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General Paul Tibbets – Reflections on Hiroshima

Colonel (later General) Paul Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In this documentary Tibbets co-produced with the Buckeye Aviation Book Company, “Reflections on Hiroshima,” he recounts his memories of the day the atomic bomb was first used in warfare. Tibbets recalls how he became a pilot, and explains how the Manhattan Project’s “Silverplate” program produced a special version of the B-29 capable of delivering the atomic bomb. He also discusses the target selection process and describes the “odd couple” of J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. He remembers seeing the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and feeling the shock wave of the blast, and shares his views on the role of morality during war.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1989
Location of the Interview:


Tom Ryan: In the early morning of August 6, 1945, three B-29 bombers departed from Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean. Six hours later, they changed the course of history. A single atomic bomb dropped from the Enola Gay exploded over Hiroshima, Japan. In an instant, over four square miles of the city and an estimated 90,000 of its inhabitants ceased to exist.

Paul Tibbets: Well, as the bomb left the airplane, we took over manual control, made an extremely steep turn to try and put as much distance between ourselves and the explosion as possible. After we felt the explosion hit the airplane, that is the concussion waves, we knew that the bomb had exploded, and everything was a success. So we turned around to take a look at it. The site that greeted our eyes was quite beyond what we had expected, because we saw this cloud of boiling dust and debris below us with this tremendous mushroom on top. Beneath that was hidden the ruins of the city of Hiroshima.

Ryan: Three days later, a second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki. World War II came to an abrupt end. The age of atomic warfare began and the nature of human conflict was changed forever.


Ryan:  General, it has been more than four decades since that event. I was just wondering, looking back now, have your perspectives on the event itself, on warfare, changed at all?

Paul Tibbets: My conception was at that time, if this thing is successful, we will bring this war to a close. I just couldn’t see how any nation could stand up to the power of the atom as portrayed to me at that particular time. I think in the intervening years, that I have arrived at the same conclusion because by ending the war, we would save lives. That was my idea. Save lives, not destroy them. And over the years, I have gotten numerous letters from foreign nationals, as well as Americans, who had been ready to make an invasion with the same basic statement: what you did probably saved my life. 

Ryan: General, let me ask you. Are you proud of what you did?

Tibbets: Yes, I am. Because a military man starts out his career with the idea of serving his country and preserving the integrity of that country. I feel that I did just that very thing. I have to say we cannot look at the so-called grimmer aspects of it because there is no morality in warfare, so I do not dwell on the moral issue. The thing is it did what it was supposed to do. It brought peace to the world at that time.

Ryan: Now, so many people seem to have it, or have the ability to produce that bomb. Some have said it will never occur again. Do you think that is correct?

Tibbets: That is quite a question. The answer is I can see that as a possibility, because it now appears to me that most historians, and most military analysts, are saying that the dropping of that bomb changed the nature of human conflict forever. Okay, we haven’t had a major war. Whether we will be able to survive without brushfires, I doubt. On the other hand, a major conflict with the use of nuclear weapons is something that I can see in the future.

Ryan: You do not think, then, that the mere presence of the nuclear capability, the nuclear bomb, has been a deterrent to war?

Tibbets: It has been because I think there would have been a war before this if we had not had those weapons, and if we did not have them today. Yes, they are a deterrent.

Ryan: General, do you think that might be the most significant military mission that has ever occurred in the history of mankind, when you stop and think of the magnitude and the whole new era it ushered in?

Tibbets: I would have to say yes. I think it definitely is because it affected the whole world.

Ryan: Since World War II, General, we have fought skirmishes in Vietnam and in Korea. Many people have raised the question over whether or not we did that correctly. What would you have done in those circumstances? Would you have gone ahead and bombed Hanoi, if need be, and brought this all to an end?

Tibbets: Taking historical lessons from World War I and actual experience with World War II, my idea is, and I think I am joined in this belief by all kinds of people whether they are military or not, if you are going to fight a war, you fight it to win. You don’t fight a war to hold, or you don’t fight one to lose. The name of the game is win.

I perceive that attitude to have changed on the part of the public at large. There is a large segment of our population who I think believe in fairy tales. In other words, they believe that it is possible to go ahead and not have all of these things to worry about wars and nuclear weapons and so on. I believe that we are going to have to maintain a certain strength in nuclear weapons no matter what the case may be. Therefore, it will continue, I believe, to guarantee us the freedom of a major war that we have had for the past 40 some odd years, 45 years.

