The Other Atomic Bomb Commander: Colonel Cliff Heflin and His "Special" 216th AAF Base Unit
Dvorak, Darrell F., Air Power History
The Distinguished Service Medal is earned for "exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility, in combat or otherwise." The U.S. Air Force's third-most prestigious award, it is rarely given to airmen lower than major general, but it was awarded to Col. Clifford J. Heflin upon his retirement in 1968 after thirty-one years of service. Heflin was recommended for the DSM primarily because he had commanded two vital, top secret and highly successful projects in World War II. Few people--military or civilian knew about those commands at the time, and even fewer knew about them when Heflin died in 1980. The story of his first command began to emerge in 1985 but remains little known, and the story of his second command is remembered only by his immediate family. Both deserve to be universally known because together they change the prevailing narrative of the Army Air Forces (AAF) role in the atomic bombing of Japan. This paper is based on Heflin's private records, overlooked primary sources, and prior scholarship. It addresses three key questions: Why was Heflin chosen for a top command in the atomic bomb project; what were his specific contributions to that project; and why has his story been overlooked?
After almost seventy years, "The Manhattan Project" is widely recognized as the codename for the massive, top secret U.S. effort to develop and use atomic bombs in World War II. (1) Less well known is the unprecedented authority wielded by one man, Army Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, who was Manhattan's Commanding General from June, 1942 to August, 1945. He later remarked, "No officer I ever dreamed of had the free hand I had in this project; no theatre commander ever had it and I know of no one [else] in history who has had such a free hand." (2) As biographer Robert Norris described it, Groves used his authority to build a 'juggernaut" and drove "it forward, ever faster, racing toward the finish." (3) The juggernaut Groves drove was centered on the AAF.
Over several months in mid-1944, Groves and AAF Commanding General Henry H. ("Hap") Arnold met to define the AAF's responsibilities. In March, they agreed that:
The AAF would organize and train the requisite tactical bomb unit, which, for reasons of security, must be as self-sustaining as possible and exercise full control over delivery of bombs on the targets selected. Manhattan would receive from the AAF whatever assistance it needed in ballistic testing of bombs and air transportation of materials and equipment. (4)
Further sessions between Groves and Arnold in July and August conceptually defined two key organizations, a "tactical bomb unit," designated the 509th Composite Group, and a "section" of Manhattan, codenamed Project Alberta, whose mission was:
... the completion of design, procurement and preliminary assembly of [bomb] units which would be complete in every way for use with active [nuclear] material; continuation of a test program to confirm in so far as possible without using active material the adequacy in flight of the components and assembled [bomb] units; and preparation for overseas operations against the enemy. (5)
In short, Alberta (also known as Project A) was to ensure that U.S. nuclear science was weaponized into functional bombs that could be accurately dropped by bomber aircraft specially configured for them, and that the bomb crews were successfully trained, deployed and provisioned for their missions. Alberta was the culmination of Manhattan, integrating years of work that by mid-1945 became focused at three primary venues:
Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico (codenamed Site Y and also referred to as Project Y and Project), where the scientific work of designing, igniting, controlling and packaging the nuclear devices was carried out under Manhattan's scientific director, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. About 6,000 personnel, most of them scientists or engineers, were stationed there.
Wendover AAF base in Utah (codenamed Kingman and also referred to as Site K and W47), the home of the AAF units that would undertake the ballistics work, train for the bombing missions, provide dedicated air transportation for Alberta, and implement overseas operations. More than 2,500 airmen were stationed there.
Tinian AAF base, on one of the Marianas islands in the South Pacific (codenamed Destination), where the aircraft, crews, support personnel, atomic bombs and supplies were marshaled, and from which the bombing missions to Japan were launched. About 1,400 men from the 509th and Alberta were stationed there.
