Seventy-one years ago this month, the 509th Composite Wing executed the first operational deployment and use of nuclear weapons in history.
In the context of the Manhattan Project, the historic development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., and also the Enola Gay and Bockscar, are the most familiar stories in both popular culture and military circles.
What is not well known, however, is the role of Col. Cliff Heflin, one of Air Force Special Operations first leaders, and how his involvement contributed the success of the program.
Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, had identified early on that Col. Paul Tibbets, 509th CW commander, would require significant assistance as he stood up the organization.
“Groves had the highest respect for the flying abilities and skills of Tibbets and stated that he was a superb pilot, but was quickly disconcerted to learn Tibbets was having administrative difficulties as he attempted to manage the tremendous organizational and technical requirements the 509th would need to develop quickly in order to deliver the atomic bombs,” according to Groves’ diary.
In response to Groves’ concerns, Gen. Hap Arnold selected Col. Cliff Heflin to assume development of the military tactics, techniques and procedures for support requirements needed to synchronize the atomic program with the 509th's mission. Groves’ diary also recounts that his staff met with Heflin and approved his selection.
At the time, Heflin had just returned from Europe, where he led the 801st/592nd Bomb Group from 1943 – 1944, developing the first large-scale Aviation Special Operations capabilities, otherwise known as Operation Carpetbagger.
Heflin's experience in growing and commanding a large, top secret organization was exactly what Groves needed. As a result, Heflin was given command of the 216th Army Air Forces Base Unit based at Westover Air Base, Utah.
Unit diaries reflect that Heflin not only functioned as the 509th's mission support leader, but personally flew many of the B-29s as they conducted the ballistic and operational testing. Had a further atomic bomb been needed, Tibbets wrote that “Heflin…had been chosen to fly bomb No. 3.”
Heflin’s key contributions in the Manhattan Project highlights the often unheralded efforts made by mission support personnel every day.
For more information about Heflin’s role in supporting the Manhattan Project and the Carpetbaggers over France during WWII, click here.