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Pilot launched Atomic Age over Hiroshima

Special to The Times

To the end of his days, Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. believed that dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a justifiable means of shortening World War II and preserving the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who military experts said might have died in a final Allied invasion of Japan.

For Tibbets, the pilot whose bombing run unleashed the devastating explosive force and insidious nuclear radiation that leveled two-thirds of the city and killed at least 80,000 people, there was never any need to apologize.

“I never lost a night’s sleep over it,” Tibbets said of the Aug. 6, 1945, attack.

The Army Air Forces officer died Thursday at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 92 and, according to his longtime friend Gerry Newhouse, had been in declining health over the last few years and died of heart failure.

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To millions of detractors, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima was a cosmic example of man’s inhumanity to man, an act that left the world teetering on the brink of self-annihilation.

“I made one great mistake in my life -- when I signed a letter to President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt recommending that an atomic bomb be made,” said pioneering physicist Albert Einstein, one of the first to conceive of such a weapon.

Months after authorizing the attack, President Truman commiserated with Tibbets at the White House about the criticism over dropping the bomb.

“It was my decision,” Truman told him. “You didn’t have a choice.”

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On the 60th anniversary of the bombing, Tibbets told the Columbus Dispatch that he knew when he 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,” Tibbets said. “But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”

Tibbets was more than just the pilot of the propeller-driven, four-engine bomber that made the historic mission.

Described by his commandant, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, as “the best damned pilot” in the Army Air Forces, Tibbets was hand-picked to lead the mysterious 509th Composite Group, the first military unit formed to wage nuclear war. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, another plane from the 509th leveled much of Nagasaki with another nuclear bomb, prompting the Japanese surrender.

Tibbets chose the planes that flew those missions -- specially reconfigured B-29s, then the largest operational aircraft on Earth, stripped of armament and armor plating to lighten them for their extended journeys.

He selected the combat veterans who manned the bombers. Many of the crewmen were personal friends who had flown missions with him over Nazi-occupied Western Europe and North Africa.

Tibbets picked an isolated air base straddling the Nevada-Utah border where the men of the 509th trained for their ultra-secret mission. And he drove his men hard, weeding out those who fell short or talked too much about what they were doing.

Proud, prickly and a perfectionist, Tibbets never doubted that he was the man for the job.

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Born in Quincy, Ill., on Feb. 23, 1915, he moved to Florida with his parents while still a child. His father, a candy distributor, hired popular barnstormer Doug Davis to fly over Hialeah racetrack as a promotional stunt. Davis piloted the Waco biplane while the 12-year-old Tibbets tossed handfuls of Baby Ruth bars to the crowd below.

“From that day on, I knew I had to fly,” Tibbets said.

Tibbets’ father, a believer in discipline, shipped his son off to Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., the next year. Tibbets liked the military life and despite subsequent premedical studies at the universities of Cincinnati and Florida, he enlisted as a flying cadet in 1937 with the Army Air Corps at Ft. Thomas, Ky.

By late summer 1942 -- nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into World War II against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy -- Tibbets was flying some of the first U.S. bombing raids over German-held targets in Western Europe. Two months later, he led the bombing runs supporting the American landings in North Africa.

In early 1943, Tibbets was recalled to the United States to begin testing a new super bomber, the B-29. Within months, he was one of the nation’s most experienced B-29 pilots.

In September 1944, Lt. Col. Tibbets was summoned to a secret military conclave in Colorado, where he was told that he had been selected over dozens of other candidates to head a unit called the 509th Composite Group.

“My job, in brief, was to wage atomic war,” he wrote in his book, “Flight of the Enola Gay” (1989).

Tibbets searched for the perfect airfield to train his men and knew he had found it in Wendover, Utah. “It was remote in the truest sense,” he wrote. “Surrounding the field were miles and miles of salt flats.”

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The arriving crewmen were told nothing about their mission, according to “Ruin From the Air,” a 1977 history of the project by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts.

“Don’t ask what the job is,” Tibbets told his men. “Stop being curious. . . . Never mention this base to anybody. That means your wives, girlfriends, sisters, family.”

To everyone’s surprise, Tibbets granted everyone Christmas leave in December 1944. What they didn’t know was that it was a ploy to test security. As the men of the 509th headed home, they were met at the Salt Lake City railroad station by undercover operatives posing as solicitous civilians and friendly servicemen.

Two men from the 509th answered the detailed questions of a friendly “officer” who said he would soon be joining the unit. Within a week, both men had been banished to a remote island off the coast of Alaska.

Crews made hundreds of practice runs over the Mojave Desert and the Salton Sea. The test bombs were full-sized mock-ups of the real thing -- the long and slender uranium “Little Boy” that would fall on Hiroshima and the bulbous plutonium “Fat Man” that would hit Nagasaki.

Most of the mock-ups were filled with concrete, but some contained everything but the nuclear components, including large quantities of conventional explosives in the triggering mechanisms.

