Area native refueled B-29s, including Enola Gay, during war
For Harry Sumrall, the last 14 months of World War II meant one job: fueling aircraft on the busy airstrips of the Pacific island of Tinian. From the six 8,500-foot runways on the island, as well as airfields on nearby Saipan and Guam, the U.S. Army Air Corps was taking the war to Japan.
“We’d go in the morning and they’d give us a piece of paper that said we need to refuel this plane, this plane and this plane,” said Sumrall, 87, of Baker.
Many of those airplanes were B-29s, the war’s most advanced bomber. With so many bombers coming and going, there was no reason to think there was anything special about one he fueled multiple times in 1945. The airplane name, Enola Gay, wasn’t a household name.
It certainly became one.
On Aug. 6, 1945, that B-29, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, the first atomic bomb ever used in combat. One more Tinian-based B-29, nicknamed Bockscar, dropped a similar weapon on Nagasaki three days later, and within a week the Japanese surrendered, ending history’s bloodiest conflict.
“We didn’t know when it left that it had an atomic bomb on it, but when it got back, we learned the Enola Gay had dropped an atomic bomb,” Sumrall said.
Sumrall was part of the 20th Air Force, which turned Tinian into the busiest air operation of the war. The B-29s attacked a variety of Japanese positions, and, as American forces advanced, focused on the Japanese mainland, attacking military installations, dropping incendiary bombs on cities and mines in waterways.
Sumrall was part of the 505th Bomb Group, whose B-29s were parked on hardstands on one of four runways that had been hastily constructed after U.S. forces captured the island in 1945. Then, in late June 1945, came the 509th Composite Group, which forced the 505th to relocate some of its airplanes to make room. Only one of the 509th bombers had the nose art that was routinely painted on American warcraft.
That was the Enola Gay.
The 509th received more rigid security, conducted its own training flights and did not go on missions with the other bombing groups, which led to much curiosity elsewhere on Tinian. Tail markings on the 509th’s B-29s were changed to indicate they were part of different bomb groups. One wag composed verse that became popular on the island, which began:
Into the air the secret rose,
Where they’re going, nobody knows.
Tomorrow they’ll return again,
But we’ll never know where they’ve been.
Don’t ask us about results or such,
Unless you want to get in Dutch.
But take it from one who is sure of the score,
The 509th is winning the war.
All Sumrall knew was that, when occasion demanded, the Enola Gay was one of the B-29s he had to refuel, a process that took two to three hours, depending on how empty the tanks were. Sumrall refueled aircraft of different groups and on several runways.
“Normally, what we do is we take two trucks and one gets on one side of the fuselage and one gets on the other side, and we had four wing tanks and we have a center tank between the (wings) in the fuselage, and it holds 610 gallons,” Sumrall said. “Then, we have bomb bay tanks, and those hold 610 gallons.”
When, on Aug. 6, the Enola Gay and five other B-29s took off — three to report on weather over Hiroshima and backup targets Kokura and Nagasaki, one to photograph the strike and another with instruments to assess the blast — it seemed like just another inexplicable mission. (Another 509th aircraft was on Iwo Jima as a backup in case there was a problem with any of the other planes.) The day after they returned, servicemen on Tinian got the news about the atomic bomb, Sumrall said.
“Everybody was saying the war’s going to be over,” he said.
It soon would be, but not before Bockscar — a B-29 Sumrall never refueled, but whose crew members he knew — delivered the second and final atomic bomb used in combat. Thereafter, bombers on Tinian dropped food and supplies to Allied prisoners of war. Sumrall met Tibbets at postwar reunions.
A Baton Rouge native, Sumrall lived in Pensacola, Fla., after the war, then moved to Baker in 1953 to work for W.R. Grace.
Sumrall retired as a maintenance supervisor from Allied Chemical in the early 1990s.