Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay

The following articles -- all columns written by BOB GREENE -- come from the Internet Edition of The Chicago Tribune.

    "Do people know my name?"

    A soft, private smile crossed the face of the 83-year-old man. He might have been any man in his 80s in central Ohio on this morning -- plaid shirt, well-worn slacks, hearing aids in both of his ears. No threat to anyone.

    "They don't need to know my name," he said.

    He carried out the single most violent act in the history of mankind. He killed more people, in an instant, than anyone ever had before, and -- he hopes with all his heart -- than anyone ever will again. What he did is one of the most famous deeds the world has ever known; it will be talked about in terms of fear and awe forever.

    He, though, is not famous at all. The local television weatherman is much more famous than he.

    "People knowing my name isn't important at all," he said. "It's more important -- it was more important then, and it's more important now -- that they know the name of my airplane. And that they understand the history of what happened -- although sometimes I think that no one really understands the history."

    That is why, when it came time to give a name to the airplane, he didn't choose to give it his own name. He chose to name the airplane in honor of his mother.

    "She's the one who said it was all right for me to fly," he said. "My father didn't. He hated airplanes, and he didn't want me to go near one. In my father's mind, I was supposed to be a doctor. He sort of waved me off, and when he finally understood that I really wanted to be a flier, he said, 'If you want to kill yourself, go ahead.' But my mother understood. She encouraged me."

    Thus, when he was preparing for the flight that would change the history of the world, the name he chose for the airplane -- the name that was painted on the nose -- was her name: his mother's first and middle names.

    "I thought it was a good name for the plane, because it was a name no one had ever heard before," he said. "I could be pretty sure that no other B-29 would be named Enola Gay."


    I had been wanting to talk with him for more than 20 years. Paul Tibbets -- the pilot of the Enola Gay, the man who in 1945 flew the atomic bomb to Japan and dropped it on Hiroshima -- has lived in central Ohio for most of the years since World War II. His life in Ohio has been a quiet one, devoid of publicity-seeking or self-promotion. What he and his flight crew did when his country asked is part of the fabric of the United States -- part of the fabric of the world. Some people are appalled by what his government asked him to do, some people are deeply proud and grateful, many others are ambivalent and, all these years later, confused. Tibbets himself is the only one who knows the whole story -- and he doesn't talk much about it.

    Over the years I have written him letters, have called numbers where I have been told he might get the message. Nothing. No reply at all.

    Which didn't surprise me. Tibbets, I had always heard, wasn't a talker.

    Then, not long ago, I received a phone call.

    Tibbets wanted to talk.


    "I've heard rumors about myself over the years," he said.

    We sat together in a warm room in a residential building a few feet from Broad Street, Columbus' main thoroughfare in the days before the freeways.

    "I've heard rumors that I had gone crazy, or that I was dead," he said.

    That's what people assumed -- that the man responsible for all that death must inevitably have gone out of his mind.

    "People thought that I should be weeping," he said. "Weeping for the rest of my life. They don't understand.

    "I'll meet people, and when they find out who I am -- when they find out that I'm the one who flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima so that we could drop the bomb -- sometimes they ask me: 'Why didn't you just tell them that you didn't want to do it?'

    "That's when I really know that they don't understand. It's usually younger people who say that to me. Because in those days -- during World War II -- you didn't tell your superiors that you didn't want to do something. That's reason No. 1.

    "Reason No. 2 is more important. The reason I didn't tell them I didn't want to do it is that I wanted to do it."

    We're going to be telling Tibbets' story all this week. In Monday's column: what he thought and felt on the flight to Hiroshima, with the bomb riding in the belly beneath him.

  2. 'WE DID IT TO STOP THE KILLING, TO STOP THE WAR' (January 12, 1999).

    Because Paul Tibbets had said that he would meet me at 11:30 a.m., I made sure I was at the meeting place by 11:15. I had a reason.

    I had made myself a bet -- a bet about when Tibbets would walk through the door.

    I was right.

    He didn't walk in at 11:29. He didn't walk in at 11:31.

    He walked in at 11:30.

    I knew he would. When, in August of 1945, Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay to Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped the atomic bomb -- thus making sure that World War II would come to an end -- the plan called for the bomb to be released at 8:15 a.m. Hiroshima time.

    There was no satellite navigation back then, no computers to guide the way. It was a 6-hour, nearly 2,000-mile trip from the American air base on Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean to Hiroshima. Tibbets and his 11 crew members made the trip by checking their watches and their flight plan.

    He flew over the T-shaped bridge in Hiroshima and dropped the bomb at 8:15 a.m. plus 17 seconds.

