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Frank Gray

Atomic Bomb eyewitness

Bill Barney, eyewitness of atomic bomb over Nagasaki, talks about it in this video

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
During World War II, Bill Barney of Columbia City and fellow airmen waited for a special mission they knew nothing about. It turned out to involve an atomic bomb.

Hoosier flew into history on secret mission

Sixty-nine years ago come Saturday, Bill Barney, who was just a 21-year-old farm boy from Indiana, helped make history.

As a radar operator on a B-29 nicknamed The Great Artiste, he and other crew members accompanied a plane known as Bockscar to Japan, where it dropped the second atomic bomb and hastened the end of World War II.

It was the culmination of nearly a year of waiting for Barney, now 91, and other fliers in his special group, who spent most of their time training and wondering exactly what their assignment was.

It all began in September 1944. Barney and fellow crew members were in Nebraska, waiting to be sent overseas.

Then one day, they re­ceived a notice. They were to go to Utah. It was there that Col. Paul Tibbets, whom Barney described as a man who would do anything for his crews, told them they had been picked for a special project. No one told them what the project was, though. They were only warned not to talk to anyone about what they were doing.

Other than that, they practiced. They dropped bombs, big bombs that weighed 4 1/2 tons and had, it turned out, the same casing as the Fat Man, something they had never heard of.

By and large, though, they waited.

“We were made a lot of fun of,” said Barney, who lives on a farm outside of Columbia City. “No one knew what we were doing.”

Other outfits, though, didn't get the privileges of the people in Barney's squadron. If they needed anything at all, if Tibbets invoked the term “tinplate,” they got what they needed right away.

Meanwhile, they flew. They flew to Cuba. They were told they needed to get used to flying over islands. “We spent more time in Havana,” Barney said. They hung out at a place called Sloppy Joe's.

Tibbets, it seemed, also had a tendency to develop engine problems whenever they flew over Las Vegas, so visits there became common.

“If we didn't have anything to do, we'd go to Salt Lake City,” Barney said. They even had rooms reserved in their names at the Utah Hotel, he said.

“All we were doing was killing time and waiting for them to get this done,” though no one knew what they were waiting for.

The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, 69 years ago Wednesday, was well-publicized, but it wasn't until the morning of Aug. 8 that Barney and other members of the crews involved were told they were to go on a mission in which a second bomb would be dropped. It was the job of the people on The Great Artiste to monitor scientific instruments to measure the power of the bomb. As a result, it was five minutes after the bomb exploded before Barney even got a chance to look out the window.

Barney said he really didn't grasp the historic significance of Nagasaki. It was just another mission to him, something they had been trained to do.

Barney became well-known immediately after the Nagasaki mission. But, he said, “People really think about it more now than they did then. Vets would come up and shake my hand and thank me for saving their lives” by preventing the need to invade Japan, he said.

“People still do that, but now they're thanking me for saving their uncle or someone else.”

Oddly enough, the planes involved in the Nagasaki mission were forced to land at Okinawa because they were low on fuel, but crews there wouldn't give it to them. They had no idea who they were. It was only after the pilots of the planes met with Jimmy Doolittle, who was in charge in Okinawa by then, that they got anything they wanted – anything.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.