Ryan:  You are not one of those people that say total disarmament?

Tibbets: I do not agree with total disarmament by any stretch of the imagination. I believe we have to have a strong position. We have to have the will to back that position up. That will might cause some bloodshed, but still the world has to know that we mean what we say in regard to maintaining a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world. 

Ryan: Looking back to the beginning, you didn’t want to be a military man. It was my understanding you were going to be a doctor. Is that correct?

Tibbets: Well, that was my father’s idea. He convinced me that I should be a doctor. There had been a doctor in the Tibbets family ever since he could remember, except for him. And he decided we should continue that thing. So I started out and I truly believed that I wanted to be a doctor and I should be a doctor, but the urge to fly airplanes overcame me.

Ryan:  What were your parents’ reactions when they found out that you gave up the idea of becoming a doctor and decided to become a military pilot?

Tibbets: Just before the Christmas holidays, I got an acceptance back from Washington saying I would be appointed a flying cadet, go to Fort Thomas, Kentucky on such and such a date, and be enlisted. From there, I would go to Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas. That is exactly what happened.

I got on the train and went home, which was the usual procedure, for the Christmas holiday period. When I got down there, I wasn’t saying too much, I guess. My mother said, “You got something on your mind, haven’t you?”

I said, “Yup.”

She said, “What is it?”

I said, “Well, I am going to leave school. I am going to go to flying school down in San Antonio. I am going to become an aviator.”

She didn’t say anything. She said, “Have you told your father?”

I said, “No.”

She said, “Well, don’t you think you should?”

I said, “Yeah.” It was just about noontime. We could see him coming up the walkway to the house.

She said, “Well, here he comes now. You better tell him.” So we sat there and had lunch, and boy, I was just—

Ryan:  Fearful.

Tibbets: I was just getting all my nerves built up to tell the old man I was going to flying school. So finally, I got it out. I said to him, “At the end of the semester I will be leaving university. I am going to go to Texas to learn to fly.”

He looked at me. He said, “Well, if you do that those damn machines will kill you.”

I said, “Well, I don’t think so.”

My mother immediately at that point, said, “Paul, if you want to fly, you go ahead. You will be all right.” I tell everybody that I got in a few tight spots after that. Every time I got in a tight spot, I remembered mom saying, “You will be all right.” So I came out of it. 

Ryan:  Let’s jump ahead. After the mission over Hiroshima and your parents found out about it, what was their reaction then?

Tibbets: If you want to know the truth, my mother never said much of anything. She said, “Why did you name the airplane Enola Gay?” I told her I knew the airplane was going to be famous. I didn’t want a duplication of names. Nobody ever heard the name Enola Gay before that.

Ryan:  Indeed.

Tibbets: I said I knew that there was just hardly any possibility in this world that any airplane could be named Enola Gay. So she smiled, and said okay. The old man raised his couple of objections because he had asked me at different times, “What are you doing now?” I had come up with some kind of an answer as far away from the truth as possible. And he said, “You know, you never lied to me before.”

I said, “Well, maybe not, but I had to on this occasion.” But that is about all that came.

Before the bomb was dropped, he had come to visit me and I introduced him to some of the more senior officers I was working under. He did say, “You know, I really objected to you going into this business. But, after talking to some of these men, I see how professional they are and how dedicated. All of my worries are put aside.”

Ryan:  I want to go back and talk about that mission, but I want to ask you a question first. What scares a man like Paul Tibbets?

Tibbets: I have a hard time answering that, Tom, because I really do not know. I would have to say this. I have been scared a lot of times. When somebody is shooting at you, it is enough to make you frightened.

Ryan:  Sure.

Tibbets: I do remember that I was coldly objective in that time period because the importance of that mission was so extreme. There was no way that I could fail through personal error or something like that. I just dreaded that thought, and didn’t dwell on it either, because I had reached a point in my military career of flying airplanes and my working with other people and commanding organizations. I was confident. Twenty-nine years old, a man has got a lot of confidence.

Ryan:  Sure.

Tibbets: I felt there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do. Now, as we prepared for this mission and as we flew it, I was running a mental checklist on everything that went on because if it didn’t work right, then I made a mistake somewhere. That is one thing I didn’t want to do.

Ryan: How long did that process take, General? I mean from the time you first found out that there was this thing in the works until you actually flew the mission?