    "We were off," Tibbets said. "We weren't perfect."

    He's 83 now, and at 11:30 exactly he walked through the door, and in a don't-sweat-the-small-stuff era here was a man who sweats the small stuff. I asked him about his precision.

    "I think most people in the generation I come from are like me," Tibbets said. "I grew up being taught that there's only one way to do things -- the right way."

    He said he has never lost a night's sleep in all the years since his crew dropped the bomb -- "I sleep just fine" -- and if anything upsets him, it is that some people still consider the use of the atomic bomb as an unnecessarily barbaric act.

    "The biggest misconception is that the war was going to end soon anyway," Tibbets said. "That what we did was not necessary.

    "Do you have any idea how many American lives would have been lost had we launched a ground invasion of Japan, instead of dropping the bomb? And how many Japanese lives? I sleep so well because I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did."

    He said that he felt no anger at all as he flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. "My mother was a very calm, pacific individual, and I learned from her to be the same way," he said. "You get a lot damn further by being calm when you're doing a job. Our crew did not do the bombing in anger. We did it because we were determined to stop the killing, to stop the war. I would have done anything to get to Japan and stop the killing."

    He has not returned to Hiroshima since the war. "I have no interest in doing that," he said. "Why should I go back? I've been there. I didn't go there as a sightseer. There are other places in the world to go and visit. I think it would be wrong for me to go back."

    Tibbets said that he is pleased that Japan has done so well for itself in the years since 1945: "The people aren't to blame for what their government did during the war." He said that the thought of the almost unimaginable number of people who were killed by the bomb he and his crew dropped that day -- more than 100,000, by most estimates -- does not trouble him at all.

    "Please try to understand this," Tibbets said, his voice quiet and even. "It's not an easy thing to hear, but please listen. There is no morality in warfare. You kill children. You kill women. You kill old men. You don't seek them out, but they die. That's what happens in war.

    "Think about this: What would have happened if they had come over here? Take Detroit, for instance -- if they had attacked Detroit, do you think they would have made sure that the workers in the industrial plants were in one place, and that the women and children were in another place? No, they would not have. This was World War II."

    What if the atomic bomb had been ready to use a little earlier -- before Germany was out of the war?

    "If I had been asked to do it, I would have done it in a second," he said. "You're damn right -- if the Germans had not surrendered, I would have flown the bomb over there. I would have taken some satisfaction in that--because they shot me up." He was referring to the many combat missions he flew over Europe before being assigned to the Hiroshima mission.

    Presidents of the United States routinely invite well-known actors and actresses, invite popular singers, invite championship football and basketball teams, to the White House for celebrations, but Tibbets never gets invited to visit with a president. "I went as a tourist one time, because my wife wanted to go," he said. "I stood in line with the tour groups, just like anyone else. No one knew who I was."

    There was one exception. Right after the war, Harry Truman invited him to stop by.

    "We met in an irregular-shaped room," Tibbets said. "I suppose it was the Oval Office. It was short and quick. He offered me a cup of coffee.

    "Truman asked me if anyone was giving me a hard time--saying unpleasant things to me because of the bomb.

    "I said, 'Oh, once in a while.'

    "Truman said, 'You tell them that if they have anything to say, they should call me. I'm the one who sent you.'"


    "No chance in the world."

    I had asked Paul Tibbets what he thought the chances were that a mission like the one he commanded -- the mission to assemble a secret military unit, fly an atomic bomb halfway around the world and drop the bomb on an unsuspecting city in enemy territory -- could be pulled off today.

    "There's no chance a secret like that could be kept today," Tibbets said. "It would get out -- it would get out in the name of freedom of information. The reason we were able to do it is that the mission was considered a matter of life-or-death secrecy. It wouldn't work in today's world."

    By flying the Enola Gay to Hiroshima with the atomic bomb in the belly of the plane, Tibbets and his crew were able to end World War II -- and in the process, to carry out the single most violent act in the history of mankind. I asked him what he thought would have become of him had he and his crew failed.

    "If I had failed?" he said. "I would have been court-martialed and in prison. Nobody knew I existed -- no one knew our unit existed."

    That's the amazing thing, that Tibbets could assemble the 1,800-man military unit that prepared for the Hiroshima mission, could train the unit on the desolate Utah salt flats, could move the unit to Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean and then climb into the plane and, with his 11 crewmen, fly to Hiroshima and drop the atomic bomb -- and word of the project never leaked out.

