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People Who Died

Unflinching

Paul W. Tibbets

Okan Arabacioglu

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/26/2007

In the weeks after the end of World War II, the U.S. military put the ruined cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima "off limits." When reporters snuck in and dispatched reports detailing the devastation, including the then-unknown phenomenon of radiation sickness, the U.S. military censored the story and countered with propaganda. Americans would not be told of nuclear weapons' lingering effects for years.

The story we learned was this: Because brave men dropped the first atomic bombs on a dauntless enemy, America did not have to invade the Japanese mainland, saving at least 1 million lives on both sides of the conflict. It is an enduring lie.

We know it is a lie because, 62 years on, historians (see Joseph C. Grew, Gar Alperovitz, Greg Mitchell, James Hershberg, Martin Sherwin, etc.) have long reported what Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman knew before the bomb was dropped: Japan was about to surrender anyway. But this fact is entombed in thick books with copious footnotes, so most Americans still don't know, and many of them deny it bitterly despite the evidence. Their patron saint is Paul W. Tibbets, who died in his Columbus, Ohio, home on Nov. 1, at the age of 92.

Courageous, precise, a consummate pilot, Tibbets assembled and commanded the 12-man crew of Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber he named for his mother. The Illinoian was chosen over two higher-ranked pilots because, as he told an interviewer, "they were looking for someone who wouldn't flinch." On Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets and crew dropped a 20-kiloton uranium bomb on Hiroshima.

Hailed as a hero and taking credit for ending WWII, Tibbets served in the Air Force for another 20 years and never doubted the rightness of the bombing even in the face of declassified documents and the unfolding history--political and medical--of what atomic weapons wrought. He was the solid fulcrum of the nuclear-war age, and in the mid-1990s he fought a final battle to keep his reputation unsullied by unflattering facts.

When the Smithsonian Institution commissioned an exhibit of Enola Gay's forward fuselage, National Air and Space Museum director Martin Harwit also wanted to put the bombing into historical context. Veterans' groups protested; Tibbets took point.

Calling the proposed exhibit "a package of insults," Tibbets gave no quarter to the historians: "Today, on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II, many are second-guessing the decision to use the atomic weapons. To them, I would say, `STOP!'" He had learned all the facts he'd ever need from his superiors, in the months before he dropped the bomb, and he had no use for any more. Tibbets vanquished the historians and, as he never tired of saying, "never lost a night's sleep" over the bomb.

But he did not leave it at that. He joyfully re-enacted the bombing and hawked triumphalist memorabilia from his "official web site," including signed books, photos, and a 10-inch-long scale replica of the "Little Boy" atom bomb--$275 plus shipping.

In 2002, as the "war on terror" got under way, Studs Terkel put his microphone before Tibbets. "One last thing," he asked the old hero. "When you hear people say, `Let's nuke 'em,' `Let's nuke these people,' what do you think?"

"Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice," Tibbets replied. "I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the ****: `You've killed so many civilians.' That's their tough luck for being there."

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