509th Composite Group

The Mather AFB "Incident"

The following account demonstrates the intense security surrounding the missions of the 509th Composite Group.

In April of 1945, orders finally came through transferring the 509th's ground support squadrons to Tinian Island in the Marianas Group of islands in the South Pacific.  During late April and May, there was a gradual staging of these support units.  They quickly packed up their tools and assorted equipment and boarded troop trains for the West Coast where ships were waiting to transport them to Tinian.  Some ground crews, including that of The Great Artiste, stayed behind and would fly with the airplane to Tinian.

In early June, the flight crews received their orders to proceed to Tinian.  The flight plan of  "The Great Artiste" took it to Mather Air Force Base in California, where the crew would spend a few days processing paperwork for overseas duty.  Next, they would proceed to John Rogers Field in Honolulu, where the B-29 would be checked over and re-fueled.  Next, on to Kwajalein Island in the Pacific for another re-fueling and then to North Field on Tinian Island.

The addition of the ground crew as passengers on the flight to Tinian presented real problems.  As the biggest airplane in the world, the B-29 was a sophisticated bomber, not a transport plane.  It was designed to carry about ten men, not twenty.

Even without additional passengers, the B-29 was crowded.  In the nose, the bombardier was squeezed into a very small space, surrounded with delicate equipment, including the Norden Bomb Sight, a small table, and various controls.  On the flight deck, the pilot and co-pilot's seats were surrounded with instruments and gauges.  Behind the co-pilot, facing the rear of the plane, the flight engineer had a small seat in front of all his controls where he could monitor fuel supply and adjust the four engines for maximum performance.  Behind the pilot, the navigator also had a small chair and table for his charts, maps and radar scope.  Next to the flight engineer, the radio operator had a small chair and table.  The removal of the forward gun turret opened up a little room, but not much.  However, there was some open space in the rear cabin area created by the removal of the gun turrets and machine guns.

On approximately June 4th, with Major Sweeney in command, The Great Artiste "buzzed" Wendover Field for the last time and headed for Mather Air Force Base in California.  The Great Artiste was joined by 3 other B-29's also headed to Tinian.  The following account by then Lt. Fred Olivi, the co-pilot of The Great Artiste, sheds light on the intense security surrounding the mission of the 509th Composite Group.

"It was at Mather Field that I first learned what it meant to be the only second lieutenant among higher-ranking officers.  I was put in charge of security for "The Great Artiste" whenever it was on the ground.  Since we were scheduled to remain the night at Mather, this meant that I was responsible for protecting the B-29.  The enlisted men in our ground crew were assigned to guard duty."

I was new at this role as "Officer of the Day", and very awkward when I had to inspect their weapons; however, our sergeants helped me work out a reasonable schedule.  Checking on the men throughout the night also meant I didn't get much sleep."

This kind of armed security for our ultra-secret, modified B-29, at one of our own military bases, in our own country, may seem strange, but before we left Wendover, Colonel Tibbets had issued strict orders that no unauthorized person was to get "near" one of the B-29's.  And only members of the 509th were authorized."

"Authorized persons only" also meant everyone, including generals.  Later in the evening, the commanding general of the air base, who had heard about the strange looking B-29's without gun turrets, decided to "tour" one up close.  He drove out to the B-29 in his personal jeep to take a look."

The guard on duty immediately realized that the general was not an "authorized" person, since he was not with the 509th.  After some heated words, the general told the airman that he, the general, was going to board the B-29, and that the airman better get out of the way if he knew what was good for him.  The airman pulled back the bolt on his carbine and aimed at the general's chest.  He pleaded with the general saying that he would shoot if he had to.  The general finally did stop, but promised the airman, "I'm going to nail your ass to the wall".  The general got back in his jeep and roared off.  Although the general later complained both to Col. Tibbets and General Groves, he was told that they were sorry but the B-29's of the 509th were "strictly off limits" to everyone - it was a matter of national security - period".




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