Richard Sherwood thought it ironic.

The men who dropped the Hiroshima atom bomb - the deadliest weapon ever unleashed in war - were gathering at their old training base to dedicate a monument to peace.This Sherwood had to see. For whatever the atom bomb did to end World War II, it secured no peace for him.

In August 1945, Sherwood was a 21-year-old bomber pilot stationed in the western Pacific. He didn't help drop the world's first nuclear weapon on Hiroshima, Japan, but he believes his mission was even more troubling - witnessing the charred ruins during a low-level photographic flight after the blast.

The devastation he saw changed his life, and he vowed to work toward non-violent ways of settling conflicts, a vow he keeps today as a peace activist in Salt Lake City.

He had hoped his work for peace would help him forget the horrors of war. It did not. So last weekend, after 45 years, Richard Sherwood decided to confront his past head-on.

"A Celebration for World Peace," said the banner strung over the road. Wendover, a little desert town on the Utah-Nevada border 120 miles west of Salt Lake City, served as the World War II base for the 509th, a top-secret wing of the Army Air Corps formed specifically to drop the untested atom bomb.

There had been reunions before, but last weekend's gathering was the biggest, drawing nearly 500.

There were three big attractions. A monument to the 509th would be unveiled. They'd be able to visit their old air base, now abandoned. And best of all, they'd get to see retired Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, former commander of the 509th and still its spiritual leader.

Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He didn't make the decision - that was President Truman's burden - but today he is the bombing's most outspoken defender, saying it brought a quick end to World War II and saved more lives than it cost. He has no regrets, no remorse, and no patience for those who question the rightness of using the bomb.

Arriving at the reunion, Sherwood had little patience for the general.

"Tibbets!" he said angrily. "Tibbets would have a different feeling if he had been 150 feet over that destruction and saw what I saw."

When the atom bomb exploded above Hiroshima, it created a fireball that leveled 62,000 buildings and killed 80,000 people. Directly beneath the blast, people were vaporized. Up to two miles away, the heat charred skin. Stone walls glowed red, and rivers clogged with floating bodies.

Sherwood recalls "an utter chaos of squirming human destruction" and still breaks into tears at the memory. "I felt so cannibalistic, I could scarcely accept what I saw."

Sherwood, 66, has protested the MX missile, participated in peace walks in the Soviet Unionand organized a vacation-exchange program between Americans and Soviets.

He looked like most of the men at the reunion, where aging soldiers peered through bifocals at name tags to jog their fading memories of old wartime buddies. Few recognized Sherwood, which did not surprise him. He says he was attached to another wing, flying with the 509th only briefly as a replacement pilot.

Some expressed doubt at his tale. Tibbets, who has written a book about the mission, could not remember Sherwood's reconnaissance flight, but neither could he remember that it did not occur. "After 45 years, who can say? Go with his story," Tibbets said.

Most of the men Sherwood approached just wished he would go somewhere else with his tale. He wanted to recall the horrors of war. They wanted to reminisce about beer parties and wild Army nurses.

"Listen, I don't want to argue the point with you," said Fred Kopka, who worked in the 509th mess hall. "It was us or them, kill or be killed. The Japanese were going to fight tooth and nail if we had to invade Japan. The bomb saved a million lives."

It is clear which message won at the reunion. Tibbets was the hero. Sherwood was in the way. A camera-toting woman shouted, "The crew, just the crew," and Sherwood retreated into the crowd, an observer once again.