It was 'the greatest flash that I had ever seen'

The Baltimore Sun


Janet Gilbert The American flags are down, the grills cooled, the sales circulars recycled: All signs indicate that Memorial Day is over. But memories of wartime remain fresh in the mind of veteran Hank Thielemann of Ellicott City.

Drafted after high school graduation, Thielemann remembers the day he reported for duty in the U.S. Army during World War II.

"I said, 'Dad, I'm ready to go.' My father was shaving, he turned and looked at me, and I'll never forget this - it was the only time in my life I saw a tear fall from his eye."

It's no wonder the elder Thielemann was overcome with emotion. When you look at Hank Thielemann's official Army photo, he looks all of 14 years old. Thielemann's father had served in World War I, as had Thielemann's four uncles. The family knew well the dangers of war.

Little did they know that young Thielemann would witness the first atomic bomb blast from his training station in Alamogordo, N.M. - less than 50 miles from Trinity Site.

Though Hank Thielemann did not see action in Europe, he saw plenty stateside.

"A lot of people don't know this," said Thielemann, 82, "but between 1942 and 1945, 15,130 men were lost learning to fly over the United States. There were more than 6,129 crashes in that time alone."

Thielemann said that because of the controlled press at the time, such information was not shared with the public.

Sergeant Thielemann was trained as a flight engineer and gunner with the Army Air Forces. He served from April 2, 1943, until Feb. 18, 1946. He was first sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground, to work in ordnance. Next, he was shipped to Texarkana, Texas, where he spent alternate weeks vulcanizing tires and participating in infantry basic training.

One day, the Army Air Forces came to Texarkana and administered the pilot test.

"From the time I was little, I had always loved planes," said Thielemann. "I was the kid in the goggles and the earflaps, always looking up to the sky when a plane passed overhead."

Thielemann and a friend passed the exam and were immediately transferred to Amarillo, Texas.

"But they washed us all out even before we got started," said Thielemann. "You see, the European war was coming to an end.

"First, I took B-17 electrical and B-17 mechanical, then B-29 electrical and B-29 mechanical. We were the first group to go through that [training on the B-29]. It was so sophisticated. The B-29 was a beautiful ship, the first pressurized cabin, with remote-control guns. She could go over 300 mph."

Thielemann and his crew flew training maneuvers every other day, for eight to 10 hours each day, so they would be prepared for the long flight to the theater of operations.

"We lost 200 B-29s over Japan," said Thielemann," and we lost 200 in the U.S."

He recounted a particularly close call for his crew.

"We had two runaway props," he said, indicating a dangerous situation that can result in engine failure. Thielemann recalled putting on and removing his parachute multiple times.

"At a thousand feet, I put it on. Then we'd be so low I could see clearly the length of the barracks and the dust being flipped up by the plane, and I'd take it off," Thielemann said. "We were a Mayday. We came down hard, but we didn't crash."

But even that could not compare to what he witnessed the morning of July 16, 1945.

"We were finished with our training, ready to go. It was around 5:30 a.m. when I sent my tail gunner back to start up an auxiliary engine, and I witnessed the greatest flash that I had ever seen," said Thielemann. "It was the most awesome explosion. It went from instant darkness to brilliant white - like the light of a hundred million flashbulbs. Then there were other colors - red and orange, yellow, green, purple, and at about 35,000 feet, a huge mushroom cloud came out. We had no idea what it was. A month later, we realized we had witnessed the birth of the atomic bomb.

"All flights were canceled that day, but we went back to flying the next day. The only thing I can remember was there was a tremendous breeze swinging by us," he said.

Thielemann was flying a training mission when he got word that the war was over.

He returned home, attended the University of Maryland, College Park on the GI Bill and became a history major. Throughout his business career, he maintained an interest in aviation, becoming a member of several museums, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. He used to frequent the Smithsonian's "Silver Hill," an area now known as the Paul E. Garber Facility, where planes were refurbished for display. It was there that he saw the B-29 Enola Gay in pieces on the shop floor in late 1994.

"I asked the guys, 'When are you going to get to the Enola Gay?' It was being bypassed," he said. "I wrote to the Air Force Magazine, and they put me in touch with eight B-29'ers from Chicago who had a petition to restore it."

Thielemann began speaking locally and gathering signatures for the petition, which states: "If the Smithsonian cannot display the Enola Gay proudly and patriotically, we respectfully request that the plane be turned over to a museum that will." According to Thielemann, the petition eventually garnered more than 20,000 signatures.

"You have to understand," he said, "when I went in [to the service], we thought, 'Our whole life we will be fighting this war.' Germany was in all of Europe. We thought, 'We'll be here forever.'

"As far as we were concerned, the atomic bomb saved our lives," he added.

The forward fuselage and other items of the Enola Gay were displayed at the Smithsonian on June 28, 1995; the entire refurbished plane was moved and exhibited at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., on Aug. 18, 2003.

"To see it complete made me feel good, that I had a little something to do with it," said Thielemann.

Thielemann recounted the emotional story of attending the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb test at Trinity several years ago. Because he was wearing a shirt that had a B-29 insignia on it, he was picked out of the crowd by a Japanese news crew for an interview.

Amid protesters and anti-American banners, Thielemann respectfully answered pointed questions about the use of the bomb. "A Japanese general had estimated Japan would have lost 3 million men in an invasion of Japan, with the United States estimated to lose 1 million," Theileman said.

Thielemann also pointed out that World War I ended and World War II started only 20 years later - and now it has been some 60 years since such a world war, a fact he attributes in part to the fear of the atomic bomb and its devastating capabilities.

Thielemann said he extended his hand at the end of the interview to the Japanese reporter, shook hands, and said simply, "Isn't this better?"

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