George Marquardt

Pilot of the 'Necessary Evil' on the mission to drop the world's first atomic bomb

George William Marquardt, pilot and steel salesman: born Princeton, Kentucky 14 July 1919; married 1945 Bernece Johnson (three sons, one daughter); died Murray, Utah 15 August 2003.

In the early hours of 6 August 1945, George Marquardt was one of seven B-29 pilots who took off from the Pacific island of Tinian for the purpose of dropping the world's first atomic bomb on Japan.

Some of the planes later split off from the main group to assess weather conditions over several cities. Marquardt's job, though, was to stay close to the plane that would eventually drop the bomb over Hiroshima, Enola Gay. His crew was made up of technicians assigned to capture the moment of detonation. Unlike Enola Gay, their B-29 was known only by its number, 91 - although it was subsequently given the portentous and perhaps revealing nickname Necessary Evil.

Marquardt performed his duties flawlessly, flying just behind and to the left of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of Enola Gay. The flash from the blast was so intense that he was temporarily unable to see his co-pilot, Jim Anderson, and everyone developed a taste of lead in their mouths. As he later recalled: "It felt as if a monster hand had slapped the side of the plane . . . It seemed as if the sun had come out of the Earth and exploded. Smoke boiled around the flash as it rose."

The crew members had crowded into the cockpit, and the chief scientific observer, Bernard Waldman, was wielding a special high-speed film camera loaded with just six seconds of footage. Waldman started the camera rolling too early, and lost 5.5 seconds before the bomb detonated. It later transpired he had also forgotten to open the shutter, so his efforts were entirely wasted.

Two other crew members, however, had disobeyed orders not to bring their own cameras and captured the grim moment for posterity. As the flash subsided, Marquardt followed Enola Gay and a third plane, loaded with blast gauge instruments, as they circled the bulging mushroom cloud three times before heading back towards base. Everyone on board remained deadly silent.

Marquardt was by then a seasoned pilot, having volunteered for the Air Army Corps in 1940, well before Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the Second World War. He and the rest of the atom bomb team had spent months on practice runs, dropping "pumpkins" into the Mojave desert in California and experimenting with "proximity fuses" to make the bomb explode shortly before it hit the ground.

On 9 August, the day of the Nagasaki bomb, he was back on duty, flying Enola Gay on a weather reconaissance mission over Kokura, the city initially favoured for attack. Had there been a third atom bomb, Marquardt would have been assigned to fly the plane that dropped it. But the Japanese surrendered first.

In common with his comrades, Marquardt had no qualms about what he did. "I have never for one moment regretted my participation in the dropping of the A-bomb," he told a newspaper interviewer on the 50th anniversary of the bombings in 1995. "It ended a terrible war."

Once out of uniform, he returned to a quiet life and a long career with the Allen Steel Corporation in Salt Lake City. He and his wife Bernece, whom he had married just one week before flying to Tinian for the A-bomb assignment, became Mormons and enjoyed a large and happy family.

Andrew Gumbel

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