    He may be exaggerating a little when he says he would have been court-martialed and imprisoned for failure -- but the truth is even more chilling. Before Tibbets and the Enola Gay crew took off for Hiroshima in that predawn blackness of Aug. 6, 1945, flight surgeon Don Young handed Tibbets a small cardboard box containing 12 cyanide capsules. One for each member of the flight team, should they have had to make an emergency landing and found themselves on the verge of being captured.

    But they didn't fail, and they weren't captured, and within days of the Hiroshima bombing a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and World War II ended. Today Tibbets, at 83, can go for lunch to a Bob Evans restaurant in central Ohio, and the people in the restaurant will walk past his booth without giving him a glance, as if failing to even consider that a man like him could possibly have any connection with their lives.

    "I get called 'old man' all the time," he said. "It's true, I suppose. Physically, I've slowed down quite a bit."

    If, by ending the war, he helped to save freedom for the country whose uniform he wore, it is a country that today he sometimes begins to feel he doesn't even recognize.

    "It's really not the same country, in many ways," Tibbets said. "Talk to a bunch of kids in school -- try to teach them something. There are times that you get the impression that they don't like to pay attention to anyone or anything but themselves. I know I sound like an old person when I say this, but there is a certain price to be paid -- a certain peril -- that comes with the lack of being raised in a disciplined environment."

    As his generation -- the World War II generation -- leaves us, Tibbets has come to a realization:

    "I cannot communicate with people who are less than 60 years old. It's as if all of us in this country know the same words, but we don't use the words the same way. We speak different languages."

    Sometimes, when he will meet someone new, the person will say, "Tibbets. Tibbets. I know that name -- you did something."

    And if the person persists, and presses him on it, he will answer:

    "I was in World War II and I got some notoriety."

    There are times when he actually begins to half-believe that he and his contemporaries may have more in common with the Japanese soldiers, fliers and sailors they fought against than with some of the Americans who now live in this nation whose freedom the World War II generation preserved.

    "Those of us on the American side were over there risking our butts to meet the obligations that were set forth by the leaders of our country," Tibbets said. "The other side was doing the same thing. There's a certain common thread there."

    He doesn't think there will ever be another day like that August morning when he and his crew dropped the atomic bomb. "No one can afford to do it," he said. And the very nature of global politics, and global conflict, has changed.

    His life is growing short. But not long ago, down in Texas, he climbed into a preserved and restored B-29 just like the Enola Gay, and he took it up for a spin. Sitting next to him at the controls was his grandson: Capt. Paul W. Tibbets IV of the United States Air Force, a mission commander of a B-2 Stealth bomber.

    It's the younger Tibbets who would be called upon to help the United States win some future war. But Paul Tibbets -- the man who flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima -- said that if someone could turn back the clock that rules his body, he would be first in line to fight one more time for his country.

    "If you could fix me up so that I could do the same things in an airplane now that I could do in 1945?" he said. "If you could do that, and this country was in trouble, I would jump in there to beat hell."

  4. "WE WERE ON STAGE AT THIS CLUB IN HIROSHIMA . . .' (January 27, 1999).

    "We were on stage at this club in Hiroshima, and we were playing all kinds of songs -- 'Sweet Caroline,' 'Suspicious Minds,' 'Boppin' the Blues' . . . "

    The series that ran here recently -- the columns based on my visit with Paul Tibbets, 83, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the man who in 1945 flew the atomic bomb to Japan and who, with his crew, dropped the bomb on Hiroshima -- has, as you might expect, drawn a large response from readers.

    No response was quite like the one from Matt Farmer -- a 34-year-old attorney with the Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago. In his off hours Farmer sings and plays guitar in a rock band with some friends. The band -- they're called the Redstreaks -- usually plays at local clubs.

    But recently they flew to a U.S. military base in the Far East to play at holiday parties for the troops there -- and as a side trip, played one night at a club in Hiroshima.

    When Farmer got back to Chicago, he read the columns about Paul Tibbets and the dropping of the atomic bomb -- the bomb that destroyed a city, killed more than 100,000 people, and led to the end of World War II. He and I talked about what playing rock-and-roll music in Hiroshima in January, 1999, was like.

    "The club was called the Jacara," he said. "We took a train to Hiroshima -- that first night it was dark by the time we got into town, and it felt like coming into any big city. Except for the signs, we might as well have been in California -- bright lights, a big city at night."

    At the nightclub, the band played its usual diverse set of cover tunes -- Carl Perkins songs, Elvis Presley songs, anything that came to mind. They played "She Caught the Katy" -- a song that had been sung by the Blues Brothers -- and were surprised when a young Japanese man in the audience became very excited and showed them his hand, which had been tattooed on the knuckles with the word "Jake." In Hiroshima, the young man had modeled himself after the John Belushi character in the Blues Brothers movie.

