Reader Report: ‘Do you realize the significance of this place?’

Former Newport Beach resident Don Farrell stands on historic Runway Able on Tinian's North Field from where two U.S. Army Air Force B-29s flew to Japan and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.
(Courtesy David C. Henley)

TINIAN, Northern Marianas Islands – The temperature and humidity are in the mid-90s on this tiny island in the remote Western Pacific, and standing on North Airfield’s historic Runway Able is a former Newport Beach man who used to scrub boat hulls at the Balboa Bay Club and the Newport Harbor and Balboa yacht clubs.

“Runway Able is undoubtedly the most famous runway on earth,” said Don Farrell, 67, a government official and noted historian who was raised in a cottage on Balboa Island and worked on boats as a teenager to help pay his way through college.

One of four runways that make up the long-closed North Field on this U.S. territory about 50 miles northwest of Guam, Runway Able is “where World War II was won,” Farrell said.

The concrete and crushed limestone airstrip achieved international fame at 2:45 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when U.S. Army Air Force Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. flew his B-29 Superfortress, the Enola Gay, named for his mother, to Japan.

Six hours later, the aircraft dropped the world’s first operational atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Named “Little Boy,” the bomb killed an estimated 75,000 people.

Three days later, at 3:49 a.m., a second Superfortress left the same runway, also bound for Japan.

Piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney and named “Bockscar” after the aircraft’s flight commander, Capt. Fred Bock, it dropped an a-bomb named “Fat Boy” over Nagasaki, killing about 50,000.

Fearing more atomic bombs would be dropped, Emperor Hirohito told his countrymen by radio on Aug. 15 that Japan would surrender unconditionally, and it did so two weeks later when Gen. Douglas MacArthur presided over Japan’s formal surrender ceremony on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri, moored in Tokyo Bay.

Farrell, who sports a long white beard and drives a 20-year-old battered pickup truck, has been a fixture on this sleepy island since coming here in 1987 from Guam, where he taught high school science for several years following two years of service as an Air Force enlisted man.

The recipient of a bachelor’s degree in marine biology and a teaching credential from Cal State Fullerton, he is the author of several books on Micronesian history and, currently, the chief of staff and military advisor to Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz.

Following my arrival here on a six-passenger, one-engine Piper Cherokee from nearby Saipan, the capital of the Northern Marianas, Farrell drove us to Runway Able along Broadway Boulevard, so named because 45-square-mile Tinian, population 3,500, resembles the shape and size of New York’s Manhattan Island.

“Growing up in Newport Beach was great fun,” he said as his rattling truck bounced along potholed Broadway. “Yes, I had to work hard on boats and odd jobs to pay for my college education, but I had swell times diving from the Balboa and Newport piers, roasting marshmallows in the Balboa Peninsula barbecue pits with girlfriends and hanging out with the dory fishermen.”

“When I moved to Tinian, I married for the third time. My present wife is named Carmen, and she is from here and a member of the Chamorro race, which is the predominant ethnic group inhabiting Tinian, Saipan and Guam,” he said during our journey.

When we reached North Field’s Runway Able, Farrell jumped out and walked to the center of the deserted tarmac.

“The B-29s took off from here to drop their bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago. Do you realize the significance of this place?” he asked as we explored the weed-covered runway surrounded by dense jungle foliage that partially obscures rusting U.S. Marine Corps tanks and armored vehicles and the bombed-out stone ruins of Japan’s WW ll military headquarters.

“The U.S. took over Runway Able and North Field, and then this entire island, after the Marines won the bloody Battle of Tinian against Japan in July of 1944,” Farrell said.

“That ended the reign here of the Japanese Empire, which had ruled Tinian and Saipan since 1914, when Japan, an ally of the U.S. during World War l, took over these islands from Germany,” Farrell said.

Germany had purchased the islands from Spain in 1899 for $4 million, and Spain had wrested them from the Chamorro chiefs in the late 1600s. So the islands have been colonized by foreign powers for more than 300 years, he noted.

As we were preparing to return to San Jose, Tinian’s ramshackle capital, a massive red bus arrived at Runway Able and disgorged about 50 Japanese tourists.

In minutes, they were taking photos of one another as they stood smiling on Runway Able.

Newport Beach resident DAVID C. HENLEY is the author of “From Moscow to Beirut: The Adventures of a Foreign Correspondent” and a member of the board of trustees of Chapman University.