As the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets was not sure what to expect when he visited the place where his mission began.
Tibbets was headed for the Northern Mariana Islands to help mark the 60th anniversary of the United States invasion of the islands, occupied by the Japanese in 1944. The following year, on the islands, Tibbets assembled and trained teams that would drop the atomic bombs on Japan -- first on Hiroshima, then Nagaski.
"I don't know what kind of a mental image they've had of me; possibly that I had horns out of my head and a tail with a spear on the end of it," he said. "I wanted to let them know who I am, and where I came from, and why I did what I did. They've given me the opportunity to do that."
Although Tibbets at first did not want to participate in the ceremonies, which began today in the capital, Saipan, he remains defiant and proud about his role in the atomic age.
"Ask me to do it again under the same circumstances, I wouldn't hesitate," he said during a stopover in Hawaii on Thursday. "I think I did the right thing."
He said his stance has been backed by many retired Japanese servicemen, including Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Tibbets, 89, said he had the chance to meet Fuchida, who died in 1976, at a military reception some years after the war.
"The man . . . walked up to me, stuck out his hand and he said, 'I'm Fuchida. Shall we talk about it?' " Tibbets recalled. "I looked at him, he saw I didn't understand, he said, 'Man, I led the attack on Pearl Harbor.' I said to him, 'You sure did surprise us,' and he said, 'What . . . do you think you did to us?'
"We talked for 30 to 40 minutes, and he said, 'You did exactly the right thing, because Japan would've resisted an invasion using every man, woman and child, using sticks and stones if necessary.' That would've been an awful slaughter."
During his visit to the Northern Marianas, now a U.S. commonwealth, Tibbets will help mark the battles for Saipan and Tinian, which took place in June 1944. He was scheduled to deliver the event's keynote address Tuesday, the anniversary of the day the United States invaded.
Saipan would not be secured until July 1944, at a cost of 3,000 American, 30,000 Japanese and 900 local lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Just 1,250 miles south of Tokyo, Saipan and Tinian became sites for launching B-29 bomber attacks against mainland Japan.
When Tibbets arrived, he was a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps.
He went on to pilot the B-29 bomber Enola Gay on its historic mission to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.