    As odd as it was to be playing rock music in Hiroshima, that first night the band's three sets felt pretty much like any other performance: "The crowd was a little more reserved than in the U.S. -- they were drinking, but they weren't jumping up and dancing." The incongruity of the whole night was apparent to the band members -- making good-time music in a city upon which the United States had dropped a nuclear weapon -- but nothing was said out loud.

    The next day, the band went to the Hiroshima Peace Museum -- the museum that commemorates the day of the bombing.

    "That's when some of the guys were in tears," Farmer said.

    The museum shook them to the core. Their reaction had nothing to do with politics, or with the rightness or wrongness of dropping the bomb. It was just . . .

    "There was a 3-year-old's tricycle," he said. "It was melted. It was a melted, mangled piece of metal. She had been riding on it when the bomb dropped.

    "There were white walls that were covered with stains from black rain. That's what ensued in the hours after the bomb dropped -- there was black rain falling from the sky onto Hiroshima.

    "There was a child's lunchbox. It was melted, too. It had belonged to a child who had been on his way to school when the bomb dropped. It looked like a lunchbox that had been put into a 1,200-degree oven."

    The museum, he said, did not appear to exist to be angrily critical of what the United States did, but to stand as a lesson to the world today: "To say to the world, 'This happened, and it happened here. No one can win a war like this. No one should ever do it again.'"

    That second night, the band was invited to a dinner party at the home of some Hiroshima residents. Some of the people at the party had attended the concert at the nightclub the previous evening.

    "They could not have been nicer to us," Farmer said. "When we arrived at the party, they applauded. They were gracious hosts. We were talking about music, and someone asked for a song, and we asked what they would like to hear.

    "A woman said, 'I would like to hear your national anthem.'"

    And so -- in Hiroshima at the end of the 20th Century -- Farmer and the other Americans in the rock band placed their hands over their hearts, and for their hosts sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."

  5. THEY CAME HOME -- 'THANKS TO PAUL TIBBETS' (January 31, 1999)

    "At the time of Col. Paul Tibbets' mission, I was a young 19-year-old Marine."

    The words belong to Robert A. Guth -- no longer a young Marine, no longer a young man. Mr. Guth -- like many men and women of the World War II generation from around the country -- read the columns that appeared here recently about Paul Tibbets' 1945 flight to Hiroshima as pilot of the Enola Gay. Like many, he took the time to put his thoughts on paper.

    "We had just finished some intense training for the final push against the Japanese homeland," Mr. Guth wrote. "Although our exact invasion location was secret, we found out later that we would indeed be sent in.

    "At that time we heard scuttlebutt that an invasion of Japan would be very costly in casualties. I would have liked to thank President Truman at that time for his decision to order the bombing -- and I would like at this time to thank Paul Tibbets for his excellent mission.

    "I thank Col. Tibbets and his crew, my wife Mary thanks them, our five children and 15 grandchildren thank them."

    Mr. Guth's point -- it is difficult to miss it -- is that had the atomic bomb not been dropped on Hiroshima in the summer of 1945, untold numbers of American lives -- perhaps including his -- would have soon been lost. This comes up again and again in the letters arriving in response to the columns. So many men and women of the World War II generation, while recognizing the unfathomable extent of death and carnage that resulted from the bomb, feel that that bomb, in a profound and complex sense, was their salvation -- and the salvation of family members yet unborn in 1945.

    From Catherine E. Mitchell, 73, who lives in Biloxi, Miss.: "I well remember that day when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. So often I have heard people saying that we should never have dropped that bomb. But those people were not living through the war.

    "In early 1945, my husband was sent to the Pacific. The country was preparing for the invasion of Japan and we all knew it. Had the dropping of the bomb not happened, I know that my husband would not have returned home -- so many American lives would have been lost.

    "The younger generations cannot possibly understand what we went through and how we felt about our country being attacked (at Pearl Harbor) -- you can't know until you live through it. My 46-year-old father was also in the Pacific with the Seabees then, and my 20-year-old brother was finishing flight training.

    "I sincerely hope that the young people of today will never have to go through a war. I am glad that I did not have to make the decision (to drop the bomb), but I am glad that it was done."

    From E.R. Klamm: "I was a naval communication officer, and we headed a large convoy of ships in Guam, Tinian and Saipan for the eventual invasion of Japan. We weathered three different violent typhoons.

    "In August, during a lull in the weather, I was playing badminton on deck (staying fit) when a staffman brought me a communication. I read it and then resumed playing our game. Then, like a bolt of lightning, I suddenly returned to the communication.

