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Charles Sweeney
Charles W. Sweeney.jpg
USAF Photo
Born (1919-12-27)December 27, 1919
Died July 16, 2004(2004-07-16) (aged 84)
Place of birth Lowell, Massachusetts
Place of death Boston, Massachusetts
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of the Air Force United States Air Force
United States Army Air Corps
Years of service 1941–1976
Rank US-O8 insignia Major General
Commands held 393rd Bombardment Squadron
102nd Tactical Fighter Wing
Battles/wars World War II
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima
Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki
Awards Silver Star
Air Medal

Major General Charles W. Sweeney (December 27, 1919 – July 16, 2004) was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and the pilot who flew Bocks Car carrying the Fat Man atomic bomb to Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Separating from active duty at the end of World War II, he later became an officer in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as the Army Air Forces transitioned to an independent U.S. Air Force, eventually rising to the rank of Major General.


Sweeney was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and began flying while attending North Quincy High School.[1] After graduating in 1937, he attended classes at Boston University and Purdue University, then joined the U.S. Army Air Corps on 28 April 1941 as an aviation cadet. After receiving his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant, Sweeney trained for two years at the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana.

Sweeney served as an operations officer and a test pilot at Eglin Field, Florida. In 1944 he was promoted to major and assigned as a B-29 Superfortress pilot instructor at Grand Island Army Airfield, Nebraska.

509th Composite GroupEdit

Sweeney became an instructor in the atomic missions training project, Project Alberta, at Wendover Army Airfield, Utah. Selected to be part of the 509th Composite Group commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets, he was named commander of the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron on 6 January 1945. Initially his squadron used C-47 Skytrain and C-46 Commando transports on hand to conduct the top secret operations to supply the 509th, but in April 1945 it acquired five C-54 Skymasters, which had the range to deliver personnel and materiel to the western Pacific area.

On May 4, 1945, Sweeney became commander of the 393d Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, the combat element of the 509th, in charge of 15 Silverplate B-29s and their flight and ground crews, 535 men in all. In June and July Sweeney moved his unit to North Field on the island of Tinian in the Marianas.

In addition to supervising the intensive training of his flight crews during July 1945, Sweeney was slated to command the second atomic bomb mission. He trained with the crew of Captain (Charles D.) Don Albury aboard their B-29 The Great Artiste, and was aircraft commander on the training mission of July 11. He and the crew flew five of the nine rehearsal test drops of inert Little Boy and Fat Man bomb assemblies in preparation for the missions.

On 6 August 1945, Sweeney and Albury piloted The Great Artiste as the instrumentation and observation support aircraft for the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.