Tibbets: I would say ten and a half months. I learned of my assignment in the middle of September 1944. We dropped the bomb on the 6th of August, 1945.

Ryan: When you entered into it, you knew nothing about a bomb?

Tibbets: Up until that point, I knew nothing, no, not about that atom bomb. Of course, I had done a lot of bombing over in Europe and North Africa.

Ryan:  What kind of a responsibility did this place on you? In other words, finding the people, equipping the aircraft?

Tibbets: I felt that it gave me a tremendous responsibility. Yes, because as I say, I wanted success. I knew success was possible. I learned this as I worked with the people at the Manhattan District, particularly Dr. Oppenheimer and the people at Los Alamos. They were perfectionists. I saw that in everything that they did. Well, I wanted to be a perfectionist. I had been classified as being just that in relation to my military career. I went right ahead with it.

Ryan:  Was it tough to find people to work under you that you could place that kind of trust in?

Tibbets: I would have to say this. We had a certain requirement for people with skills. These people had to be the best, I could say, tool and die makers. They had to be people that could make things out of metal. They had to be people that could form metal to do certain things. Now those were critical. There were other people. I wanted the best I could get, and we did have a rather tough selective process.

Ryan: In other words, while they were making the bomb, you had to make the delivery system, right?

Tibbets: Yes, that is correct.

Ryan:  It took a special kind of aircraft?

Tibbets: Well, the B-29 was the only aircraft in the inventory that would do it. Of course, other situations have arisen where people have talked about all of the faults the B-29 had. It was deficient. There is no question about it. But on the other hand, a man could take certain advantage and disabilities if he has to. One of the things that I was able to do was to reduce the weight of that airplane by the removal of all kinds of armaments, 7,200 pounds to be exact. What this did was to take a strain off of the engines. That bomb, all of them weighed in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds because they were made from different materials. They were different sizes and shapes. No two weighed the same thing. 

Ryan: Was there ever a fear that that bomb might detonate too soon? 

Tibbets: No. I don’t think I can really say it affirmative in the way you have asked the question. Because again, I have got to go back to those people at Los Alamos. The way they worked. I queried them on it.

Now, I didn’t have a written guarantee that it would do it. But I was so assured of their capabilities and my abilities with the airplane to deliver it that we were not going to have any trouble. I had one moment of suspense. That is when the bomb left the airplane. The question in my mind: is it going to work? I was convinced that it would before I took off because I had dropped many of those types of bombs with the same fusing mechanism, but on the other hand, there is always that one chance. As Dr. Oppenheimer said, he wanted a chance of one in a million for a failure. When we took off, he had told me, we had a chance of one in 10,000 of a failure.

Ryan: What would have happened had it not gone off? I mean these materials, this bomb would have fallen into the enemy hands.

Tibbets: It would have. But then the next question is, would it by hitting the ground and burying itself, destroy the technology? The material would be there and that bomb had pure uranium in it. That would have been, believe it or not, the biggest loss the country could possibly imagine at that moment because uranium was so scarce. 

Ryan:  You had to equip planes like they have never been equipped before, tear out existing armament and everything else. Was it like starting from scratch or what?

Tibbets: Not exactly, Tom. What has not been brought out up to this particular point is that before I got this assignment, I had been working with that B-29 close to two years’ time.

Ryan:  I see.

Tibbets: I had done all kinds of test work with it, so I was as familiar as anybody could be with the B-29 airplane at that particular time. Number two, I had had experience with dropping bombs over in Europe. I was going to drop a bomb in the Pacific. The essence of dropping a weapon is basically the same coming out of an airplane. I guess it is kind of, should we say, amateurish, but I said, if I have got to drop a bomb out of an airplane, I have got to have a good bombardier that knows what he is doing. Now, if I am going to drop a bomb, I have to have an exact location in the air. I need a good navigator to get me to that exact point.

My third point was I have got to have an airplane that is a little bit better and more reliable than any of the B-29s flying today. That was my responsibility. I could do that. What I did was I got by special request – which I had the authority to do by name, I could request anybody I wanted – my bombardier and navigator who had flown with me in Europe. There was another bombardier that had flown. He was in the same outfit. I wanted him. I wanted two good bombardiers that were combat seasoned veterans. I would have liked to have gotten the navigators, but I found out that this squadron had one man in there that was a whiz at navigating so I didn’t have a problem there.

