By Tom Morrow
An argument could be made that, other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and other military leaders, Army Air Corps Col. Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., born Feb. 23, 1915, had more responsibility and pressure put upon him during World War II than any other single man. He commanded, trained an entire bomb group and personally piloted the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
In 1942, Tibbets was chosen to fly Maj. Gen. Mark W. Clark and Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibraltar after flying 43 combat missions over Europe. Then he returned to the United States in February 1943 to help with the problem-ridden development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. In September 1944, he was appointed the commander of the 509th Composite Group, which a year later would conduct the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why was Tibbets selected from the dozens of qualified pilots and command officers? Among the many reasons, at that time Tibbets was considered “the best flier in the Army Air Corps,” according to historian Stephen Ambrose.
The 509th Composite Group was a fully self-contained organization consisting of 1,800 men and 15 B-29s, with a high priority for unlimited military supplies. Tibbets was given a choice of three possible bases: he selected Wendover, Utah for its remoteness.
In January 1945, Tibbets brought his wife and family along with him to Wendover. He felt that allowing married men to bring their families would improve morale, however, it put a strain on his own marriage. To explain all the highly-technical civilian engineers who were working on the Manhattan Project, he had to lie to his wife, telling her the engineers were “sanitary workers.” At one point Tibbets discovered his wife had recruited a scientist to unplug a drain in their apartment.
Tibbets formally named his B-29 “Enola Gay” after his mother. The name had been personally selected by him while it was still on the assembly line at the Martin plant in Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha.
Loaded with a 10,000-pound uranium bomb, the Enola Gay lifted off Tinian for Hiroshima, Japan at 0245 (a.m.) on Aug. 6, 1945, with Tibbets at the controls. Tinian, located just north of Guam, is some 1,600 miles from Japan, taking six hours to reach Hiroshima. The bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” was dropped over Hiroshima at 08:15 local time. After a second bomb (plutonium), called “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki two days later, Japan surrendered, thus ending World War II.
Upon returning from the bombing run, Tibbets was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Spaatz. Back home, he was seen as a national hero. In a 1975 interview, Tibbets told a reporter: “I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did … I sleep clearly every night.” He went on to say, “I knew when I got the assignment it was going to be an emotional thing. We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”
A Hollywood film, “Above and Beyond starring Robert Taylor was made in 1952 about Tibbets leadership to develop the 509th Bomb Group in Utah and on Tinian.
Tibbets was promoted to brigadier general in 1959. His grandson, Paul W. Tibbets IV, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1989. Some 26 years later on June 5, 2015, the grandson assumed command of the 509th Bomb Wing as a brigadier general.
The senior Tibbets died in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 1, 2007, at the age of 92. His ashes were scattered over the English Channel, where he had flown across on bombing raids during the war.
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