Charles Donald Albury

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Charles Donald Albury, Miami-born co-pilot of the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki -- and a longtime Eastern Airlines captain after World War II -- died May 23 at an Orlando hospital. He was 88.

On Aug. 6, 1945, ''Don'' Albury flew a support plane -- the Great Artiste -- for the mission of another Miamian, Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., who unleashed the nuclear age with an A-bomb attack on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Three days later, Tibbets dispatched 1st Lt. Albury, co-pilot Maj. Charles Sweeney, an eight-man crew and a nuclear weapon called Fat Man aboard the B-29 Bockscar from the Mariana Islands. Two other planes accompanied them as they headed for Japan.

Though plagued with complications and missteps, the mission ultimately succeeded. At 11:02 a.m. Aug. 9, Albury's crew released the bulbous, 10,200-pound explosive over the city of Nagasaki, a secondary target, instantly killing an estimated 40,000 civilians.

Another 35,000 subsequently died from injuries and radiation sickness. Japan surrendered on Aug. 14.

For the rest of his life, Albury -- as did Tibbets, who died in 2007 -- said he felt no remorse, since the attacks averted what was certain to be a catastrophic U.S. invasion of Japan.

''My husband was a hero,'' said Roberta Albury, his wife of 65 years. ``He saved one million people. . . . He sure did do a lot of praying.''

Gwyneth Clarke-Bell, Albury's secretary at Eastern in the 1970s, said that Albury, a deeply religious man, ``felt he was doing his job, and that lives were saved on both sides. He'd want to be remembered as someone who was honorably serving his country.''

Even as congestive heart failure hobbled him recently and eventually took his life, ''he would shuffle out every morning and hang the American flag, then take it down at night,'' said Clarke-Bell, who remained close after Albury retired from Eastern in 1980.

In 1982, Albury told The Miami Herald that he deplored war but would do what he did again if someone attacked the United States.

''Everyone should be prepared to fight for liberty,'' he said. ``Our laws give us our freedom and I think that's worth fighting for.''

Don Albury was born in 1920 at his parents' home, now the site of the Miami Police Department. They'd come from the Bahamas, where his father ran a wholesale grocery. He had a sister and four brothers, one of whom died in the war. Albury survived the others.

After graduating from Miami High School -- the same class as Paul Tibbets' sister -- Albury enrolled at the University of Miami's engineering school. He enlisted in the wartime army before graduating.

In 1943, Albury was stationed at what's now Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, Ohio. There he met his future wife, Roberta Jean Mowery.

''There was a hotel where most everyone went out in the evening,'' she recalled. ``I was at a party for a boy who was going overseas. My [future] husband was at the next table.''

They married in March 1944 at Miami's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, had daughter Sharon in 1945 and son Charles Donald Jr., known as Skip, in 1948.

Sharon, a one-time Miami-Dade County teacher, was killed by a drunk driver on New Year's Day 1993. She was 47. Skip is an oral surgeon in Nashville.

In 1943, Albury joined Tibbets' unit: the elite 509th Composite Group. They trained at White Sands, N.M. -- FBI agents tailing them 24/7. Not even the participants knew the scope of their project.

''We knew we were on something top secret, but when asked, we said we were testing glide bombs,'' Albury once told The Miami Herald. After the war, Albury told his wife that they'd also trained in Cuba.

Four years ago, Albury described his role in the events that changed the world to Time magazine:

``Aug. 6th, our job for the Hiroshima mission was to drop instrumentation to record the magnitude of the bomb blast and the radioactivity.

``When Tibbets dropped the bomb, we dropped our instruments and made our left turn. Then this bright light hit us. . . And the top of that mushroom cloud was the most terrifying but also the most beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life -- every color in the rainbow seemed to be coming out of it.

``Then it felt like someone came and slapped the airplane two or three times. And that was it.''

On Aug. 9, cloud cover played havoc with the mission, until the bombardier ``found a hole in the clouds . . . so we didn't need to use radar. The bomb hit the city on the other side of these big hills around Nagasaki. Most of the people lived on the side where the bomb didn't go. It saved a lot of civilian lives.

'As I was watching the same dust and mushroom cloud sweep over the city that I'd seen over Hiroshima, [Sgt. Raymond] Gallagher started shouting, `The bomb's going to hit the airplane. . .!' We felt about three strong shock waves. Even as we were moving away from it, we could still see the mushroom cloud.''

He added: ``I hope we never, ever have to use another one of these things.''

Three days later, he and Tibbets flew medical supplies into the devastated city. He told The Herald that ``there was almost complete destruction, but people were walking around. School children were planting potatoes. We saw dead horses, and I saw the shadow of a person burned into a bridge.''

The Japanese were cordial, he said.

``They didn't know who we were.''

After the war, Albury wrapped up his service in New Mexico then brought his family back to South Florida. They lived in Coral Gables, and Albury flew what his wife called Eastern's ``milk route along the coast.''

Later, he and colleague Dick Powers ran Eastern's Airbus A-300 training program, which included flight-simulator facilities in France.

''He never wrote his memoirs,'' Roberta Albury said. ``He was just that way. He never did public speaking because he had to work.''

He got plenty of ''nasty letters,'' as well as autographed-picture requests, she said.

At Eastern, his co-workers loved him, Clarke-Bell said, because ``he never said an unkind word.''

''He was an unassuming, gentle man'' who coached Little League, raised orchids, baked cakes and pies, and fished from a weekend home in Islamorada.

''Don was a believer -- a Christian,'' said Powers, now flying for Federal Express out of Memphis. He'll speak at Albury's funeral. ``If his life were defined by something, that would be what it was, not what he did in the war.''

Albury returned to Japan twice after the war, once for a BBC documentary called Rain of Ruin on the 50th anniversary of the A-bombings.

According to Clarke-Bell, a young Japanese woman approached him and thanked him for 'saving so many Japanese lives.' He was so moved by that.''

A graveside service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Miami Memorial Park, 6200 SW 77th Ave.

Published in the Miami Herald from June 4 to June 29, 2009