NASSAU BAY, Texas -- Kermit K. Beahan, who released the atomic bomb over Nagasaki in 1945 and later advocated the abolition of atomic weapons, died of cardiac arrest. He was 70.
Beahan, who died Thursday, had undergone prostate surgery Wednesday at a Nassau Bay hospital near his Clear Lake home.
Beahan, a bombardier, flew both missions that unleashed atomic weapons on Japan. He was aboard The Great Artiste, a B-29 bomber that bore the nickname he was given because of his bombing skill, when it served as an escort for the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb 'Little Boy' on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945.
Beahan dropped the 'Fat Man' bomb three days later on Nagasaki, on his 27th birthday.
Beahan maintained in interviews over the years that the bombings were a justifiable means to end the war without greater bloodshed. He never apologized and said 25 Japanese sought him out a few years ago and told him the bombing 'was the best way out of a hell of a mess.'
Japan ended World War II by surrendering five days after the Nagasaki bombing, which killed an estimated 70,000 Japanese.
Having witnessed about 10 atomic explosions, Beahan also advocated the abolition of atomic weapons. In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the bombing, Beahan said he hoped to retain the dubious distinction of being the last man to drop an atomic bomb on humans.
Charles W. Sweeney of Milton, Mass., was the pilot of the Nagasaki mission and remembered Beahan as a master bombardier.
'We named our airplane for him,' Sweeney said Thursday. 'We used to call him the Great Artiste. He was so good at his work. He was the sparkplug of our crew. We all loved him. We called him Honeybee because he was so likeable.'
Beahan, a native of Joplin, Mo., grew up in Houston and was a 1940 graduate of Rice Institute, which he attended on a football scholarship. He originally joined the Army Air Corps with hopes of becoming a piot but became a bombardier and took part in 40 missions over Europe, including the first B-17 raids.
His B-17 unit was commanded by Paul W. Tibbets, who later assembled the team that dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan. Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay when it dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima.
The second mission was far from a trouble-free flight. A fuel pump failed, precluding using a tank of reserve fuel, and a plane that was to photograph the event did not arrive.
The primary target, Kokura, was covered with fog and smoke so the mission shifted to the secondary target, Nagasaki. The sky also was cloudy over Nagasaki and Beahan was supposed to 'make a visual sighting' before releasing the bomb. When a hole appeared in the clouds, Beahan could see an arsenal below and pulled the lever.
'I saw a mushroom cloud bubbling and flashing orange, red and green,' Beahan said in one interview. 'It looked like a picture of hell. The ground itself was covered by a rolling black smoke. I was told the area would be destroyed, but I didn't know the meaning of an atomic bomb.'
Beahan, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Hearts, retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. He returned to Houston and joined Brown & Root as a technical writer, then worked for Northrup Services Inc. at the Johnson Space Center until his retirement several years ago.
Beahan is survived by his wife, a brother, two sons, a daughter and two grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled Monday at Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Houston.