Had a coin flipped the other way, Leon Smith would have been on the plane that dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima.
The 25-year-old electrical engineer was one of three weaponeers on the Pacific island of Tinian in 1945 preparing “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” for delivery. The men tossed a coin to see who would serve on the historic mission.
Smith lost the coin flip but played an integral role in assembling the atomic bombs that ended World War II. He then went on to a 41-year career as a Sandia National Laboratories employee and director in the field of weapons systems.
The longtime Albuquerque resident died in October at the age of 92.
Smith, who grew up in Wisconsin, was pursuing an electrical engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. When he suffered extensive hearing loss, he applied for a transfer to what was then called the Army Air Forces.
Because of his training in electrical engineering, he was selected to work on the Manhattan Project and assigned to the Army Air Force’s 509th Composite Group, specifically to deliver the atomic bomb.
He received training in communications at Yale, electronics at Harvard and radar at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
Smith arrived at Wendover Field in Utah in November 1944 where the 509th was training. In a 1995 article for Air Power History, he recalled being driven to an isolated rocky hillside where Robert B. Brode of Los Alamos told him of his duties with the highly secret operation.
Smith remarked that it seemed like an awfully large fuzing system — a system to pre-arm the bomb for detonation — and asked what he thought was an innocent question: Was it a biological or atomic bomb?
“Later, I was told that the question got my name in a black book and resulted in an investigation,” he said in the article. “I wasn’t supposed to know so much.”
After completing a series of drop tests of weighted “Fat Man” bomb cases, called “pumpkins” because they were painted orange, he and two other weaponeers were relocated to the Pacific.
When the time came for the Aug. 6 mission, Smith and Morris Jeppson flipped a coin to decide who would travel on the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. Jeppson won, while Smith stayed on Iwo Jima with a backup aircraft. Smith said in the Air Power History article that he was so preoccupied with pre-flight checks that the historical significance of the coin toss did not occur to him at the time.
After the war, Smith served as weaponeer for a 1946 “Fat Man” air drop over Bikini Atoll. He began working at Sandia National Laboratories in 1947 as an engineer of a bomb fuzing group. He was promoted to director in 1961 and held several director positions until his retirement in 1988.
After Smith retired from Sandia, he used photos he took during his time on Tinian to give presentations about his experience during the war. He was frequently asked how he felt about his involvement in preparing to drop the bomb.
“It had been a long war, with fierce battles and high casualties on both sides,” he said during a speech at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2010, according to a publication from the base. “It was estimated that in the planned land invasion of Japan, the U.S. would lose 1 million more soldiers. I felt a sense of relief because the war would soon be over.”
He is survived by his wife of 71 years, Marie E. Smith of Albuquerque, three sons and their wives, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
— This article appeared on page C3 of the Albuquerque Journal