Last Surviving Crew Member Has 'No Regrets' About Bombing Hiroshima Russell Gackenbach was a 22-year-old second lieutenant on Aug. 6, 1945, when he flew in the Necessary Evil, one of three planes in the mission that dropped the first nuclear weapon used in warfare.
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Last Surviving Crew Member Has 'No Regrets' About Bombing Hiroshima

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Last Surviving Crew Member Has 'No Regrets' About Bombing Hiroshima

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On this day in 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. It flew three strike planes over Hiroshima, Japan. The Enola Gay carried the bomb. Two other planes, the Great Artiste and the Necessary Evil, escorted it. Most of the 34 crew members didn't know they were carrying what was then the most powerful weapon in the world.

Russell Gackenbach was a second lieutenant and navigator on the mission. Today he is the sole surviving member of the crew that dropped the bomb. As part of our series Last Witness, Radio Diaries brings us his story.

RUSSELL GACKENBACH: My name is Russell E. Gackenbach. I'm 95 years old. And I joined the military in 1943.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE BUZZING)

GACKENBACH: My plane was a B-29 special. It was called the Necessary Evil. It was built for speed and distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE BUZZING)

GACKENBACH: One day we were all called in and told our next mission was going to be an important one. We were on a special assignment, but we did not know what that assignment was. I never heard the words atomic bomb. We were only told what we needed to know, and keep your mouth shut.

It was August 6, 1945. We took off around 2 o'clock in the morning, the target Hiroshima, Japan. I was seated at the navigator's desk. And we were told that once the explosion occurred, we should not look directly at it and that we should not go through the cloud. We're not told anything about the cloud - just says, don't go through it.

As we were making the final approach to Hiroshima, we were flying at 30,000 feet over the city. And then the radio went dead. This was on purpose. Shortly after that, the bomb was dropped. We saw a very, very bright light and the start of a mushroom cloud. At the first chance I had, I got out of my seat. I went to the side navigator's window and quickly picked up my camera and took two photographs. I'll never forget that. After we turned away, headed home, things were very, very quiet. We just looked at each other. We didn't talk. We were all dumbfounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. Let there be no mistake. We shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war.

GACKENBACH: After 73 years, I do not regret what we did that day. All war is hell. The Japanese started the war. It was our turn to finish it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was Russell Gackenbach. He's the last surviving member from the mission to bomb Hiroshima.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly. Another 80,000 died in the months following. Three days after bombing Hiroshima, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. On August 15, Japan announced its surrender.

CHANG: After his service, Russell Gackenbach went on to work as a materials engineer for 35 years. Since the war, he has returned to Japan to visit Hiroshima twice. His story was produced by Nellie Gilles and the team at Radio Diaries. You can hear more stories from the Last Witness series on the Radio Diaries podcast.

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