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Peter J. Kuznick: Defending the Indefensible ... A Meditation on the Life of Hiroshima Pilot Paul Tibbets, Jr.

[Peter Kuznick, author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America, is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He is also the author of The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative, Japan Focus, 23 July 2007.]

On November 1, Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the man who piloted the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, died at his Columbus, Ohio home at age 92. Throughout his adult life, he was a warrior. He bravely fought the Nazis in 1942 and 1943. He fought the Japanese in 1944 and 1945. And he spent the next 62 years fighting to defend the atomic bombings.

In the days since his passing, Tibbets has been both lionized and vilified. Among the most laudatory assessments is a piece (really a pair of blogs) by Oliver Kamm that quickly shot up to #1 at History News Network. (http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/44318.html) Basing his judgment of Tibbets on the “accounts of those who knew him,” Kamm declared that Tibbets was “a humane man, who reflected publicly and thoughtfully on the A-bomb decision, the lives it cost and also the lives it saved.”[1] A closer look at Tibbets’s life and comparison of his views with those of others who participated in the atomic bombings will shed light not only on whether Tibbets was as humane and thoughtfully reflective as Kamm suggests, but on why so many World War II veterans share Tibbets’s difficulty in moving beyond official pieties of 1945 and today to understand the complex history of the end of the Pacific War, the role the atomic bombings played in the Japanese surrender, and their own role in the historical process.[2]

Paul Tibbets was born in Quincy, Illinois on February 23, 1915 and raised mostly in Miami, Florida. His father, a wholesale confectioner, sent him to Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. As a young man, Tibbets had aspired to become a doctor. In his 1978 autobiography The Tibbets Story, in what some might consider ominous foreshadowing, Tibbets explained how his interest in medicine evolved. “The prospect of becoming a doctor was appealing to me,” he wrote. “On my grandfather’s farm in Iowa during the summers of my boyhood, I had been fascinated by such things as the birth of animals and the castration of pigs. The sight of blood gave me no squeamish moments.”[3] But at age 12, Tibbets participated in a unique promotional giveaway while working for a candy company. He sat in the front seat of a tiny Waco 9 biplane and, as the barnstormer sitting behind him flew low to the ground over Hialeah race track and other places where people gathered, he dropped Baby Ruth candy bars with parachutes attached to people below.[4] He later remembered the thrill and the sense of power this afforded, commenting, “No Arabian prince ever rode a magic carpet with a greater delight or sense of superiority to the rest of the human race.” Thereafter, medicine could not compare with the excitement of flying. Tibbets transferred from the University of Florida to the University of Cincinnati, but dropped out to join the Army Air Corps in 1937. His experience administering arsenic treatments to syphilitics in two Cincinnati venereal disease clinics only convinced him that he was making the right choice.[5]

Though a mediocre student, Tibbets was a gifted pilot, and quickly worked his way up the ranks. On August 17, 1942, as captain and commander of the 340th Bomb Squadron in the 97th Bombardment Group, he led a dozen B-17 “Flying Fortresses” in the first daytime raid by American bombers against German targets in occupied France, bombing railroad yards in Rouen. Subsequent strikes targeted marshalling yards, a shipyard, an aircraft factory, and a base for FW-190s. Tibbets demonstrated both exceptional creativity and bravery in implementing U.S. tactical bombing strategies of the early war years. Daylight precision bombing was particularly important because it allowed the U.S. to pinpoint military targets in a way that minimized the deaths of civilians who were killed indiscriminately in the far-less-accurate nighttime bombing raids conducted by the British. Before that first attack, Tibbets told a reporter that he felt great apprehension over the possibility of civilian casualties, admitting he was “sick with thoughts of the civilians who might suffer from the bombs dropped by this machine.” Watching the bombs fall, he thought, “My God, women and children are getting killed!”[6] In all, Tibbets flew 43 combat missions with the 8th Air Force in England and the 12th in North Africa.

