In the early hours of 6 August 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets climbed aboard a B-29 Superfortress bomber loaded with a 10,000-pound atomic bomb nicknamed 'Little Boy'. Tibbets guided the plane, named after his mother Enola Gay, from Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean towards its intended target – the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
At 33,000 feet, the bomb was released. Just over 40 seconds later it detonated at an altitude of around 2,000 feet above the city with the energy of around 15 kilotons of TNT, heralding in a new and devastating era of warfare.
‘The whole sky lit up when it exploded….there was nothing but a black boiling mess hanging over the city…you wouldn’t have known that the city of Hiroshima was there,’ Tibbets recalled in a 1989 interview.
Between 70,000-90,000 perished in an instant, somewhere between 130,000-200,000 more are said to have died in the coming years from the aftereffects of the bomb.
Three days later, another B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped a second atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Nagasaki, marking the last time a nuclear weapon has been used in armed conflict.
Being the pilot of the Enola Gay made Tibbets a household name and earned him a Distinguished Service Cross but his contribution to the success of the mission went much further than just piloting the aircraft.
From a young age, Tibbets had been interested in flying. His father, however, had other plans for him and wanted his son to go into medicine. ‘He convinced me that I should be a doctor,’ Tibbets recalled. ‘There had been a doctor in the Tibbets family ever since he could remember, except for him. And he decided we should continue that thing. So I started out and I truly believed that I wanted to be a doctor and I should be a doctor, but the urge to fly aeroplanes overcame me.’
His father was less than keen of his son’s new career choice, declaring ‘those damn machines will kill you.’ Undeterred, Tibbets enrolled in the United States Army Air Corps as a flight cadet. In 1937, he attended basic flight training at Randolph Field Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and demonstrated early on his talents as a pilot.
He quickly rose through the ranks and it wasn't long before Tibbets found himself as the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group. He then led the first American daylight heavy bomber mission over Occupied France in August 1942, targeting a railway yard in the French city of Rouen.
Two months later, he led the first American bombing raid of more than 100 bombers in Europe, targeting industrial sites in the French city of Lille. Although the mission was classified a success, inaccurate bombing had left many civilians dead.
‘The first time I dropped bombs on a target over there, I watched those things go down because we could do it in B-17s,’ Tibbets spoke of that first mission. ‘Then I watched those black puffs of smoke and fires in some instances. I said to myself, “People are getting killed down there that don’t have any business getting killed. Those are not soldiers.”’
Tibbets quickly expelled that thought after remembering a lesson a roommate from medical school had taught him. ‘He would tell me about previous doctors, some that had been classmates of his, who were drug salesmen…because they could not practice medicine due to the fact that they had too much sympathy for their patients. They assumed the symptoms of the patients and it destroyed their ability to render medical necessities. I thought, you know, I am just like that if I get to thinking about some innocent person getting hit on the ground. I am supposed to be a bomber pilot and destroy a target. I won’t be worth anything if I do that.’
By late 1942, Tibbets had earned himself the reputation of being one of the best fliers in the US Air Force and so was selected to fly Major General Mark W. Clark from England to Gibraltar in preparation for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. A few weeks later, Tibbets flew the Supreme Allied Commander and future American president Dwight D. Eisenhower out to the same location.
After flying over 40 combat missions, Tibbets was selected to return to the US in 1943 to help with the development of the world’s largest bomber plane ever built – the B-29 Superfortress bomber, which at the time had a lot of technical issues. Tibbets came up with the idea of lightening the weight of the aircraft by removing some of its armour and heavy machine guns. This meant it could fly at higher altitudes and subsequently avoid enemy fighter planes as well as anti-aircraft fire.
Few realise even to this day how close the world came to witnessing a third nuclear explosion over Japanese territory.
In September 1944, Tibbets was briefed on the Manhattan Project (the research and development of the atomic bomb) and the mission that lay before him. After being placed in charge of the 509th Composite Group, a unit tasked with the operational deployment of nuclear weapons, Tibbets worked in top-secret re-designing the Superfortress to carry a 10,000-pound payload.
After months of testing, in late May 1945, the 509th was sent to Tinian Island to await final orders. Whilst we know what happened next, few realise even to this day how close the world came to witnessing a third nuclear explosion over Japanese territory.
‘After the first two bombs were dropped – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Japanese didn’t make what was considered in the minds of the people out in the Marianas quick enough decision to surrender,’ Tibbets once said. ‘So General LeMay asked me the question, “Have you got another one of those things?”
I said, “Yes, we do have another one.”
“Where is it?” It was in Wendover, Utah with an airplane and a crew back there.
He said, “Get it out here.” So I sent the proper words back there by teletype message, and they did start that airplane with the third bomb. What will the target be? I could say that there was all kinds of conjecture. Everybody made some kind of a suggestion. Obviously, one of the most important ones was “Why not Tokyo? Let us drop it on the Emperor’s palace. That will impress them.”
I remember quite clearly, there was one gentleman out there who was thinking quite correctly and that was General Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle says, “Yes, if we do that, who are we going to be make peace with?”’
After the war, Tibbets remained in the Air Force until his retirement in 1966 at the rank of brigadier-general. To many, he was a hero who saved countless lives by preventing a land invasion of Japan from going ahead. To others, he was a murderer, a war criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands of Japanese civilians.
As for any regrets, Tibbets declared in a 1975 interview that he slept ‘clearly every night.’ In 2007, at the age of 92, he passed away.
‘I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business. I was instructed to perform a military mission to drop the bomb. That was the thing that I was going to do the best of my ability. Morality, there is no such thing in warfare. I don’t care whether you are dropping atom bombs, or 100-pound bombs, or shooting a rifle. You have got to leave the moral issue out of it.’