'I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice'
August 6, 2005
Paul Tibbets dropped the devastating bombs from the Enola Gay as it flew
over Japan and, he tells Studs Terkel, he'd do it all again if he had
One day [in September 1944] I'm running a test on a B-29. I land. A man
meets me. He says he just got a call from General Uzal Ent [commander of
the Second Air Force] at Colorado Springs, he wants me in his office the
next morning at 9 o'clock. He said: "Bring your clothing - your B4 bag -
because you're not coming back." Well, I didn't know what it was and
didn't pay any attention to it - it was just another assignment.
I got to Colorado Springs the next morning perfectly on time. A man
named Lansdale met me, walked me to General Ent's office and closed the
door behind me. With him was a US Navy captain - that was William
Parsons, who flew with me to Hiroshima - and Dr Norman Ramsey, Columbia
University professor in nuclear physics. And Norman said: "OK, we've got
what we call the Manhattan Project. What we're doing is trying to
develop an atomic bomb. We've gotten to the point now where we can't go
much further till we have aeroplanes to work with."
He gave me an explanation that probably lasted 45, 50 minutes, and they
left. General Ent looked at me and said: "The other day, General Arnold
[commander-general of the Army Air Corps] offered me three names." Both
of the others were full colonels; I was lieutenant-colonel. He said that
when General Arnold asked which of them could do this atomic weapons
deal, he replied without hesitation: "Paul Tibbets is the man to do it."
I said: "Well, thank you, sir." Then he laid out what was going on and
it was up to me now to put together an organisation and train them to
drop atomic weapons on both Europe and the Pacific - Tokyo.
My edict was as clear as could be. Drop simultaneously in Europe and the
Pacific because of the secrecy problem - you couldn't drop it in one
part of the world without dropping it in the other. And so he said: "I
don't know what to tell you, but I know you happen to have B-29s to
start with. I've got a squadron in training in Nebraska - they have the
best record of anybody we've got. I want you to go visit them, look at
them, talk to them, do whatever you want. If they don't suit you, we'll
get you some more."
He said: "There's nobody could tell you what you have to do because
nobody knows. If we can do anything to help you, ask me. Paul, be
careful how you treat this responsibility, because if you're successful
you'll probably be called a hero. And if you're unsuccessful, you might
wind up in prison."
I think I went to Los Alamos [the Manhattan Project headquarters] three
times, and each time I got to see Dr Robert Oppenheimer [senior
scientist on the project] working in his own environment. Later,
thinking about it, here's a young man, a brilliant person. And he's a
chain smoker and he drinks cocktails. And he hates fat men. And General
Leslie Groves [the general in charge of the Manhattan Project], he's a
fat man, and he hates people who smoke and drink. The two of them are
the first, original odd couple.
Dr Ramsey said the only thing we can tell you about it is it's going to
explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. I'd never seen a pound of
TNT blow up. I'd never heard of anybody who'd seen 100 pounds of TNT
blow up. All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.
I think the two bombs that we used [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] had more
power than all the bombs the air force had used during the war on
Even though it was still theory, whatever those guys told me, that's
what happened. So I was ready to say I wanted to go to war, but I wanted
to ask Oppenheimer how to get away from the bomb after we dropped it. I
told him that when we had dropped bombs in Europe and North Africa, we'd
flown straight ahead after dropping them - which is also the trajectory
of the bomb. But what should we do this time? He said: "You can't fly
straight ahead because you'd be right over the top when it blows up and
nobody would ever know you were there." He said I had to turn tangent to
the expanding shock wave. I said: "Well, I've had some trigonometry,
some physics. What is tangency in this case?" He said it was 159 degrees
in either direction. "Turn 159 degrees as fast as you can and you'll be
able to put yourself the greatest distance from where the bomb
I had dropped enough practice bombs to realise that the charges would
blow around 1500 feet [about 460 metres] in the air, so I would have 40
to 42 seconds to turn 159 degrees. So I practised turning, steeper,
steeper, steeper, and I got it where I could pull it around in 40
seconds. The tail was shaking dramatically and I was afraid of it
breaking off, but I didn't quit. That was my goal. And I practised and
practised until, without even thinking about it, I could do it in
between 40 and 42, all the time.
