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GENERAL CHARLES W. SWEENEY
Interview and background of CHARLES W. SWEENEY by Mike Moore. We wish to thank Mike for permission to add General Sweeney to our Military information.
United States Air Force Museum
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
April 19, 1995
Interview with Major General Charles W. Sweeney
Pilot who flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Jefferson Proving Ground (JPG) Madison, Indiana, conceived in October of 1940 and fully operational by spring of 1941 was the scene of a civilian-military partnership frantically preparing for war. On the 12th of December 1941 Charles W. Sweeney was commissioned a Second Lieutenant with the aeronautical rating of pilot and assigned to the JPG. Both the Proving Ground and the Pilot were to play pivotal roles in this nation’s defense for over fifty years.
The first aircraft came to JPG shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7. The bomber, a B-23, was accompanied by a Proving Ground detachment of the Army Air Corps commanded by Major John Waugh. Accompanying Major Waugh were pilots, Lieutenant (Lt.) Charles W. Sweeney and Lt. Robert Van Dusen. Later, Major Robert Van Dusen was killed in the Philippines just after the war ended. By early 1942 the B-23 had been replaced by two early production B-25s, and A-20 and an A-171.
General Sweeney was born on the 27th of December 919 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He attended North Quincy High School and graduated in 1937. He attended Boston University acquiring a certificate in Advanced Mathematics.
Lt. Sweeney rapidly advanced at JPG. He was promoted to First Lt. on 24 March 1942 and he was promoted to Captain on 22 February 1943. General Sweeney stated that he loved JPG and that Madison was a lovely city, but he wanted to get into the war effort.
In the spring of 1943, Major Waugh was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) and transferred to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida where he was to be Director of Operations. Capt. Robert Van Dusen became the commander of the JPG Detachment.
Capt. Sweeney once spoke to LTC. Waugh and asked to be transferred to Eglin. At this time the B-29 was a secret airplane. In July 1943 Capt. Sweeney was indeed transferred to Eglin as an Operations Officer and Test Pilot. In September of 1943 he met Col. Paul Tibbets who later dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Capt. Sweeney joined Tibbets’ unit in Jan.-Feb. 1944.
As state before, the B-29 was a secret airplane that had been developed out of Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio. Since the Program Office had not seen an operational B-29, Capt. Sweeney flew a Super Fortress from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida to Dayton spending two day at Patterson Field. At the time, Wright and Patterson Field were separate. On his return trip he made a short stop at JPG; this, landing the first B-29 at the JPG Airport where he had a short visit with his old friends.
In June of 1944, then Capt. Sweeney was detailed for B-29 instructor duties that included General Curtis E. LeMay’s B-29 transition training. Capt. Sweeney was promoted to Major in September of 1944. On the 4th of May 1945, at the age of 25, he became commander, 393d Bombardment Squadron. This was a B-29 unit that was assigned to Tinian in the Mariana Islands.
In the first seven months of 1944, the central Pacific islands of Kwajalien, Eniwetok, Guam, Saipan and Tinian were invaded by the Americans at tremendous loss of life on both sides. On Tinian the Engineers constructed 8,000 feet long landing strips in the coral, and at one point a valley was filled across to complete the length; 90 miles of hard-surface roads connected various parts of the island2.
On November 24, 1944, Brigadier General Emmett O’Donnell, led 111 B-29 Super Fortresses in an attack against the Musashina engine factory 1500 miles away in Tokyo. From the time on the islands of Japan were bombed with conventional bombs and later with fire bombs made of jellied gasoline until August of 1945. Approximately one million people were killed during this phase of the war. General Sweeney stated during this interview that, “President, Harry S. Truman, warned the Japanese government that it would rain terror from the sky like to one had ever seen before and still the Japanese would not quit.”
During all this time American scientists and engineers were feverishly working to complete the Atomic Bomb and Colonel Paul Tibbets, along with engineers from Wright Field was busy reconfiguring some 15 B-29 aircraft to accept the bombs. He also concentrated on training his men. General Sweeney stated he knew for 10 months that he and Tibbets would be dropping the bomb on Japan and was continually, totally involved.
The story of Hiroshima is told in books and movies. It is unnecessary to tell it again with the exception to note that the mission over Hiroshima was led by Colonel Tibbets flying the famous Enola Gay armed with “Little Boy” on August 6, 1945. On the Hiroshima mission, Major Charles Sweeney flew his B-29 named the “Great Artiste” with instrumentation packages on board. These packages floated above the mushroom cloud and telemetered data back to a scientist on board who recorded the readings. This mission went like clockwork.
Upon their return to Tinian, Col. Tibbets gave Major Sweeney the command of the next Atomic Bomb drop. Since the “Great Artiste” was configured for scientific data collecting, Major Sweeney and pilot, Fred Bock traded planes.
Fred Bock’s aircraft was called “Bocks Car”. So the second Atomic Bomb, “Fat Boy”, was loaded in the “Bocks Car”. This flight was fraught with danger for Major Sweeney and his crew but there was never any thought to ditching the B-29 in the water. General Sweeney said during this interview, I was determined to fly the plane right into a Japanese city if that was what it took to complete his mission.”
At 3:00 in the morning, August 9, 1945 Major Sweeney and his crew took off from North Field on Tinian Island to begin a journey to deliver a 10,000 pound package to the enemy. He already knew that one of his fuel gages was malfunctioning; thus he started out with 600 gallons less than normal.
The target was the steel-making city of Kokura, but clouds and smoke from previous fires obscured the target. Aware that they were short of fuel, nevertheless, Major Sweeney headed the plane to the secondary target, Nagasaki. Nagasaki was obscured by about eight tenths cloud cover so Major Sweeney was going to use radar to drop the bomb, but suddenly the bombardier yelled, “I’ve got it!” and Major Sweeney said, “You own it.” And the release was made.