The Nagasaki MissionEdit

On 9 August 1945, Major Sweeney commanded Bocks Car, which carried the atomic bomb Fat Man from the island of Tinian to Nagasaki. In addition to Bocks Car, the mission included two observation and instrumentation support B-29s, The Great Artiste and The Big Stink, who would rendezvous with Bocks Car over Yakushima Island. At the mission prebriefing, the three planes were ordered to make their rendezvous over Yakushima at 30,000 feet due to weather conditions over Iwo Jima (the Hiroshima mission rendezvous). That same morning, on the day of the mission, the ground crew notified Sweeney that a faulty fuel transfer pump made it impossible to utilize some 625 gallons of fuel in the tail, but Sweeney, as aircraft commander, elected to proceed with the mission.[2][3] Before takeoff, Col. Tibbets warned Sweeney that he had lost at least 45 minutes of flying time because of the fuel pump problem, and to take no more than fifteen minutes at the rendezvous before proceeding directly to the primary target.[4] After takeoff from Tinian, Bocks Car reached its rendezvous point and after circling for an extended period, found The Great Artiste, but not The Big Stink.[5] Climbing to 30,000 feet, the assigned rendezvous altitude, both aircraft slowly circled Yakushima Island. Though Sweeney had been ordered not to wait at the rendezvous for the other aircraft longer than fifteen minutes before proceeding to the primary target, Sweeney continued to wait for The Big Stink, perhaps at the urging of Commander Frederick Ashworth, the plane's weaponeer.[6] After exceeding the original rendezvous time limit by a half-hour, Bockscar, accompanied by the The Great Artiste, proceeded to the primary target, Kokura.[7] No less than three bomb runs were made, but the delay at the rendezvous had resulted in 7/10ths cloud cover over the primary target, and the bombardier was unable to drop.[8] By the time of the third bomb run, Japanese antiaircraft fire was getting close, and Japanese fighter planes could be seen climbing to intercept Bocks Car.[9] Poor bombing visibility and an increasingly critical fuel shortage eventually forced Bockscar to divert from Kokura and attack the secondary target, Nagasaki.[10] As they approached Nagasaki, the heart of the city's downtown was covered by dense cloud, and Sweeney and the plane's weaponeer, Commander Ashworth, initially decided to bomb Nagasaki using radar.[11] However, a small opening in the clouds allowed Bocks Car's bombardier to verify the target as Nagasaki. As the crew had been ordered to drop the bomb visually if possible, Sweeney decided to proceed with a visual bomb run.[12] Bockscar then dropped Fat Man, with a blast yield equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. It exploded 43 seconds later at 469 meters (1,540 ft) above the ground, at least 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) northwest of the planned aim point.[13][14] The failure to drop Fat Man at the precise bomb aim point caused the atomic blast to be confined to the Urakami Valley. As a consequence, a major portion of the city was protected by the intervening hills, and only 60% of Nagasaki was destroyed. Low on fuel, Bocks Car barely made it to the runway on Okinawa. With only enough fuel for one landing attempt, Sweeney brought Bocks Car in fast and hard, ordering every available distress flare on board to be fired as he did so.[15] The number two engine died from fuel starvation as Bockscar began its final approach.[16] Touching the runway hard, the heavy B-29 slewed left and towards a row of parked B-24 bombers before the pilots managed to regain control.[16] With both pilots standing on the brake, Sweeney made a swerving 90-degree turn at the end of the runway to avoid going over the cliff into the ocean.,[17] 2nd Lt. Jacob Beser recalled that at this point, two engines had died from fuel exhaustion, while "the centrifugal force resulting from the turn was almost enough to put us through the side of the airplane."[18] Japan surrendered six days later. After Bocks Car returned to Tinian, Col. Tibbets recorded that he was faced with the dilemma of considering “if any action should be taken against the airplane commander, Charles Sweeney, for failure to command.”[19][20][21] After meeting on Guam with Col. Tibbets and Major Sweeney, General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff for the Strategic Air Forces, confronted Sweeney, stating "You fucked up, didn't you, Chuck?", to which Sweeney made no reply.[22] LeMay then turned to Tibbets and told him that an investigation into Sweeney's conduct of the mission would serve no useful purpose.[22] In November 1945, Sweeney returned with the 509th Composite Group to Roswell Army Air Base in New Mexico to train aircrews for the atomic testing mission, Operation Crossroads.

Post-war activitiesEdit

Sweeney left active duty with the rank of lieutenant colonel on June 28, 1946, but remained active with the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Later promoted to full colonel, on February 21, 1956, Col Sweeney was named commander of its 102nd Air Defense Wing and shortly after, on April 6, was promoted to Brigadier General. He retired in 1976 as a Major General in the Air National Guard.[1] He also appeared in the 1970s television series "World At War" and was seen explaining the USAAF buildup to the mission raids.

Throughout his life Sweeney remained convinced of the appropriateness and necessity of the bombing, and near the end of his life, wrote a highly controversial and factually disputed memoir of the atomic bombing and the 509th Composite Group, War's End: An Eyewitness Account of America's Last Atomic Mission.[23][24] In War's End, Sweeney defended the decision to drop the atomic bomb in light of subsequent historical questioning. However, it was Sweeney's other assertions regarding the Nagasaki atomic mission, along with various anecdotes regarding the 509th and its crews that drew the most criticism. General Paul Tibbets, Major 'Dutch' Van Kirk, Colonel Thomas Ferebee and others vigorously disputed Sweeney's account of events.[25] Partly in response to War's End, General Tibbets issued a revised version of his own autobiography in 1998, adding a new section on the Nagasaki attack in which he harshly criticized Sweeney’s actions during the mission.[19][20][21]

In his later years Charles Sweeney performed in various air shows doing many maneuvers to awe crowds. Sweeney died at age 84 on July 16, 2004 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

A short documentary featuring an audio recording of Sweeney describing the Nagasaki mission preparation and execution called "Nagasaki: The Commander's Voice" was made in 2005. The 2002 audio recording was the last one made before his death.

