Except for the few people gathered around him, there seemed nothing special about the old man seated at a table in the cavernous Morial Convention Hall. To those who bothered to ask him questions, he gave the answers that he had given hundreds of times, but the enormity of the hall and the toll of age reduced him that day to just another old solider with memories.
Of all the old soldiers, the million or so who saw action during World War II, no one’s story would have quite the exclamation point as the old man’s whose memories took him to when he was a dashing young pilot, one of the Army Air Corp’s best. On Aug. 6, 1945, 73 years ago this month, he was at the controls of the B- 29 bomber that he named after his mother, Enola Gay, steering it over the Pacific to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
For the rest of his life Paul Tibbets, who died in 2007, would say proudly that he has never lost sleep over his mission. He had not felt guilt or doubts about bringing the bomb to Japan despite the enormity of its damage.
Had the bomb not been dropped the war would have continued. Battalions of American and British soldiers, relieved that they had survived the combat in Europe, where the war ended three months earlier, faced the possibility of being shipped to the Pacific to die in an invasion of Japan.
That Japan was already a physically defeated nation made no difference. In Germany, where not even his strongest supporters confused Adolph Hitler with being a god, the generals, in the waning days of the war, sacrificed their nation’s young rather than concede defeat. In Japan, where the emperor WAS linked to a deity, crazed men preferred to see their people perish than for their people to see them lose. Sitting on the stumps of bombed out Europe, American boys, to whom Japan was another planet, were nervous at the prospects of going there. U.S. Marines and sailors, already in bloody combat throughout the Pacific islands, knew how brutal the relentless Japanese could be.
Tibbets was in New Orleans for the opening of the Pacific Wing at the National D-Day Museum in 2001.
Historian Stephen Ambrose made the museum possible. Like the G.I.s at the Battle of the Bulge, Ambrose’s last battle was his toughest. Only there would be no General Patton riding in to rescue him from his lung cancer.
During his final days, Ambrose wrote a very special book, “To America: Personal Recollections of an Historian,” about his career. The Enola Gay’s bomb was the first of two to fall on Japan. Three days later, after the Japanese still had not surrendered, a different flight dropped its load on Nagasaki. In one section of his book, Ambrose told candidly about his shifting attitudes toward the bombings:
Truman’s critics, including me, charged that … the bomb was the first act of the Cold War rather than the last act of World War II. Truman used the bomb not so much to force a Japanese surrender but to show the Russians that we are not afraid to use it. We critics also believed that the potential American casualty figures were grossly inflated…
Here is what I learned since. The Japanese government was by no means ready to surrender. There were logical, sensible people in Japan, but they were not allowed a say in decision making … The need to end the war was overwhelming. The Japanese were starving and killing American POWs, mainly fliers who had been shot down over Japan. Meanwhile thousands or more civilians in the Japan-held territories in Asia and the offshore island were dying every day because of Japanese mistreatment.
So today, I tell my students. Thank God for Harry Truman. For his courage and decisiveness.
I asked Tibbets if his plane had experienced any shock waves from the blast. He said it did. The real shock waves, of course, were felt around the world: horror and grief in some places, unbridled joy in others. The American soldiers abroad, now given a chance to live a full life rather than to die on a Japanese beach, would be heading toward New York and San Diego rather than Tokyo. The brash, cocky, expansive, booming days of postwar America were beginning.
Those days got a jump start because of the Enola Gay. Each anniversary of the war’s end becomes increasingly important, because by the time of the 75th anniversaries there will be so few old soldiers left.
For those who have survived may they, like Paul Tibbets did for so long, sleep well tonight.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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