On one Salton Sea run, a consulting engineer accidentally dropped one of the explosive Fat Man mock-ups too soon. Narrowly missing the town of Calipatria, Calif., the bomb buried itself in a hole 10 feet deep, but somehow failed to explode. Bulldozers were rushed to the scene to erase evidence of the accident.

On June 18, 1945, Truman approved military plans for the invasion of Japan. The initial assault, by 815,000 troops, would begin on the island of Kyushu on Nov. 1, followed five months later by an attack by 1.2 million troops on the island of Honshu. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said it could take 10 years to wipe out the last pockets of resistance, with total American losses reaching 1 million men.

Less than a month after Truman approved the invasion plans, the first atomic bomb was tested successfully at Alamogordo, N.M. Truman, realizing that he had an alternative to the invasion, was pleased, as was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“The atomic bomb is the Second Coming in wrath,” Churchill said upon hearing the news.

Believing that the Japanese should have one last chance to avoid the awesome power of the bomb, Truman issued an ultimatum: Surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese ignored the demand, which made no mention of nuclear weapons.

Outmaneuvering some top officers who sought to take over the bombing mission, Tibbets rallied support from Washington to retain his command of the 509th and announced that he would pilot the plane that dropped the first bomb.

Forcing an unhappy Capt. Robert A. Lewis to accept the secondary role of co-pilot in what had been Lewis’ B-29, Tibbets ordered his mother’s name, Enola Gay, painted on the side of the fuselage.

Several hours before dawn on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, lumbering under the load of the 9,700-pound bomb, struggled up off a runway on the island of Tinian for the 1,700-mile flight north to Hiroshima. Two other B-29s accompanied the Enola Gay to monitor the event.

Seventeen seconds after 8:15 a.m., from an altitude of 26,000 feet, bombardier Maj. Thomas Ferebee released the bomb. Tibbets, who carried poison pills for the crew in case the B-29 went down, put the plane into a sharp, diving turn to speed away from the imminent explosion.

At 8:16 a.m., 1,890 feet above the center of Hiroshima, the bomb detonated with a core temperature estimated at 50 million degrees.

“My God, what have we done?” Lewis wrote in his logbook.

The shock waves severely shook the retreating plane, but did not damage it.

Staff Sgt. Robert Caron described the view from his seat in the tail gunner’s turret as “a peep into hell.”

Tibbets looked back to see an immense mushroom cloud.

“It had already risen to a height of 45,000 feet, and was still boiling upward like something terribly alive,” he wrote in his book. “Even more fearsome was the sight on the ground below. Fires were springing up everywhere amid a turbulent mass of smoke that had the appearance of bubbling hot tar.”

The flight back to Tinian was uneventful, and Tibbets alighted from the plane to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was added to a collection that included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal and a Purple Heart he received for wounds suffered when his bomber was struck by cannon fire over Europe.

Tibbets’ military career would continue for 20 more years. Although most of his assignments involved relatively routine desk jobs, his past sometimes haunted him.

In 1965, then a 50-year-old brigadier general in what had become the U.S. Air Force, he was appointed deputy director of the U.S. Military Supply Mission in India. When the Indian news media called him “the world’s greatest killer,” an embarrassed State Department recalled him and shut down the mission.

A year later, Tibbets retired from the military. For three years, he worked as an aviation advisor in Europe, then returned to the United States and a job with Executive Jet Aviation, an air taxi service in Columbus. He eventually served as board chairman of the firm.

In 1976, Tibbets piloted a restored B-29 that dropped a simulated, miniature atomic bomb at an air show in Texas. The reenactment, complete with a little mushroom cloud, prompted a protest from Japan. Tibbets called the Japanese reaction “ridiculous,” but U.S. government officials apologized.

When Executive Jet changed ownership in 1985, Tibbets quit the business world but remained active, making scores of public appearances, including many on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima in 1995.

The anniversary spawned a new wave of criticism about the attacks.

When the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum displayed part of the Enola Gay in 1995, anti-nuclear demonstrators poured blood and ashes on the fuselage. Veterans groups and some members of Congress took the opposite view, complaining that the exhibit showed too much sympathy toward Japan at the expense of the United States.

The exhibit was scaled down, then removed. The entire plane went back on display in 2003 at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport.

The new wave of controversy about Hiroshima “got me roused up,” Tibbets told the Palm Beach Post in 2001. “Our young people don’t know anything about what happened because nobody taught them and now their minds are being filled up with things that aren’t true.”

He said he wasn’t proud of all the death and destruction at Hiroshima, but he was proud that he did his job well.

Tibbets is survived by his wife, Andrea; sons Paul III, Gene and James; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Because he feared giving protesters a place to demonstrate, Tibbets did not want a funeral or headstone, Newhouse said. He requested that his ashes be scattered over the North Atlantic Ocean.

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Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.


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