Since I was raised a military ‘brat’, it’ll be no secret to anyone that my heroes are those who have served We The People in the military. Today we’ll look at a man whose most famous and difficult mission was the one being talked about today, 71 years later. If you look up Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets online, you’ll find countless pictures and articles written (both good and bad) about the mission over Hiroshima. The following is from an obituary printed in the UK, from a website set up by Ret. General Paul W. Tibbets, and from an interview he had with Studs Turkel. W2
Brigadier General Paul Warfield Tibbets
“.. To our fellow veterans and the American nation we all echo one sentiment, “I pray that reason will prevail among leaders before we ever again need to call upon our nuclear might. There are no regrets. We were proud to have served like so many men and women stationed around the world today. To them, to you, we salute you and goodbye.”..”
Columbus, Ohio (August 6, 2005) – On this occasion, the surviving members of the Enola Gay crew would like the opportunity to issue a joint statement.
“This year, 2005, marks the sixtieth year since the end of World War II. The
summer of 1945 was indeed an anxious one as allied and American forces gathered
for the inevitable invasion of the Japanese homeland. President Truman made one
last demand, one final appeal. Together with Great Britain’s Churchill, and
Russia’s Stalin, the President of the United States urged the Japanese to
” … proclaim the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces …
The alternative,” they said, “for Japan is prompt and utter destruction”.
Ignoring the obvious military situation, the Japanese Prime Minister Baron
Kantaro Suzuki issued the Japanese refusal to surrender which included these
words: “… there is no other recourse but to ignore it [the surrender
demand] entirely and resolutely fight for the successful conclusion of the
While it is certainly unfortunate this course of action was necessary, for the
allies, at that moment in time, there was no other choice. Secretary of War
Henry Stinson wrote, “The decision to use the atomic bomb … was our least
abhorrent choice”. President Harry S. Truman approved the order to use the
atomic bomb. It was his decision and his hope to avoid an invasion of the
Japanese homeland. An invasion that would have cost tens of thousands of
Japanese and allied lives.”
Just after 8.15am Japanese time, on August 6 1945, six miles above Hiroshima, a Boeing B29 bomber, the Enola Gay, commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, who has died aged 92, carried out the world’s first atomic attack. Of 320,000 people in that city that morning, 80,000 died immediately or were badly wounded by the A-bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy”. The site of the explosion reached a temperature of 5,400°F. Days later, thousands of incinerated, blackened cadavers still adhered to the streets.
In the aftermath of the bomb’s release, Tibbets flung the huge B29 into a 155° turn to avoid destruction. Shock and horror swept over the 12-strong crew, he recalled. “Fellows,” he had said, “you have just dropped the first atom bomb in history.” Only Tibbets and US navy captain William “Deke” Parsons – who completed the assembly, and armed Little Boy en route to Japan – had been privy to the secret of the Manhattan Project, the US atomic bomb programme.
Three days after Hiroshima, Nagasaki was A-bombed, with up to 40,000 killed. On August 14 1945, the Japanese emperor broadcast to his people that they must “bear the unbearable” and surrender. The causal link between Tibbets’ mission and Hirohito’s announcement remained a hotly debated issue. The controversy surrounding the raid has never ended and the only presidential invitation Tibbets ever received was from the man who ordered the bombing, Harry Truman.
The weapon which Tibbets delivered was one child of a scientific golden age. That age had predated the first world war, was fissured by Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 and was eventually engulfed within the vast US war economy. From the 1890s, when the young Ernest Rutherford had left his native New Zealand for Cambridge University’s Cavendish laboratory, a community of physicists and chemists from France, Germany, Austria, Britain, Hungary, Denmark, Italy, the US and elsewhere had advanced to the point where atomic power, the stuff of pulp fiction, could be envisaged as reality. As the second world war broke out, Albert Einstein was urging President Roosevelt to follow the British and Germans in beginning a nuclear weapons programme.
By 1941, the British had opened up their atomic research to the US. In September 1942, Leslie Groves was appointed commanding general of the Manhattan Project. In October Robert Oppenheimer was appointed director of what became the project’s Los Alamos laboratory. In December 1942, Enrico Fermi activated the world’s first man-made nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile Number One. In September 1944, Tibbets was chosen from three candidates, in his words, “to wage atomic warfare”. Some of the Los Alamos scientists, Tibbets wrote in his memoirs, had their heads in the clouds. “Others had the same interest of the normal everyday citizen as I would classify myself.” Just how normal and everyday Tibbets was is open to question. Shy and touchy, he was only truly happy in the air, according to his Enola Gay crew mate, Jacob Beser, “But there he was magnificent.”
