Fifty-eight years after turning Hiroshima into a nuclear Hell, the US plane that dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat has detonated a fierce row over its debut at America's top museum.
Controversy is raging over plans to put the restored Enola Gay, which dropped the "Little Boy" bomb, on public display in a new wing of the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution next month.
Activists want the Smithsonian's National Air and Space museum to detail the death toll from the August 6, 1945 blast alongside the shiny, metallic Boeing B-29 Superfortress with its characteristic fishbowl window nose.
A total of 230,000 people are thought to have perished, both in the initial firestorm which consumed the Japanese city and in subsequent years from toxic radiation.
Angry survivors of the Hiroshima blast will steel themselves to come face to face with the plane when they travel to Washington when the Enola Gay goes on public display on December 15.
"They will see in all its glory, the plane that incinerated the city," said Kevin Martin, Executive Director of Peace Action.
Activists are not opposed to the aircraft going on display, but want to see it presented in the context of the raid in the dying days of World War II.
58 years after dropping Hiroshima bomb, Enola Gay ignites new outrage
They also hope to stir debate about the tens of thousands of warheads in the current US nuclear stockpile and plans for mobile, battlefield nuclear devices.
"We don't want this just to be an argument about what happened in 1945 ... the first concern was about current US nuclear policy," Martin said.
The National Air and Space Museum says its display will reflect the fact that the Enola Gay was, in its time, the most technologically advanced aircraft in the skies.
A decision to put it on display "does not glorify or vilify the role this aircraft played in history," it said.
But the descriptive label attached to the exhibit will mention the notorious raid only in passing.
The aircraft "dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan," says the label, in the only reference to its role in August 1945.
This, the museum says is consistent with the mission entrusted to it by US Congress, which is to display and preserve historic and technologically significant air and space craft.
"In the end, the Enola Gay played a decisive role in World War II," the museum said in a press release prompted by the controversy.
"It helped bring the war to an end in that after the bombing of Nagasaki, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, surrendered unconditionally.
"But perhaps more critically, it profoundly affected our concept of major conflict and the importance of maintaining global peace."
One survivor of the blast, speaking in his home city in August, savaged the decision to put the Enola Gay on display.
"For us, the Enola Gay just equals the atomic bomb," said Sunao Tsuboi, 78.
"Displaying the plane is not only an insult to us but also glorifies the bombing," said Tsuboi, scarred by burns to the head and suffering from cancer believed to be caused by radiation exposure.
The activists, under the umbrella of the Committee for a National Discussion of Nuclear History and Current Policy on Wednesday presented the museum with a petition calling for changes in the exhibit.
Signatories include the mayor of Hiroshima Tadatoshi Akiba, author and activist Noam Chomsky and film director Oliver Stone.
Akiba has been harshly critical of President George W. Bush and in August accused Washington of worshipping nuclear weapons as "God."
This is not the first time the Enola Gay has flown into a diplomatic storm.
In 1995, portions of its fuselage, undercarriage and engines went on display in the National Air and Space museum's building on Washington's central mall.
The exhibit closed in 1998 having never shed the controversy.
The Enola Gay, which pilot Paul Tibbets named after his mother, has undergone the most extensive restoration in the museum's history.
It will be on display, in one piece for the first time in 43 years, at the Air and Space Museum's new annex near Dulles international airport in northern Virginia.
Surrounding the famous warbird will be other aircraft from World War II, including a British Hawker Hurricane, a German Focke-Wulf FW 190A-8 and a Japanese Aichi Seiran.
The Hiroshima bombing was followed by the dropping of a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, which killed another estimated 74,000 people.
© 2003 AFP