Sandia LabNews

Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets bears witness to history, counters revisionists in his latest mission

Enola Gay pilot travels country to ‘set record straight’ about Hiroshima decision

Col. Paul Tibbets, handpicked by Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves to put together the team that would drop the atomic bomb on Japan, used to pass through Albuquerque frequently on his way to confer with scientists up the hill at Los Alamos.

"Let me put it this way," Tibbets said in a Lab News interview. "I had frequent visits from people from Los Alamos. They’d come up to Wendover [the air base in Utah where the 509th Composite Group was training for the nuclear strike], and I would be asked to come to Los Alamos to talk to people, particularly Dr. Oppenheimer. I don’t think I controlled anything they did or they controlled anything that I did. We just talked about what we had to do. ‘Have you considered this? Have you considered something else?’ "

‘My job to deliver it’

"They let me fly the airplane. In other words, they gave me something that would work, and it was my business to deliver it, which meant the delivery system.

"I don’t know how many times I was down here [at Kirtland], but it was several times. I used to come here, land, go into the operations office. Somebody would drive up in a Chevrolet two-door, wearing civilian clothes, civilian license plate, all that. They’d pick me up, take me downtown to an apartment. I’d take off my Air Corps insignia and put on Corps of Engineers insignia, and away we’d go. Fooling everybody, see? They drove me to Los Alamos. I couldn’t find Los Alamos today if I had to, I don’t think, unless Rand McNally makes a good enough map."

In Albuquerque for book-signing

Tibbets, who retired from the US Air Force as a brigadier general, was in Albuquerque last week to autograph copies of his book, The Flight of the Enola Gay, and to deliver a speech Saturday evening at Sandia’s Technology Transfer Center. He was hosted by the National Atomic Museum, operated for DOE by Sandia.

Now 83, Tibbets remains a robust man with a forceful personality, a quick wit, strong opinions, and continuing passion to tell a new generation of Americans about the conditions that led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His only visible concession to his age is a pair of hearing aids. The jet black hair of 53 years ago is white now, but it is quite full, and the distinctive widow’s peak is still there, as prominent as ever.

At the beginning of the Lab News interview, Tibbets was asked whether he thinks there is still a role for nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. In the fashion of someone who knows exactly what he wants to talk about, though, Tibbets immediately offered his perspective on the decision in 1945 to launch the nuclear strikes against Japan.

"If I understand your question correctly," he said, "first off, I’ll tell you one thing. There is nobody living that I know of who would even think they’d like to see another one of these things take place. We don’t.

"But by the same token, I would have to tell you that it was the only thing that could be done at that time. The only thing, because it would have just taken more and more and more lives to do anything differently. I’m sure Japan would have surrendered if they had starved them to death and did all of that sort of stuff, but how many lives would it have cost us while we waited for, what, one year, 18 months, or two years? They were dedicated to die to the last person. That was the way they were raised.

"When I heard about it and got this assignment, I thought, well, if we can be successful, we may convince the Japanese of the futility of continuing to fight. That was what I had in mind. I wanted to convince them of the futility. And when the emperor went on the radio and said they surrendered, that’s what he said: ‘I cannot see my people subjected to any more of this.’ That’s what brought the war to an end."

Tibbets is convinced that nuclear weapons not only ended World War II but have helped prevent World War III.

"We’ve deterred it for, what, 54 years now?" And a strongly armed United States, he believes, is the best deterrent against future wars. "I would support a movement that we stay ahead in technology and delivery systems and have something better than anybody else in the world has got. That’s the way [to keep the peace]."

While believing that nuclear weapons must play a central role as a deterrent, he clearly believes high-technology weapons are an important part of the nation’s defenses.

"I think what we did in the desert [Desert Storm] and what they are talking about doing now, with stealth airplanes, with guided stuff that can go in there and hit the right window in the hotel, and these bombs that’ll bury themselves, I think that’s great. I’d like to see it done that way because that way it puts a certain boundary on the combat, and fewer innocents will suffer."

‘We’ve got a big problem’

Tibbetts’ best known mission is the flight of the Enola Gay, but in talking with him, one senses he is still on a mission, one that he considers every bit as important to the nation’s security as a strictly military mission. The mission? Counter what he characterizes as the "misstatements" of revisionist educators and historians.

"With revisionism that has gotten embedded into our educational system, we’ve got a big problem," he said. "We’ve got to get the revisionists outta there [the schools].

"That’s one of the reasons I go around and talk to reporters and people – I want them to get interested in their own local school systems and find out how terrible they are. Because I’ve never found anybody yet who said their children had more than two pages on the history of World War II."

The revisionists, Tibbets said, seek "mind control." They have a certain perspective, and they want to control the information system and the educational system in such a way that their audience can draw only the conclusions they want them to draw, he said.

"They control the educational system. And the people aren’t doing a damned thing; that’s my beef. People have children in school and aren’t paying any attention. They want somebody else to educate them. They don’t want to take part in raising the family. They want the government to do it for them."

Tibbets got closely involved with the revisionist history issue when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington was preparing a special display observing the 50th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima. Many people, especially veterans’ groups, loudly objected that the exhibit took the bombing issue out of context and even portrayed the US as the aggressor in the Pacific. That was too much for Tibbets. The incident made him realize he had to continue bearing witness to history as he had experienced it.

"People today don’t know what questions to ask," he said. "So I talk to people, hoping to get them to ask some challenging questions. I want them to think. Because there are not too many people like me left around to do it. I’m not a Joan of Arc. I’m not going to carry a torch. I’m just going to tell people what I think."

People in his position, Tibbets believes, owe it to posterity to share their knowledge and experiences with anyone who will listen.

"My father was an infantry captain in World War I. He fought in the Argonne, the Meuse, he fought in the big deals. He came back unhurt. He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t say anything. For years he wouldn’t say a damned word. I didn’t know what the hell the army was or what he had done.

High regard for the boss

"I felt a lot like that when I first came back, but this is the wrong thing to do. I think it should be broadcast, so that people understand where they came from."

It comes as no surprise that a man who considers himself plain-spoken has the highest regard for our most plain-spoken modern president.

"Harry Truman had guts," he said. Tibbets recounted an Oval Office meeting he had with President Truman in about 1948. During the meeting, Truman thanked several World War II aviators for their heroic contributions to victory.

"Then he turned to me," Tibbets recalled, "and said, ‘So what do you think?’ ‘I think I did the right thing, sir,’ I said. And he said, ‘You’re damned right you did! Do you ever get any heat about it?’ I said, ‘Once in a while.’ So he said, ‘I tell you what. You refer them to me because I’m the guy that sent you to do it.’ "