CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Paul W. Tibbets, the Enola Gay pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II, talked yesterday at the USS Missouri about his war exploits.
Enola Gay pilot
visits Pearl Harbor
Paul Tibbets was 30 when
he flew the plane that dropped
an A-bomb on Hiroshima
In the bright morning sunlight of Aug. 6, 1945, Col. Paul W. Tibbets flew his B-29 bomber six miles above Hiroshima.
The 30-year-old pilot checked his watch, and the plane -- Enola Gay, named after his mother -- dropped its 9,000-pound atom bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," 17 seconds after 9:15 a.m.
An instant later, the course of World War II and modern warfare forever changed.
Yesterday, Tibbets, 89, walked slowly on the deck of the USS Missouri and, with a smile of quiet satisfaction, examined the surrender documents that were signed on board to end World War II on Sept. 2, 1945.
"I was convinced then and I am convinced to this day that I did the right thing," the white-haired, blue-eyed Tibbets told a group of reporters born years after his mission.
"I wanted to end the war by convincing them of the futility of continuing to fight. And if that's what it took, that's what they got," said Tibbets. "I wanted to end the killing."
Now a retired brigadier general, Tibbets stopped in Honolulu yesterday en route to the Northern Mariana Islands for a 60-year commemoration of the battles of Saipan and Tinian, marking their liberation from Japan.
In Saipan, Tibbets will be joined by two other survivors of his crew: Theodore Van Kirk, a navigator, and Morris Jeppson, a weaponeer. Also yesterday, Tibbets signed copies of his autobiography, "Return of the Enola Gay," and talked about his war experiences.
In June and July 1944, thousands died in the bloody battles of Saipan and Tinian. Historians believe 5,000 American soldiers lost their lives and that at least 400 islanders also died. Japanese losses have been estimated at 66,000. Once the islands were secured, Japan lost important airfields, and the Allies gained a strategic base to attack Japan.
Tibbets said he wanted to see Tinian again because "I'd like to know who these people are, and I'd like them to see me. I don't know what image they have of me -- possibly that I had horns out of my head and a tail with a screw on the end of it."
Tibbets' book is as straightforward and unapologetic as he is. He wrote: "Only a fool speaks of humane warfare. There is no such thing."
Tibbets was handpicked to develop an elite squadron that would drop the first bomb. After serving in Europe on bombing missions, he was ordered back to the United States to work with the B-29 bomber program. In September 1944 he was assigned to the Manhattan Project, to help develop an elite squad to drop the bomb and to help refit the B-29 to carry it.
Tibbets met with top scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, who told him only to ask for the information he needed "to do his job" and that if he asked more, he would "know too much" if he were captured.
At 2:58 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets and his crew of 11 took off from North Field on Tinian and flew 2,000 miles to Hiroshima, where they dropped the first atom bomb to be used in warfare. The United States dropped a second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki, on Aug. 9, 1945.
Tibbets told reporters yesterday that in the five minutes before he dropped the bomb, "I was going over in my mind a whole checklist. Have I made any mistakes anyplace?"
Tibbets said: "I had the full responsibility of everything that happened. That was my business because the man that gave me my assignments said, 'You must figure these things out, and we hope you do it right, because nobody can tell you what to do.'"
Tibbets also said that his crew members were not wholly aware of their mission. As they flew toward their target at 20,000 feet, Tibbets stood in the tail of the plane, and tail gunner Bob Caron asked him, "We wouldn't be playing with atoms today, would we?"
Tibbets said he responded: "Bob, that's exactly right. We are playing with atoms."
Tibbets book vividly describes the mission and its effect: "I shall never forget the bright purple cloud boiling upward for 10 miles above a dying city, which was suddenly blanketed by an ugly mass of black smoke that resembled ... a pot of bubbling hot tar."
The bomb killed an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people instantly, and tens of thousands more victims died later from injuries and radiation exposure.
Tibbets wrote of his crew: "We were certainly aware that thousands of people were dying at that moment on the ground below. It is not easy for a soldier to be detached from the misery he has created. Every fighting man with normal sensitivity, even if he has simply pulled a rifle trigger and slain a fellow soldier of another nationality, is painfully aware."
Tibbets said many people, including Japanese soldiers, have told him he was right to drop the bomb.
Years after the war, Tibbets was told to entertain a group of Japanese dignitaries at his base. At one point a man walked up to him, stuck out his hand in greeting, and said: "I'm Fuchida. Shall we talk about it?"
Harvard-educated Mitsuo Fuchida had commanded the flight squadron that had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Tibbets said Fuchida told him: "You did exactly the right thing because Japan would have resisted an invasion using every man, woman and child armed with sticks and stones, if necessary. And that would have been an awful slaughter."