Most would probably agree on these points about the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that in August 1945 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in the first of two atomic strikes that led to Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.
But as it is made available to public view in December in an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum's new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, the bomber will be flying amid the turbulence of an ongoing debate over whether museum curators are accurately and responsibly telling its story.
"You have to talk about human victims," said Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, one of several groups pushing the museum to include in the exhibit's explanation more information about the destruction caused by the bomb.
"Personally, I would show pictures of the devastation," Martin said.
Led by Peter Kuznick, a History professor at American University, Martin and others have responded to the Enola Gay exhibit by forming the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy. The group's main issue is that it believes the exhibit portrays the bomber only as a "magnificent technological achievement," glorifying the bombing while ignoring the casualties and destruction it caused, according to the committee's Web site, enola-gay.org.
Historians estimate the bomb, called Little Boy, killed more than 140,000 people, a toll that rose three days later when another U.S. bomber -- Bockscar -- dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing another 70,000. The death toll continued to climb for years as the effects of radiation poisoning were felt, historians say.
The exhibit's description of the plane does mention that the Enola Gay and Bockscar bombed Japan, and cites the dates of the missions.
Kuznick in October circulated a petition among scholars, veterans, clergy, activists, students and others, and sent it to museum Director retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Dailey. They hoped the exhibit would be changed to include historical context, current debates about nuclear policy and facts about the casualties caused by the bombing.
The critics are concerned that "such a celebratory exhibit both legitimizes what happened in 1945 and helps build support for the Bush administration's dangerous new nuclear policies," according to a letter on the committee's Web site.
"What we're saying is history has consequences," Kuznick, who is also director of American University's Nuclear Studies Institute, said in a telephone interview. "We see this as part of a dangerous attempt to get more acceptance of nuclear weapons."
Despite that the petition had more than 300 signatures, which was more than Kuznick had expected, it has not swayed the museum, which has decided to keep the exhibit the way it is.
Museum officials no longer comment on the matter, referring all questions to a statement on its Web site.
"This type of label is precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum," the statement says.
"Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history. Over the 27 years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view."
The Enola Gay -- named after the mother of its pilot, Paul W. Tibbets Jr. -- stands in a massive hangar-like structure among many other aircraft at the museum's new facility at Dulles International Airport. The $311-million museum opens to the public Dec. 15.
Among the other air- and spacecraft there are the first FedEx plane, the Air France Concord and the space shuttle Enterprise. There will eventually be more than 200 aircraft and 135 large space artifacts as more is added over the next four to five years, museum spokesmen said.
Because the complex is much larger than its flagship facility on the National Mall -- which since 1976 has housed such notable artifacts as the Wright brothers' flyer and the Apollo 11 command module - it can house the collection's largest artifacts, many of which the public has never seen.
Standing 29 feet, 7 inches from the floor and with a wingspan of more than 140 feet, the B-29 Superfortress is among the largest craft in the hangar. It is the first time in more than four decades it has been displayed in one piece. Its extensive cleaning and restoration required more than 300,000 hours of work beginning in 1984 and ending August 2003, spokesmen said.
"It was probably our most difficult restoration," said Bob van der Linden, curator of air transportation for the museum. "It's a very complex machine."
This is not the first time the Enola Gay has been troublesome to Smithsonian officials. An attempt to display a portion of its fuselage at the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington in 1994 was eventually shelved after some veterans and politicians complained it portrayed the Japanese as victims of U.S. aggression. Critics also said the exhibit underestimated the number of U.S. casualties that could have come of an invasion of Japan, which would have been the alternative to the atomic assault in an attempt to end World War II.
Historians say avoiding such a loss of U.S. troops was key in President Harry S. Truman's decision to approve the bombings.
The Enola Gay is also not the only plane that has come under fire with the opening of the new facility at Dulles.
Twenty House of Representatives members recently sent a letter to the museum decrying the display of the Loudenslager Stephens Akro Laser 200, an aerobatic plane adorned with Bud Light beer advertisements. The plane was built and piloted by Leo Loudenslager, who used it to win seven national titles and one world championship in aerobatic flying before it was donated to the museum in 1999.
While the House members acknowledged the historical importance of the aircraft, they said it ly uses the museum as a commercial boost for Bud Light and will send a bad message to children visiting the museum.
"It's a billboard for Bud Light," Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-N.Y., told United Press International. "Here's the premier of an historical museum ... and it's allowing itself to be exploited this way for commercial purposes and for alcohol this way."
Hinchey initiated the letter and is one of two members on the House appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the Smithsonian's budget.
But as with the Enola Gay, the museum has no plans to change the Laser 200 exhibit, asserting that it makes no changes to the artifacts it displays.
"That airplane was on display for two years" at the mall facility, museum spokesman Peter Golkin said. "And we never got a complaint from those 20 million people" the museum estimates saw it.
But Hinchey said the Laser 200 didn't suddenly become an issue with its transfer to the Dulles facility.
"It's not really accurate to say we haven't noticed it," Hinchey said, adding that he and others have been pressing the museum on this issue for some time. "No real action has been taken. So now I've addressed this letter to them."
Despite the museum's position, Hinchey said congressional pressure would continue.
And so, too, will nudging from Enola Gay opponents. Though the museum has no intention of changing the exhibit, concerned groups are planning a series of events for the weekend the new facility opens. Kuznick said a conference is scheduled for Dec. 13 in which scholars, writers and other leading experts will gather at American University to discuss the exhibit and broader nuclear issues. An inter-faith service, planned for Dec. 14 at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington, will bring together members of the hibakusha, a network of people directly and indirectly affected by nuclear war. The weekend's events will be capped off Dec. 15, coinciding with the opening of the Dulles museum, with an 11 a.m. EST protest in front of the Enola Gay exhibit.
"Everybody's alarmed about this," Kuznick said. "We're going to keep this issue alive."
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