Now, with that thought then, how am I going to get a better airplane? I refused to take the offer of General [Uzal Girard] Ent, who wanted to give me a squadron’s worth of airplanes that came with the B-29 squadron he gave me, because I knew those airplanes were just not as good as one coming off the production line. Besides, I had to modify that airplane to contain within the forward bomb bay this one point of suspension of 10,000 pounds. It had to have a completely steel structure built up there in the front.

Ryan:  This all had to be designed?

Tibbets: All had to be designed. But now, I am working with the Los Alamos people and they have got engineers that figured all that out. Those engineers worked with the aeronautical engineers to find out exactly how this dimension arrangement could be put into the airplane. I also knew that I was going to have to have special wiring for the bomb bay from the electrical system of the airplane to accommodate the requirements of the bomb for electricity. The bombs had batteries. We had to keep the batteries charged. The bombs needed heat to keep the material within there warm. We did not want it freezing and everything getting cold with minus 50-degree temperatures at altitude, which we would incur at that time.

So little things like that created more things, but only came to light before the delivery of the airplane while I was working with two or three other older B-29s. I was learning as we went.

Ryan:  That must have been a terribly expensive undertaking, too. I mean if you consider all of the engineering that went into the aircraft, all of the time that went into perfecting that bomb, we must have been talking about, what, tens, hundreds of millions of dollars? I have no idea.

Tibbets: Well, I have heard it said. There is no way I can give you anywhere near a reliable figure, but I have heard it called a two billion dollar project. Now, in 1940-1945 dollars, that is a lot of money. But remember some of the things that had to be done. This brings to light General Leslie Groves. First off, they had to get uranium out of the Belgian Congo because there is not any in the United States. So how do you arrange that? I do not know, but they got it. They got it in small quantities. They had to refine that uranium in a special type of factory. There were not any existing in the United States. They had to build the factories. This is where this man, General Groves, came in so well. He was a Corps of Engineers officer. He had built the Pentagon in record time and under the estimates that had been set. He was regarded as a very capable engineer, but he is a man that could control multi aspects of a project and put everything together in a timely fashion.

Now, while I am at it, we have got to bring Dr. Oppenheimer in. I mentioned earlier that he was the one man in the United States that could get all of the scientists, muster them, get their confidence, and cause them to work towards a uniform end, which was produce a bomb. Laughingly in these days, I call that the original odd couple. Groves was an overweight man who loved to eat chocolates. He hated whiskey. He hated anybody that drank it. He hated anybody that smoked a cigarette.

Oppenheimer was a man who hated fat people. He chain smoked one cigarette after another and just loved to have his scotch. But these two men were the only ones that could be recognized in the United States that could put this thing together. I call myself the third leg of that stool. They picked me because they thought I could put the airplanes together to make it necessary. What I am saying is, we were dependent one upon the other very much. Now, those two men – I won’t talk about myself – were the only two of a kind that the President of the United States, with the help of Einstein, could come up with and say, “This is the combination you have to have to put these people together.”

Ryan:  They were.

Tibbets: Going back to the business at hand. I had experience with airplanes; men dropping bombs. I had had engineering type experience with all the test work I did on the B-29. I happened to have a couple of friends in high places. One of them is a roommate of mine when we were cadets at Kelly Field, who helped me get things for my airplanes that nobody else could do. As a matter of fact, he is the man that ordered the production to come out of the plant in Omaha, Nebraska, which was run by the Martin Airplane Company. I had Boeing people tell me that Martin built a better B-29 than they did. In other words, they were wonderful at manufacturing. They never designed an airplane that was really effective, but they had manufacturing geniuses. 

Ryan:  They referred to your operation at times as the “Secret Air Force.” I think at one point, wasn’t it a General that perhaps tried to breach security and was almost shot?

Tibbets: This occurred. I will have to go back and say my organization, called the 509th Composite Group, was different from any bombardment outfit that the Air Force owned at that time. It had to be because of the nature of our work. I had a military police company assigned. I had a transport squadron assigned. I had a bomb squadron. I had an ordnance squadron which normally would belong to an air base, etc. So I am different.

The people arrived on Tinian Island. The 509th Composite Group was assigned to the 313th Bombardment Wing, commanded by a Brigadier General by the name of Jim Davies. Jim Davies was a fine guy. He was a big fellow. Jim was about 6’4” tall, an impressive looking character, and a good bomber pilot himself. He was real good.

Anyway, I wasn’t there when it happened but he called me in. He said, “You know, I went out to look at one of your airplanes.”