Tibbets’ background was the stuff of middle America, far from Los Alamos’ radical cosmopolitanism. Born in Quincy, Illinois, he was raised there and in Iowa until he was nine, when the family moved to Florida. The son of a wholesale grocer – and first world war army officer – Tibbets had Welsh, Irish and, on his mother’s side, Dutch ancestry. The Depression passed him by. He had a car at Western military academy in Illinois and even a new De Soto Airflow at the university of Florida. Planning to be a doctor, he studied at the University of Cincinnati, and worked in a venereal disease clinic.
But then Tibbets gave up his study. Medicine killed exhausted doctors, he thought, and he mistrusted the advent of socialized medicine. Most of all, he loved flying and wanted to join the army air corps. His father, he said, thought he had “lost his marbles”. His mother told him to go right ahead. “I know,” she said, “you will be all right”. Her name was Enola Gay.
In 1938 he graduated from pilot school in Texas and by 1940 was based in Savannah. Then came Pearl Harbor and Tibbets the career officer trained up on the army air force’s (USAAF) main heavy bomber, the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress in Tampa. By July 1942, he had arrived in Polebrook, in Northamptonshire, as commander of 340th Squadron. Morale was initially poor – Polebrook was the inspiration for the bomber base in the 1949 feature film Twelve O’Clock High, with a major, modeled on Tibbets, greeting new station commander Gregory Peck.
In August 1942, Tibbets flew the first B17 on the first USAAF bomber mission, to Rouen. Also in the crew were Theodore “Dutch” van Kirk and Tom Ferebee, both of whom were to be Enola Gay crewmen. That October, he flew supreme allied commander Dwight Eisenhower to Gibraltar and General Mark Clark to Algiers. He then led the first USAAF raid in north Africa, and became bombardment chief with General Jimmy Doolittle’s 12th air force.
In Tibbets’ opinion, a clash with a quintessential military bureaucrat, Colonel Lauris Norstad – the future Nato supremo – led to Tibbets’ transfer back to the US by February 1943. But once back, Tibbets was assigned to Wichita to flight test the new B29, which had just killed Boeing’s test pilot and 10 other key technicians. If any aircraft symbolised the birth of the US as a superpower, it was the B29, the propeller-driven ancestor of the B52 and 747 jumbo jet. It had been ordered in 1939-40 as an intercontinental bomber to bomb Europe or Asia (if Britain were to lose). More than 1,600 B29s had already been ordered, but their engines, the largest ever built, tended to catch fire. Soon Tibbets was a B29 instructor.
Then, in September 1944, came the appointment to command the 393rd heavy bombardment squadron, the A-bomb unit, initially based at Wendover Field in desolate Utah. Oppenheimer warned Tibbets that the A-bomb shock wave could destroy the B29. So the Super Fortresses were stripped to fly at 32,000 feet. Early in 1945, the 393rd was sent to Batista Field in Cuba to practice runs over islands. Soon afterwards, Tibbets unilaterally announced that the unit was ready to go – and in May 1945 what had grown into the 1,700-strong 509th Composite Group began transferring to Tinian Island in the Marianas, 1,200 miles from Japan.
In Washington, a committee selected four possible targets: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama and Kokura. The US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, later vetoed Kyoto, already disturbed by the fire-bombing of Japan, and unwilling to see a historic city destroyed. Hiroshima, with its rivers and surrounding mountains was a comparatively easy target – and apparently had no allied PoWs.
By July, the transfer of the 509th was complete. Unlike the conventional squadrons on Tinian, it flew no combat missions until late July, and became the object of derision. There was also an attempt to break it up, and the regional air commander, Curtis LeMay, wasn’t sure that Tibbets should fly the mission. He responded with a test flight to demonstrate the crew’s prowess.
At the end of the month, Little Boy arrived. It symbolized global war. Some of its uranium was from the Congo, confiscated from the Belgians in 1940 by the Germans and snatched from Soviet-occupied Germany in 1945 by an Anglo-American special unit.
On August 1, Tibbets put together the order for the attack, and a day later, with LeMay and Ferebee, he chose the Aioi bridge as the target in Hiroshima. On August 4, he briefed the crews. Five B29s were to take part in the raid, three as weather scouts, one to accompany the bombing plane. Tibbets told the aircrew that everything before had been small potatoes, and that what they proposed to do would shorten the war by six months.
On August 5, a row broke out between Tibbets and his enraged co-pilot Robert Lewis, who had originally assumed he would be piloting the mission and who also took exception to his commander’s abrupt christening of the B29 as Enola Gay. Tibbets’ thoughts, he confided in his autobiography, had turned to his “courageous red-haired mother, whose quiet confidence had been a source of strength to me since boyhood”.
The take-off of the Enola Gay and the other planes, which comprised “special bombing mission number 13”, was a media event. Tibbets and his crew were floodlit, filmed, photographed – and observed from the jungle by the remnants of the Japanese forces on the island. Tibbets smiles broadly out of the Enola Gay group shot, symbolic in the shape of western wars to come.
