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One Vet's Story: Dropping the Bombs on Japan

Only one of two pilots still living, Raymond Biel didn't know the explosive he was flying was nuclear until after the attack.

Raymond Biel, a co-pilot in the atomic bombings on Japan, spoke in San Juan Capistrano Friday. Patch photo credit: Penny Arévalo
Raymond Biel, a co-pilot in the atomic bombings on Japan, spoke in San Juan Capistrano Friday. Patch photo credit: Penny Arévalo

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.

Syd Chaden November 11, 2013 at 01:33 PM
On this Veterans Day the nation expresses its appreciation for those who served, especially for those who gave life or limb. At the same time, the nation should express its outrage that politicians have sent our military into battles that they are not permitted to win, to pursue obscure or even undefined objectives. The last war that the USA unquestionably won was WWII. Some may say that we won the war in Iraq, but the success or failure of war is displayed in the outcome, and the ultimate outcome in Iraq has erased the value of whatever may have been won. In WWII, the US carpet bombed German industrial cities, turning them into ashes and rubble. The US carpet bombed and nuked Japanese industrial cities, turning them into ashes and rubble. Those were horrendous actions, but war is horrendous. We did those things in order to achieve the unconditional surrender of enemies whose horrendous deeds had taken American lives and jeopardized the civilized world. We demanded unconditional surrender as the only acceptable result for those who unconditionally gave their lives and limbs. But, the result of WWII was a far cry from the results of the “limited” and “police” actions that have occurred since. Our military are committed to risk their lives and limbs by politicians who don’t have the faintest idea of what war is like, and for whom political ambitions are the driving force. On this Veterans Day, the sight and sound of a politician, raising his chin in a Mussolini-like posture, pontificating about the selfless sacrifice of our wounded and fallen, offends me. Let those who truly understand what those who served have endured, and why they have sacrificed, honor them. On this Veterans Day, let the politicians be quiet and stay out of sight, so as not to pollute the honor that is due, and that is being given to our Veterans.
James A. Lohman November 12, 2013 at 06:58 AM
This article is inaccurate. The Nagasaki bomb was dropped from a B29 named Boks Car, which is now in the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) November 12, 2013 at 10:24 AM
Hi James, Thanks for writing, but I didn't name the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Biel's plane, the Full House, carried the back-up bomb. It wasn't needed that day. When the bombs dropped, they went out in a group, not a single plane. The 30 pilots of the 509th Composite Group are the ones credited with the atomic bombing campaign, even if, as individuals, they didn't all command the Enola Gay or the Bockscar.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) November 12, 2013 at 10:25 AM
Hal, please no cussing. Thanks.
Bill Johnson November 12, 2013 at 10:26 AM
Maybe it is his age but Ray Biel was a co pilot on the B29 Full House which was a weather plane. And there was no third A bomb as there were only two made at that time. A thrid one would not be ready for several weeks. One can google Ray Biel, Full House or the plane that dropped the second bomb Bocks car and read the full story.
Penny Arévalo (Editor) November 12, 2013 at 10:30 AM
The Full House was listed as carrying a back-up bomb on the Nagasaki bombing. Whether it was nuclear or not, I don't know (not sure that Biel does either). The Enola Gay did weather reconnaissance Aug. 9 (over Kokura).

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