Paul Tibbets was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force who is best known for flying the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. He named the plane Enola Gay after his mother. His mission was one of the most controversial and influential events in world history, as it marked the beginning of the nuclear age and hastened the end of World War II. But how did Paul Tibbets die, and what was his cause of death?
Early Life and Military Career
Paul Tibbets was born on February 23, 1915, in Quincy, Illinois. He developed an interest in flying at an early age and became a pilot in 1938 after enlisting in the Army Air Corps. He flew anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and then became the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group, which was equipped with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. He flew the lead plane in the first American daylight heavy bomber mission against occupied Europe on August 17, 1942, and the first American raid of more than 100 bombers in Europe on October 9, 1942. He also flew Major General Mark W. Clark and Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibraltar for important meetings. After flying 43 combat missions, he became the assistant for bomber operations on the staff of the Twelfth Air Force.
In February 1943, Tibbets returned to the United States to help with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a new and advanced bomber that could fly higher, faster, and farther than any other plane at the time. He tested the B-29’s performance and reliability, and also trained other pilots to fly it. In September 1944, he was appointed the commander of the 509th Composite Group, a special unit that was secretly assigned to deliver the atomic bomb. He handpicked the crew members, supervised the training, and selected the targets. He also personally modified the B-29s to carry the bomb, which was much larger and heavier than conventional bombs.
The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima
On August 5, 1945, Tibbets and his crew flew from Tinian Island in the Pacific to Iwo Jima, where they refueled and joined two other B-29s that would accompany them as observers and instruments carriers. Tibbets named his plane Enola Gay, after his mother, who had supported his flying career. He also had the words “Rendezvous with Destiny” painted on the nose of the plane, as a motto for his mission.
The next day, August 6, 1945, Tibbets and his crew took off from Iwo Jima at 2:45 a.m. local time. They flew for about six hours, crossing the Japanese coast at 8:15 a.m. Tibbets had the final authority to decide whether to drop the bomb or not, depending on the weather and visibility of the target. He chose Hiroshima, a city of about 350,000 people that was an important military and industrial center. He aimed for the Aioi Bridge, a distinctive T-shaped landmark in the center of the city. At 8:15 a.m., he released the bomb, codenamed Little Boy, from an altitude of about 31,000 feet. He then turned the plane sharply to the right and dove to escape the blast. The bomb exploded 43 seconds later, about 1,900 feet above the ground, with a force equivalent to about 15,000 tons of TNT. It created a fireball that reached temperatures of several million degrees, and a shockwave that destroyed about five square miles of the city. It also emitted intense radiation that killed or injured thousands of people. Tibbets later said that he saw “a bright flash of light, followed by a cloud of boiling dust and debris that rose to about 40,000 feet.” He also said that he felt “a strong jolt” and “a big concussion wave” that rocked the plane.
Tibbets and his crew flew away from Hiroshima, heading for Tinian. They were met by two other B-29s that had dropped instruments to measure the effects of the bomb. Tibbets radioed a coded message to his base, saying “Mission successful.” He also sent a personal message to General Henry H. Arnold, the chief of the Army Air Forces, saying “Results clear-cut, successful in all respects. Visible effects greater than any test. Conditions normal in airplane following delivery. Proceeding to base.” He and his crew landed at Tinian at 2:58 p.m., after a 12-hour flight. They were greeted by a crowd of cheering and curious people, including reporters and photographers. Tibbets was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, who had flown to Tinian to witness the mission. Tibbets later said that he felt “no sense of remorse or guilt” about dropping the bomb, and that he was “proud of what we did.”
Later Life and Death
Tibbets continued to serve in the military after the war. He participated in the Operation Crossroads nuclear weapon tests at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946, and was involved in the development of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet in the early 1950s. He commanded the 308th Bombardment Wing and the 6th Air Division in the late 1950s, and was military attaché in India from 1964 to 1966. He retired from the Air Force in 1966, with the rank of brigadier general. He then worked for Executive Jet Aviation, a private air taxi company, serving on the founding board and as its president from 1976 until his retirement in 1987.
Tibbets was married twice and had three sons. His first wife, Lucy Wingate, whom he married in 1938, died of a stroke in 1966. His second wife, Andrea Quattrehomme, whom he married in 1968, died of cancer in 1994. His son Paul Tibbets III also became a pilot and a brigadier general in the Air Force. Tibbets was a recipient of many honors and awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal. He was also inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
Tibbets died at his home in Columbus, Ohio, on November 1, 2007, at the age of 92. He had suffered from a variety of health problems and had been in decline for two months. He had requested no funeral and no headstone, fearing that they would provide his detractors with a place to protest. He also asked to have his ashes scattered over the English Channel, where he had flown many missions during the war. His wishes were honored by his family and friends, who held a private memorial service for him. Tibbets was remembered as a brave and patriotic pilot who carried out his orders without hesitation or regret. He was also a controversial figure who faced criticism and condemnation from some people who considered him a war criminal and a mass murderer. Tibbets himself said that he never lost sleep over his role in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and that he did what he had to do to end the war and save lives. He said, “I knew when I got the assignment it was going to be an emotional thing. We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.” According to Wikipedia, Tibbets’ cause of death was heart failure.