P aul W. Tibbets Jr. died November 1, 2007 at age 92, still proud of flying the mission that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, an act that shortened World War II by precluding an invasion of Japan in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen certainly would have been killed.
In his final interviews, the famed pilot of the Enola Gay had no regrets about carrying out the Aug. 6, 1945, attack that ultimately resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb exploded over Nagasaki, thus instantly killing 39,000 Japanese and hastening a surrender.
“Understand, the job of every wartime soldier, sailor, Marine or airman is to win, and win as quickly as possible,” Tibbets said in the August 2005 American Legion Magazine. “ 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.”
Tibbets enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1937. He trained on PT-3s and BT-9s at Randolph Field in Texas, graduating at the top of his class.
In February 1938, he reported to Fort Benning, Ga., where he flew 0-46 and 0-47 observation planes and B-TO bombers. He also became friends with then Lt. Col. George Patton, on the skeet range.
When Tibbets heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, he was a mile above Georgia in the Army’s new A-2O attack bomber. Nine months later, he led a dozen B-17 Flying Fortresses in the first daylight raid by a U.S. bombing squadron on German-occupied Europe.
In November 1942, he flew Eisenhower from England to Gilbraltar before participating in the North Africa campaign. The general sat on a two-by-four board in the cockpit for a pilot’s-eye view of the flight.
In September 1944, Tibbets was briefed on the Manhattan Project creation of an atomic bomb to end the war. Over the previous year, he had become an expert on Boeing’s B-29 Super Fortress bomber. Now he would organize and train a unit — the 509th Composite Group — to deliver the weapon from it.
That historic August morning, on the return flight from Hiroshima, Tibbets rejoiced at the possibility that the atomic bomb would now make future wars unthinkable. And for the rest of his life, he viewed such weapons as a great war deterrent.
Tibbets retired from the military in 1966 as a brigadier general. Until his death, he defended the bombing, even denouncing the script for a planned Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit in 1995 as an apology for a mission that needed none.
“For every American soldier who thanked me for being a part of the mission that spared him being part of a second D-Day against the deeply entrenched Japanese, I have been thanked, as well, by Japanese veterans who would have been also expected to carry out a suicidal defense of the home islands,”
Tibbets wrote in 1998. “1 am content that we did what reason compelled and what duty dictated.”
Tibbets reportedly didn’t want a funeral or headstone, fearing it would give protesters a place to demonstrate. Instead, he wanted his ashes scattered over the North Atlantic, the place where he loved flying.
The AMERICAN LEGION Magazine
January 2008 (Pg. 46)
Vol. 164 No. 1 www.legion.org
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