COVER

The man who pulled the trigger on the nuclear age

WILLIAM LOWTHER August 7 1995
COVER

The man who pulled the trigger on the nuclear age

WILLIAM LOWTHER August 7 1995

The man who pulled the trigger on the nuclear age

COVER

Stocky and tough, cool and crusty, Gen. Paul Tibbets has no regrets. He is 80 now, the pilot who flew a U.S. air force B-29 called the Enola Gay over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and gave the order to drop the world’s first atomic bomb. Apart from being hard of hearing, he is in near-perfect health, with a shock of grey hair and twinkling blue eyes. There are no worry lines on his ruddy face, and it is easy to believe him when he says he has never lost a night’s sleep or agonized over his role. “Right after we dropped the bomb, I felt much the same as I do now, except that I hadn’t drunk as much coffee that morning,” he said last week at the home of an old friend in Maryland where he was staying. “I was satisfied

that I had accomplished my mission. It was a success. I had no emotion about it then, and I have none to this day except to tell you that war is hell. I know. I have had the experience. If you are trying to get an emotional expression out of me, you won’t do it. I’m a cold fish.” Tibbets, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, went on: “That bomb had to be dropped. The longer I live, the more I am convinced ofthat. There was no alternative. I don't care what the revisionists say, the Japanese would never have surrendered. They were prepared to fight to the last woman and child.”

Tibbets, who had dropped out of medical school in Florida to join the air force, was based in Britain after the United States entered the Second World War in 1941. He led the first B-17 daylight bomber attack on German-occupied France on Aug. 17, 1942, and he flew Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander, to Gibraltar as the invasion of North Africa was launched. In March,

1943, Tibbets returned to the United States to help in the development of the bigger, longer-range B-29 bomber. A year and a half later, Tibbets, then a colonel, was told to put together a flight team to drop an atom bomb, then in the final stages of development. That took seven months, and in April, 1945, he was satisfied with his 12-man B-29 crew. “I had an outfit that was ready to go to war,” he says. “If I kept on training them, I’d destroy them.” The secret bomb group moved to Tinian Island in the Mariana group, 1,600 miles southeast of Japan. “Only President [Harry] Truman

could give the go-ahead,” recalls Tibbets. “We got the message from the White House on the fifth of August, and at 2 o’clock the next morning we were all on the runway beside the Enola Gay ready to take off.”

Some of the crew had objected to the name Tibbets gave the plane but he refused to change it—it was his mother’s. He explained: “When I dropped out of medical school to become a flyer, my father said he was sure that I would kill myself. But my mother was very supportive and said that she was sure that I’d do all right.”

Of the mission itself, Tibbets recalls that “it was a beautiful night to fly. When we released, when the 10,000-lb. bomb left us, the nose of the plane jumped up with the sudden loss of weight. We had to make an escape manoeuvre that was a rather dramatic turn for a big airplane at that altitude in those days. Just as I rolled out of the turn, the sky lit up. The bomb had exploded.” Tibbets was supposed to send a message back to base in code to report on the explosion. “But I just dispensed with the code and told them right out that results were greater than expected,” he said. “Hell, why did we need a code? The Japanese knew what had happened."

WILLIAM LOWTHER in Upper Marlboro, Md.