The peaceful island and village of Tinian is pretty unimposing these days on the surface. A small village with a massive $200 million casino along with some abandoned runways are basically what you see flying in. However, it’s what’s beyond the surface that makes Tinian one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited.
The small, sleepy island of Tinian was once the single largest military base in the world. At one point in 1945 there were six working runways with lines of warplanes ready to attack at a moments notice. The construction project to turn Tinian into such a base was a massive construction undertaking-the largest of World War II.
Tinian holds a notorious place in history. It is the place where the aircraft that carried and dropped the two atomic bombs that ended World War II were loaded and took off from.
On August 5, 1945 the Enola Gay B-29 was loaded with a four-ton uranium bomb code named ‘Little Boy’. Early the next morning of August 6th, it took off and 6.5 hours later the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. 75,000 people were instantly vaporized and an estimated 200,000 died as a result of the bomb.
On August 9, 1945 another plutonium atomic bomb was loaded into a B-29 plane on Tinian. The drop point was Nagasaki, Japan. Another 75,000 people died instantly and an estimated 75,000 more died of radiation effects afterwards. A few days later the war was over. Japan surrendered and the US and its allies had won the long and brutal war in the Pacific.
US President Harry Truman’s decision to start the age of atomic warfare was surely a difficult decision but I think it was the right decision. If the bombs had not been dropped the war in the Pacific would have raged on for at least another year and likely more. Hundreds of thousands more casualties would have been endured on both sides and with the war in Europe already over the backlash from the American public would have been overwhelming. As agonizing a decision it was and how awful the after effects were, Truman made the right decision.
Now, the 6 runways on Tinian are down to just one functioning runway, which is where I landed via small private plane on Star Marianas Airlines; which runs 5 seat charters several times a day from Saipan. Once at the airport, you can rent a car for a few hours or overnight if you decide to spend the night. Tinian is only 5km from Saipan and the flight is only 10 minutes and only costs $24.50 one-way. My Uncle David (whose father, my grandfather served in WWII) and I rented a car and headed north to see the World War II sites.
Most of the north of the island is completely abandoned although the roads that go north and south are called Broadway and 8th Avenue. During the war, the soldiers thought the island resembled the shape of the island of Manhattan in New York City so they named the roads they constructed as such. The cross streets are 96th, 86th, 42th etc. I agree it does resemble Manhattan-where I live.
There are a few cool memorials along the way such as the American Memorial. There is even a blowhole and beach to check out on the east side of the island off Broadway but the main attractions are up at North Field.
During the war there were four active runways at North Field: (in reverse alphabetical order) Delta, Charlie, Baker and Runway Able. Runway Able is the infamous runway where the Enola Gay took off. Today you can drive on it. I have to say-it is an eerie yet exhilarating feeling to do just that.
As many of the roads around north field are overgrown these days and the maze of roads is confusing-you soon find yourself at the atomic bomb loading pits. It is one of the most profoundly interesting things I have ever seen. To think of the magnitude of what happened in those two exact spots not even 70 years ago is somewhat mind blowing.
As a student of history and especially World War II history, it was a serious thrill to be at this historic spot. Apparently the US Government agrees and they have designated the area a National Historic Landmark.
I would argue that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was the single most significant moment in the history of humanity. That is no exaggeration-think about it.
There are two loading points, one on each side of the field about 100 meters from each other. They are encased with glass with plaques describing what happened in these spots in August 1945. There are also pictures inside the glass encasements. Some actually show the bombs being loaded and you can recognize the actual spot you are standing in the picture. Again, it was a real eerie thrill. I was living history.
Elsewhere around North Field you can see plaques to commemorate the fallen heroes of the war and lost battalions. You can also visit old air raid shelters and the old communications buildings. Most of which are dilapidated at this point but still fascinating.
Just to the west of North Field is Chulu Beach. Chulu is an attractive beach and was the landing point for the US soldiers when they took the island. Today it is calm with the only remnants of the war being a bomb shelter just off the beach.
As you head down 8th Avenue back toward the town of San Jose, you will pass a few other memorials and relics such as one of the landing vessels that dropped the soldiers off at Chulu Beach and then the Seabees memorial. Again, words cannot describe how fascinating I found these sites.
There isn’t much in the small village of San Jose. The predominant thing is far and away the Tinian Dynasty Casino. It is grandiose and completely out of place. We went in to have a look and have lunch.
The main lobby is massive and all marble. The clientele is almost all Asian and the casino, rooms and food are catered to their tastes and desires. The gaudy and tacky resort is definitely worth checking out just to say you were there but I would not recommend staying there or spending much time in general. Tinian is and should be a day trip from Saipan or even from Guam as we did it.
It’s not often where I get really excited and anxious like a kid in my travels these days. My last trip to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) was three years ago. I was told to not waste my time on Tinian so I didn’t go. The person who told me that was dead wrong. Tinian is fabulous. I got the same feeling I got when I visited Midway Island, Guadalcanal or some other major WWII battle sites in the Pacific. Whether or not you like history you should see Tinian if you’re in the CNMI.
I hope no one reading this thinks that I am in favor of nuclear warfare or war in general because I am not in the slightest. However, I love history and love to learn and experience things as they are or were. History is history and should be learned and experienced as so. Whether or not you agree with Truman’s decision to drop the bombs is your own prerogative and just remember that hindsight is 20/20.
The way I look at it, I try to put myself in his place at that time with the weight of the world and certainly a nation that had sacrificed so much on his shoulders. That’s the fun thing about living history. It helps you understand and learn. You can put yourself there, at that crucial moment in history. That’s my favorite thing about travel…living it viscerally.
Tinian: Where the Atomic Age Began
April 8, 2013 by 22 Comments