I said, “Yes, sir.” 

He said, “The guard challenged me. I didn’t have the right kind of pass to see the airplane.” I think it was a yellow pass.

I said, “No, you don’t. People on the air crews and the ordnance people are the only ones that have them.”

He said, “Well, I told this young fellow I was the commanding General, and he admitted he knew. He said, ‘Yes, General Davies, I recognized you.’”

He said, “I got unhappy. I just took my identification and threw it at his feet. ‘I am going to look at that airplane!’”

About that time, he said, the young man lowered his rifle to his mid-section. He cocked it. He said, “One more step, General, and you are dead.”

He looked at me and he said, “Would he have pulled the trigger?”

I said, “There is no doubt in my mind.”

Ryan:  I would like to go back because a lot of people don’t realize what went into this. All the planning and everything. I think we mentioned this once before. They were manufacturing the bomb, but you were putting this whole thing together. They put a rather awesome responsibility on you. You have mentioned a specific password, if you will. I think you called it “Silverplate.” That was a magic word. If you needed something, that got the job done right now. How was that?

Tibbets: Well, initially, when I was given the assignment on that day in September by General Ent, who was Commanding General of the Second Air Force. I was a member of the Second Air Force at that time. One of his admonitions to me was, “Look this is so secret. We cannot do anything to attract attention. You have got to do everything you can do on your own. You have got to do it with normal channels and so on.”

He said, “I don’t know that it can be supposed or estimated that you will need things that just do not come in normal channels. And if you do, what you do is you send in a requisition for what you want with the code word “Silverplate.” He said General [Henry] Arnold has informed the air staff in Washington that any “Silverplate” requisition would be honored without question. Now, up in General Arnold’s outer office there happened to be a Colonel by the name of Wilson. R.C. Wilson was briefed as to what was going on. And he would be my contact point. Obviously, I could not contact the five-star General if I needed something.

Anyway, he designated Wilson as the man that would be the leg-man, if you will, in the Pentagon for anything that I needed [and] was unable to get by my own. Only one time did I ever run into it. That is when I needed five C-54 transports—commonly called a DC-4 in the civilian terminology.

Ryan:  You used these for what training purposes?

Tibbets: No, no. I needed these to haul cargo and freight that couldn’t be hauled by the regular military airlift by reason of the fact that there was secrecy involved. You had to have manifests. You had to identify everything: where it was from, who it was going to, and what is the content. Secrecy would not let us do that. So I had to have my own.

By the same token, if I am going to operate a split operation, I have got to be able to have my own logistical support capability, which those airplanes would furnish. Because I could not take a bunch of people and say to military airlift people, “I have got these people that have a priority over and above everybody else’s. I want them in position within 20 hours” and that sort of thing. It would not work. Obviously, the most sensible thing was my own transports and I could do as I pleased and when I wanted.

I put in my requisition for the five C-54 transports. In due course of time, something like a week, it came back disapproved. I called Wilson and told him my requisition for five transports had been disapproved. He said, “Okay, I will tell you what you do. Come on back in and go to the allocations office and try to talk them into it. If you have trouble, come and see me.”

I went back and put on my most persuasive efforts with this General Officer-in-Charge. He just looked at me, scowling, and in somewhat of a ridiculing fashion said, “Well, you may need those transports but the military airlift people need them more than you do. They are going to get them. What are you trying to do? Build Tibbets’s first individual Air Force? I have already given you 18 B-29s.”

I said, “No, sir, I am not trying to do that at all, but I have a very important mission.”

He said, “Well, you’re not going to tell me what it is. You are not going to get the airplanes, because I have to make that decision.”

Fine. I saluted and walked out. Went over to Wilson’s office. Told him what had transpired. He said, “Fine, leave it to me.” And he then told me, “If you don’t have anything else to do, go on back to Wendover and I will call you.” I went back to Wendover.

I think it was the second day after I got back, about midday. Wilson called up. He said, “You are going to get your C-54s, five of them. Here are the serial numbers.”

I said, “What happened?”

He said, “Well, you remember the man that refused you?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Well, General Arnold asked his executive to have him come to the morning staff meeting, which he had every morning with his Deputy Chiefs of Staff.”

The routine that Arnold followed was to stand at the door, shake hands, welcome each one of them, “Good morning, General so and so,” and whatnot. He told the executive, “Leave this General Officer to the last man to come in.”