Groves relentlessly sought the best people for Manhattan, regardless of military norms. In mid1943, he selected Navy Captain William S. "Deak" Parsons to lead the Los Alamos Ordnance and Engineering Division under Oppenheimer, because he believed Parsons was the best ordnance officer in the U.S. military. Later, in March, 1945, Parsons became Officer-in-Charge of Project Alberta, a measure of Groves's high confidence in him. (6) Parsons's deputy was another naval ordnance expert, Commander Frederick L. Ashworth, who spent most of his time at Wendover. Together they integrated the work at Los Alamos and Wendover to produce the bombs. (7) Groves, Parsons and Ashworth became as important to Heflin as his AAF chain of command.
In early September, 1944, twenty-nine year old Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets was selected by Arnold to be commanding officer of the 509th, primarily because Tibbets was an excellent bomber pilot, had combat experience, and for more than a year had been test-piloting and training crews to fly the new B-29 bomber. But the choice troubled Groves, largely because Tibbets's command experience was relatively limited. (8) In a 1970 oral history interview, Groves bluntly expressed his opinion of Tibbets:
"[Tibbets] was superb [as a pilot], but he had no officer capabilities, at all ... I don't think that you could call him a field commander ... Yes, at the time, I wanted [a more mature officer to head the 509th] but I wasn't going to interfere with what Arnold wanted ... it was a mistake to have somebody who was quite that young to be the head of [a Group]that was going to develop ... " (9)
The 509th would quickly "develop" into a freestanding organization of 1,800 airmen in eight units, a larger and more operationally diverse group than anything Tibbets had ever commanded. Groves undoubtedly would have done something to at least offset Tibbets's weakness, but no explicit records have been located detailing how he tackled the problem. However, several immediate developments appear to have addressed Groves's concerns.
The earliest may have been cryptically recorded in Groves's "diary" for September-October 1944. (10) On September 18, 1944, Groves asked to meet Arnold in connection with a disturbing report he had received from one of his science advisors, and in quick succession, Groves saw Arnold; talked with Parsons regarding Tibbets's "administrative difficulties;" talked with and then met Tibbets; and on October 19, again met with Tibbets along with Parsons, two science advisors, and the head of Manhattan security. For the remainder of 1944, Groves's diary does not record more about the subject which, suggests that Tibbets's "administrative difficulties" were solved or in the process of being solved.
Also in October, two of the first specially-configured B-29s CSilverplate" models) were assigned to Wendover's 216th AAF Base Unit (Special) for use in drop testing Los Alamos atomic bomb designs. (11) This was an unusual role for a base unit, which typically would only manage base-related functions, and may be the reason that the 216th was designated "Special;" but it is possible that the assignment decision pre-dated Tibbets's selection. The last development was that, sometime in the eight days between October 26 and November 2, a new base commander for Wendover was selected. This officer, a full colonel since May, 1944, was fully qualified to take on a broad range of operational duties that otherwise would have been handled by Tibbets's 509th or another operational unit. (12)
Three days after Groves's seemingly pivotal October 19 meeting, Col. Clifford Heflin ended a 12-month assignment as the first commander of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group, nicknamed the Carpetbaggers. Based in England, this unique, top secret unit had worked in concert with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), led by legendary Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, to help build disparate French resistance groups into an effective sabotage and guerrilla force. The Carpetbagger/ OSS objective was to help the French resistance to "harass, disrupt and divert" the German army's defense against the Allies' D-Day invasion. (13) Following Carpetbagger successes early in 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, ordered Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, Commanding General of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, to increase the size of Heflin's unit, which quickly grew to a force of 3,000 airmen, sixty-four B-24 bombers and several C-47s. (14) The Carpetbaggers' hazardous, low-level, moon-lit night missions across the English Channel steadily expanded from dropping …
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Publication information: Article title: The Other Atomic Bomb Commander: Colonel Cliff Heflin and His "Special" 216th AAF Base Unit. Contributors: Dvorak, Darrell F. - Author. Journal title: Air Power History. Volume: 59. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2012. Page number: 14+. © 2009 Air Force Historical Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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