The Enola Gay, the steel-gray bomber that effectively ended World War II, today sits in a warehouse without wings or engines, belying its fame as the B-29 that carried the first atomic weapon.

Restoration experts are taking the plane apart bolt by bolt in a nine-year project to turn the grimy aircraft into a shiny relic for the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.When the plane is displayed in 1994, the exhibit likely will revive, though surely not resolve, debate about America's use of the atomic bomb.

It was early in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was released over Hiroshima, Japan, killing and injuring 160,000 people. A second bomb was later dropped over Nagasaki.

"Any time you even bring up the name Enola Gay it rekindles debate," said Theodore Van Kirk, a navigator on the historic mission. "I guess the discussion is always going to be around. It's been 40 some years and there still isn't any conclusion."

Van Kirk, now 68, saw the plane in 1985 when rehabilitation work began at the Smithsonian's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, just outside Washington. He retired three years ago from DuPont and lives in Novato, Calif.

The Enola Gay's 98-foot-long body sits severed in half at the warehouse. The two pieces sit side by side with various other historical planes and spacecraft.

"We have some (visitors) who tell us that this plane saved their life or their uncle's life because it ended the war," shop foreman Richard Horigan said recently.

It took nearly three years for Horigan and Dave Peterson to restore the front section. Earlier this year, technicians began work on the rear section and wings of the plane, which Cmdr. Paul W. Tibbets named after his mother.

Each part is dipped, sprayed or painted with preservatives and waxes, Horigan said.

Using photographs, old technical manuals and history books as their guides, the restoration experts plan to remove all markings and decals that were not on the plane the day after the mission. The names and dates of scores of unknown people will be buffed from the plane's aluminum exterior.

"There's lots of graffiti," Horigan said. "Most of it was `Joe Blow 1950' - that kind of thing."

Tibbets' name will be repainted in stenciled military lettering instead of the script-style print added sometime after the flight.

"Enola Gay" was painted in black, block letters under a cockpit window just hours before the mission. The name will remain, but extra brush strokes on the "E" and "G," from a touch-up paint job done later, will be removed, Horigan said.

During the restoration work, Horigan and Peterson found a chisel that had been lost inside the plane when it was being manufactured.

They also found an atomic bomb arming pin behind the radio operator's table. The pin apparently was an extra not used on the weapon. A replica of the Hiroshima bomb sits in front of the plane.

"There's no evidence of the blast whatsoever (on the plane)," Horigan said. "I think they were 10 to 15 miles away when the blast went off."

After the war, in November 1945, the plane was modified. It returned to the United States in 1946 and went into storage for three years in Arizona, then was ferried by Tibbets to Park Ridge, Ill., a storage site for the Smithsonian.