Famed pilot, Paul Tibbets, recalls the moment

60 years ago when he and his crew helped to

bring an end to World War II.

By: James V. Carrol

Legion Magazine

All the pilot had was the word of engineers.

          They believed he would have less than one minute to escape the blast.

          He twisted hard, into a diving 60-degree turn. He needed to instantly

          change course of the lumbering Flying Super fortress, by 155 degrees.

          The gigantic shockwave was closing at 1,100 feet per second. If he

failed to turn and outrun it, the plane and its 12-man crew would be

          consumed. Forty-three seconds into the evasive maneuver, a blinding

light flashed through the cockpit. The tail gunner stared in awe. A 100-million-degree fireball billowed up from below.

Charles Tibbets

They braced themselves to ride its wake. The pilot’s teeth began to tingle; his fillings were introduced to radioactivity. Nine miles from ground zero, the shock-wave caught and enveloped them. The moment of truth was at hand. The plane bounced through the air. The pilot and co-pilot fought to keep it airborne. A second echo-effect shock hit. Crew members would later compare the experience to the feeling of receiving heavy, heavy flak. The engineers had theorized right. The bomber beat the bomb.

He gazed through the cockpit window and saw a giant purple mushroom cloud. Even at 45,000 feet and rising, he feared the cloud would engulf the plane. On the ground, fires belched real dense smoke. The city was blanketed from view.

“Fellows,” announced Army Air Corps pilot Col. Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., “you have just dropped the first atomic bomb in history.”   Copilot Capt. Robert A. Lewis simply scribbled into his logbook two words: “My God!” It was Aug. 6, 1945. Tibbets and his crew aboard the B-29 bomber Enola Gay had just delivered the first blow of a one-two punch to end World War II, by dropping the first atomic weapon over Hiroshima, Japan.

The uranium-based bomb exploded approximately 1,900 feet above the city, un-leashing the destructive power of 40 million pounds of TNT. “Little Boy,” as the bomb was called, flattened and burned 4.1 square miles, or 60 percent of the city. More than 66,000 Japanese citizens perished in the blast. Thousands of others were injured. Ultimately 200,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the explosion.

Three days later, Aug. 9, 1945, a 10,800-pound plutonium-based bomb — also with the explosive power of more than 40 million pounds of TNT was dropped over the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Fifty percent of the city was destroyed. More than 39,000 Japanese were instantly killed. Some 70,000 people ultimately died as a result of the nuclear explosion.


 Duty, Honor, Country.

“I’ve never given a minute’s thought to regret,” Tibbets says today at age 90, 60 years after one of history’s most profound moments. “I was an American airman charged with a momentous duty whose purpose it was to do everything possible to shorten the war. It was an honorable endeavor, and it succeeded.” Tibbets, who retired from the Air Force in 1966 as a brigadier general, is mindful of the thousands who died as a result of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshi and Nagasaki. He is quick to point out, however, that had the Japanese not surrendered when they did, the planned invasion of Japan would have resulted in the deaths of more than a million lives.

“Understand, the job of every wartime soldier, sailor, Marine or airman is to win and win as quickly as possible,” Tibbets says. “The way I look at it, ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ saved more than a million lives. There’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in saving lives.”

Most historians agree that dropping the uranium and plutonium bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortened World War II, thereby avoiding an inevitable Allied invasion of Japan and its predicted carnage to both sides. There are historians and ethicists who hold a dissenting opinion, but Japanese aviator Mitsuo Fuchida is not among them. Fuchida, Tibbets says, approached him at a military reception sometime after the war and said, “I’m Fuchida. Shall we talk about it?” Apparently recognizing that the American aviator did not understand what he was talking about, Fuchida told Tibbets that he had led the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. “You sure did surprise us, Tibbets recalls saying. “What the hell do you think you did to us?” Fuchid replied.

The two war-hardened aviators and survivors chatted a few minutes when Fuchida confided to Tibbets, “You did the right thing to drop the bombs. Japan would have resisted an invasion using every man, woman and child, using sticks and stones if necessary. “That would have been a slaughter,” Tibbets says. “I believed at the time, and I believe now, that President Truman made the right call.”


