Originally posted at 6:47 p.m. Nov. 10, 2013.
Of the 30 pilots and copilots who flew in the mission to drop atomic bombs on Japan, only two are still alive. One of them came to San Juan Capistrano Friday.
Raymond Biel, now 92 and a retired dentist living in Artesia, had no idea what he was getting into – not before he became part of this U.S. Air Force unit, the 509th Composite Group, or even immediately after dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Biel gave his life story to students at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools Friday as part of the school’s commemoration of Veterans Day. He was in college at the time of World War II, pursuing a girl he wanted to marry, when he decided to join the Air Force, which would reportedly defer his service until after graduation.
But then he got a notice his “deferment was deferred,” he said.
The service gave him an aptitude test and determined Biel should be a pilot. His training had him hopscotching all around the country. He learned how to fly at very high altitudes and drop bombs.
Biel specifically remembers training out of Edwards Air Force base, dropping what he and his colleagues called “pumpkins,” orange-painted “Fat Boy” bombs full of sand. After experimenting with other bombs, they had finally found one precise enough for … what, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it was top secret.
Working from Tinian, an island in the Mariana Islands east of the Philippine Sea the U.S. Marines raided in August 1944, a year later, Biel copiloted the Full House. Each plane had about 10 crew members, including gunners, bombardiers and the copilot. But their job this day was to determine the weather over Nagasaki. Turns out, all the action that day would be in Hiroshima.
He and his buddies did try to sneak a peek at a plane notably painted different, the Enola Gay.
“’No way, boys. Everything is top secret and you’re not touching that plane,’” they were told.
It was the Enola Gay that dropped the first-ever-used-in-war atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“Aug. 6, 1945 – history changed because we were ushered into what’s known as the nuclear era,” Biel told the students. But he didn’t learn exactly what kind of bomb was dropped until hours after the attack.
“We had no idea what that bomb did until we got back. We had no idea what we’d been working on for a whole year before,” Biel said.
Three days later, he and his crew again left Tinian for the 13-hour flight to Japan. The original plan was to bomb Kokura, but one man on one of the weather reconnaissance planes said cloud cover made the mission impossible. They headed for Nagasaki. This time, the crew of the Full House carried the back-up bomb.
Biel relayed the story very matter-of-factly, a man with no regrets.
“We felt like we were doing a service to our country. We saved 2 million people
by dropping the bombs. Invasion of Japan was two months off.”
And that girl he was pursuing? They both coincidentally made their way to California. And married.