Enola Gay's pilot steered Earth into a new age.
Published Nov. 2, 2007

Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in the final days of World War II, died Thursday (Nov. 1, 2007) at his home in Columbus, Ohio.

Gen. Tibbets, 92, became a military celebrity with the first atomic bombing in combat, on Aug. 6, 1945, a historical turning point of the past century. In rarely granted interviews, he expressed little remorse over the more than 100,000 Japanese killed or injured at Hiroshima and made a point of saying that he slept easily at night knowing of his role.

"We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background," he told the Columbus Dispatch for a story on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. "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."

Before dawn on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay lifted off carrying a uranium atomic bomb assembled under extraordinary secrecy. Gen. Tibbets, then a colonel in the Army Air Forces, guided the four-engine plane he named in honor of his mother toward the Aioi Bridge in central Hiroshima, a city of 250,000 chosen because it was a military center and had no prisoner-of-war camps.

At 8:15 a.m. local time, the bomb known to its creators as Little Boy exploded in a nuclear inferno on the city. The blast killed 70,000 to 100,000 people and injured countless others.

Gen. Tibbets executed a well-rehearsed diving turn to avoid the blast effect. Because of the bomb's force, he was told he could not fly straight ahead after it exploded but would have to turn 159 degrees to the expanding shock wave and leave the area fast. He said he practiced at great altitudes and eventually was able to turn the large aircraft in about 40 seconds.

Former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, who was a Marine fighter pilot, said people who criticized Gen. Tibbets failed to recognize that an allied invasion of Japan, which the bomb helped avert, would have resulted in the deaths of several million people.

"It wasn't his decision. It was a presidential decision, and he was an officer that carried out his duty," Glenn said. "It's a horrible weapon, but war is pretty horrible, too."

Gen. Tibbets was selected for the top-secret mission, the culmination of the Manhattan Project, because of the piloting skill he showed early in the war during bombing runs over Europe and North Africa.

Leading up to the bombing, he met 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 besides 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."

Three days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000 people. Gen. Tibbets did not fly in that mission. The Japanese surrendered a few days later, ending the war.

Gen. Tibbets was born in Quincy, Ill., and 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, 12-year-old Paul Tibbets Jr. took a ride with a barnstorming pilot and dropped candy bars on Hialeah racetrack in a promotional stunt for the Curtiss Candy Co. He was hooked on flight.

He attended the University of Florida and the University of Cincinnati and joined the Army Air Corps in 1937. After the United States entered World War II, he flew B-17 sorties over North Africa, led daylight B-17 raids over Europe and was an early test pilot of the B-29. In fall 1944, he was selected for the atomic bombing runs and oversaw operations at Wendover Field in Utah.

After the war, he 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. In 1966, he retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general.

His decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In a 2002 interview with oral historian Studs Terkel, Gen. Tibbets said he met with President Harry S. 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, Gen. Tibbets replied he had none and had done his duty to protect the country.

His feelings about the bombing embodied public opinion at the time, said Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

"He was so characteristic of that generation. He was a man who took great pride in what he did during the war, including the atomic bombing," Rhodes said.

Gen. Tibbets told Terkel that he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against America's current enemies.

"I'd wipe 'em out," he said. "You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the (expletive): 'You've killed so many civilians.' That's their tough luck for being there."

Gen. Tibbets said he did not want a funeral or headstone because he did not want to attract protesters to his burial site.

Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.