As a boy of 12, Tibbets couldn’t have known he had a date with destiny as he tossed Baby Ruth candy bars from the passenger seat of a biplane into the bleachers of Hialeah racetrack in Miami. His parents, Enola Gay Haggard and Paul Warfield Tibbets, had hoped their first son might someday become a physician. But that day, as pilot Douglas Davis throttled back the engine of his Waco 9 and tipped its wing, young Tibbets thrilled at the site of earthbound revelers scrambling to grab candy bars parachuting toward them. It was his maiden flight. The boy knew then it would not be his last.

“I tried to honor the wishes of my mother and father,” Tibbets says. “But the attraction of flying was too much to resist. The truth is, I guess I really didn’t attempt to resist all that much.” Tibbets enlisted as a flying cadet in 1937 and a year later received his pilot wings at Kelly Field. In 1942 he was appointed com-mander of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, where he later flew the B-17 Flying Fortress in the first daylight bombing raid over Europe. He had 25 combat missions before being transferred to Algeria to lead air attacks in the North Africa Theater. In 1943, Tibbets returned to the United States to test the combat worthiness of Boeing’s new B-29 Superfortress. It was his familiarity with the B-29 that ultimately earned Tibbets command of the top-secret 509th Composite Group. His responsibility was to train flight crews to deliver “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” and to supervise modifications to a number of B-29s to make them capable of carrying and delivering the two weapons. In spring 1945, the 509th — with 1,500 enlisted men, 200 officers and 15 B-29s — secretly set up shop at North Field on Tinian Island in the Marianas.

Tibbets talks freely today when asked about “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” and his role in loosing the atomic age. He did it. He’s proud he did it. Move on, he says.

The retired general more easily discusses other adventures in his 29-year military career, like in 1938 when he, a young second lieutenant, wiled away Sunday mornings shooting skeet with then Lt. Col. George S. Patton, “who hated to lose even a 25-cent bet,” Tibbets recalls . Or the time he flew the lead B-17 in the first daylight- bombing raid over Nazi Germany. Or summer 1944, when he taught two Women’s Air Service Pilots, Dora Dougherty and Didi Moorman, to fly the B-29 Super-fortress to shame male airmen reluctant to fly the accident-prone bomber. The two WASPs were the only two women ever rated to fly the aircraft.

Tibbets’ intimate knowledge of tactical atomic bomb delivery and his expertise in testing new aircraft served him well after the war. In 1946, he served as technical adviser to the commanding general for the Bikini Island bomb tests in the South Pacific. He also played a significant role in promoting and testing the B-47 Stratojet, America’s first pure jet strategic bomber developed in the early 1950s. He did a stint in France at NATO and established the national Military Command Center at the Pentagon.

In civilian life, Tibbets flew Leer jets in Switzerland and later hooked up with Exe-cutive Jet Aviation in Columbus, Ohio . He performed a number of tasks for the all-jet air taxi service prior to becoming EJA board chairman in 1982. When he retired from EJA in 1985, Tibbets had acquired nearly 400 hours in Lear jets and had an Air Transport Pilot rating. He is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Tibbets also had a brief brush with the Hollywood crowd. Actor Robert Taylor played him in the 1952 film “Above and Beyond.” The movie types did a pretty good job, Tibbets wrote in his 1995 book “Enola Gay.” “When history is transformed into entertainment, it’s not unusual to jazz things up a bit to heighten suspense and excitement — but usually within the framework of probability,” Tibbets wrote.

The movie did not exactly get everything right, he explained. “‘Above and Beyond’ scriptwriters put the words ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ into my mouth,” Tibbets says today. “I never said that. Bob Lewis wrote ‘My God!’ in a journal he was keeping on the flight. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

A tape recording of cockpit conversation aboard the Enola Gay during the Hiroshima raid disappeared after it was turned over to an Army information officer, he adds.

Tibbets understands he will forever be known as the pilot who transported mankind’s first atomic bomb to its destructive destination. He doesn’t revel in, or hide, his role. He is, however, grateful for the words President Truman shared with him after the war: “Don’t you ever lose any sleep over the fact you planned and carried out that mission ..... It was my decision. You had no choice.”

                                                             James V Carroll is an assistant editor

                                                                       at The American Legion Magazine.

                                                                                   August 2005. (Pgs..32-36)


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