The reassembled B-29 Superfortress was unveiled to the media on Monday, in a hangar near Dulles International Airport at the museum’s new annex which opens on 15 December.
“First Atomic Bomb, Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945,” is written on the side of the shiny aircraft, with its transparent cockpit nose and defensive machine guns strutting out of the tail.
“This airplane is a part of our history and it is a part of who we are,” said Dik Daso, curator of the aeronautics division of the museum.
Power of the sun
The Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy”, on the Japanese port city of Hiroshima, killing more than 140,000 people and leaving tens of thousands disfigured and suffering from lingering radiation illness.
President Harry Truman told the American people, “We have unleashed the power of the sun.”
The pneumatic doors to the “bomb bay” that once held the atomic weapon were swung open for television cameras, but Daso said a decision had not been made on whether to leave them open when the plane goes on public view.
The bombing was carried out on a sunny day at 8.15am from an altitude of 9,632 metres. The Enola Gay was then used as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft for the follow-up attack on Nagasaki that killed a further 70,000 people. Six days after that, Japan surrendered.
Nearly a decade ago, an exhibit in Washington about the atomic bomb and the Enola Gay – named after the pilot’s mother – was met with a storm of controversy because many US veterans felt the Japanese were cast as victims of US aggression. A smaller, less interpretive exhibit finally opened several months later.
No mention of casualties
“To see an aircraft without the story behind it is a waste of time. We need to remind ourselves about how terrible nuclear weapons are”
The current text for the Enola Gay exhibit does not include casualty figures from Hiroshima or show any photographs of the devastation the bomb caused.
Daso said estimates of the number of the dead varied widely and the exhibition space did not lend itself to a complicated display including details of the human cost.
“Our role is to provide, artifact and restore (the Enola Gay) as best we can and allow people to come to see it and let it speak to them. They can come up with what it means to them. I don’t need to tell them,” said Daso.
The Air Force Association, which took up the cause a decade ago for veterans, said it approved of the new exhibit.
“We believe that it is historically accurate this time and we congratulate the Air and Space Museum,” said Napoleon Byars of the association.
However, Japanese-American researcher Aiko Herzig said she had hoped scenes of the human impact could have been included.
“I have no objections to the Enola Gay being reassembled but to see an aircraft without the story behind it is a waste of time. We need to remind ourselves about how terrible nuclear weapons are,” said Herzig.
The aircraft was too large and heavy to be housed at the museum’s flagship building on the National Mall.
The museum has spent more than 300,000 staff hours restoring the Enola Gay, which has a wingspan of 43 metres and a gross weight of 62,370kg. The aircraft was one of 15 B-29s modified specifically for the secret atomic bomb missions.