Following a run-in with Col. Lauris Norstad,[7] operations officer of the 12th Air Force, the army transferred Tibbets back to the U.S., where he was given responsibility for testing and perfecting the new B-29 “Superfortresses,” the largest, best-equipped, and most modern bombers in the world. In August 1944, Tibbets was called to Colorado Springs, where he met with Col. John Lansdale, chief of security for the Manhattan Project, and then with Gen. Uzal Ent, who commanded the 2nd Air Force, Navy Cptn. William “Deak” Parsons, associate director of the Los Alamos laboratory, and physicist Norman Ramsey. Lansdale grilled him about having been arrested by the North Miami police, who caught him in the back seat of a car with a young lady. Convinced that such a blemish on his record did not disqualify him for what lay ahead, Ent, Parsons, and Ramsey proceeded to fill him in on the Manhattan Project’s efforts to make an atomic bomb and the special role that he was to play.[8] Gen. Ent’s initial words deeply impressed him. “This thing is going to be very big,” he informed the young pilot. “I believe it has the potential and possibility of ending the war.”[9] At that first meeting, Ramsey said, “The only thing we can tell you about the bomb is it’s going to explode with the force of twenty thousand tons of TNT.”[10]

Ent put Tibbets in charge of planning for delivery of the atomic bombs when they were ready, including assembling and training the teams that would carry out that task. Tibbets, who Army Air Force Commander Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold described as “the best damned pilot” in the Army Air Force,[11] handpicked the top pilots, bombardiers, radar operators, navigators, flight engineers, and crewmen and put them through rigorous training. “My job, in brief,” he wrote in his 1989 book Flight of the Enola Gay, “was to wage atomic war.”[12] In all, the 509th Composite Group that he headed consisted of 15 B-29 Superfortress crews and 1800 men. Tibbets was awed by the authority he was given at such a young age. He reflected, “Nobody in the future will ever be given the responsibility and authority that was given to a 29-year old man.”[13]

Those he selected endured extremely tight security while preparing for their mission at the desolate air base in Wendover, Utah. A security force of 30 special agents bugged telephones, opened mail, and eavesdropped on conversations. The agents quickly shipped out those they considered insufficiently discreet. Tibbets imposed the same discipline on himself, never divulging the nature of the project to his wife or closest associates. He admitted, “I learned to be the world’s best liar. People were always asking what I was doing. I was always thinking ahead of what would sound logical. Then if I met someone six months later I’d have to try and remember what I told him before.”[14]

Tibbets once described Wendover as “the end of the world, perfect.”[15] His men weren’t so sure. Lt. Jacob “Jake” Beser expressed the prevailing view when he wrote, “if the North American Continent ever needed an enema, the tube would be inserted here at Wendover.”[16] Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk agreed with Beser, describing the cold termite-infested barracks and rancid drinking water as “a shanty town with plumbing.[17] On June 27, 1945, Tibbets relocated his men to Tinian Island in the Marianas for final preparations.

While never revealing the precise nature of the weapon under development, Tibbets went out of his way to impress upon the men the importance of their endeavor. Forty years later, Beser, who was 24 at the time, recalled that the first thing Tibbets told the assembled men at Wendover was that, if what they were training for worked, it would significantly shorten the war.[18] Navigator Van Kirk, who had often flown with Tibbets in Europe, thought to himself at the time, “I’ve heard that before, too.” He would later change his mind and believe Tibbets had been “pretty correct.”[19]

Beser, who had been studying engineering at Johns Hopkins when the war began, and Van Kirk both later claimed to have figured out what kind of bomb they were training to deliver. Shortly after arriving at Wendover, Beser was sent to Los Alamos for a security briefing by Norman Ramsey who spoke of fundamental forces and chain reactions. Beser put that together with the presence of famous physicists whose names he recognized and immediately understood the kind of bomb that was being readied.[20] Van Kirk similarly reasoned, “if you had any scientific training at all, you knew something about nuclear fission. And if you knew about that, you knew that a nuclear weapon was theoretically possible. Plus, we were surrounded by some of the top nuclear physicists of the day throughout our training. It didn’t take much to put two and two together.”[21] Others at Wendover, though aware that something major was afoot, would remain in the dark until the day of the Hiroshima bombing.[22] Thirty year old Sgt. Joe Stiborik, an Enola Gay radar operator recalled, “We never did realize, of course, just what we had.” He thought “The Thing,” as he called it, was a souped-up blockbuster.[23] Most called it simply the “gadget” or the “gimmick.”[24]

Over the next 11 months, Tibbets remained involved in most aspects of planning. He made several trips to Los Alamos and met with J. Robert Oppenheimer on at least three occasions. He was fully aware that civilians were to be targeted and apparently felt no qualms about doing so.[25]

He got his chance on August 6, 1945 when he piloted B-29 No. 82 in the attack on Hiroshima. He named the plane after his mother, Enola Gay Haggard, formerly of Glidden, Iowa but at the time of Miami, Florida. His father had objected strenuously when he left school to join the Army Air Corps. His mother, however, gave him her blessing and encouragement. He showed his appreciation for her support by forever associating her with what would become the most controversial, flight in history.[26]

