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WWII vet witnessed history
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WWII vet witnessed history

Last surviving Air Force crew member recalls bombing Japan

First Lt. Jack Widowsky prepares for the missions that would bring an end to World War II. Photo courtesy of the Widowsky family
First Lt. Jack Widowsky prepares for the missions that would bring an end to World War II. Photo courtesy of the Widowsky family

Jack Widowsky learned that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima the same way as most other Americans: through a radio announcement by President Harry Truman on Aug. 6, 1945.

The difference for Widowsky, though, was that he wasn’t listening from the comfort of his living room, but from a B-29 bomber, now nicknamed Big Stink, on a return flight from Iwo Jima.  

The Big Stink was the back-up plane for the Enola Gay, which had dropped the first of two atomic bombs. Three days later First Lt. Widowsky and his squadron returned to the skies to aid in the launch of the second bomb, over Nagasaki, which led to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. 

The level of secrecy for the mission was so high that only Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, was privy to its details. 

“I didn’t even know what an atomic bomb was,” admitted Widowsky, 95, a resident of The Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living Residence on the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset. The Newark native and retired auto salesman lived in Hillside and then for 47 years in Union before coming to live at Stein eight months ago with his wife of 71 years, Florence.

Dressed in his original Air Force uniform, Widowsky spoke to members of the men’s club of Temple Beth El of Somerset who came to the Stein residence on Jan. 14 to hear from the last surviving member of the mission.

“We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew it was something special,” said Widowsky. “Paul Tibbets told us it was something that will end the war as soon as possible.”

Widowsky served as navigator on the Big Stink and the Laggin Dragon, the advance weather reconnaissance plane for BocksCar, which dropped the Nagasaki bomb. He was assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Composite Group. 

The dramatic events of those days are firmly ingrained in Widowsky’s still-alert mind. The bombs, he said, were so heavy they had to be loaded by hydraulic lift from a pit below the aircraft, and armed guards were everywhere. He said that the original target for the second bomb was to be the Japanese town of Kokura, “but there was cloud cover, so we went to the next target, Nagasaki, but we did the job.” 

Despite the immeasurable bloodshed that followed — according to CNN, 150,000 people were killed instantly, but many thousands more died later from radiation poisoning — Widowsky said he is proud of his role in a pivotal moment of 20th-century history, and has no regrets about introducing nuclear weapons to the world.

“I feel we did the right thing because it saved thousands of American lives,” he said. 

Noting that at the time the United States was preparing for a full-scale ground invasion of Japan that would have undoubtedly resulted in significant casualties, Widowsky said, “A lot of people objected to our dropping the atomic bomb; even Gen. [Dwight] Eisenhower of the U.S. Army felt we shouldn’t do it.” 

Widowsky’s conviction was strengthened during his many appearances at air shows over the years. Audience members who had family or friends who would have been part of the Japanese invasion inevitably sought him out.

“Many, many times someone would come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for saving the life of my brother,’ ‘Thank you for saving my father,’ ‘my friend who didn’t have to invade,’” said Widowsky. “At every show there was at least one person.”

He said that after graduating from Newark’s Weequahic High School, he worked for his uncle’s candy business and as a meter calibrator. He preempted the draft by enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942, hoping to be a navigator. He was sent to Atlantic City for basic training.

“The military had taken over all the hotels,” he said. “I pounded up and down that boardwalk and did calisthenics on that beach for months.”

Eventually he was sent to navigation school in Monroe, La., and to air gunnery school in Fort Myers, Fla. Later Widowsky was assigned to the 509th Composite crew in Fairmount, Neb., with whom he remained until the end of the war. They developed a strong bond and held regular reunions until about 10 years ago.  

Just as the squadron was to ship out to Europe their orders were changed, and they were instructed to go to Wendover, Utah, although the military wouldn’t tell them why. In Wendover, under the direction of Tibbets, the squadron trained using live bombs and flew practice missions, still never learning the purpose of the training. 

It was on one of those practice missions that Widowsky sustained his most serious injury. The crew was flying from Wendover to San Francisco when the pilots called Widowsky to the cockpit to see Alcatraz lit up at night. The gun turrets had been removed on the practice planes and covered with aluminum plating, but as Widowsky knelt to peer through the glass, “all of a sudden there was an explosion and one of the lower gun turrets, which had been boiled or soldered, blew.” Debris hit Widowsky, leaving him with two gashes on his head. The copilot threw an oxygen mask on the unconscious airman and he was treated in San Francisco. 

Widowsky was back practicing the next day.

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