Paul Tibbets was a retired Air Force brigadier general who flew the Enola Gay (named after his mother) when it dropped Little Boy, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

In his later years, he would draw the ire and criticism of nuclear activists something he would make no apologies for. He stated that his actions had brought an end to the bloodshed of World War II and ultimately saved lives by stopping the carnage.

 

Early Life and a Love of Aviation

Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. was born in Quincy, Illinois, on February 23, 1915, the son of Paul Warfield Tibbets Sr. and his wife, Enola Gay Tibbets. In 1923, his family moved to Hialeah, Florida, to escape from harsh midwestern winters. As a boy, he was very interested in flying. 

Tibbets had his first airplane ride when he was 12 at a carnival at the Hialeah horse track outside of Miami. Tibbets was flying with barnstormer Doug Davis in a biplane. As part of an advertising stunt, Tibbets tossed Baby Ruth candy bars with tiny paper parachutes to the crowd. 

Later, the family moved back to the Midwest where Tibbets graduated high school from the Western Military Academy. He attended both the University of Florida at Gainesville and the University of Cincinnati pursuing a degree in medicine. While in Florida, he took flight training at Miami’s Opa-Locka Airport. 

Although his parents wanted him to become a doctor, Tibbets wanted to become a pilot. So, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army’s Aviation Cadet Training Program on February 25, 1937. 

Paul Tibbets during the time he was while flying combat missions against the Germans. (U.S. Army Air Force)

Pre-War Military Career 

Paul Tibbets was sent to Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas, for primary and basic flight instruction. His passion realized, he became an outstanding pilot. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and received his pilot’s wings in 1938 at Kelly Field in San Antonio.

Tibbets’s first assignment after graduation was with the 16th Observation Squadron, at Lawson Field. There he met Lucy Frances Wingate, and the two quietly married on June 19, 1938.

After being promoted to 1LT Tibbets served as the personal pilot for Brigadier General George S. Patton, Jr. in 1940 and 1941. 

In June 1941, he was transferred to the 9th Bombardment Squadron of the 3d Bombardment Group at Hunter Field, Savannah, Georgia, as the engineering officer, and flew the A-20 Havoc. He was quickly promoted to captain. In December 1941, he received orders to join the 29th Bombardment Group at MacDill Field, Florida, for training on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

During a routine training flight on December 7, 1941, Tibbets and his crew heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while listening to the radio. 

 

Air War Against Germany

With the United States thrust into war with both Japan and Germany, the U.S. Army prepared the Army Air Forces to transfer to England to take the bombing war to the Germans. 

In February 1942, Tibbets was assigned as the 29th Bombardment Group’s engineering officer. Just three weeks later he was named the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group which was equipped with the B-17D. The squadron moved from Florida to Maine to prepare for deployment to Europe.

On this day, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima

Read Next: On this day, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima

That move came in July of 1942, as the 97th became the first heavy bombardment group of the new Eighth Air Force (the Mighty Eighth) to be deployed to Britain where it was based at RAF Polebrook.

The group received the insight of the RAF pilots — who had been fighting for nearly three years — on the basics of high altitude daylight bombing. In August, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong Jr. was named the 97th’s new commander and quickly appointed Tibbets as his deputy.

On August 17, 1942, Tibbets flew the lead bomber “Butcher Shop” for the first American daylight heavy bomber mission against the Germans. The raid’s target was the marshaling yards in Rouen in Occupied France. Armstrong flew as Tibbets’s co-pilot.

B-17 Flying Fortress 398th Bombardment Group bombing mission
B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 398th Bombardment Group flying a bombing mission to Neumünster, Germany, on 13 April 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

On October 9, 1942, Tibbets led the first American raid of more than 100 bombers in Europe, attacking industrial targets in the French city of Lille. The early American raids suffered from poor bombing accuracy which resulted in numerous civilian casualties and little damage to the rail installations. Nonetheless, the mission was hailed as an overall success because it reached its target against heavy and constant fighter attacks. However, the cost of learning on the fly was quite high. A total of 33 B-17s out of the assigned 108 were either shot down or had to turn back due to mechanical problems. 

In November 1942, the U.S. and the British were preparing for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Tibbets was assigned to fly General Mark Clark from Britain to Gibraltar. Later he flew the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower to North Africa. He was chosen for this because as historian Stephen Ambrose wrote, he was considered, “the best pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force.” 

He had already flown 25 missions from Britain before the 97th was transferred to the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean. He flew another 18 missions bringing his total to 43 combat missions by early 1943. 

 

Paul Tibbets Bombs Hiroshima

In early 1943, Tibbets was chosen by General “Hap” Arnold to head up the B-29 Superfortress project which was suffering from a myriad of problems. Soon, he had the most flying hours in the B-29. At the same time, the crews had worked out the bugs of the new aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Manhattan Project, which was overseeing the construction of the first atomic weapon, was working with the Army to create a new bombardment group that would be tasked with delivering the weapons. 

Tibbets was chosen to command the composite 509th Bombardment Group, a 1,800-man group containing 15 B-29 bombers; he was promoted to colonel, in September 1944. After a rigorous training regimen, the 509th received orders to move to Tinian island with the group arriving on May 29, 1945. 

Tibbets named his B-29, serial number 4486292, the “Enola Gay” after his mother. The B-29 had been personally selected by him, on the recommendation of a civilian production supervisor, while it was still on the assembly line at the Martin Company plant in Bellevue, Nebraska.

On the afternoon of August 5, 1945, President Truman gave his approval to use atomic weapons against Japan. At 0245 the next day, in accordance with the terms of Operations Order No. 35, the Enola Gay departed North Field on Tinian for Hiroshima, Japan. Paul Tibbets was the aircraft commander. It took six hours to fly the 2,000 miles to Hiroshima. 

At 0815, the atomic bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” a uranium bomb, exploded over Hiroshima with 13 kilotons of force. At the time of the bombing, Hiroshima was home to 290,000 civilians as well as 43,000 soldiers. Between 90,000 and 166,000 people are believed to have died from the bomb in the four-month period following the explosion. 

Paul Tibbets Hiroshima crew
Paul Tibbets and crew returning to Tinian after the Hiroshima mission. (Atomic Heritage Foundation)

Paul Tibbets recalled, “We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The city was hidden by that awful cloud… boiling up, mushrooming, terrible, and incredibly tall. No one spoke for a moment; then everyone was talking. I remember (copilot Robert) Lewis pounding my shoulder, saying ‘Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!’ (Bombardier) Tom Ferebee wondered about whether radioactivity would make us all sterile. Lewis said he could taste atomic fission. He said it tasted like lead.”

Tibbets was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Major General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz immediately after landing on Tinian. He became an instant celebrity, with pictures of his wife and children in the major American newspapers. He was seen as a national hero who had ended the war with Japan. Tibbets later received an invitation from President Harry S. Truman to visit the White House.

In 1946 Tibbets participated in the Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests as technical advisor to the commander of the air task force. Later, he was responsible for the Air Force’s purchase of the B-47 six-engine jet bomber and its service tests at the Boeing factory in Wichita, Kansas. He retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general in 1966. 

The controversy of the atomic bomb drops continues to this day. Tibbets remained steadfast that he was doing his duty and that the bombings, while horrific, were the only way to convince the Japanese that continuing the war was useless thus saving countless Japanese and American lives.

Tibbets died in 2007. 

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