Paul Tibbets, pilot of the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb, died Nov. 1 at the age of 92 at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He had been in failing health in recent months.
Paul Warfield Tibbets was born on Feb. 23, 1915, at Quincy, Illinois. He planned to have a career in medicine, but when World War II broke out he joined the Army Air Corps.
He commanded the 340th Bomb Squadron and flew 25 missions in B-17s over Europe and North Africa before returning to the United States to train in B-29s.
On Aug. 6, 1945, piloting a specially modified B-29 named “Enola Gay” after his mother, Tibbets led a raid on Hiroshima. In the bomb bay was the world’s first nuclear weapon. At least 70,000 people were killed and the blast destroyed much of the city. A few days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, which resulted in Japan’s surrender.
Tibbets remained in the Air Force after World War II, rising to the rank of brigadier general before retirement. He continued working in aviation for many years after leaving the military, and traveled the country making speeches about his wartime experiences.
In the years after the war Tibbets became a target of anti-nuclear groups and those who argued that the dropping of atomic bombs was unnecessary, on the premise that Japan eventually would have capitulated to the Allies, anyway. Tibbets responded that he had no regrets for his role in the bombing of Hiroshima, because it saved thousands of lives — both Allied and Japanese — by averting the need for a ground-based invasion of Japan to end the war. In 1995, when the Smithsonian proposed displaying “Enola Gay” in the context of the suffering the bombing caused, Tibbets described it as “a damn big insult.”
Over the years, when Tibbets would make public appearances, his presence often would attract protesters. Because of that, he asked that there be no funeral or gravestone because he did not want to give protesters a place to gather. Instead, his family plans to scatter his ashes over the English Channel, where he loved to fly.
Tibbets is survived by his wife, Andrea, and three sons, Paul III, Gene and James.