As lead navigator for the group that ended the war with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs, Wilbur Lyon was a witness to one of the most momentous turns of the 20th century.
On Wednesday, he sat in a wheelchair at the Coeur d’Alene Airport and gazed upon the silver hulk of “Fifi,” a Boeing B-29 Superfortress like the bomber Lyon flew seven decades ago with the Army Air Forces.
“It wasn’t until we dropped the first bomb that they told us what we were doing,” Lyon, 89, said at Pappy Boyington Field.
Secrecy was paramount to the operation of the 509th Composite Group, which deployed the nuclear weapons developed in the Manhattan Project at the end of World War II.
“I know what I had to do to do my job,” he said.
Lyon didn’t fly on the missions that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, but he was there on Tinian Island north of Guam, participating in practice missions and conventional bombing runs over Japan in advance of the atomic strikes.
Not long after the war ended, Lyon toured the devastation of the atomic blasts with Col. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, killing at least 135,000 people.
After the war, Lyon went to Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon. He moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1961.
“This is a thrill for him,” said his son, Dave Lyon, a Navy veteran who served in the first Gulf War. “He’s very reserved about his service, but he’s done some pretty phenomenal things.”
He said his dad was humbled to be part of the 509th group’s mission and has expressed his reservations about the great loss of civilian life to end the war.
“They were a bunch of young kids. They were 19 to 21 years old out doing these things,” Dave Lyon said, adding that his father is among “a dwindling group of very special folks that really affected world events in the way they are today.”
Fifi, the last air-worthy B-29, was restored by the Commemorative Air Force and tours the country to keep World War II aviation alive.
Lyon and his son watched the bomber take off and fly Wednesday. Other aviation enthusiasts took turns taking half-hour flights on the bomber. For two men, it was a chance to sample what their fathers had experienced in wartime.
“It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. When we had a chance to get on, we jumped at it,” said Robert Shirts, a Coeur d’Alene resident whose dad was a B-29 radio operator in World War II.
Tim England, of Dalton Gardens, who recently retired from the Air Force, said his father flew on a B-29 in the Korean War.
“It was everything we wanted it to be and more,” England said after his ride.
The crew took them out over Liberty Lake, down around Harrison and back to the airport in Hayden.
“How amazing to see such old technology in action, and how important it is that we preserve that heritage,” England said.