A balancing act to end a war
By Tom Morrow
In 2007, I asked Oceanside’s Clarence Baer what he did for Uncle Sam during the great World War II. He replied with a smile, “I served in the United States Army “Chair Corps” weighing airplanes.”
Although he never heard a shot fired in anger, Baer had a key role in ending the war, even though he didn’t know he was doing it at the time.
Baer grew up in Spartansburg, S.C., receiving a mechanical engineering degree from Clemson. After graduation, Baer took a job with the Federal Power Commission in Washington, D.C. After a year or so, Baer was transferred to an FPC regional office in Denver.
By 1939, war clouds were on the horizon and all of the aircraft companies were hiring as many engineers as they could find. Baer and his wife moved to Burbank where he went to work for Lockheed as a weight engineer. Later that year, an Army Air Corps colonel from Wright Army Air Field in Dayton, Ohio got into a conversation with him about the looming war.
“He told me he had a job for me at Wright Field, if I wanted it, as a weights and balance officer,” Baer recalled. “I figured it was a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, so I told him I’d go if he could get me orders.”
Within a month Baer was a 1st lieutenant, stationed at the U.S. Army Air Corps Aircraft Laboratory at Wright Field near Dayton.
When he arrived at Wright Field, Baer was assigned to the Weight Branch, headed by a major who didn’t know anything about weighting an aircraft. While Baer’s work in the Army Air Corps didn’t seem that exciting, it had its moments. Basically, it was his job to calculate and design heavy loads for planes, especially bombers, so they could get off the ground safely and fly properly.
By 1943, Baer was a captain and considered one of the Air Corps’ top weight and balance experts. One day in mid-1945, Captain Baer was told to report to a Wright Field hangar where two B-29 Superfortress bombers awaited him. He knew these weren’t just any bombers, but no one was saying why they were special.
The two B-29 bombers took their turn on the huge scales in the Wright Field hangar. Baer’s job was to tell other engineers where to place the bomb rack. The first B-29 would have to be fitted for a 10,000-pound “object;” the second one, a 9,000-pound payload.
We didn’t have computers back then. I had to work out everything on a mechanical calculator and a slide ruler.”
Baer said no B-29, the biggest bomber during the war, had ever carried a bomb load with that much weight.
“It didn’t take very long for me to do the work … maybe a few weeks, and then the two B-29s disappeared one night,” he recalled.
It wouldn’t be until some three months after the war ended that
Baer realized he had designed the bomb loads for the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, the two B-29s that carried the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The Enola Gay carried a uranium-235 bomb called “Little Boy,” a 9,700-pound device; Bock’s Car (named for its pilot, Fredrick C.
Bock) carried “Fat Man,” a 10,300-pound plutonium bomb.
Army Air Corps Col. Paul Tibbett, the pilot of the Enola Gay (named for his mother), said the following about the tremendous weight of “Little Boy” as it was dropped over Hiroshima,
“We were carrying such weight that when the bomb was released, the Enola Gay shot up so fast that my pilot’s seat hit my ass with such tremendous force, I thought I was going to be thrown through the top of the plane.”
Post Script: After the war, Baer returned to civilian life in Los Angeles where he spent 16 years working for the Northrup Corporation On his first day he saved his new employer a lot of money.
“It was left to me to explain to Jack Northrup that the new F-89 jet fighter we were building would have to be modified because someone had calculated the weight of the fuel as gasoline instead of jet fuel, which is heavier,” Baer explained.
“The plane had to be redesigned for bigger tanks in order to meet the Air Corps’ range specifications.”
Meanwhile, Baer stayed in the U.S. Air Force Reserve retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
During a presentation at a high school, a young student raised her hand and asked, “Don’t you feel guilty having played a role in the death of all those innocent people at Hiroshima?”
Baer shook his head and replied, “No. I actually feel good about it because I helped save a lot of lives — including Japanese lives. Those bombs brought a quick end to the war,” he concluded.