People never remembered the name Chuck Sweeney the way they did Paul Tibbetts, the pilot of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
And Sweeney didn’t need them to.
Sweeney was a major on Aug. 9, 1945, when he flew Bock’s Car, the B-29 bomber that dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. He later retired from the Air National Guard as a major general.
On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995, the Smithsonian Institution mounted an exhibit that many, including Sweeney, claimed criticized the U.S. and made little reference to the destruction the Japanese wrought in China and throughout the Pacific before and after the United States entered the war in 1941.
Called to speak to a Senate committee on the subject, Sweeney said his piece:
“With the fog of 50 years drifting over the memory of our country, to some the Japanese are now the victims. America was the insatiable, vindictive aggressor seeking revenge and conquest. … Of course, to support such distortion, one must conveniently ignore the real facts or fabricate new realities to fit the theories. This is no less egregious than those who today deny the Holocaust occurred.”
The exhibit was changed, with the controversial script and other items deleted and the Enola Gay, the Hiroshima plane, made the focus.
Sweeney went on to write “War’s End: An Eyewitness Account of America’s Last Atomic Mission,” with co-authors James and Marion Antonucci.
Lincoln veteran Jim Vose invited Sweeney to do a book signing in Bangor, and Sweeney did so at Borders in June 1998.
The people Sweeney met that day spoke from the heart.
“Thank you for saving my dad,” said one woman. “He was in a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria. He did the Bataan Death March.”
Sweeney placed his hands on his forehead in dismay at what her father had gone through. “That was the worst,” he said.
The thank-yous to Sweeney continued — “Thank you for saving my life,” “I was in Europe, waiting to go to Japan,” “I’d like to shake the hand of the man who saved my husband’s life,” and “A salute and a thank-you from a member of the rank and file.”
Yet another man came to the book signing with his young sons, who had never known their grandfather. He brought them, he said, because he knew Sweeney had served with his dad in the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
Also waiting his turn to meet Sweeney that day was Roger Schick of Lincoln, who had been with the Marines at Saipan and Tinian in the Pacific. He saw the ruins of Nagasaki up close as part of the occupation forces after the war.
“I walked through the ashes at Nagasaki, too,” he told Sweeney, taking the general’s arm. “You and I know something.”
“The Marines came through,” Sweeney said.
“So did the Air Force,” came the reply.
Then-Bangor Mayor Tim Woodcock, though too young to remember the war, greeted Sweeney when he arrived at the airport in Bangor.
Woodcock had his own connection to V-J Day. His uncle Bill Carlin was on the battleship Missouri when Japan signed the surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.
Woodcock in 1998 called Sweeney “a true American hero who brought to a conclusion the bloodiest war” and thus saved countless lives on both sides of the fighting.
Sweeney also spoke at the American Legion convention that weekend in Bangor, praising the group for opposing the Smithsonian’s initial exhibit.
Concluding his comments about the sacrifices of the service personnel, the general choked up a little while remarking that everyone “who served this nation at any time, especially wartime, is dear to my heart.”
While Tibbetts and Sweeney were on Tinian preparing to make their momentous flights, troops waiting in the Pacific expected that invading the Japanese mainland would be next.
The 157-foot Landing Craft Infantry 565, after battles at Leyte, Luzon and Okinawa, was undergoing repairs at Pearl Harbor.
“We knew we were going to Japan, because that was the next place to go, there was no question,” said my father, Gayland Moore Jr. of Abbot — who was 21 at the time and a motor machinist’s mate 2nd class — some 50 years after the war ended. “They predicted a million men would die, on the invasion only.”
Those serving in the Pacific certainly didn’t expect a surrender from Japan anytime soon.
“[In recent months the Japanese had] fought differently,” Moore said. “Before, like Leyte, they met you at the beaches and tried to throw you off. Later, at Peleliu, they were dug in. Iwo Jima, they were dug in. Okinawa, they had more than 100,000 men dug in underground, at the southern end of the island. You’d fight them and never see them. From our patrols, we could look onto shore and see them with flame-throwers.”
He also spoke of seeing kamikazes hit the USS Columbia and the USS Twiggs, killing hundreds of sailors.
Back in Hawaii in July 1945, Moore found that Oahu contained not only ample repair facilities and rest camps with beautiful beaches but also opportunities to see daily baseball games played by naval personnel, many of them major-leaguers such as Stan Musial and Ray Lamano.
“The armed services were really big on baseball because it was a morale-builder,” Moore said. “I remember one time the pitching was bad, so they put in Musial as a pitcher.”
With so many service personnel in one place, there were frequent stories about the war ending.
“They had false alarms, false rumors several times of surrender,” Moore said. “There would be all kinds of noise. They would say the war was over, and it wasn’t.
“We read about Hiroshima in the Honolulu Star,” he said. “We got that paper nearly every morning. I never heard of an atomic bomb. When they dropped two, you really didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t tell us how much damage was done. They didn’t know.”
With the war ended on Sept. 2, repair work ceased on the 565.
Moore and his crewmates stayed in Hawaii until Oct. 2, when they were among 3,000 troops brought back to San Francisco on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.
No doubt Chuck Sweeney had saved LCI 565 by bringing the war to a close at Nagasaki, I told the general on his visit to Bangor.
“Tell your dad I’d like to meet him and thank him for all he did,” was his response.
Sweeney remained firm in the belief that flying Bock’s Car was his duty, but he knew well that the atomic bomb was a weapon of terrible proportions.
Pausing by the World War II Memorial at Cole Land Transportation Museum, with its bronze statue of Bangor native Charlie Flanagan in a World War II Jeep, Sweeney said his prayer was that nuclear weapons would never be used again, “and that all the people of the world will be given the chance to choose their leaders peacefully.”
Editor’s note: Maj. Gen. Charles Sweeney died July 16, 2004. Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbetts died Nov. 1, 2007. Roger Schick died Nov. 17, 2006. Gayland Moore Jr. died May 29, 2002. Charlie Flanagan was killed in World War II in Germany, Nov. 25, 1944.