Bob” Whittaker has many memories of working on the family farm, becoming a Marine during World War II and seeing the Enola Gay, the bomber that helped hasten the war’s end by dropping the first atomic bomb onto Japan.
Born on Sept. 4, 1918, Whittaker was the middle of six children to W.H. and Bertha Whittaker at a farm in the Hatcher area near Princeton. He attended the one-room Hatcher School and eventually became its custodian. He recalled that he was responsible for getting to school first thing in the morning to get a fire going and to clean it up before the students arrived. He gave his earnings to his mother. Later, he attended Oakvale High School; he often walked or rode a wagon to school.
Whittaker said he played basketball for Oakvale, but was unable to stay for many practices because he “truly had the farm life.” The farm’s demands were perfectly normal to him, his family and the rest of the community. He remembered waking up in bed with all his siblings and seeing that snow had come in through the roof’s chinking, leaving white lines across their blanket.
“No electricity. Had to feed the livestock and milk the cows,” he said. “Get water from the creek. The whole growing up poor, but everyone you knew was poor, so you didn’t know you were poor.”
Later, Whittaker worked with his father and brothers for the old Virginian Railroad in Princeton. He joined the Marine Corps in 1944 at age 26, and received his training at Cherry Point, N.C. From there, he traveled by train to California and was sent to the Pacific theater of operations, traveling aboard the U.S.S. Wakefield. He landed first in Guam and later was flown to the island of Iwo Jima, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific.
Whittaker was a sergeant in the 9th Marine Aircraft Wing, for which he was an aviation mechanic. He said that he was on Mount Suribachi, the place where a famous photograph was shot of the American flag being raised, but he got there after the event occurred.
Like many Marines, Whittaker was transferred to different bases and airfields where he was needed. One of those assignments brought him to Tinian Island, the site of an airbase where a huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber dubbed the Enola Gay would take off to make history.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew took off for a Japanese city called Hiroshima. There, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb called Little Boy over the city.
Deploying the atomic bomb was a highly classified operation, so Whittaker and his fellow Marines knew nothing about the bombing until the Enola Gay returned to base.
Whittaker said they were allowed to go over to look at the bomber after being told about its mission. The Enola Gay is on display today, but Whittaker and his fellow Marines were among to first to see it after it made history.
After the war, Whittaker returned to the U.S. on the U.S.S. Sea Snipe and traveled by train back to West Virginia. He said that he later attended watchmaking school in Kansas City, completing a three-year program in two years. He did that by going to one school during the day and attending another school at night to finish a year early. He lived in a boarding house and bought his first car, a Ford Model A.
Returning to Princeton, he married Mary Hand in 1956 and had one daughter, Gayle Huffman, in 1958. He opened Whittaker’s Jewelry on Mercer Street in Princeton, and remained in business for 40 years.
Whittaker said he has enjoyed big-game hunting and has taken many trips out west and into Canada to hunt elk, moose, caribou, antelope, grizzly bear and cougar. And he has hunted deer and wild turkey locally. He added that he loves horses as well, riding again on his 100th and 101st birthdays.
Whittaker’s quick to say that he believes exercise is as good a medicine as anyone can take. He does pushups and tries to walk when he can, and he said that he was still putting up hay at 95. He added that his faith has had a lot to do with his long life.
“Bob credits his long life and good fortune to the Lord, who has blessed him with many friends and family from Princeton and elsewhere—most of whom have already passed away,” said his daughter, Gayle Huffman. “Including (his wife) Mary, who passed away last September.”