In the days immediately preceding the flight, the men learned more about their historic mission and were again told of the tremendous contribution they would make to ending the war. Almost all would cling fiercely to this version of events throughout the rest of their lives. On August 4, Tibbets and Parsons briefed the crews of the seven planes that would participate in the historic mission. Parsons told them, “The bomb you are going to drop is something new in the history of warfare. It will be the most destructive weapon ever devised. We think it will wipe out almost everything within a three-mile area, maybe slightly more, maybe somewhat less.” Tibbets spoke later and told them that their mission would shorten the war by six months. “At least six months,” he emphasized.[27] At the following night’s closed Strike Mission General Briefing for immediate participants, he estimated the bomb’s destructive force as equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.[28] Tibbets announced proudly, “Tomorrow, the world will know that the 509th helped end the war.”[29] Abe Spitzer noted in his diary, “And you got the feeling that he really thought this bomb would end the war, period.”[30] Prior to takeoff, only “Deak” Parsons, who went along as the weaponeer, the crew member in charge of preparing the bomb for release, and Tibbets actually knew for certain they would be delivering an atomic bomb. If the others needed assurance about the historic nature of their mission, though, they got it when they boarded the plane in the glare of klieg lights, flashbulbs, and cameras. Tibbets sat in the plane’s cockpit, smiling and waving to those recording the event for posterity. Twenty-four year old Van Kirk compared it to a Hollywood movie opening.[31] Stiborik agreed. “The place looked like Hollywood,” he observed.[32] It reminded Beser of a Broadway opening.[33] Physicist Harold Agnew, who flew aboard one of the accompanying planes, compared it to “the opening of a drug store.”[34] The Enola Gay crew posed in front of the plane for a final photo, with tail gunner George “Bob” Caron wearing his prized Brooklyn Dodgers cap. Tibbets had packed cigarettes, cigars, and a pipe.

Before embarking, a flight surgeon handed Tibbets a dozen cyanide capsules to distribute to crew members in case the plane was shot down. The capsules, he said, would take three minutes to work. Although crew members possessed limited information, they were not to be taken captive. Tibbets was ordered to shoot anyone who refused, under those circumstances, to swallow the capsule. Tibbets explained, “I had been given the order by the Commander-In-Chief, Pacific, shortly before take-off. It was a helluva thing to know you might have to kill your own crew.” But Tibbets understood that there was very little risk of getting shot down. Lt. Morris “Dick” Jeppson, the crew’s weapons specialist, said Tibbets referred to the flight as “a milk run.” “And it really was,” Jeppson confirmed. “There were no problems, there was no opposition from the Japanese—the plane was flying so high their fighter planes couldn’t get that high anyway.”[35] Tibbets boasted, “I wasn’t nervous. I tell people I was shot in the ass with confidence. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.” Twenty-seven year old Brooklyn-born Irishman Robert Lewis expressed his optimism differently by putting a packet of condoms into his flight jacket, wanting to be ready for the postwar party. When Tibbets told his copilot about the suicide pills, Lewis showed him the condoms. Tibbets did not find this amusing.[36]

The Enola Gay took off at 2:45 A.M. Parsons and Jeppson completed assembly of the bomb in mid-air. The plane rendezvoused successfully with the two accompanying planes—No. 91, which its crew later called Necessary Evil, and the Great Artiste—over Iwo Jima and, after receiving a radio report from pilot Claude Eatherly’s plane Straight Flush that the weather was clear over Hiroshima, proceeded to its primary target. During the flight, Tibbets informed crew members that they would be dropping an atomic bomb. That information, in itself, did not dramatically change anyone’s perception of the task at hand. Several crew members, having already been awake for very long hours, tried to catch some sleep to be ready to perform their duties. An exhausted Jake Beser fell asleep shortly after the plane lifted off. As they neared Japan, the men in the front of the plane entertained themselves by bowling oranges down the tunnel, trying to bounce them off Beser’s head. Jeppson armed the bomb, changing plugs and activating internal batteries, as the plane began its final 30 mile approach to the target. Tibbets started his countdown with three minutes to go. Having taken no flak, they arrived at their destination only 17 seconds behind schedule. Twenty-six year old Major Ferebee spotted the target, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which he recognized from photographs. He described it as a bridge “where all the fingers kind of came together—kind of like the wrist on a hand.” It was located in downtown Hiroshima, a city with approximately 300,000 civilians, 43,000 soldiers, 45,000 Korean forced laborers, and several thousand Americans, mostly children whose parents were interned in the U.S., and a density of approximately 35,000 people per square mile.

