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December 18, 2014

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Enola Gay crew member Jeppson remembers famed flight

Morris "Dick" Jeppson admits he was a bit of a "greenhorn" on Aug. 6, 1945.

Recollections of that day nearly 55 years ago have begun to fade. But, sitting in the living room of his Las Vegas home, he does remember feeling like a fish out of water.

There he sat with 11 other men in the fuselage of a United States Air Force B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay as it soared through the skies over Japan.

A novice among the seasoned World War II combat vets, Jeppson technically wasn't even part of the flight crew that dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.

A second lieutenant, the weapon electronics officer was aboard specifically to babysit a "Little Boy" -- the name given to the bomb.

The bomb killed upwards of 100,000 people, injured scores of others and obliterated the city. The mission is largely credited for bringing the war to an end.

Jeppson remembers the mood on the plane was "very quiet. The combat crew, this (type of mission) was kind of routine for them," he says, recalling how the pilot, General Paul Tibbets, referred to it as "a milk run. And it really was. There were no problems, there was no opposition from the Japanese -- the plane was flying so high their fighter planes couldn't get that high anyway."

But it was anything but routine for Jeppson. In fact, it was the first and only combat mission of the then 23-year-old's military career.

Like tending to a child, it was his job to make sure all was well with the weapon; that its wiring, batteries, electrical signals, radar systems and such were all functioning flawlessly.

"His role was to verify that the thing would go boom when it needed to go boom," says Bill Coombes, an educational and historical consultant for the American Airpower Heritage Museum in Midland, Texas.

It was Jeppson's duty, and so he did it -- void of remorse, fear, sadness or any other emotion that one assumes he'd feel in the midst of such a daunting task, knowing that as a result many lives would end or be forever changed.

It's how Jeppson, 77, views the entire Enola Gay mission, which has been the subject of much debate since it occurred. (It was followed days later by another bombing on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.)

"To my recollection, there wasn't much thinking," he says of the Enola Gay crew's reaction that day. "You had a job to do, you just did it.

"There was no emotion whatsoever. There had been many tests and a lot of training and the people on this mission just did what they were supposed to do."

Of the others on the flight, only Jeppson, who moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, and three others are still alive: Tibbets, who lives in Ohio, makes personal appearances and speeches about his military experience. Radio operator Richard Nelson and navigator Ted Van Kirk reside in California.

Jeppson, however, has kept a relatively low profile over the past half-century, and only spoke publicly once about the flight -- at the 50th anniversary reunion of the 509th squadron, which flew the mission.

His wife, Molly Jeppson, says, "We weren't really trying to hide, it's just that (people) didn't know what happened to Dick Jeppson."

The science of history

In the moments before the five-ton Little Boy was expelled from the Enola Gay, Jeppson was thinking not only about the bomb, but also about his parachute. There was one issued for each person on the plane.

"The old crew members just dumped them all over in a corner and didn't use them," he recalls. "But just before the (bomb) drop, I put mine on. ... They kind of looked at me like, 'What's this guy know?' "

Actually, he knew a lot -- probably more about the bomb than most of the men aboard the plane that day, courtesy of the training he received from the Air Force.

After enlisting in 1943 Jeppson was sent to Florida for basic training. He was among a group of men selected to participate in a program that sent them to such Ivy League schools as Yale University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study electronic communications and radar engineering.

Of that group, eight men, including Jeppson, were requisitioned by the Air Force and sent to a base in Wendover, Utah, where the 509th group was stationed. (It was a sort of homecoming for Jeppson, who was born in Logan, Utah, before his family moved to Overton when he was a toddler.)

The men were hired by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the Little Boy bomb -- as well as the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki -- was constructed. (Some of the original buildings where the bombs were built were destroyed in wildfires that recently plagued the area.)

Jeppson and the others visited the lab and worked to help develop the bomb. "They needed help (with) the bomb mechanics -- the fusing of the bomb and the testing of it," he says. "So we were back and forth between Wendover and Los Alamos."

