Twenty two-year-old aircraft electric specialist Dan Jones had been looking forward to his three-day detached duty, a term the Air Force used for a brief vacation. There was not much opportunity for vacation in Saipan. It was basically a busy Air Force base surrounded by ocean on one side and rocky wilderness on the other.
In 1945, Saipan was a strategic point for the United States to launch airstrikes against Japan and had been won the previous year in a costly campaign. The Americans had lost 3,000 men while the Imperial Army of Japan ten times that, and the civilian casualties were uncountable.
From where he lived and worked in Saipan, Jones could see Tinian Island, just three miles across the water. His friend, Calvin Freeman, was stationed there. He and Freeman had grown up together in McColl, South Carolina, near the North Carolina border.
Jones had been in training to become a flight engineer when the Air Force assigned him and several dozen other students to be part of ground crews. It had been a disappointment to Jones at the time, but he was still doing a vitally important job working on the new B-29 bombers. In fact, these cutting-edge planes had been kept so secret that Jones’ training in them was under high security.
Unfortunately, his pal Freeman had to work throughout that summer weekend, but Jones grabbed a ride in a transport plane to Tinian Island. When he got there, he noticed someone on a ladder, painting letters on the nose of a shiny B-29.
It seemed like the least important thing to do on a B-29, compared to repairing temperature gauges or air speed indicators, or the other sort of things he did on a regular basis.
Sunday night, after Jones and Freeman had spent hours reminiscing about life in McColl, they went to grab some sleep. Freeman had to start work early the next morning. Sometime before 3 a.m., the two woke up from a flurry of noise and lights coming from somewhere in the North Field. Freeman told him that the North Field was under the command of the Twentieth Air Force XXI Bomber Command.
“Something’s going on along the south side of Runway D,” Freeman said. “It’s all lit up. Lots of flashing.”
“You think something’s wrong?” Jones asked.
“Looks like flash photography,” Freeman said. “I don’t know why they would be taking pictures of those B-29s. They’re usually just used as reconnaissance.”
It wasn’t until the following afternoon that Jones had any idea what had been going on. Out of a sky patched with deep blue and white clouds, a B-29 landed back at the airfield. There were several hundred people gathered to see the plane that Jones had watched being painted the day before. Now, he could see the finished lettering. It read ENOLA GAY.
It was August 6, 1945. The world’s first atomic bomb had just been dropped on Hiroshima. The war in the Pacific would soon be over, and Jones would be returning home.
Jones, married and had a career in electrical and general contracting. Now 94, he’s been a resident of Lee County since 1964.