We were in Tinian [US island base in the Pacific] at the time we got the
OK. They had sent this Norwegian to the weather station out on Guam [the
US's westernmost territory] and I had a copy of his report. We said
that, based on his forecast, the sixth day of August would be the best
day that we could get over Honshu [the island on which Hiroshima
stands]. So we did everything that had to be done to get the crews ready
to go: aeroplane loaded, crews briefed, all of the things checked that
you have to check before you can fly over enemy territory.
After we got the aeroplanes in formation I crawled into the tunnel and
went back to tell the men, I said: "You know what we're doing today?"
They said: "Well, yeah, we're going on a bombing mission." I said:
"Yeah, we're going on a bombing mission, but it's a little bit special."
My tailgunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert. He said: "Colonel, we
wouldn't be playing with atoms today, would we?" I said: "Bob, you've
got it just exactly right."
So I went back up in the front end and I told the navigator, bombardier,
flight engineer, in turn. I said: "OK, this is an atom bomb we're
dropping." They listened intently but I didn't see any change in their
faces or anything else. Those guys were no idiots. We'd been fiddling
round with the most peculiar-shaped things we'd ever seen.
So we're coming down. We get to that point where I say "one second", and
by the time I'd got that second out of my mouth the aeroplane had
lurched, because 10,000 pounds [about 4500 kilograms] had come out of
the front. I'm in this turn now, tight as I can get it, that helps me
hold my altitude and helps me hold my airspeed and everything else all
the way round. When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I
look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks
I've ever seen. It was just great.
The shock wave was coming up at us after we turned. And the tailgunner
said: "Here it comes." About the time he said that, we got this kick in
the arse. I had accelerometers installed in all aeroplanes to record the
magnitude of the bomb. It hit us with 2½ G. Next day, when we got
figures from the scientists on what they had learned, they said: "When
that bomb exploded, your aeroplane was 10½ miles [17 kilometres] away
You see all kinds of mushroom clouds, but they were made with different
types of bombs. The Hiroshima bomb did not make a mushroom. It was what
I call a stringer. It just came up. It was black as hell, and it had
light and colours and white in it and grey colour in it, and the top was
like a folded-up Christmas tree.
Terkel: Do you ever have any second thoughts about the bomb?
Tibbets: Second thoughts? No. No. 1, I got into the air corps to defend
the US to the best of my ability. That's what I believe in and that's
what I work for. No. 2, I'd had so much experience with aeroplanes … I
put this thing together with my own thoughts on how it should be because
when I got the directive, I was to be self-supporting at all times.
On the way to the target, I was thinking: I can't think of any mistakes
I've made. Maybe I did make a mistake; maybe I was too damned assured.
At 29, I was so shot in the arse with confidence I didn't think there
was anything I couldn't do. Of course, that applied to aeroplanes and
people. So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing.
I thought, yes, we're going to kill a lot of people, but by God we're
going to save a lot of lives. We won't have to invade [Japan].
Unknown to anybody else, there was a third one. See, the first bomb went
off and they didn't hear anything out of the Japanese for two or three
days. The second bomb was dropped and again they were silent for another
couple of days. Then I got a phone call from General Curtis LeMay [chief
of staff of the strategic air forces in the Pacific]. He said: "You got
another one of those damn things?" I said: "Yes, sir." He said: "Where
is it?" I said: "Over in Utah." He said: "Get it out here. You and your
crew are going to fly it." I sent word back and the crew loaded it on an
aeroplane and we headed back to bring it out to Tinian, and when they
got it to the California debarkation point, the war was over.
Terkel: Since September 11, what are your thoughts? People talk about
nukes, the hydrogen bomb?
Tibbets: I don't know any more about these terrorists than you do. When
they bombed the Trade Centre, I couldn't believe what was going on.
We've fought many enemies at different times. But we knew who they were
and where they were. These people, we don't know who they are or where
they are. That's the point that bothers me. Because they're gonna strike
again, I'll put money on it. And it's going to be damned dramatic. But
they're gonna do it in their own sweet time. We've got to get into a
position where we can kill the bastards. None of this business of taking
them to court; the hell with that. I wouldn't waste five seconds on
Terkel: When you hear people say: "Let's nuke 'em, let's nuke these
people," what do you think?
Tibbets: Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. 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 shit: "You've killed so
many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there.
This is an edited 2002 interview from The Guardian .
Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile: <http://www.puc.cl/>
PACE Center at Yale University: <http://www.yale.edu/pace>
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