Although he saw the Hiroshima blast, Major Sweeney did not see this explosion because he was turning the “Bocks Car” to avoid the blast. The bomb was dropped at 30,000 feet. The bomb was set to burst at 1,500-1,800 feet above the ground for maximum blast, though scientist also determined that this would reduce concentration of the radiation. It took 52.4 seconds from release for the bomb to explode. By that time Major Sweeney and his crew were 12 miles away. The concussion was more than they expected but the plane was not damaged.
Knowing that they were low on fuel, Major Sweeney tried every trick to save fuel. He did not “sight see” along the way, an ocean ditch was the last chance. He feathered the props back to 1600 rpm, knowing that he was probably ruining the engines. He hoped to make a landing on Okinawa and, finally, 12 hours after leaving Tinian, Major Sweeney landed the B-29 on Okinawa. He stated, “I was so tired that I didn’t even taxi the plane in. I said they could come and get it with a tug.” In the USAF Museum’s spacious conference room on 19 April 1995 Jim Hannah, Associated Press Reporter, asked General Sweeney, “Why are you just now coming out and telling about your story?” General Sweeney answered, “The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC announced that it was going to have a 50th anniversary display depicting the dropping of the two Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many veterans’ groups were upset at reports that looked like an attempt to portray the Japanese as victims by displaying the horrors of the destruction on the ground to the Japanese people. These veterans wrote their congressmen and congresswomen stating that the display was not fair to the thousands of American dead caused by Japan in WWII.” General Sweeney started getting calls from the news media, such as “Nightline” and others asking his opinion.
The response by Congress and Veterans’ groups caused the Smithsonian to change its display. The person in charge of the exhibit even resigned over the flap. General Sweeney, in his speech the night of the 19th of April state that, “The United States was not the aggressor in that war. We were savagely attacked at Pearl Harbor and thousands of Americans died wrestling the Pacific Islands away from the Japanese. An allied invasion of Japan was scheduled for November of 1945.”
President Truman was convinced that thousands or perhaps a million people would die in the invasion and so ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Five days late on August 14, 1945 Japan surrendered unconditionally.
General Sweeney wanted to tell the story straight, as it was. He is in a unique position in that he was there.
1 As told by Mr. Charles Keith Stewart who served as a civilian aerial observer at JPG during the period November 10, 1941 until he reported for active duty on February 13, 1943.
2 John Vader “Fire Raids on Japan”, History of the Second World War, published in 96 weekly parts. Marshall Cavendish Corp.
After the war, newly promoted LTC Sweeney joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard where he attained the rank of Major General. General Sweeney became a partner in the firm Kelley and Sweeney Leather Company. He married and is the father of ten children. He is a member of St. Agatha’s Parish, Milton, Massachusetts.
I would like to thank Mr. Graham Taylor of the Madison Courier, Madison, Indiana for allowing me to represent the paper at General Sweeney’s Press Conference. Special thanks go out to Mr. Bob Bobbitt and Diana Bachert, Public Affairs specialists of the Public Affairs Office at the United State Air Force Museum. Extra special thanks go out to Mr. Dave Koopman and James Antonucci of Kinsale Enterprises, Inc. who helped put this package together. Many thanks to the General himself, who allowed me to interview him on the time he was stationed at Jefferson Proving Ground-Madison, Indiana.
by Michael Moore:
General Sweeney stated that he loved JPG but he wanted to get into combat. While he was there (JPG) he dropped bombs form B-25 bombers and shot rockets from flights all at the North End of the Proving Ground. He became very familiar with North Vernon from the air. Some of the aircraft he flew at JPG were the P-47, B-25 and the A-20.
General Sweeney told these stories on himself about his tour at JPG. He liked to fly under the Madison-Milton Bridge. He received written orders not to fly under the bridge but he said he did it a couple of time when no one was watching. The other story was that when an aircraft that the then Lt. Sweeney was on made its final turn to fly over the Northwest corner of JPG near Nebraska, the bombardier opened the Bombay doors, a normal practice up to that time, eight 500# bombs fell out just before the aircraft crossed over onto JPG property. JPG personnel searched for the bombs, but never found them. George Miller in his column “It Reminds Me” in the Madison Courier has related the story that five bombs were dropped out. Keith Stewart believes that there were only three. We will probably never know.
In the evening at 7:30, General Sweeney gave a one hour talk, which is on video soon to be available to the residents of Jefferson County at a future date. After the talk, the general was given a standing ovation by the 500 people in the Carney Auditorium, plus the one hundred or so people watching his speech on video out in the lobby.
There is no doubt that Sweeney was a great patriot. He faced criticism after the war. Some people questioned whether the bomb was necessary.
Japan had chosen her fate on December 7, 1941. The misery and death she brought forth upon the world and her own people is well chronicled. In war the question is how do you inflict as much damage upon the enemy with as little loss to your own forces as possible? Even after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese vowed to continue. They were a defeated nation, whether they acknowledged it or not. The only conclusion was that they intended to inflict as much damage upon American troops as possible before their final demise. Without the bombing of Nagasaki, countless lives would have been lost and many of those lives would have been Americans. President, Harry S. Truman, made a decision that could not have been made lightly or without great deliberation. Those that lived through the war understood and supported that decision.
Sweeney carried out his orders in a professional and heroic way given the circumstances.
“As the man who commanded the last atomic mission, I pray that I retain that singular distinction,” he wrote in his memoir, “War’s End” (1997).
Major General Charles W. Sweeney, aged 84, died of a heart ailment at a Boston hospital on 16 July 2004.
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