Jeppson was also involved in test missions aboard the B-29s. The planes would fly from Wendover to California's Salton Sea where, from 30,000 feet up, the crew would drop "dummy" test bombs (sans explosives) onto targets atop the water.

"If a particular plane was selected for a particular test, we would move the gear into that plane, hook it up with a bomb and go fly the test," Jeppson explains. "Our group would move from one plane to another, so I was never part of any particular bomb crew."

He learned only two days before the flight that he would be aboard the Enola Gay -- after he had shared a ride on a B-29 with Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb's creator.

Jeppson had received a phone call requesting that he be on the flight with the physicist, who he recalls as being "a very gracious man."

Planning to go into nuclear physics career after his military stint, Jeppson struck up a conversation with Oppenheimer during the flight from Wendover to an air base in Southern California.

"I thought, 'Well, maybe he doesn't want to talk, but if he does I'll ask him a few questions,' and I did and we talked for two or three hours.

"Of course, I'm not supposed to know the details of nuclear physics and the bomb, and I certainly didn't bring this up, and he certainly wouldn't talk about it that either. But I pursued the question because I wanted to go into nuclear physics after the war."

Instead, Jeppson queried Oppeheimer about which university he thought he should attend -- the Universitiy of California, Berkeley, or Stanford -- for graduate school. "He very kindly gave me lots of advice and I ended up going to Berkeley for graduate school in physics."

But Jeppson recognized there was something more going on than pleasant conversation. He figures Oppenheimer wanted to meet the person who would see his creation to its destiny.

"He probably said, 'Put whoever you think is gonna fly (with) this thing' on the plane with him. This was not (a) lackadaisical" decision, he says. "There had to be some evaluation going on."

He's still not entirely certain why he was chosen to be a part of the special military program or to take part in the Enola Gay mission.

All he can do is speculate. "We took tests while we were in basic training, and I guess there's a selection process that goes on. ... How they chose the eight (men) that they sent to Wendover, I have no idea."

As for his role on the historical flight, he says he and the other men joked that they were all expendable but that he was "the most expendable."

Even after the entire 509th group was shipped to Tinian Island, in the South Pacific, in June of '45, Jeppson and the seven other men were kept apart from the rest of the group, setting up camp on a hill away from the others.

There, he participated in several test drops over nearby islands in the weeks before the bombing.

Ground zero

Little Boy was designed to detonate 1,500 feet above the ground. It was up to Jeppson to see that it did.

"First of all, it had to disconnect from the airplane when it dropped," he says, explaining the vast web of circuitry the comprised the weapon.

During the flight he monitored it all by using three sets of red- and green-colored electrical safety plugs -- the last link in the fusing-detonation train that led to the bomb's explosives, and the only pieces of the bomb that still exist. (Jeppson owns a set; another set was given to one of his superiors from Los Alamos, and the third set are now housed in a museum.)

Before the plane was at its bombing altitude, he replaced the green plugs with the red ones, which armed the bomb. Had he detected any potential problems with the bomb, Jeppson could have reported them, forcing the cancellation of the mission.

But all systems were a go.

When a bomb of that size is released, the plane makes a sudden jerk upward. The procedure learned during test runs over the Salton Sea, he says, "was as soon as it's dropped you make a sharp turn and head (the plane) the other way to get as far away as possible" from the explosion.

Except for the tail gunner, Jeppson says, no one aboard the plane witnessed Little Boy's impact. "The rest of us saw the billowing clouds and the mushroom cloud rising. You could see fires around."

And then it was over -- save for the destruction. The question immediately arose of whether or not to allow Jeppson to go to Hiroshima. "I said, 'Maybe I should go in with a crew to assess the damage.' "

A Los Alamos representative denied him access. "They said, 'No way. You can't go.' I think one of reasons was (because) it was a (national) security question." He has never been back to the city.