Until Enola Gay’s arrival over Hiroshima, the most taxing part of the flight had been the takeoff, when Tibbets had held 65 tons of B29 on the runway for two miles before pulling it into the air. He had been given cyanide pills for the crew – in case they came down over Japan – and anti-flash goggles for the A-bomb itself. “My teeth told me more emphatically than my eyes of the Hiroshima explosion,” Tibbets wrote: there was a tingling sensation, as his fillings interacted with the radioactivity.
In the city, wrote Richard Rhodes in his definitive The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “birds ignited in mid-air. Mosquitoes and flies, squirrels, family pets crackled and were gone. The fire balls flashed an enormous photograph of the city at the instant of its immolation fixed on the mineral, vegetable and animal surfaces of the city itself.” The mushroom cloud over the stricken city was still visible from Enola Gay at 10 that morning. By 3pm, the B29 had touched down at Tinian. The crew was decorated – Tibbets with a distinguished service cross – on landing. Back home Tibbets’ local paper called him “Florida’s Buck Rogers”.
(About the mushroom cloud, in his interview with Studs Terkel General Tibbets had this to say)
Studs Terkel: Did you hear an explosion?
Paul Tibbets: Oh yeah. The shock wave was coming up at us after we turned. And the tail gunner said, “Here it comes.” About the time he said that, we got this kick in the ass. I had accelerometers installed in all airplanes to record the magnitude of the bomb. It hit us with two and a half G. Next day, when we got figures from the scientists on what they had learned from all the things, they said, “When that bomb exploded, your airplane was 10 and a half miles away from it.”
Studs Terkel: Did you see that mushroom cloud?
Paul Tibbets: You see all kinds of mushroom clouds, but they were made with different kinds of bombs. The Hiroshima bomb did not make a mushroom. It was what I call a stringer. It just came up. It was black as hell and it had light and colors and white in it and grey color in it and the top was like a folded-up Christmas tree.
That September, together with Ferebee and Van Kirk, he went to Hiroshima. Soon afterwards, he went to the air war college in Alabama to write about the use of A-bombs. He was infuriated when denied a key role in the 1946 Bikini Atoll A-bomb tests, partly blaming machinations by Norstad, and went on to test the B47 atom bomber.
In 1952, Robert Taylor played Tibbets, with Eleanor Parker as his wife Lucy in Above and Beyond, billed as the “love story behind the billion dollar secret”. But two years later, the marriage ended in divorce and in 1956, while posted to Nato in Paris, he married Andrea Quattrehomme.
Tibbets never reached the top echelon in the cold-war US air force; he retired with the rank of brigadier-general. Soon after serving with the US supply mission in India (1964-66) – where the Indian Communist party labelled him the “world’s greatest killer” – he quit and joined an executive jet company in Ohio.
Once total war and its assumed imperative were gone, democratic western societies shrank from reconciling their proclaimed values with the obliteration of cities and those who lived in them. Yet Tibbets, the man who waged atomic warfare, felt that the dropping of the two A-bombs saved lives. Without them, a long and bloody invasion of Japan would have followed. He never, he said, lost a night’s sleep over the raid.
He said in 2005 that he wanted his ashes scattered over the English channel, where he loved to fly during the war.
Tibbets is survived by his second wife and three sons. One of his grandchildren, Paul W Tibbets IV, became the mission controller of a B2 Stealth bomber.
· Paul Warfields Tibbets, pilot, born February 23 1915; died November 1 2007
“The surviving members of the Enola Gay crew: Paul W. Tibbets (pilot), Theodore J. “Dutch” Van Kirk (navigator) and Morris R. Jeppson (weapon test officer) have repeatedly and humbly proclaimed that, “The use of the atomic weapon was a necessary moment in history. We have no regrets”. They have steadfastly taken that stance for the past six decades.
“In the past sixty years since Hiroshima I have received many letters from people all over the world. The vast majority have expressed gratitude that the 509th Composite group consisting of 1700 men, 15 B-29s and 6 C-54s were able to deliver the bombs that ended the war. Over the years, thousands of former soldiers and military family members have expressed a particularly touching and personal gratitude suggesting that they might not be alive today had it been necessary to resort to an invasion of the Japanese home islands to end the fighting. In addition to Americans veterans, I have been thanked as well by Japanese veterans and civilians who would have been expected to carry out a suicidal defense of their homelands. Combined with the efforts of all Americans and our allies we were able to stop the killing,” comments Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets. It is a sentiment upon which the surviving crewmen are unanimous.
In this year, 2005, we will observe the anniversary of the epic flight of the Enola Gay close to our homes and our friends. To our fellow veterans and the American nation we all echo one sentiment, “I pray that reason will prevail among leaders before we ever again need to call upon our nuclear might. There are no regrets. We were proud to have served like so many men and women stationed around the world today. To them, to you, we salute you and goodbye.”