Paul Tibbets was a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force and is best known for piloting the aircraft to drop the first atomic bomb in the history of warfare.
Paul Tibbets initially sought a career in medicine, but the memory of a ride in a barnstormer airplane never left him. He joined the U.S. Air Corps and flew combat missions in Europe during World War II. On August 6, 1945, he piloted the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands, forcing the surrender of Japan and ending World War II. He retired from the military in 1966 and became president of Executive Jet Aviation. He died on November 1, 2007, at age 92.
Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. was born on February 23, 1915, in Quincy, Illinois, the son of Enola Gay (Haggard) and Paul Warfield Tibbets. Paul Jr. was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his father was a confections wholesaler. In 1927, the family moved to Florida, and young Paul was given a ride with a barnstorming pilot promoting Baby Ruth candy bars. After the flight, Tibbets was hooked, declaring that he wanted to become a pilot. He later attended the University of Florida in Gainesville and began to take flying lessons. In his sophomore year, following his parents’ wishes, he transferred to the University of Cincinnati, to pursue studies in pre-med. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he was determined to fly.
Convinced medicine was not for him, in 1937, Paul Tibbets enlisted as a flying cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1938 and received his wings at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas. That same year, he quietly married Lucy Wingate, with whom he would have two sons. After training at Fort Benning, Tibbets was transferred to Hunter Field in Savannah, Georgia, where he met and befriended George Patton, then a lieutenant colonel. In December 1941, while training on the new A-20 attack bomber, flying at low elevation, he heard a commercial radio station announce the attack on Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, Paul Tibbets was named commanding officer of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. He flew more than 25 combat missions over occupied Europe and led the first bombardment missions in support of the North African invasion in Algeria.
Tibbets returned to the Unites States in March 1943 to test the combat capability of Boeing's new B-29 Superfortress. In September 1944, he was selected to command of the newly formed 509th Composite Group, whose top secret mission was to drop the atomic bomb. In command of 15 B-29’s and 1,800 men, Tibbets and the group went to Wendover Army Air Field in Utah for the training.
In March 1945, the 509th moved overseas to Tinian Island in the Marianas chain. On the afternoon of August 5, 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman gave his approval to use the atomic bomb against Japan. At 2:45 a.m., on August 6, Tibbets's plane, the Enola Gay, which he named after his mother, and its crew of 12 lifted off North Field en route to Hiroshima.
At exactly 8:15 a.m., local time, the world's first atomic bomb used in war exploded. The blast obliterated the city, killing nearly 80,000 people within seconds and wounding nearly the same number. The course of history and the nature of warfare was changed forever. When the Enola Gay and her crew landed at Tinian at 2:58 p.m., they were greeted by General Carl Spaatz, a large contingent of brass and a crowd of GIs. Spaatz decorated Paul Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross and the other crew members with Air Medals.
Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000 people. The Japanese effectively surrendered six days later, with the official surrender documents being signed on September 2, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.
Above and Beyond
The film Above and Beyond (1952) depicted the World War II events involving Paul Tibbets, with Robert Taylor starring as Tibbets and Eleanor Parker as his first wife, Lucy. An interview of Paul Tibbets can be seen in the 1982 movie The Atomic Cafe. He was also interviewed in the 1970s for the British documentary series The World at War. Tibbets never expressed regret over his role in delivering or the use of the atomic bomb.
Life After Military Service
After the war, Tibbets served with the Strategic Air Command and in 1959 was promoted to brigadier general. In 1964, he was named military attaché in India, but this posting was rescinded two years later after the Indian news media called him “the world’s greatest killer.” He retired from the U.S. Air Force on August 31, 1966. In 1976, he and his second wife, Andrea, moved to Columbus, where he was president of Executive Jet Aviation, an air taxi company, until he retired in 1985.
Paul Tibbets, pilot and commander of the B-29 that dropped the first atomic weapon used in war, died on November 1, 2007, at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 92. He requested no funeral and no headstone, fearing it would provide his detractors with a place to protest. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the English Channel.