Paul Tibbets Jr., 92; piloted Enola Gay over Hiroshima

Paul W. Tibbets, beside the B-29 Superfortress bomber the Enola Gay. Paul W. Tibbets, beside the B-29 Superfortress bomber the Enola Gay. (ap/file 1945)
Email|Print| Text size + By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / November 2, 2007

WASHINGTON - Paul W. Tibbets Jr., who piloted the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb in combat in an attack that helped end World War II and usher in the atomic age, died yesterday at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 92 and reportedly had suffered strokes in recent years.

General Tibbets became a military celebrity with the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, a historical turning point of the last century. In rarely granted interviews, he expressed little remorse over the more than 100,000 Japanese killed or injured at Hiroshima and said he slept easily knowing of his role.

In a public television documentary, "The Men Who Brought the Dawn," which aired on the 50th anniversary of the bombings, General Tibbets said the bomb "saved more lives than we took" because an alternative would have been an invasion of Japan's home islands.

"It would have been morally wrong if we'd have had that weapon and not used it and let a million more people die," he said.

In late 1944, Tibbets, then a colonel, was selected for the top-secret bombing mission over Japan, the culmination of the Manhattan Project.

The Enola Gay, named after his mother, took off from Tinian Island, near the Pacific island of Guam, in the predawn hours of Aug. 6. The crew carried an atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" and its target was Hiroshima, a city chosen because it was a military center and had no prisoner-of-war camps.

Leading up to the bombing, General Tibbets had meetings with J. Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists and military leaders working on the Manhattan Project. But he said he had no clear idea of the bomb's potential other than the description that it would explode with the force of 20,000 tons of dynamite, a concept he could only vaguely grasp.

He later said of the blast: "If Dante had been with us on the plane, he would have been terrified. The city we had seen so clearly in the sunlight a few minutes before was now an ugly smudge. It had completely disappeared under this awful blanket of smoke and fire."

After the Enola Gay flight, the Japanese did not lay down arms. Three days later, Major Charles W. Sweeney, a Massachusetts resident, and his crew made a run over Japan in a B-29 Superfortress named the Bockscar. The first target, Kokura, was fogged in, so they went for Nagasaki, an alternative target, and dropped a bomb nicknamed "Fat Man." The Japanese announced their surrender Aug. 15, 1945.

Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. was born in Quincy, Ill. He grew up mostly in Miami, where his father opened a confectionary that set in motion his son's aviation career.

To promote Baby Ruth candy bars, Paul Tibbets Jr., then 12, went aloft over the beaches and racetracks of Miami in an open-cockpit biplane. He attached tiny parachutes to candy pieces and tossed them overboard to people below. He became hooked on flight.

He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati with the intention of studying medicine - mostly at his father's behest. A stint administering shots at venereal-disease clinics led him to quit college and, in 1937, join the Army Air Corps.

In 2002, he told oral historian Studs Terkel: "When I told them I was going to leave college and go fly planes in the Army Air Corps, my dad said, 'Well, I've sent you through school, bought you automobiles, given you money to run around with the girls, but from here on, you're on your own. If you want to go kill yourself, go ahead, I don't give a damn.' "

"Then Mom just quietly said, 'Paul, if you want to go fly airplanes, you're going to be all right.' And that was that."

On Aug. 17, 1942, he led a dozen B-17 Flying Fortresses on the first daylight raid by an American squadron on German-occupied Europe, bombing railroad marshaling yards in the French city of Rouen. He flew General Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibralter in November 1942 en route to the launching of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, and participated in the first bombing missions of that campaign.

After returning to the United States to test the newly developed B-29, the first intercontinental bomber, he was told in September 1944 of the most closely held secret of the war: Scientists were working to harness the power of atomic energy to create a bomb of such destruction that it could end the war.

He was ordered to find the best pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and supporting crewmen and mold them into a unit that would deliver that bomb from a B-29.

