Paul Tibbets Jr.; Piloted Plane That Dropped First Atom Bomb

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VIDEO | Enola Gay Pilot Dies
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

Paul W. Tibbets Jr., 92, who piloted the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb in combat -- on Hiroshima, Japan -- a mission that helped end World War II, died Nov. 1 at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He reportedly had had strokes in recent years.

Gen. Tibbets became a national hero with the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a historical turning point of the last century. He said he had no regrets over the more than 100,000 Japanese killed and wounded at Hiroshima, and made a point of saying he slept easily at night.

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

"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, then-Col. Tibbets was selected for the top-secret bombing mission over Japan -- 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.

The Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress he named after his mother, took off from Tinian Island, near the Pacific island of Guam, in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 6, 1945. The crew carried an atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" that devastated Hiroshima, a city chosen because it was a military center and had no prisoner-of-war camps.

Before the bombing, Gen. 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 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."

After the Enola Gay flight, the Japanese did not surrender. Three days later, another U.S. crew made a run over Japan in a B-29 Superfortress named Bockscar, after its pilot, Frederick C. Bock. The primary target, Kokura, was fogged in, so they went for Nagasaki, an alternative target, and dropped a bomb nicknamed "Fat Man." The Japanese formally surrendered Sept. 2, 1945.

Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. was born Feb. 23, 1915, 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 pieces of candy and tossed them overboard to people below. He was 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.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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