During the summer of 1945, U.S. forces occupied Guam and used the small island as a jumping point to carry out bombing missions against the Japanese during World War II.
That June, a small maintenance group of airmen from the 20th Air Force worked frantically to retrofit B-29 Superfortresses for high altitude, long-range missions that would strike into the Japanese mainland.
Oxford resident Jim Quintrell remembers the days leading up to the end of World War II like they were yesterday. As an airman in the newly formed U.S. Army Air Forces, Quintrell and his team of a dozen airmen regularly worked on the enormous aircraft.
One plane in particular was to be stripped down and retrofitted so the bomb bay compartment could hold a different type of load.
His commanding officer told him they were preparing for a mission that would certainly change the war.
On Aug. 5, 1945 Colonel Paul Tibbets accepted command of the newly outfitted bomber that made its way from Guam to another small island in the Pacific, Tinian.
The plane, designated number 82 with a large circle R adorning its tail, sat on the tarmac when Tibbets decided to give it a new name. Choosing to honor his mother Enola Gay Tibbets, the colonel scribed her name on the fuselage below the pilot's windshield. One day later, the world changed forever.
Originally from McCaysville, Quintrell worked as an engineer at Tennessee Copper Company in the days leading up to the U.S. involvement in World War II. At a time when skilled mechanics and capable engineers were scarce, the Air Force drafted Quintrell and prepared him for duty as an aircraft mechanic.
"I had graduated from high school and my plans were to work for a couple of years," Quintrell recalls. "Jobs were plentiful then. I wanted to work for a couple of years and then go back school. But that's when Uncle Sam entered my life. Once they saw that I had maintenance experience, they jumped on me like a wolf."
In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government felt every shore could be vulnerable to an attack. As a result, Quintrell trained in Florida and said he was not prepared for another attack.
"My first duty station was at Miami Beach, and my first weapon was a broom handle," he said with a chuckle. "They didn't have enough rifles. I remember asking the sergeant of the guard what I was supposed to do if we got attacked, yell bang."
The USAAF needed capable mechanics and maintenance personnel for their burgeoning fleet of aircraft -- Quintrell fit the mold. Shortly into his military career the Air Force made him an instructor. And while many new soldiers gave it a shot, he said many of them struggled to grasp the demands of maintaining cutting edge aviation equipment.
"The group that we first had was a group of boys who said they graduated from Boston University and I doubt that any of them had ever changed a tire on their car," he said. "I tell you they didn't know the difference between a nut and a bolt."
After training stateside, Quintrell left his wife and the friendly confines of the States and arrived in a whole new world - the South Pacific. Like many Americans at the time, Quintrell felt compelled to serve his country and never wavered at the assignment.
During his time at Guam, Quintrell relished working on the planes. He had a knack for it. But when they outfitted the Enola Gay, he had no idea what lay ahead.
"Our commanding officer called us all down on the runway and said he wanted to tell us something," he recalls. "He said something big was going to happen. He said he couldn't tell us what it was because he didn't know himself. But he said if it didn't knock the Japanese out of the war, the invasion was going to be on October 18."
The planes Quintrell worked on left Guam and made their way to Tinian where they prepared for missions to mainland Japan. One of the modifications his group made proved valuable in the B-29's success during the war.
"When we got done with them, the B-29's flew so high that the Japanese couldn't touch them," he said. "We called them milk crates. We were able to make them light enough to reach 70,000 feet. They (the Japanese) didn't have anything that could get up that high."
The Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy on Hiroshima on August 6. Having already defeated the Nazis in the European theater, Quintrell remembers the fateful day and said he knew the bombing had effectively ended the war.
"We all thought that was it," he said. "I just remember I was looking forward to getting back home."
Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb nicknamed Fat Man on Nagasaki. Although the Japanese surrendered shortly after, Quintrell didn't immediately return home.
"Well the war was over at that point but we didn't come right home," he said. "Our commander told us there was nothing worse than an idle soldier and many of the guys would get to playing poker and get to drinking too much beer."
To stay out of trouble, Quintrell's commanding officer let the men come up with assignments to keep busy. He came up with the perfect duty.
"Four or five of us chose to clean the beaches," he said with a laugh. "It was real tough duty. We'd get up in the morning and eat breakfast, then take off like we were going to work but end up lollygagging around the beach until lunch."
He said shortly after his beach duty, a squadron runner came found him while he was eating dinner one evening and told him he had orders to return to the States. With the aid of a fellow soldier, Quintrell wasted no time getting off the island.
"I went down to fill out all my paperwork to come back over and the supply sergeant took my packet and ripped it up," Quintrell said. "He looked at me with a smile and said I had lost everything and I just needed to get home."
Quintrell returned to the states in the fall of 1945 and eventually went off to college. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he settled down again with his wife Marie and the couple started a family.
Later on he worked for Kraft Foods as a dairy specialist where he befriended a fellow World War II veteran named Ben Stakes. Stakes had been a prisoner of war for 1,242 days and the two men shared a special kinship from then on, he said.
In 1986, Quintrell retired from Kraft, living happily with his wife Marie until she passed away a few years ago. He has since moved into Merryvale Assisted Living home. He enjoys his arrangement at Merryvale and visits with his son and a daughter regularly. While Memorial Day is special for every veteran, this year it has extra meaning for Quintrell as he will turn 87 on Monday.
Through it all, Quintrell looks back at his experiences and says he has no regrets. He says he would like to return to Guam someday if only to see what it's like today. He admits things could have turned out differently had he not served in World War II but he cherishes the memories and proudly displays a photo of his squadron on the wall inside his room. In the end, he said he'd do it all over again.
"It's been a great life. I went from carrying a broom stick to the A-bomb," Quintrell said proudly. "I really enjoyed the flying on the test hops. There's nothing more beautiful than riding in the glass dome in the bombardier section. In the summer time, looking out at all the fields and the different colors, you couldn't beat it."