As a young bombardier, Tom Ferebee had no idea his outstanding skills would one day be required for the world’s first atomic bomb drop. Following high school, he set his sights on a professional baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals. After a season playing semi-pro baseball, he entered the Army Air Corps. In late 1942, after graduation from bombardier school, he went to Polebrook, England, as a member of the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress unit. He served on the “Red Gremlin,” along with pilot Paul Tibbets and navigator “Dutch” Van Kirk. From August to October 1942, Ferebee flew 11 missions over German-occupied Europe.
Ferebee’s B-17 flew on the second daylight bombing raid against the marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France. All the “Red Gremlin’s” missions were flown as lead aircraft, making Ferebee responsible for group bombing. Target priorities centered on aircraft factories, rail marshaling yards and submarine installations. On one mission over Le Traig, France, the “Red Gremlin” went up against Goering’s famous “yellow nosed” Messerschmitt Me 109s, suffering casualties and severe damage in the process. Later, German reinforcements began pouring into the port of Bizerte, Tunisia, posing a serious threat to Allied strategy. Air Marshall Sir William Welsh, commander of several RAF components in North Africa, was delighted when Col Tibbets offered his services.
In The Flight of the Enola Gay, Tibbets quotes Welsh: ‘If you chaps would go up there and harass them with a few bombs, it would be of inestimable service to us.’ In November 1942, Ferebee was lead bombardier in a highly successful surprise attack against the German Sidi Ahmed Air Base at Bizerte. In September 1944, Ferebee was handpicked to join the newly formed 509th Composite Group. Ferebee, Tibbets, and Van Kirk were eventually reunited flying the new B-29 Superfortress and selected for the first atomic bombing mission. The “Enola Gay” proceeded to the target, Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945, where at 0914:17 Tinian time, Ferebee initiated a 60-second automatic release sequence of “Little Boy.”
He also participated in Operation Crossroads, atomic bomb tests conducted on the Bikini Atoll. In 1954, he served as the US Representative for Operational Requirements, NATO. He later served as Deputy Commander for Maintenance for the 2d and 484th Bomb Wings. The 484th was sent to Anderson AFB, Guam, where they flew B-52 missions over Vietnam. By the time he retired in December 1970, Colonel Ferebee’s decorations included the Legion of Merit, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, 15 Air Medals, Bronze Star, and 4 AF Commendation Medals.