U.S. restores famed Tinian airfield in the Pacific

TINIAN, Northern Marianas Islands — The temperature and humidity are reaching 90 on this tiny island in the remote western Pacific, and I am standing on undoubtedly the most famous runway on earth.

One of four runways that comprise North Field on this U.S. Micronesian territory about 50 miles northwest of Guam, Runway Able is where World War II was won.

At 2:45 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. Army Air Force Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. flew his B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” — named for his mother — from Runway Able and headed toward Japan.

Six hours later, the aircraft dropped the world’s first operational atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Named “Little Boy,” the bomb killed an estimated 75,000.

Three days later, at 3:49 a.m., a second B-29 left the same runway, also bound for Japan.

Piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney and named “Bockscar” after the aircraft’s flight commander, Capt. Fred Bock, it dropped an A-bomb called “Fat Boy” over Nagasaki, killing approximately 50,000.

Fearing more bombs would be dropped, Emperor Hirohito told his countrymen by radio on Aug. 15 that Japan would surrender unconditionally, and it did so on Sept. 2 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur presided over Japan’s formal surrender ceremony on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri moored in Tokyo Bay.

Today, nearly 69 years after the atomic bomb drops and the end of WW II, long-abandoned Runway Able and North Field are coming back to life.

Initially named Ushi Point Airfield by the Japanese, who had owned Tinian and neighboring Saipan since 1914, the islands fell into U.S. hands in July of 1944 when U.S. Marines stormed ashore and captured them following the bloody battles of Tinian and Saipan.

Ushi Point Airfield was renamed North Field, lengthened from 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet by Navy Seebees, and served as a launching point for U.S. air attacks against the Japanese mainland, the Philippines and Okinawa.

But after the A-bomb devastations, Japan’s surrender and the end of WW II, the U.S. closed North Field and its concrete and crushed limestone airstrips became overgrown by weeds and brush.

My exploration of Tinian began at the island’s small local field following a 10-minute, eight-mile flight from Saipan aboard a six-passenger Piper Cherokee, the only commercial air service available.

I was met by Oregon-born Don Farrell, a local historian, former high school teacher here and current chief of staff and military advisor to Tinian Mayor Ramon De La Cruz.

We visited San Jose, the island’s quaint little capital, the nearby fishing and commercial port, the Las Vegas-style 420-room Dynasty Resort and Casino that looms over the town and Taga Village, a collection of 15-foot-high limestone pillars called “latte” that were built about 1500 AD to honor native Chamorro chiefs and their families who, incredibly, lived atop the pillars in wood and thatch houses.

We then drove to North Field along Broadway Blvd., so-named because 40-square-mile Tinian resembles the shape and size of Manhattan Island.

As we neared the airfield, we came upon a rusting WW II Marine armored vehicle and the ruins of Japan’s massive wartime air operations headquarters, both partially hidden in the dense jungle foliage. And I also photographed the deep pits that housed the two atomic bombs before they were hoisted aboard the B-29s for their fateful flights to Japan.

As I stood sweltering on Runway Able, Farrell, 67, who sports a long white beard, told me that it and Runway Baker have been rehabilitated because of the current “pivot,” “tilt” or “rebalance” to the Pacific of the militaries of the U.S. and its regional allies to ward off possible adventures by China and North Korea.

U.S. bases, some run jointly with our allies, are being enlarged, built and reestablished in Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Guam and here at North Field, where a U.S. Navy amphibious ship recently disgorged a contingent of Marines and their heavy earthmoving equipment that included tractors, skip loaders and dump trucks which were used to clear the fields and repair its potholes.

Floodlights and a mobile radio communication van also accompanied the Marines, and in short order Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules transport aircraft were making day and night landings and takeoffs on the runways, the first here since the end of WW II, during training missions that involved wartime contingencies, search and rescue, and disaster relief scenarios.

Soon, military aircraft from Australia, South Korea and, ironically, Japan were joining their American counterparts on the airfield, and ground troops from the four nations also participated in artillery and ground-to-air weapons training at the field.

Although it is not known at this time if North Field will be permanently reestablished and rebuilt, Runway Able once again is in use following a 69-year break. As I stand on the field, I can almost visualize B-29s Enola Gay and Bockstar leaving on their frightful missions.


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