In his memoir "Now It Can Be Told," Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves Jr., who oversaw the Manhattan Project, said that General Tibbets had been selected to train the crews because "he was a superb pilot of heavy planes, with years of military flying experience, and was probably as familiar with the B-29 as anyone in the service."

He took command of the newly created 509th Composite Group, a unit of 1,800 men who trained amid extraordinary security at Wendover Field in Utah salt flats.

In the summer of 1945, General Tibbets oversaw his unit's transfer for additional training on Tinian in the Northern Marianas. On July 16, an atomic bomb was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert, and when Japan ignored a surrender demand issued at the Potsdam Conference, General Tibbets completed final preparations to drop a uranium bomb.

On Aug. 6, 1945, he and his crew spent six hours aloft with the bomb before reaching Hiroshima around 8:15 a.m. The 5-ton atomic bomb whistled down several thousand feet, exploded about 1,900 feet above the city, and sent a mushroom cloud funneling skyward.

In his memoir "The Tibbets Story," he told of "the awesome sight that met our eyes as we turned for a heading that would take us alongside the burning, devastated city."

"The giant purple mushroom, which the tail-gunner had described, had already risen to a height of 45,000 feet, 3 miles above our own altitude, and was still boiling upward like something terribly alive," he remembered.

Because of the bomb's force, General Tibbets was told he could not fly straight ahead after it exploded but would have to turn 159 degrees to the expanding shockwave and leave the area fast. He said he practiced at great altitudes - with the plane's tail shaking wildly - and eventually was able to turn the large aircraft in about 40 seconds.

General Tibbets was depicted by Hollywood leading man Robert Taylor in "Above and Beyond," a 1952 fictional account of the airman's life leading to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

After the war, General Tibbets was a technical adviser to postwar Bikini atoll bomb tests in 1946, held assignments with the Strategic Air Command, and helped establish the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. He retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general in 1966.

After his military retirement, he became president of a Columbus-based air taxi company. His role in the atomic bombing of Japan continued to attract controversy, as when he participated in a miniature reenactment of the bombing at a 1976 air show in Texas.

Also, the general became angered about the planned 50th-anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution that included a lengthy explanation of the suffering caused by the atomic attacks. He and veterans' groups said there was not enough presented about Japanese villainy during the war. The Smithsonian exhibit, at the National Air and Space Museum, went ahead without commentary or analysis.

The head of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs yesterday rejected the idea that the bombing saved lives. "What Mr. Tibbets did should never be forgiven," said Takashi Mukai, whose mother, a nurse, suffered lifelong effects of radiation from treating bombing victims. "His actions led to the indiscriminate killing of so many, from the elderly to young children.

"Nevertheless, I would like to express my condolences to his family, and pray for his soul," he said. "What's important now is that we move toward a world free of nuclear weapons."

In his interview with Terkel, General Tibbets said he met with President Truman in 1948 in the Oval Office, and the president asked the airman if he had regrets. As he would for the rest of his life, General Tibbets replied that he had none and had done his duty to protect the country.

"There is no morality in war," he told the Virginian-Pilot in 2002. "A way must be found to eliminate war as a means of settling quarrels between nations."

At the same time, he expressed no regrets over his role in the launching of atomic warfare. "I viewed my mission as one to save lives," he said. "I didn't bomb Pearl Harbor. I didn't start the war, but I was going to finish it."

His marriage to Lucy Wingate Tibbets ended in divorce.

He leaves his second wife, Andrea Quattrehomme Tibbets, whom he married in 1956, of Columbus; two sons from the first marriage, Paul Tibbets III of North Carolina and Gene Tibbets of Alabama; a son from his second marriage, James Tibbets of Columbus; and six grandchildren. A grandson named after General Tibbets followed him into the military as a B-2 bomber pilot currently stationed in Belgium.

In interviews, General Tibbets said he did not want a funeral or headstone because he did not want to attract protesters to his burial site. He told the Columbus Dispatch in 2005 he wanted his ashes scattered over the English Channel, where he loved to fly during the war.

Material from The New York Times and Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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