The troops come home

Jeppson, along with the entire Enola Gay crew, was awarded a Silver Star medal for his efforts in September of 1945

By the fall of that year Jeppson was on a troopship crossing the Pacific on his way back to the United States. His tour of duty ended in January of 1946.

Shortly after his return he began graduate school at Berkeley and worked full time in its radiation laboratory.

He left school before earning his PhD, and took a job at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in Livermore, Calif., working on its bomb project -- developing hydrogen thermonuclear weapons. That job brought Jeppson, who was raised in Carson City, to the Nevada Test Site, where he and crews monitored weapons detonations.

While working at Livermore he started his own business manufacturing microwave electron beam linear accelerators used in cancer therapy.

After selling that company Jeppson founded another company that developed and manufactured high-power microwave heating systems for industrial and food processing uses.

Jeppson, who has owned more than 30 product patents, also invented a system for heating asphalt (using microwaves) to recycle highways in place.

"That was the most significant thing we've done, and it is magic," he says. But he claims that asphalt manufacturers, not surprisingly, fought the technology and effectively quashed its future.

In biographical information, Jeppson, a father and stepfather of seven, refers to himself as a "futurist." "Technically, I pioneered a number of technologies. So I thought, 'Well, they used to tell me I was 20 years ahead of my time and I never caught up.' "

He has also taken great interest in the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Jeppson fears that once the site houses radioactive waste, it could become a target for obliteration by other nuclear-armed nations.

With his nuclear-weapons background, he theorizes about the type of catastrophic results a missile strike on the mountain would have, mainly spreading nuclear fallout across the country.

"The moment I saw Yucca Mountain I knew that it was wrong," he says. "Why other people haven't recognized it, I'm not sure. ... It's very likely that once this stuff is stored it's going to be blown up, and I can give enough proof from tests that have been made that it's quite possible."

He presented his ideas in a speech to a local veterans group, and has attempted to pass his information on to state government officials but says, "I don't want to get it involved in pure politics. I want it to fly."

In retrospect

While he was busy looking forward Jeppson says he didn't take much time to think about the past, particularly about the Enola Gay mission.

In 1995 the American Legion awarded the Enola Gay crew its Distinguished Service medal, which Tibbets accepted on behalf of the crew, including Jeppson.

Until the 509th reunion that year Jeppson hadn't given the mission much thought. "Those bomb plugs were just kicking around in a drawer" for years, he says.

Still, he maintains that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was a necessary means to help end the war. He points to wartime concerns that Germany was developing nuclear bomb technology.

"If that had happened, the world would be an entirely different place (today)," he says.

Coombes, who spoke to Tibbets when he gave a presentation at the American Airpower Heritage Museum last year, says the general is often asked if the Enola Gay crew experienced any regret about their actions.

"He consistently says -- as do all of the people I've talked to who were members of the crew -- no, it was part of the mission," he says. "They were doing their duty as they felt it needed to be done, nobody had any regrets and they would do it again tomorrow if they were so ordered and the circumstances were the same.

"I think that speaks volumes to the professionalism of some very young men who were carrying the country's burdens in 1945."

Meanwhile Molly Jeppson is frustrated by the way the writers of history have portrayed the Enola Gay mission.

"They always write that they took this airplane and went over there and killed all these people. People just don't seem to get it, or they don't want to get it," she says,

"(The military men aboard) were so young, they were just doing their job. They were told to do this," she says. "Of course, (after the bombing Jeppson) heard what happened and he was horrified and that's why he kind of withdrew because he's kind of a shy guy anyway, and it hurt his feelings that he had to do this."

While the bomb hurt and killed scores of people, Molly Jeppson says "it also saved a lot of lives" of Allied servicemen. The couple are often approached by World War II veterans. "They say, 'I want to shake your hand. You saved my life.' "

Dick Jeppson adds, "There aren't that many representatives (of that era) around anymore, and it won't be long before there's no first-hand knowledge of that period. Some of the history has been lost."