When he, the last man to come in, stepped up to the door, General Arnold looked at him. He said, “Good morning, Major.” He broke him from a Brigadier General to a Major right then, which was his permanent rank.

He turned around to the rest of the assembled officers, who I figuratively say must have had their mouths open. He said, “This man failed to honor a “Silverplate” requisition like I had ordered.” Then he said, “Do I need to repeat myself?”

Well, obviously, I never had another moment’s trial. I only used it a couple more times, but I never had any trouble with Silverplate.

Ryan:  General, two things I want to find out about. Why Hiroshima, Nagasaki? Why not Tokyo? I mean you would have shocked the world if you would have wiped out Tokyo. Would it have had more impact? 

Tibbets: It may have, but let me answer that question the way the sequence of events occurred. First off, remember, we are working with something that was experimental. The atom bomb was experimental. 

Number two, how much damage does that bomb do to different types of manmade materials? Steel, wood, dwellings, factories, you name it. What happened was that in the months before, in other words, as early as April 1945, the Targeting Committee in Washington met at the request of General Groves, and General Arnold in concurrence, to select – let us call them “virgin targets” – targets that would not be struck by the 20th Air Force in their regular bombing. They didn’t want a mixture of bomb damage. They wanted to assess damage that the atom bomb did, and not have any impurities wound into it. At that time, there were five cities selected. Unfortunately, I can only recall four of them today: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, and Niigata. Those were the cities that were selected, and General Arnold ordered General [Curtis] LeMay not to strike them under any circumstances until further instructions.

Ryan: So really, there was no effort made to avoid hitting the Emperor or anything of that nature?

Tibbets: No, there was no effort made to avoid hitting the Emperor. After the first two bombs were dropped – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Japanese didn’t make what was considered in the minds of the people out in the Marianas quick enough decision to surrender. So General LeMay asked me the question, “Have you got another one of those things?”

I said, “Yes, we do have another one.”

“Where is it?” It was in Wendover, Utah with an airplane and a crew back there.

He said, “Get it out here.” So I sent the proper words back there by teletype message, and they did start that airplane with the third bomb. 

Ryan: Would that likely have hit Tokyo?

Tibbets: Well, the question while it was being en route or being moved: what will the target be? I could say that there was all kinds of conjecture. Everybody made some kind of a suggestion. Obviously, one of the most important ones was “Why not Tokyo? Let us drop it on the Emperor’s palace. That will impress them.”

I remember quite clearly, there was one gentleman out there who was thinking quite correctly and that was [General] Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle says, “Yes, if we do that, who are we going to be make peace with?”

Ryan:  True, what kind of condition was Tokyo in? Hadn’t that been struck by a lot of firebombs in the months preceding that?

Tibbets: Yes, Tokyo actually was nothing but rubble. I don’t know how many square miles, but I do know this. That in three nights of bombing that there were more people killed in Tokyo than there were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Ryan: How many people did die in those two raids? Do you have any idea?

Tibbets: No, I don’t have any idea. There have been all kinds of estimates. The first estimate that I heard was 40,000 people. Well, that got revised upward many times. The last one that I have heard anything about is a half a million. You can take your choice. At that time, the cities were suffering from the same thing the wartime cities suffered from here, an increase in population. There was no census bureau to keep track of how many people were really there. I could accept anything in the neighborhood of 200,000 without any problem.

Ryan:  So you compare that bomb and its potential with a warhead today on a missile, which is considerably larger, considerably more devastating. We get somewhat of an idea of probably millions who could die if one of those were—

Tibbets: We talked about in those days that bomb having the potential power of 20,000 tons of TNT. Today, they don’t talk about megatons, thousands of tons. I can’t say because I don’t know. I have not had any information to tell me. But, to think that we destroyed roughly three and a half square miles of the city with the bomb we used, they could wipe out the whole city without even thinking about it with a small weapon today.

Ryan:  General, there are references in your recently published book about the bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki, and the fact that perhaps that whole mission was botched. Is that true?

Tibbets: Well, the Nagasaki mission did not go nearly as smooth as Hiroshima. I like to brag on the fact that ours went just about as good as you can do it. General LeMay made the comment that it was a textbook performance—well planned out. It went the way I wanted it to go. Now, my concern about the Nagasaki mission is that people on board that airplane forgot what their mission was. It all revolved around the fact that to start with, the airplane had 1,200 gallons, two 600-pound tanks, that could not release the fuel because the pump had gone bad. They did not have time to change it. But the fuel was only in there in the first place as ballast for the 10,000 pounds sitting up in the front. When [Major Charles] Sweeney came to me after he had done the preflight on the airplane, he said, “The two bomb bay tanks can’t be used because the main transfer pump is dead. We haven’t got time to change it.”

