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Controversy Still Hangs Over Display of Hiroshima Bomber

On the morning of August 6th, 1945, a specialized B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The devastating blast became one of the most significant events of the 20th century, with a controversy that continues sixty years later. In recent years, the Enola Gay has been fully restored and put on display. The struggle over its legacy continues.

The gleaming silver bomber named after the mother of its pilot now sits among more than 100 foreign and American planes in a vast converted aircraft hangar in northern Virginia. Like other aircraft in the museum, a small label lists technical details about the plane.

A single sentence describes its fateful mission, "On August 6th, 1945, this Martin-built B-29 dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan."

For some survivors of the blast, the brief description is insufficient. When the display was unveiled in 2003, Sunao Tsuboi was one of the Japanese survivors who protested.

"If the Enola Gay is going to be displayed, they should also be displaying what exactly happened beneath that plane on the day that it dropped the bomb," said Sunao Tsuboi. "In other words, they should show the facts and the history behind the bombing."

Critics say the display has so little information about the bombing, because of controversy over a previous Enola Gay exhibit in 1995.

At the 50th anniversary of the bombing, the Smithsonian museum, which owns the Enola Gay, had planned a more extensive exhibit on the bombing and its legacy.

David Krieger, head of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a private U.S. group, said he supported that kind of exhibit.

"The Enola Gay exhibition was going to include more information. And some of that information just suggested different perspectives," said Mr. Krieger.

But others said the planned display focused on the Japanese victims at Hiroshima without sufficiently discussing the casualties from Japanese military action in the war. John Correll was an editor of the magazine of the Air Force Association, an independent group that had opposed the original plans for the exhibit.

"If you want to put a death count in front of the airplane, all right, you can do that," said Mr. Correll. "You can say that 80,000 people were killed at Hiroshima, and that the suffering was enormous. However, if you do that I'd say you've also got to add that 17 million, 17 million people, died at the hands of the Japanese military empire between 1931 and 1945."

Casualty estimates in the Pacific war vary widely. It is thought that some 80,000 people died in the initial blast at Hiroshima and as many as 60,000 later died from effects of the bomb.

Mr. Correll says he would have supported an exhibit that explored different interpretations of the bombing, as long as those perspectives were balanced.

"There are lots of ways you can talk about the Enola Gay," he added. "There are lots of ways you can talk about the atomic bomb. The problem was never that the exhibition was analytical, the problem was that the analysis was distorted."

The disputes were not only over the portrayal of casualties from the bombing, but also over the use of an atomic weapon. Richard Kohn is the former chief of history at the U.S. Air Force and, in 1995, was head of an advisory committee to the museum. He says scholars continue to debate the decision to bomb Hiroshima.

"Was it really necessary? Wasn't Japan already defeated? Wasn't Japan trying to surrender? Wouldn't the invasion of Japan have cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of Japanese and American deaths? All of these issues were on the table as early as 1945 and 46 as [then President Harry Truman] was making his decision," explained Mr. Kohn.

Back in 1995, controversy over the planned exhibit grew to involve members of Congress, war veterans, anti-nuclear groups and others.

The museum eventually cancelled the exhibit plans and instead created a smaller exhibit about the crew of the Enola Gay.

Then, in 2003, the museum unveiled the fully restored bomber, but avoided any analysis of the bombing, its impact on the war or its historical legacy. Richard Kohn is among the display's critics.

"It is in my judgment an enormous disappointment that the greatest museum complex in the United States could not muster the ingenuity and the imagination to use that airplane as a window into some of the most important historical events of modern times," said Mr. Kohn.

A spokesman for the Smithsonian museum says there are no current plans for a more extensive exhibit on the Enola Gay.