Into The Belly Of The Beast

Squeezing into the Enola Gay’s dark bomb bay, I am reminded of my time inside that gun-turret on the USS Idaho; a dreary confining space packing immense destructive capacity.

How did becoming an ordinance expert get me into such light-lacking tight fits?

In this case, it’s the B-29’s themselves, which are to blame.

These beasts have a tendency to crash.

Four B-29’s crashed and burned on the runway last night. This makes eleven in the short week I’ve been on Tinian.

If one of those was carrying Little Boy[1] this whole island would go up worse than Port Chicago[2].

We’ll have a seven-and-a-half ton overload. We have to arm this bomb in flight, rather than on the ground to make sure we don’t blow this whole island off the face of the earth. Even as an ordnance guy I wouldn’t want to see that!

“You ever done this before, arming it in flight?” Farrell [3]asked back in the hut.

“No sir, I don’t,” I replied. “But, I’ve got all day to try it.”

“Groves doesn’t want any tinkering in flight, but I don’t see any other way.” Before he paused.

Then, Farrell resumed, “Don’t let me get in your way. Let’s have a TJC[4] meeting when you’re done.”

“Yes sir.” I replied.

I reach out to Jeppson, my 23 year-old 2nd Lieutenant assistant, to help him squeeze himself into the bomb bay next to me.

He smiles at me, then looks down at the unarmed bomb.

While Jeppson holds his flashlight to illuminate my work area, I reach out for the primer wires.

“We’re really doing this?” He asks, already knowing the answer.

“Yep, we are.” I reply, inserting the green plugs.

 “Insertion of green plugs,” I call out.

“Green plugs,” Jeppson confirms.

I slowly insert the firing trigger into the gun assembly.

“Insertion of firing trigger,” I say.

“Firing trigger.” Jeppson confirms.

We’re safe. The green plugs will prevent the closure of the arming circuit. Now the bomb cannot prematurely detonate.

Scrunching the length of my body so my arms are up near the rear of the mounted bomb, I look down at the rear plate.

“Opening rear plate.” I let out, as I unscrew it from its comfortable setting.

This takes me a few minutes, as each screw is over an inch long.

“Removing rear armor plate as well.”

Finally, this thing comes off!

The clang of thick metal echoes off of the bomb bay floor as I drop the plate.

Jeppson calls out, “Armor plate.”

I look up at him, smile, and then turn to look back at the bomb’s innards.

“Opening cannon breech. Unscrewing,” I call out as I unscrew the top of the cannon breech where I’ll insert the cordite charges.

 What a beautiful design, forcing the trigger mechanisms to require a firing primer, rather than infusing them into the trigger. Even in massive destructive power, we were able to integrate safety.

“Inserting cordite charges,” I say.

I slowly, and meticulously, insert the four cordite powder bags in line, so all of the red ends are facing the same direction.

Each of these little bags of cordite contain enough explosive to blow off my arm, and do plenty of damage to the rest of me.

“One. Two. Three. That’s four, Jeppson.”

“Cordite inserted,” Jeppson confirms.

“Reassembling.” I let out as I close the top of the cannon breech.

I insert the last plug in the breech, calling out, “Plugging breech.” 

Then, fumbling with my right hand on the floor of the bomb bay, I find the armor plate. I pick it up, bringing it back to its resting place atop the rear of the bomb.

“Replacing armor plating.” I say, in a relieved tone.

A few minutes pass during the slow reassembly. The bolts scrape as they close tight against the metal skin of the bomb.

“Little Boy is armed. I repeat, Little Boy is armed. Firing mechanism will be prepared after the insertion of the red plugs. We are current with green plugs. Green.”

We’re done. Now to do it again.

“Let’s do it again, so I can get it memorized.”

Jeppson responds, “Yes Sir, doing it again.”

Arming plugs for a Little Boy type atomic bomb on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


We practice arming and defusing the bomb seven times throughout the afternoon and into the night. Finally, we’re tired, hungry, and most importantly, can do it without any hesitation.

My hands simply check that green plugs are installed, remove the rear plate, insert breech wrench in breech plug, unscrew the breech plug, place it on the rubber pad, insert the four charges, lining them up so the red ends face the breech, insert the breech plug, tighten it home, connect the firing line, reattach the armor plate, reinstall the rear plate, and remove and secure the catwalk and tools.

Then, back the other way: Check that green plugs are installed, install catwalk, remove rear plate, remove armor plate, disconnect firing line, insert breech wrench, unscrew breech plug, (about 16 turns), remove, place on pad, remove charges (4 sections), place in powder can and secure, replace breech plug in breech.

I can do this in my sleep now, which is what I need to get.

“Alright, we’re done for the day,” I declare.


Jeppson’s tired eyes reveal he feels the same way.


“Let’s clean up and get some grub.” I offer.


Jeppson replies, “Yes, Sir.” In a tired, yet still enthusiastic voice.


Good kid!


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[1] The name given to the first functional Uranium atomic bomb. This name was based on its skinny short design as compared to the Plutonium bomb, which was large and round, called Fat Man. The original Uranium bomb was called Tin Man, as it had a similar design to Little Boy, but did not function properly for the mission assigned.

[2] Captain Parsons investigated the Port Chicago accident, determining it to be the equivalent of approximately 1500 tons of TNT.

[3] Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, General Lesley Groves' Deputy for Operations. Groves told Farrell “Don’t let Parsons get killed. We need him!”

[4] Tinian Joint Chiefs - an informal group made up of Captain Parsons,Rear Admiral Purnell, who represented the Military Liaison Committee, and Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, General Groves' Deputy for Operations. They had decision-making authority over the nuclear mission.