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Charles H. Sweeney ; Led Bomb Drop Over Nagasaki (
  2. Polmar, Norman, The Enola Gay: the B-29 that dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, (2004), p. 35
  3. Miller, Donald, The Story of World War II, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-1198-7, ISBN 0-7432-1198-7, p. 630
  4. Miller, Donald, pp. 630-631: Tibbets stated that he told Sweeney to "go to your rendezvous point and tell the other planes the same thing I told you at Iwo Jima [the Hiroshima mission rendezvous]: 'Make one 360-degree turn, be on my wing, or I'm going to the target anyway.'"
  5. Miller, Donald, p. 631
  6. Miller, Donald, pp. 630, 631: Tibbets noted that regardless of any advice he may have received, Sweeney was the aircraft commander, and remained responsible at all times for command of the aircraft and the mission.
  7. Miller, Donald, pp. 631-632
  8. Miller, Donald P., pp. 630, 632-633: In making an unheard-of third bomb run with a $25-millon-dollar atomic weapon, it appeared to others that Sweeney appeared determined not to abort the mission and return with Fat Man, regardless of the risk to the aircraft or the flight crew.
  9. Miller, Donald, p. 633
  10. Miller, Donald, p. 632
  11. Miller, Donald, p. 633-634
  12. Miller, Donald, pp. 634-635
  13. Wainstock, Dennis D., The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb, Praeger Publishing, ISBN 0-275-95475-7 (1996), p. 92.
  14. Miller, Donald P., pp. 626, 638
  15. Walker, Stephen, Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima, New York: HarperCollins (2005) pp. 13-14
  16. 16.0 16.1 Walker, Stephen, p. 14
  17. Glines, C.V., World War II: The Second Atomic Bomb That Ended The War, Aviation History (January 1997), pp. 36-37
  18. Glines, C.V., p. 37
  19. 19.0 19.1 Puttré, Michael, Nagasaki Revisited, retrieved 8 April 2011
  20. 20.0 20.1 Tibbets, Paul W. Return Of The Enola Gay, Columbus, Ohio: Mid Coast Marketing (1998), ISBN 0-9703666-0-4
  21. 21.0 21.1 Miller, Donald L., D-days in the Pacific, New York: Simon & Schuster (2005), pp. 361-362
  22. 22.0 22.1 Miller, Donald L., pp. 361-362
  23. Puttré, Michael, Nagasaki Revisited, retrieved 8 April 2011
  24. Coster-Mullen, John, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, publ. J. Coster-Mullen, End Notes, (2004): Gen. Paul Tibbets, Major Dutch Van Kirk (Enola Gay's navigator), and other surviving members of the 509th Composite Group were reportedly outraged at many of the factual assertions by Sweeney in War's End
  25. Coster-Mullen, John, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, publ. J. Coster-Mullen, End Notes, (2004)


  • Brooks, Lester. Behind Japan's Surrender: Secret Struggle That Ended an Empire. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.
  • Grayling, A.C. Among the Dead Cities. London: Bloomsbury, 2006. ISBN 0-7475-7671-8.
  • Miller, Merle and Abe Spitzer. We Dropped the A-Bomb. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1946.
  • Olivi, Lt.Col.USAF(Ret) Fred J. Decision At Nagasaki: The Mission That Almost Failed. Privately Printed, 1999. ISBN 0-9678747-0-X.
  • Sweeney, Maj.Gen.USAF(Ret) Charles with James A. Antonucci and Marion K. Antonucci. War's End: an Eyewitness Account of America's Last Atomic Mission. New York: Avon Books, 1997. ISBN 0-380-97349-9.
  • Tomatsu, Shomei. 11:02 Nagasaki. Tokyo, Japan: Shashin Dojinsha, 1966.

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