WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
As members of Team Whiteman come through the Spirit Gate each day they are greeted by a piece of 509th Bomb Wing history.
The Great Artiste, a Silverplate B-29 Superfortress once assigned to the 509th Composite Group, stands watch over the gate.
During World War II, The Great Artiste was hand selected and specially modified for the mission of dropping the atomic bomb and documenting its usage. Modifications included removing armor and defensive armaments, to reduce weight, allowing them to carry the large atomic bombs, modifying the bomb bays and adding a special position in the cockpit to oversee the weapons.
The Great Artiste flew during both atomic bombing missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. During both missions it measured and documented the blast.
While the original Great Artiste was scrapped in Sept. 1949, a series of events led to the recovery and restoration of the B-29 as a tribute to the original aircraft and its crew.
In the summer of 1977 a B-29 was discovered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, by Airmen and it was relayed to a group of leaders at the 509th Bombardment Wing at the time. Like many old World War II aircraft, it was left out in the open for more than 20 years and had heavily degraded.
Steven E. Bernhardt served with the 509th Bombardment Wing finance office while it was based at Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire, and was responsible for transportation funds when the aircraft was rediscovered.
Bernhardt was approached by leaders to help transport the aircraft to Pease AFB.
After Bernhardt allocated transportation funds, the 509th Bombardment Wing sent a convoy of 11 trucks to retrieve the aircraft and deliver it to the base. As the Airmen began to recover the B-29, a U.S. Army officer approached the leader of the operation to ask what was going on.
“That individual presented the scrap order and explained to the officer the historical significance of the aircraft,” said Bernhardt. “The Army officer was shocked that the Air Force actually thought they were going to manually disassemble and load the pieces of this aircraft onto the flatbed and take it home. He left the site scratching his head. The Air Force paperwork was in order and he had accepted the fact that indeed it was an Air Force plane.”
Shortly afterward, a crew of Army civil engineers came to support the disassembly of the B-29 and help load it with an armored recovery vehicle with a crane.
“The disassembly and loading of the aircraft took approximately half the amount of time that the Air Force crew had anticipated,” said Bernhardt. “The efforts of the Army CE crew was greatly appreciated.”
After successfully packing up the B-29, the convoy made its way back to Pease AFB where maintainers restored and reassembled the aircraft during the remainder of 1977 into 1978.
It was placed at the Pease AFB gate until 1991, when it was transferred to Whiteman AFB along with a B-52D Stratofortress and KC-97 Stratofreighter.
Currently, the airframes are on display at the gates of Whiteman AFB and are maintained by Airmen from around the base.
The preservation of these aircraft helps to conserve the heritage of the 509th Bomb Wing and serve as a reminder of the how far the Air Force’s bombers have come.