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BOMB GROUP RETURNING TO WENDOVER ON MISSION OF PEACE

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When George Marquardt looks back over the span of 45 years, he rivets on a millisecond - the vibration of the steeply banking B-29 and the fireball, always the fireball, rising from the blackened smudge of Hiroshima.

"It was such a terrific blast," recalls the pilot of a chase plane that accompanied the Enola Gay on its Aug. 6, 1945, mission. "It was like the sun had come out of the ground and just exploded."More than half a lifetime later, Marquardt and other members of the 509th Composite Group, whose mission it was to drop the atomic bomb, will gather on the salt desert west of Salt Lake City to celebrate the peace they believe it brought.

More than 200 of its 1,700 members are expected at the visitors center in the border town of Wendover, Nev., on Aug. 25 for dedication of a peace memorial.

They will include Marquardt, retired Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, who flew the Enola Gay, and retired Maj. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Sweeney, who piloted "Bock's Car," the B-29 that dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki three days after the Hiroshima raid. Five days later, Japan capitulated, ending World War II.

Among those addressing the group will be Hideaki Kase, a journalist, author and adviser to two Japanese prime ministers. By telephone from Tokyo, Kase said the idea of speaking to a group of his country's former enemies is disconcerting.

"It is very hard to come up with appropriate words," said Kase, who nevertheless will discuss the memorial's significance to a country which he believes bought world peace with the lives of nearly 200,000 atomic victims.

"What I know is this. Japan during the war also had a program to develop a nuclear bomb, and had we succeeded I'm sure we would have used it," he said. "We have no ground to complain."

The ceremonies will include dedication of a 16-foot obelisk honoring the 509th, "all who contributed to bring this dreadful war to an end" and the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "for their sacrifice to mankind's struggle for a more peaceful world."

Kase said he hopes to tell members of the 509th that the lesson found in the rubble of those cities was worth the price.

"The fact that there was no third world war proves partly their point," he said. "It was this power that has prevented it. Peace through strength."

The 70-year-old Sweeney agrees. "As a military man, I think . . . maybe we stopped some world wars," he said from his home in Milton, Mass.

The 509th, with Tibbets in command, was formed in September 1944 specifically to be trained to drop the "gadget" being developed at Los Alamos, N.M. The unit consisted of 15 modified B-29s, 220 officers and 1,500 enlisted men.

Tibbets chose Wendover, Utah, as the group's base because of its isolation and also for its relative proximity to Utah and California bombing ranges.

"We never questioned what we were doing or why . . . We were dedicated to Tibbets," said Marquardt, 71.

In June 1945, shortly after scientists detonated the first atomic device near Alamogordo, N.M., the group was sent to Tinian Island in the South Pacific in anticipation of its mission.

Meanwhile, crews at Wendover assembled three bomb casings, minus their super-secret guts, and had them flown to the forward group.

The 509th peppered Japan with high-explosives until the "Little Boy" uranium device arrived. It was loaded aboard the Enola Gay and, at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, was detonated 1,870 feet above Hiroshima.

Three days later, "Fat Man," a plutonium bomb, was dropped over the secondary target of Nagasaki.

Over the years, Sweeney, Marquardt and Tibbets repeatedly have been quoted as saying they felt neither remorse nor regret for dropping the bombs.

"If I ever approach that feeling, I start thinking about the rape of Nanking, and the duplicity of them lying to our president while they were bombing Pearl Harbor," said Sweeney. "I think of all my classmates who were killed."

Marquardt, Sweeney and other 509th veterans returned to Hiroshima last November to film a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary. There, they were introduced to a Japanese doctor, the son of a physician who witnessed the devastation wrought by the bombing.

The doctor said his father afterward had told him that he was sorry he had ever been a doctor, that he had never seen such cruelty and that he could not comprehend the inhumanity of those who had inflicted it.

Not until the end of the meeting was the Japanese doctor told who the Americans were.

"Tears came into his eyes," Marquardt said. "He said, `I wish my dad was here to meet you guys.' He was bewildered, you could see it. His expressions changed . . . he didn't know what to say.

"That was the only time in all these years I've felt remorse," Marquardt said in a telephone interview.

A few minutes later, Marquardt called back.

"There was a word I used that I want to change," he said. "Remorse. I don't like it. Change it to `saddened.' "