At 8:15, Ferebee released the 8900 pound uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy from 31,600 feet over the city of Hiroshima and shouted, “Bomb away!” Tibbets announced over the microphone, “Fellows, you have just dropped the first atomic bomb in history.” Ferebee, watching through the plexiglass nose of the plane, saw the bomb hover momentarily: “It porpoised a little to pick up speed.” The bomb exploded only a few hundred feet off target 43 seconds later at a height of 1890 feet, detonating with a force now estimated at 16 kilotons.[37] Within seconds, tens of thousands of people were dead. Tens of thousands more would die over the next few days and weeks. Others would suffer from the effects of the blast, burns, and radiation for the rest of their lives. Many still do so today.

Upon releasing the bomb, Tibbets immediately undertook the escape maneuver he had been practicing for months, turning the plane, which had expectedly lurched upward when the bomb was released, at an angle of 155 degrees, descending 1700 feet, and speeding away to minimize damage from the shock waves, which still hit with a force 2.5 times that of gravity. Tibbets explained, “We got kicked in the butt with 2 ½ G forces.”[38] Crew members thought they were taking flak. Lewis said it felt like a giant was smashing the plane with a telephone pole.[39] The plane had gotten nine miles away by the time of the explosion. Still the explosion was so bright that some of the crew members feared at first they had been blinded.[40]

Only Staff Sgt. Bob Caron, sitting in his turret in the back of the aircraft, actually watched the bomb explode. Others waited about 30 seconds for the plane to complete its evasive maneuver and then Van Kirk saw “12 faces diving for windows.”[41] The following day, Tibbets described what he had witnessed for reporters on Guam: “It was hard to believe what we saw. Below us, rising rapidly, was a tremendous black cloud. Nothing was visible where only minutes before the outline of the city, its streets and buildings and waterfront piers were clearly apparent.” “It happened so fast we couldn’t see anything and could only feel the heat from the flash and the concussion from the blast.” “What had been Hiroshima was going up in a mountain of smoke. First I could see a mushroom of boiling dust—apparently with some debris in it—up to 20,000 feet. The boiling continued three or four minutes as I watched. Then a white cloud plumed upward from the center to some 40,000 feet. An angry dust cloud spread all around the city. There were fires on the fringes of the city, apparently burning as buildings crumbled and the gas mains broke.”[42] In his memoir, The Tibbets Story, he described “the awesome sight that met our eyes as we turned for a heading that would take us alongside the burning, devastated city.” “The giant purple mushroom…had already risen to a height of 45,000 feet, 3 miles above our own altitude, and was still boiling upward like something terribly alive. Even more fearsome was the sight on the ground below. Fires were springing up everywhere amid a turbulent mass of smoke that had the appearance of bubbling hot tar.”[43] On another occasion, he reflected: “If Dante had been with us on the plane, he would have been terrified. The city we had seen so clearly in the sunlight a few minutes before was now an ugly smudge. It had completely disappeared under this awful blanket of smoke and fire.”[44]

For many on board the Enola Gay and the two accompanying planes, the image of instantaneous destruction, even from miles above and miles distant from what was left of Hiroshima, was so terrifying as to be transformative. They would never be able to exorcise the apocalyptic images from their minds. The images were so indelibly imprinted that few ever changed their descriptions over the years, often using the exact same words to describe what they had seen.[45] Tibbets had instructed Beser to record the crew’s reactions, for which he brought along a special disc recorder. Tibbets warned crew members to “watch your language—keep it clean.” For the most part they did, but their images remain hauntingly graphic nonetheless and merit reiteration at a time when many seem to have lost sight of what even these relatively tiny atomic bombs could do. Twenty-four year old Caron described the view as “a peep into hell.”[46] Caron, sitting in the back of the aircraft in his turret, was the only crew member to actually watch the bomb explode. He observed, “A column of smoke is rising fast. It has a fiery red core. A bubbling mass, purple grey in color with that red core. It’s all turbulent. Fires are springing up everywhere, like flames shooting out of a huge bed of coals. I am starting to count the fires. One, two, three, four, five, six…14, 15…it’s impossible. There are too many to count.” “Here it comes, the mushroom shape that Captain Parsons spoke about. It’s coming this way. It’s like a mass of bubbling molasses.” “The mushroom is spreading out. It’s maybe a mile or two wide and half a mile high. It’s growing up and up and up. It’s nearly level with us and climbing. It’s very black, but there is a purplish tint to the cloud. The base of the mushroom looks like a heavy undercast that is shot through with flames.” “The city must be below that. The flames and smoke are billowing out, whirling out into the foothills. The hills are disappearing under the smoke.”[47]...

Read entire article at Japan Focus