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Duty Bound

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In 1947, not long after the end of World War II, U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Tibbets stopped by the White House for coffee with Harry Truman. “Anybody ever give you a hard time?” Tibbets remembers the President asking him. “Well, sometimes, ” Tibbets replied. “Next time that happens, you refer ’em to me,” Truman said. “I’m the man that sent you.” Now 85 and living in Columbus, Ohio, retired Brig. Gen. Tibbets is the man who piloted the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, killing or maiming tens of thousands and bringing the war in the Pacific to a swift conclusion. Through the years, Tibbets has rarely spoken about his deed, which forever changed the world and which some people now believe was unnecessary. Tibbets, who is featured in Bob Greene’s new bestseller Duty (Morrow), spoke recently at his vacation retreat near Orlando, Fla., with correspondent Don Sider.

joined the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet in 1937, just before my 22nd birthday. I trained in biplanes, with the open cockpits. I flew B-17s on 25 missions during the war in Europe. On one, a Messerschmitt fighter put a 20-mm shell in our cockpit. Later I watched the flight surgeon pull a piece of metal out of my leg. I was in the air the next day. I was at that age when I believed there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

By 1944 I had a lot of experience in the B-29 bomber. One day I was called to Colorado Springs to meet with Gen. Uzal Ent, the commander of the Second Air Force. I went into his office and listened to him and a physicist and a Navy captain talk about atomic energy. Afterwards Ent told me, “Your job is to organize and train a unit to drop those weapons.” I looked at three airfields in the West and picked Wendover in Utah for our secret training.

While I was flying back and forth, I thought, “Jesus, if we’re successful, we might shorten this damn war. If we’re not, the least we can do is save a lot of lives. We’ll take a lot, but we’ll save a lot more.” That was my thesis. I realized the responsibility I was taking on, but it didn’t bother me. I didn’t have time to think about the future consequences; I had to think about what to do next.

I decided that I would make the first sortie. If any mistake was going to be made, I would make it. I was the guy who had to answer—and I wanted to. I went to the Martin air-c craft factory in Omaha and picked the B-29 I was going to fly. I named it Enola Gay after my mother.

By April 1945 I had an organization [of 200 officers and 1,500 enlisted men] trained and ready. I told my men, “You’re going to fly at 25,000 ft. You’re going to drop the bomb within 300 ft. of the aiming point. You’re going to navigate at night.” They said, “We can’t do it.” I said, “You’re going to do it.” In early August, I got an attack order on the teletype from Gen. Curtis LeMay. We took off at 2 a.m., the morning of the 6th. I told the men, “We’re going to drop the first atomic bomb.” There was no surprise. They knew what the hell was going on.

When we released the bomb, we were at 31,700 ft. I knew that altitude was my savior. I had asked Dr. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, “How do you get away from this thing?” He said, “Turn tangent to the ever-expanding shock zone.” I turned right at a 150-degree angle and kept the speed up. We rolled out and the sky flashed brilliantly; then I got this tingling in my mouth that tasted like lead. Of course it was just unbelievable what we saw below. I’d seen a city down there. People were moving. When I looked back after we leveled out, all I could see was boiling black tar with steam above it.

Was I prepared for all the attention when I got home? No. It seemed ridiculous. I was only doing what thousands of other men were doing—I was doing my job. But the world has changed. Nowadays, some people think I should feel guilt. But I have no regrets. I knew the atrocities that had taken place. I’d seen the newsreels, the Japanese soldiers throwing babies up and catching I them on their bayonets. Besides, I think we saved lives—American and ” Japanese. What people don’t realize is: War is a damn dirty thing.