WASHINGTON • The Enola Gay was on its long flight back to its Pacific island base when co-pilot Captain Robert Lewis opened his log and scribbled down the many questions racing through his mind.
"Just how many Japanese did we kill?" he wondered after the silver B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan - and, in doing so, altered the course of history forever. "I honestly have the feeling of groping for words to explain this... My God, what have we done?" he added.
"After a few last looks (at the mushroom cloud), I honestly feel the Japanese may give up before we land at Tinian," where Enola Gay was stationed, he said.
It would be 27 more days - plus a second nuclear mushroom over Nagasaki - before Japan surrendered, ending a war that began with its 1937 invasion of China and stretched across the Asia-Pacific region.
Using the atomic bomb was hugely popular with war-weary Americans at the time - and 70 years on, a majority still think it was the right thing to do. Fifty-six per cent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Centre in February said using the atomic bomb on Japanese cities was justified, compared to 79 per cent of Japanese respondents who said it was not.
Were it not for the atomic bomb, many Americans contend, maybe millions of American soldiers would have died in a US-led invasion of the Japanese mainland.
At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, with its vast collection of historic aircraft, every display gets a succinct description, including the Enola Gay.
"On Aug 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan," its plaque simply notes, with no mention of the death or destruction it sowed.
Twenty years ago, during its restoration, Enola Gay found itself at the centre of a firestorm between World War II veterans and a younger generation of historians who questioned the use of "The Bomb". Veterans and their supporters in Congress alleged that a 50th anniversary exhibition depicted the wartime Japanese "more as victims, not aggressors", wrote Mr John Correll of the Air Force Association.
The Smithsonian reworked its planned exhibition - The Crossroads: The End Of World War II, The Atomic Bomb And The Cold War - at least five times, before it opened in 1995 for a two-year run that drew four million visitors.
By then, the exhibition had been stripped down to a straightforward recounting of the Enola Gay and its historic mission, minus any discussion of the merits or morality of the use of atomic weapons.
Meanwhile, yesterday, one day ahead of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan's Defence Minister Gen Nakatani sparked a new row over controversial security legislation when he said the Bills would not rule out the military transporting the nuclear weapons of foreign forces.
But he added that such a development was in reality impossible because of Japan's long-standing policy of not possessing or producing nuclear arms and not letting others bring them into the country..
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, whose election district is in Hiroshima prefecture, joined Mr Nakatani in denying the possibility. The remarks will likely give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - whose ratings have fallen over the security Bills - a fresh headache after his special adviser drew fire by saying the legislation did not need to be "legally consistent" with the pacifist Constitution.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS