The Udvar-Hazy Center, where the Enola Gay is displayed, opened to the public December 15, 2003. I was one of about 2,000 veterans invited to an advance opening the previous day. Fortuitously, I was seated just one chair behind Brigadier General Paul Tibitts, Enola Gay’s pilot, and was able to take this picture of him.
At age 29, then-Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibitts, already considered “one of America’s finest bomber pilots” because of his exploits in Europe, was assigned a mission designed to bring a swift end to the war with Japan. It would require dropping the world’s first atomic bomb.
Lieutenant Colonel Tibitts assembled, trained and commanded an entirely self-contained, 1,800 man force of his own that included 15 new B-29s. He couldn’t tell his family or any of the personnel he commanded what they were training for, where they would be deployed, or when.
The unit was named the “509th Composite Bomb Group” and stationed at Wendover Army Air Corps Base in Utah. The unit designation was purposefully vague and unlike any other designations. Secrecy was considered so important that 30 FBI agents were assigned to shadow the men on and off duty to make certain no information about their unit or activities was leaked.
Lieutenant Colonel Tibitts was authorized to recruit the most qualified personnel in the Air Corps, and if his requests for services or supplies were stymied, he had only to use the word “silverplate,” and all who heard it would fall all over themselves to comply. No mid-rank military officer before or since has been given so much autonomy.
The unit and all its aircraft were transferred to Tinian in mid-May, and the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945. It was the greatest single event in the history of warfare, and it killed 150,000 residents. It was later revealed that the War Department had drafted plans to land two million troops on Japan, and it was expected that every Japanese man, woman and child would have resisted our troops “for the Emperor.”
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* BG Tibitt’s excellent book, Return of the Enola Gay may be obtained through the Udvar-Hazy book store or on the Internet via http://enolagay.org/.