Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. was born in Quincy, Illinois on February 23rd, 1915. Later his parents moved to Florida where, at the age of twelve, Paul had his first airplane ride. As part of an advertising stunt, he threw Baby Ruth candy bars, with paper parachutes attached, from a biplane flying over a crowd gathered at the Hialeah horse track near Miami. From that day on, Paul knew he had to fly.
His teen years were spent attending Western Military Academy. Later he attended the Universities of Florida and Cincinnati in pursuit of a career in medicine, but his determination to fly was greater than that of a career both parents wanted for him. So, on February 25th, 1937, Paul enlisted as a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. A year later he got his pilot wings at Kelly Field, Texas and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.
In February 1942, Paul became the Squadron Commander of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, destined for England. He flew 25 missions in B-17s, including the first American Flying Fortress raid against occupied Europe. In November of that year he was in Algeria leading the first bombardment missions in support of the North African invasion.
In March 1943, he was returned to the states to test the combat capability of Boeing’s new Super Fortress, the B-29, an airplane plagued with problems. He taught himself to fly the airplane and subsequently flew it about 400 hours in tests. This eventually gave him more experience as to the capabilities and limitations of a B-29 than any other pilot at that time.
In September 1944, Paul was briefed on the Manhattan Project, the code name for the development of the atom bomb. It was to be his responsibility to organize and train a unit to deliver these weapons in combat operations. He would also determine and supervise the modifications necessary to make the B-29 capable of delivering the weapons, and for this, the unit had to be self-sufficient. Secrecy was paramount. The unit would support Los Alamos with flight test airplanes to establish ballistics and detonator reliability to explode the bombs. Paul was told, “You are on your own. No one knows what to tell you. Use normal channels to the extent possible. If you are denied something you need, restate your need is for “SILVERPLATE” (a codename) and your request will be honored without question.”
Paul requisitioned 15 new B-29s and specified they be stripped of turrets and armor plating except for the tail gunner position; that fuel-injected engines and new technology reversible-pitch propellers be installed; and the bomb bay re-configured to suspend, from a single point, ten thousand pounds. Such an airplane would fly higher, faster, and above the effective range of anti-aircraft fire.
A B-29 bombardment squadron, the 393rd, in its final stage of training, and Wendover Army Air Base located on the Utah/Nevada border were selected by Paul for “starters”. The 393rd was fully equipped and the base had a fully manned “housekeeping” group. Wendover was isolated but close enough to Los Alamos to work together. The Salton Sea was an ideal distance for bombing practice. Then on December 17th, 1944, formal orders were issued activating the 509th Composite Group, consisting of seven subordinate units. In March 1945 the First Ordnance Squadron, a unit designed to carry out the technical phases of the group responsibilities, became part of the 509th. The personnel count now exceeded 1500 enlisted men and some 200 officers. Then, quietly, the group started moving overseas to Tinian Island in the Marianas chain. On the afternoon of August 5th, 1945, President Truman gave his approval to use the weapons against Japan. By the time the plane left, it’s familiar arrowhead tail motif had been changed on both sides to the letter “R” in a circle, the standard i.d. for the Sixth bomb group. The idea behind the change was to confuse the enemy if they made contact, which they did not. At 02:45 A.M. August 6th, the Enola Gay lifted off North Field with Paul Tibbets and his crew en route to Hiroshima. At exactly 09:15 plus 15 seconds the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat. The course of history and the nature of warfare was changed.
The Enola Gay landed back at Tinian at 2:58 P.M. and the plane and crew were greeted by General Spaatz, a large contingent of brass, and jubilant GIs. General Spaatz decorated Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross and the other crew members with Air Medals. This tremendous accomplishment, which not only affected the outcome of World War II but altered the history of the world, was not merely a single event. Rather, it was a culmination of events throughout which Paul Tibbets played a pivotal role.
In 1946 Paul participated in the Bikini Bomb Tests as technical advisor to the commander of the air task force. Later, he was responsible for the Air Force’s purchase of the B-47 six engine jet bomber and its service tests at the Boeing factory in Wichita, Kansas. He went on to command two of the Strategic Air Command’s bomber organizations, did a tour with NATO in France, and was responsible for establishing the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. Next, he headed a team of officers and civilians which analyzed the major commands’ use of resources to accomplish their assigned missions. He then reported the team’s findings to the Air Staff.
When Paul Tibbets retired from the U.S. Air Force on August 31st, 1966, he had completed more than 29 and one-half years of service, but he was not through flying. Initially he resided in Geneva, Switzerland, operating three Lear jets throughout central Europe. There, he helped to educate the air ministries about the jet’s uses. He also advised the air ministries about the aviation controls and guidelines they later instituted within their countries. Back in Columbus, Ohio in 1970, Paul joined Executive Jet Aviation, an all-jet air taxi service company, where he served in different capacities. Paul rose up the corporate ladder to become Chairman of the Board in 1982. The company changed ownership in 1985 and Paul retired again. During his 15 years Paul Tibbets acquired almost 400 hours in Lear jets, flying with an Air Transport Pilot rating.
As pilot of one of the most famous flights of WW II, which brought about a quicker surrender from the enemy and a reduction in the loss of Allied lives, and for his leadership and skill with both airplanes and people in times of stress, Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. is enshrined with honor into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Awards and Decorations
- Distinguished Service Cross
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- Air Medal
- Purple Heart
- Legion of Merit
- European Campaign Medal
- Joint Staff Commendation Medal
- American Defense Service Medal
- W.W.II Victory Medal
- Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
- American Campaign Medal