In the 1980s, the Smithsonian began restoring the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. By then it was a complete mess. Over the years it had been disassembled, spread across multiple buildings, birds had nested in its engines, a turret had been smashed, its wheels had decayed, and its parts were corroded from being left out in the wind, sun and rain.
Workers invested an estimated 300,000 hours on the task, sorting through countless parts and polishing its aluminum skin until the iconic B-29 Superfortress — one of the most famous planes in the world — once more took shape. But among the missing pieces was the cap that snapped into the control wheel where the pilot, Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., guided the plane. The cap, a stylish black affair with “B-29” and “Boeing” written to form the wings of a silhouetted bomber, was gone. The restorers scoured the country, tapping into a network of collectors and aircraft aficionados to locate a vintage replacement.
What became of the original cap? It seemed destined to be forever lost.
Recently, I sat before my class at Boston College discussing John Hersey’s influential book “Hiroshima,” as part of a course that looks at stories that changed history. I spoke of my time in Hiroshima on assignment for National Geographic and of my interviews with the hibakusha — survivors of the bomb. At the end of the long table, Katie Rich, a senior philosophy major, seemed particularly engaged, but said little.
After class she came up to me and said that her father had a piece of the Enola Gay.
She had my full attention. Two summers earlier she had asked her father about a small object in a shadow box that had “B-29” and “Boeing” on it. She had been vaguely aware of its presence all her life, but now was curious enough to ask what it was. Her father, Robert John Rich Jr., explained that it was the center of the steering wheel from the Enola Gay. Her grandfather, she was told, had removed the cap more than a half-century earlier.
Katie had her doubts. But she went online and found photos of the cockpit before restoration and, sure enough, the cap to the pilot’s wheel was empty. (A later Smithsonian news release confirmed the piece was missing.)
And how did the Rich family come by such an artifact? Talk to my dad, Katie said. First, she called her father to see if he would be willing to do that — he had a momentary misgiving, but then decided to reveal the family history, joking, “They can’t court-martial my father 20 years after he died.” Like Katie, her father had been aware of the object throughout his childhood, noticing it disappearing and reappearing in various drawers and bookshelves.
“We played with it as kids,” he said. “It kind of looked like a car horn. We didn’t know what it was.” At some point it resurfaced in a shadow box along with various wings his father had saved from years in the Air Force. It bore no description, but was protected like a relic or talisman. Mr. Rich knew his father had never flown a B-29 — in World War II, he had been a navigator on a C-46 cargo plane flying the Burma Hump — and so he asked what was so special about the piece.
“It was from the Enola Gay,” his father said, and he had come into possession of it not long after the war ended.
Then Mr. Rich was stationed at the dry and dusty Davis-Monthan Army Air Field outside Tucson, where more than 200 C-47s and 600 B-29s had been relocated for long-term storage — “mothballed.” Many were destined to be taken apart for their metal. On a walk through the boneyard, as it came to be called, he saw a B-29 with the name Enola Gay drawn boldly in black letters on the nose of the fuselage.
Perhaps imagining that the plane might face a fate like so many others — reduced to scrap — Robert John Rich Sr. climbed up into the cockpit and liberated the cap from the wheel, putting it in his pocket as a souvenir.
He died in 1994 at the age of 75 — just as the Smithsonian was preparing to present a portion of the plane for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. (The museum’s display of a section of the Enola Gay’s gleaming fuselage rekindled the debate about the justification for using the A-bomb, which caused friction between some veterans and other observers, like historians. For the veterans, any focus on civilian casualties or the dawning of the nuclear age was seen as muddying their sacrifices and victory.)
Today, the onyx-black piece from the B-29 still hangs in the Rich family home outside Minneapolis, a brief note scrawled across the backing of the frame explaining its link to history. Robert John Rich Jr., also a former Air Force captain, understands well the singular place the Enola Gay occupies.
He has never seen the Enola Gay, now a part of the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. “It’s on my bucket list,” he says.
And what, I ask, if the Smithsonian should reach out to him and ask if he would be willing to allow the piece to be reunited with the plane? “I think that would be the right place for it,” he said. “I think it would be cool to give it to them and trade it for a different one.” Katie, too, is on board. “I love that idea.”
“It is a marvelous story,” says Peter Jakab, the National Air and Space Museum’s chief curator. “It’s great when things you think are lost resurface.” Once the object’s provenance is verified, he says, the museum would most likely welcome the piece, though a trade is not something the museum usually does. “I’m not saying it never happens,” he says, seeming to leave the door slightly ajar.
Ted Gup is an author who teaches at Emerson College and at Boston College.