Thomas Wilson Ferebee, the bombardier in the crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II, died Thursday in Windermere, Fla. He was 81.
A career Air Force officer who retired as a colonel in 1970, Ferebee participated in a number of historic bombing runs during the war, first in North Africa, then in Europe and finally the Pacific. In addition to the Hiroshima attack, Ferebee was along on the first U.S. bombing raid on Nazi-occupied France in 1942 and was the lead bombardier for the Allies' first 100-plane daylight raid in Europe.
The Enola Gay's pilot, retired Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, served with Ferebee in the European campaign, handpicked him for his crew and called him "the best bombardier who ever looked through the eyepiece of a Norden bomb site."
On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay took off for a 13-hour flight to Japan with the first nuclear weapon ever deployed. Ferebee, then 26 and a veteran of 64 combat missions, slept most of the way to Hiroshima and didn't hear Tibbets explain to the rest of the crew what they were carrying.
The bomb took 43 seconds to fall and make its mark on history.
"At first, I saw this boiling on the ground and the stem [of the mushroom cloud] was going up and you could see buildings going up in the stem," Ferebee said years later in an interview with the Charlotte Observer.
The inferno killed 70,000 people immediately, reducing victims nearest the blast to blackened shadows on walls. Tens of thousands of others are thought to have succumbed later to burns or radiation poisoning.
Ferebee and Tibbets were blinded temporarily because they neglected to wear their dark glasses.
Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered five days after that, on Aug. 14, 1945.
Years later, Ferebee said he never felt guilty about dropping the bomb but felt regret about the death toll.
"I'm sorry an awful lot of people died from that bomb, and I hate to think that something like that had to happen to end the war," he said on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. "People have to go back and study the history of the war and the attitude of the people at that time," he said. "Everybody wanted the war to end. That's what I wanted the most. I wanted the bomb to work and end the war."
After World War II, Ferebee served as a deputy commander for maintenance in several B-47 Stratojet bomber wings. He flew aboard B-47s during the Cold War and B-52s as an observer during the Vietnam War. His decorations included the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Bronze Star.
A native of Mocksville, N.C., Ferebee wanted to be a professional baseball player as a youth but joined the Army in 1940. After two years of flying school in the Army Air Corps, he was assigned to be a bombardier.
His survivors include his wife, Mary Ann Conrad Ferebee, and four sons. Only four members of the Enola Gay crew are still living: Tibbets, navigator Ted Van Kirk, weapons officer Morris Jeppson and radio operator Richard Nelson.