The Other Atomic Bomb Commander: Colonel Cliff Heflin and His "Special" 216th AAF Base Unit

By Dvorak, Darrell F. | Air Power History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Other Atomic Bomb Commander: Colonel Cliff Heflin and His "Special" 216th AAF Base Unit


Dvorak, Darrell F., Air Power History


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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)

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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.

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