Friday, November 2, 2007

In Memoriam - Paul Tibbets

As the silver wings of the B-29 bit into the air early that fateful August morning, much of Japan already lay in ruins.

In a single raid earlier that year, roughly 100,000 people had died, when Tokyo was bombed during the evening and early morning hours of 9/10 March 1945.

In what was arguably the largest raid of the entire war, some 300 B-29's dropped a half-million M-69 incendiary devices on the city. When the bombing stopped, 16 square miles of the city was destroyed.

Still the war raged on.

To President Truman and his advisors, the horrific battles fought the previous year over this tiny oasis called Tinian- roughly the size of Manhattan, and for its sister Saipan to the north - were bloody harbingers of what lay ahead.

With each successive battle in the island-hopping campaign, Japanese resistance stiffened.

In 35 days of fighting at Iwo Jima the previous February/March, 6,821 Marines were killed - ten percent of the invasion force of 70,000. Of the nearly 21,000 man Japanese garrison, only 216 had been taken prisoner.

During the battle for Okinawa, from April to June '45, the U.S. suffered over 72,000 casualties, 12,500 of which were either killed or missing. The Japanese lost 66,000 during the bloody campaign.

Based on these earlier battles, the projections for U.S. casualties during an invasion of Japan itself, planned for early 1946, were even more staggering.

U.S. war planners estimated over a million casualties would be required for the final assault. Japanese casualties were potentially 10 times that number.

It was the desire to avoid this astronomical loss of life that led President Truman to make the fateful decision that now had Col. Tibbets and his crew winging towards their date with history.

After meeting in Potsdam on July 26th, Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and others representing the Allied Powers, issued the Potsdam Declaration. This document demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender of Japan, or they would face "...prompt and utter destruction."

Two days later the Japanese government rejected the Declaration and the die was cast.

This particular morning, the 6th of August, as the Super Fortress lifted off into the blackness, it was not a load of napalm in its belly. A single, 9,700 lb. bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," forced the aircraft to use up most of the 8,500 foot coral-and-steel runway.

Christened the "Enola Gay," after his mother, Tibbets turned the aircraft towards its target, the city of Hiroshima, 1,700 miles to the north.

Chosen for its strategic value - Hiroshima was an industrial city and the home of a large army depot - it was surrounded by hills, which was believed would magnify the blast effect.

After some six hours in the air, at 8:15 a.m. local time, "Little Boy" began its freefall from Enola Gay's bomb bay. A minute later, at an altitude of 2,000 feet above ground level, the bomb exploded, killing some 70,000 people with the initial blast. By the end of the year, another 50,000 to 70,000 would be dead due to burns, radiation sickness and other ailments.

After word of the bombing spread, President Truman issued another warning, saying of the Japanese government, "If they do not accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth."

It would take the dropping of a second bomb, on the city of Nagasaki three days later, for the Japanese government to finally capitulate.

Tibbets retired from the Air Force as a Brigadier General in 1966.

Asked in later years if he had any regrets, Tibbets replied, "I never lost any sleep over it."

Though the destruction wrought by these two bombings was indeed terrible, the decision to use the bombs most certainly shortened the war, and prevented countless additional deaths on both sides.

Rest in Peace, General Tibbets. You did your duty.


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