Paul Tibbets, the pilot and commander of the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, during the Second World War, died today. He was 92.
Tibbets’ historic mission in the plane Enola Gay, named for his mother, marked the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific. It was the first use of a nuclear weapon in wartime.
The plane and its crew of 14 dropped the bomb, dubbed Little Boy, on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. The blast killed 70,000 to 100,000 people and injured countless others.
Three days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000 people. Tibbets did not fly in that mission. The Japanese surrendered a few days later, ending the war.
“We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background,” he said. “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.”
Tibbets, then a 30-year-old colonel, never expressed regret over his role. It was, he said, his patriotic duty.
“I’m not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did,” he said in a 1975 interview.
“I sleep clearly every night,” he said.
After the war, Tibbets was dogged by rumours claiming he was in prison or had committed suicide. “They said I was crazy, said I was a drunkard, in and out of institutions,” he said in a 2005 interview. “At the time, I was running the National Crisis Center at the Pentagon.” Tibbets retired from the air force as a brigadier-general in 1966. He later moved to Columbus, where he ran an air taxi service until he retired in 1985.
But his role in the bombing brought him fame – and infamy – throughout his life.
In 1976, he was criticized for re-enacting the bombing during an appearance at a Harlingen, Texas, air show. As he flew a B-29 Superfortress over the show, a bomb set off on the runway below created a mushroom cloud. He said the display “was not intended to insult anybody,” but the Japanese were outraged. The U.S. government later issued a formal apology.
Tibbets again defended the bombing in 1995, when an outcry erupted over a planned 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum had planned to mount an exhibit that would have examined the context of the bombing, including the discussion within the Truman administration of whether to use the bomb, the rejection of a demonstration bombing and the selection of the target.
Veterans groups objected that it paid too much attention to Japan’s suffering and too little to Japan’s brutality during and before the Second World War, and that it underestimated the number of Americans who would have perished in an invasion. They said the bombing of Japan was an unmitigated blessing for the United States and its fighting men and the exhibit should say so.
The museum changed its plan, and agreed to display the fuselage of the Enola Gay without commentary, context or analysis.