Enola Gay: The first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb

The Enola Gay is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington Credit: Reuters

The Enola Gay is immortalised in history as the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, built in the US, was the first aircraft to drop such a bomb in an attack which continues to spark debate.

The aircraft was flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets, who named the plane in honor of his mother.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, Tibbets, then 87, described seeing the cloud rising up from the city after the bomb was dropped.

"It was black as hell and it had light and colours and white in it and grey colour in it and the top was like a folded-up Christmas tree."

But he said he had no regrets about dropping the atomic bomb.

"I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we'd be doing that I thought, yes, we're going to kill a lot of people, but by God we're going to save a lot of lives. We won't have to invade [Japan]."

The ground crew of the B-29 Credit: Reuters

The last survivor of the aircraft's crew, Theodore Van Kirk, died on July 28, 2014, at the age of 93.

In a 2005 interview with Associated Press, Van Kirk said he was convinced the bombing was necessary because it ended the war and avoided the allies having to invade Japan, costing more lives.

He described seeing a 40,000ft-high white cloud, and below him what he likened to "a pot of boiling black oil" after the bomb was dropped.

"I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run," he said.

But he added: "The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything.

“I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished. But if anyone has one, I want to have one more than my enemy.”

The Enola Gay returns from bombing Hiroshima Credit: Reuters

After the Second World War, the Enola Gay returned permanently to the US in July 1946 but fell into disrepair between 1953 and 1960 due to it being stored outdoors.

The plane was later disassembled and the parts put into storage.

Restoration work began on the aircraft in the 1980s, with staff at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington removing decades of corrosion from its metal surfaces and polishing its aluminium skin to its original shine.

In the 1990s, the museum came under fire for putting the plane's fuselage on display as part of an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Visitors look at the 60-foot fuselage of Enola Gay in 1995 Credit: Reuters

There was much debate that it would be seen to glorify or vilify the role the aircraft played in history.

The exhibition ran for three years, ending in 1998, before the entire restored aircraft was reassembled and put on display in 2003, where it remains to this day.

The restored Enola Gay on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington Credit: Reuters

A statement on the museum's website says: "In the end, the Enola Gay played a decisive role in World War II.

"It helped bring the war to an end in that after the bombing of Nagasaki, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, surrendered unconditionally.

"But perhaps more critically, it profoundly affected our concept of major conflict and the importance of maintaining global peace."