Paul Tibbets, Jr.
In the years since his historic atomic-bomb-dropping mission over Hiroshima, Japan, Paul Tibbets has found himself the target of extensive criticism, much of it from anti-nuclear activists. Despite all the harsh evaluations, Tibbets makes no apologies about his actions or the bomb that was instrumental in stopping World War II. He explained his reasoning in 1994 when he said, “Most writers have looked to the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to find answers for the use of these atomic weapons. The real answers lay in thousands of graves from Pearl Harbor around the world to Normandy and back again.”
- In 1943 after flying B-17 missions over Europe, Tibbets was assigned to test the combat capability of the B-29.
- In 1944, Tibbets was assigned to the secret Manhattan Project. His responsibility was to organize and train a unit to deliver these weapons in combat operations and modify the B-29.
- On August 5th, 1945, Tibbets piloted the B-29 Enola Gay to Hiroshima and dropped the world’s first atomic bomb.
- In 1946, Tibbets participated in the Bikini Bomb tests as a technical advisor.
- He served in the Strategic Air Command, served a tour with NATO in France and was responsible for establishing the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon.
Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. was born in Quincy, Illinois on February 23rd, 1915. Later his parents moved to Florida where, at the age of twelve, Paul had his first airplane ride. As part of an advertising stunt, he threw Baby Ruth candy bars, with paper parachutes attached, from a biplane flying over a crowd gathered at the Hialeah horse track near Miami. From that day on, Paul knew he had to fly.
He spent his teen years attending Western Military Academy. Later he studied at the Universities of Florida and Cincinnati in pursuit of a career in medicine. But his determination to fly was greater than that of the career that both parents wanted for him. On February 25th, 1937, Paul enlisted as a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. A year later he got his pilot wings at Kelly Field, Texas and received a commission as a second lieutenant.
In February 1942, Paul became the Squadron Commander of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, destined for England. He flew 25 missions in B-17s, including the first American Flying Fortress raid against occupied Europe. In November of that year he was in Algeria, leading the first bombardment missions in support of the North African invasion.
In March 1943, he returned to the United States to test the combat capability of Boeing’s new Super Fortress, the B-29, an airplane plagued with problems. He taught himself to fly the airplane and subsequently flew it about 400 hours in tests. This eventually gave him more experience as to the capabilities and limitations of a B-29 than any other pilot at that time.
In September 1944, Paul was briefed on the Manhattan Project, the code name for the development of the atom bomb. It was to be his responsibility to organize and train a unit to deliver these weapons in combat operations. He would also determine and supervise the modifications necessary to make the B-29 capable of delivering the weapons, and for this, the unit had to be self- sufficient. Secrecy was paramount. The unit would support Los Alamos with flight test airplanes to establish ballistics and detonator reliability to explode the bombs. Paul’s superiors told him, “You are on your own. No one knows what to tell you. Use normal channels to the extent possible. If you are denied something you need, restate your need is for ‘SILVERPLATE’ (a codename) and your request will be honored without question.”
Paul requisitioned 15 new B-29s and specified they be stripped of turrets and armor plating except for the tail gunner position; that fuel-injected engines and new technology reversible-pitch propellers be installed; and the bomb bay re-configured to suspend, from a single point, ten thousand pounds. Such an airplane would fly higher, faster, and above the effective range of anti-aircraft fire.
A B-29 bombardment squadron, the 393rd, in its final stage of training, and Wendover Army Air Base located on the Utah/Nevada border were selected by Paul for “starters.” The 393rd was fully equipped and the base had a fully manned “housekeeping” group. Wendover was isolated but close enough to Los Alamos to work together. The Salton Sea was an ideal distance for bombing practice. Then on December 17th, 1944, formal orders were issued activating the 509th Composite Group, consisting of seven subordinate units. In March 1945 the First Ordnance Squadron, a unit designed to carry out the technical phases of the group responsibilities, became part of the 509th. The personnel count now exceeded 1500 enlisted men and some 200 officers. Then, quietly, the group started moving overseas to Tinian Island in the Marianas chain. On the afternoon of August 5th, 1945, President Truman gave his approval to use the weapons against Japan. By the time the plane left, its familiar arrowhead tail motif had been changed on both sides to the letter “R” in a circle, the standard identification for the Sixth Bomber Group. The idea behind the change was to confuse the enemy if they made contact, which they did not. At 2:30 A.M. on August 6th, the Enola Gay lifted off North Field with Paul Tibbets and his crew enroute to Hiroshima. At exactly 09:15 plus 15 seconds the world’s first atomic bomb exploded, and the course of history and the nature of warfare changed inalterably.
The Enola Gay landed back at Tinian at 2:58 P.M. and General Carl Spaatz and a large contingent of military “brass”, as well as jubilant GIs greeted the plane and crew. General Spaatz decorated Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross and the other crew members with Air Medals. This tremendous accomplishment, which not only affected the outcome of World War II but altered the history of the world, was not merely a single event. Rather, it was a culmination of events throughout which Paul Tibbets played a pivotal role.
In 1946 Tibbets participated in the Bikini 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 went on to command two of the Strategic Air Command’s bomber organizations, did a tour with NATO in France, and was responsible for establishing the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. Later, Tibbets headed a team of officers and civilians which analyzed the major commands’ use of resources to accomplish their assigned missions. He then reported the team’s findings to the Air Staff.
When Paul Tibbets retired from the U.S. Air Force on August 31st, 1966, he had completed more than 29 and one-half years of service, but he was not finished with flying. Initially he resided in Geneva, Switzerland, operating three Lear jets throughout central Europe. Tibbets helped to educate the Air Ministries of various nations about the jet’s uses. He also advised the Air Ministries about the aviation controls and guidelines they later instituted within their countries. Returning to Columbus, Ohio in 1970, Paul joined Executive Jet Aviation, an all-jet air taxi service company, where he served in different capacities. Paul rose up the corporate ladder to become Chairman of the Board in 1982. The company changed ownership in 1985 and Paul retired again. During his EJA years Paul Tibbets acquired almost 400 hours in Lear jets, flying with an Air Transport Pilot rating.
As pilot of one of the most famous flights of WW II, which brought about a quicker surrender from the enemy and a reduction in the loss of Allied lives, and for his leadership and skill with both airplanes and people in times of stress, Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. is enshrined with honor into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Paul Tibbets passed away November 1, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio.
Paul Tibbets, Jr.
February 23, 1915 – November 1, 2007
1996 NAHF Enshrinee
There are few in the history of mankind that have been called to figuratively carry as much weight on their shoulders as Paul Tibbets. Even fewer were able to do so with a sense of honor and duty to their countrymen as did Paul. His dedication and courageous leadership in overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges, most of them life- if not world-threatening, was direct, effective, unselfish, unwavering and inspirational.
Paul’s contributions to aviation were many and varied since first earning his wings a mere 35 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. He pioneered the tactics of aerial warfare, enabled freedom to prevail in ending WWII, helped lead the Air Force from the piston to the jet age, and was instrumental to the development of corporate jet aviation. And through it all remained a humble, grateful and proud patriot. It is well documented that generations owe their lives to the true heroism of Paul Tibbets. The National Aviation Hall of Fame joins them in mourning the loss of a gentleman giant among our American heroes.
Godspeed, Paul Tibbets.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame
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