    "Its wording was technical and complex, but I interpreted that it involved the use of a mega-explosive in bombing Japan. It triggered in my mind that it could stop the invasion of Japan. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I hurried to my commanding officer. Later aboard ship there was jubilation.

    "We never reached Japan. We did go to Korea and China. I then returned to the U.S. and the happiness of family life. I commend Paul Tibbets and his crew. I congratulate him for naming his B-29 the Enola Gay, in honor of his mother. My mother, and my wife, were happy on my return Thanksgiving Day, 1945."

    From Joe Schripsema: "I give thanks every day for just being alive due to the bravery of Paul Tibbets and his crew, and President Truman, who gave the order to drop the bomb. I was on an LST anchored off Tinian at the time. Day after day, night after night, we watched as plane after plane took off -- we watched with hope that the war would end soon.

    "It was a happy day for our ship when the news broke that the war was over, so that an invasion of Japan would not be necessary -- thanks to Paul Tibbets and his crew."

    On Monday, some more of these voices -- not all of them belonging to Americans old enough to remember the day the bomb was dropped.


    "Paul Tibbets' voice is stern and serene. The gravity of his act forces silence on the page."

    The person writing those words is Chantal Foster Lindquist, 25 years old. She, like so many people who read the series of columns here about Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, who with his crewmen dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, wanted to respond to the stories -- hoping that Tibbets, now 83, will hear the response.

    "I think most people my age don't understand the sacrifices our grandparents made during wartime," she wrote. "I remember, in high school, I wrote a paper about why we shouldn't have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I was adamant in my essay, but the moment I spoke with my grandfather, a Navy Seabee, and listened to his account of the war, I changed my mind.

    "His blue eyes flared when I said the bomb was unnecessary, and he leaned across the table to tell me how the bomb saved his life. How he was so grateful to go home and see his family again. How he's pretty sure he would have been killed otherwise. And so in a way I realized I might not even be here if Paul Tibbets hadn't done his job."

    From Donald A. Whelpley: "Although I was born in 1947 after World War II was over, I often reflect on what could have been had the bomb not been dropped. My father had been drafted in 1943 and fought in Italy. The end of the war in Europe found him waiting to be sent to the Pacific theater for the invasion of Japan. My wife's father (my wife was also born in 1947) was a young Marine already in the South Pacific waiting for the same invasion.

    "If the bomb had not brought a swift decisive end to the war, our lives (if we would even have been born) could have been significantly different. I know our fathers never looked back, and were thankful for the end."

    From Barbara Runyon: "The effect of the bomb was awful to be sure. However, it meant that my brother who had spent four years in Europe's mud would not be sent to fight the Japanese, as he knew he would. So, from a very personal point of view, I thank God for the crew of the Enola Gay and their mission."

    From Brad Bradford: "The series about Paul Tibbets has held this septuagenarian ex-city editor spellbound. You quite properly focus upon the Enola Gay's pilot. His command responsibilities must have been enormous.

    "But please bear with me. I beg for a follow story on another crew member. To bring the Enola Gay over target within 17 seconds of the planned time, navigator Theodore Van Kirk had to have been virtually perfect with no chance to relax even for a minute on that 2,000-mile run to Hiroshima. His was simply an almost miraculous exhibition of technical expertise.

    "To arrive at 8:15 a.m., most of the Enola Gay's flight had to have been made in the dark. The navigator would have had to rush back and forth between sextant shots from the plane's top bubble and tricky computations down below.

    "I was a B-29 navigator in stateside training that August. Training that summer at Smoky Hill Army Airfield in Kansas, I was slated to head for the Pacific and fly cover for a land invasion of Japan. The Air Corps shipped my footlocker to Okinawa, but thanks to the flight of the Enola Gay, the Army decided it didn't need me there after all and returned it to Smoky Hill. I left active duty that December a stateside-safeside WW II veteran. And I still have that footlocker as a reminder of the debt I owe Paul Tibbets and his crew."

    From Jean Van Kirk: "My husband was with the 5th Marine Division and served on Iwo Jima. His cousin's name was Van Kirk, too -- the navigator of the Enola Gay. After the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, my husband and the men he fought with did not have to invade the Japanese mainland. He came home to me instead.

    "Ten years ago, my husband went into the bedroom to take a nap before dinner. When I went in to call him, he was dead. He was a wonderful husband and father, and our lives are very empty without him.

    "I am writing to ask you if I could possibly have Mr. Tibbets' address. I would really love to write to him. I am aware from your articles that this man remains out of the public eye. But maybe he would like to hear about the special man I shared my life with--because of the job he did."

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.