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70 years after Hiroshima, commander remembers grandfather, Enola Gay pilot

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 8/6/2015 Rick Montgomery

Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo., wears the watch his grandfather gave him on his graduation from the Air Force Academy. Tibbets grandfather, Paul Tibbets Jr. was the pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.(Allison Long/Kansas City Star/TNS)

Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo., wears the watch his grandfather gave him on his graduation from the Air Force Academy. Tibbets grandfather, Paul Tibbets Jr. was the pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.(Allison Long/Kansas City Star/TNS)
© Allison Long/Kansas City Star/TNS

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — In the hallway outside his new office, Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV walks daily past a black-and-white glossy of his late grandfather, who piloted the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan 70 years ago Thursday.

Their eyes meet, and the grandson, 48, is reminded of what Paul Tibbets Jr. told him long ago about pursuing a career in the U.S. Air Force.

Be yourself. Follow your own passion to serve. In effect, Granddad was saying, "Don't live in my shadow."

Tibbets IV said he took the advice to heart. "He was setting me free," he said.

If the elder Tibbets helped his grandson be his own airman, the outcome reflects a stunning case of history coming full circle for the 509th Bomb Wing, based at Whiteman near Knob Noster.

In June, Tibbets IV was put in command of the unit whose origins go back to that mission his grandfather led over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Tibbets Jr. was the first commander of the 509th Composite Group, which executed the bombing run and targeted Nagasaki three days later with another pilot at the helm.

The devastation wrought by the two weapons — the first bomb dubbed "Little Boy," the second "Fat Man" — hastened Japan's surrender. The end of World War II marked the beginning of the age of nuclear arms, which have not been used in warfare since.

"If he were here he'd tell you, 'I never lost one night's sleep after that mission,'" said Tibbets IV. "The reason is he knew the lives that were saved" on both sides of the fighting because the United States didn't carry out a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Tibbets Jr. died in 2007 at age 92. Concerned that his grave site might draw anti-nuclear protesters, he asked his family to cremate his remains and scatter the ashes over the English Channel, Tibbets IV said.

At the headquarters of the 509th Bomb Wing, which maintains the world's only fleet of B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, Tibbets IV spent an hour earlier this week recalling his grandfather and the mission he had kept under tight wraps for several months before carrying it out.

During 509th troop preparations in a remote airfield in Utah, "my grandfather was the only one who was briefed on the weapon itself," Tibbets IV said. "He was the only one who knew the magnitude of what they were going to be doing."

As for the B-29 Superfortress that would drop Little Boy, the pilot chose to name the aircraft after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.

She had been supportive of her son's decision not to pursue a medical career, which disappointed his father. Tibbets IV was only a toddler when his great-grandmother died, but he said according to family lore, her belly "started to jiggle from laughing" when told by her son after the bombing that the plane had "Enola Gay" emblazoned outside the cockpit.

"He told me she was very honored," said Tibbets IV.

As a boy, Tibbets IV didn't have a lot of contact with his grandfather. The two lived several states from each other — Tibbets IV in Alabama and Tibbets Jr. in Ohio, where he helped launch an air taxi service that grew to be the world's largest. He had retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general in the 1960s.

After Tibbets IV chose an Air Force path (unlike his father, Paul Tibbets III, who served as an Army reservist), the two flying Tibbetses became kindred spirits. Granddad spoke more openly about his historic role in the war.

He recalled how the atomic blast over Hiroshima "kicked us pretty good" and that fillings in the crew's teeth tingled from the jolt of radiation.

Crews earlier had dropped leaflets warning of destruction and urging surrender. But it never was lost on Tibbets Jr. that surrender came only after the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese civilians.

"People asked him all the time ... 'Doesn't it bother you?'" said Tibbets IV. "And he'd say, 'I was given an order by the president of the United States (Missouri's own Harry Truman), to go and prepare to execute this mission when called on. I'm not a politician. I execute orders given to me by the president.'

"And, yes, we're also human beings, right? But here's what he told me: 'Paul, we knew if this was successful it could bring this war to an end.'"

Decades after the war, Tibbets Jr. gave public talks attended by his grandson, who would pilot combat runs over Kosovo and Afghanistan during Granddad's lifetime.

The younger Tibbets was moved by the many times he saw World War II veterans stepping up to thank his grandfather for sparing them from what would have been a horrific ground invasion.

"It's an honor to be a Paul Tibbets," said Tibbets IV. "No doubt, he's my biggest hero."

At a recent town hall meeting at Whiteman, the new commander of the 509th spoke of "upholding the legacy" of World War II airmen and other troops.

"It's not that we look at the past to live there," Tibbets IV advised his charges. "We look at the past to learn from it and move forward."

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