I said, “You don’t need it.”

He said, “Well, that is what I thought.”

I said, “Just go ahead and fly your mission the way you are supposed to.”

Ryan:  Now, this was ballast, is that right, to compensate?

Tibbets: Initially, it started out as ballast. I had the same thing in my airplane but, when I released my weapon and started back, I pumped the fuel out of one of the tanks. I still kept some in the rear to maintain a better balance to the airplane. He would have done the same thing, but it didn’t take the airplane out of the outer limits as far as balance was concerned.

Ryan: It didn’t jeopardize the mission?

Tibbets: It didn’t. It didn’t jeopardize the first thing.

Ryan:  All right. That mission was what an hour and 40 minutes late in dropping its—?

Tibbets: Yes. My instructions were, as I had done, to get the escort airplanes in formation with me or close to me. I went to Iwo Jima and circled Mount Suribachi at about 9,000 feet. I made one circle, told both pilots, “I am going to make one circle, 360 degrees, and am on my way to Japan. If you guys aren’t with me, that’s tough. You better join me.”

Now, they didn’t have Iwo as a rendezvous point. They had another island off of the coast of Japan. It was as good a geographical reference as any. They went up there and made a circle, but only one airplane joined. They circled and they started talking. They lost 45 minutes right there at that particular time, circling around, circling around, burning fuel, and weather deteriorating. They took off to go to Nagasaki from there.

They got up to Nagasaki. The weather was bad. They played around almost an hour up there hunting for a hole through which they could drop the bomb. They went to their alternate and they took a look there. It was weathered in or weathered under then. They couldn’t see visually. They came back to Nagasaki. Now because they had 1,200 gallons of trapped fuel, the question was, what are we going to do?

We have got 10,000 pounds of weight and that just burns more fuel. The bombardier, who I had placed on that crew months before, was a man that had been with me over in Europe. I knew that if anything went wrong, he had the best concept of how to rectify the situation. They made a quick pass over Nagasaki. He saw a hole. He told the airplane commander turn around and come back.

While they were spending this time on the two previous situations, waiting for an airplane to join and an airplane to look, I know that there was a difference of opinion between the naval commander, weaponeer [Frederick Ashworth], and the pilot flying the airplane. The naval commander maintained that General Groves had designated him as the commander of the thing, and he had the word “go” or “no go.” Well, I don’t think General Groves did that. General Groves had him as his representative to say technically the bomb will explode if dropped or it will not. Therefore, he had the right to tell the airplane commander abort the mission.

Ryan:  Most people don’t realize that there was a critical passage of time there, and that whole mission could have been aborted.

Tibbets: I blame the airplane commander for not really taking control and saying, “Look, I am flying this airplane. I am the captain of the ship. There is only one captain aboard.” I would have done it.

Ryan:  Now, there was a commander, a Navy commander?

Tibbets: Yes.

Ryan:  That armed the bomb, that later claimed that he led the mission.

Tibbets: Well, I would have to say this, the Navy commander didn’t arm that bomb. The one that I had with me, Captain Parsons, the Navy man, who was from Los Alamos, did arm our weapon, but that was the difference in technology. Our weapon could be armed physically in the air by inserting the second half of the uranium into the weapon. But the Nagasaki type bomb had to be assembled. It had to be made ready to go with safety plugs in the firing mechanism. Now [Frederick] Ashworth, the commander and the man designated as the weaponeer on that airplane, was responsible for pulling the plugs. The green plugs out and putting red plugs in which made the continuity. The red plug was continuity; the green plug no continuity.

Ryan:  So what would have happened had you armed that bomb, you were ready to go, and at the last moment, for some reason or another, you could not have released that. Was there any way to stop that reaction? 

Tibbets: Yes, both of them could have been done. Because you see, they depended upon a barometric reading of the radar altimeter to explode. They could go down to 5,000 feet. I wouldn’t advocate doing it, but the thing was triggered to go off at 1,500 feet above the earth’s surface. Both of them, yes, could turn around and come back. We could have done the same thing. We could have put the safety plugs in, taken one-half of the uranium out of the tail. We would have had a high order detonation if anything had gone wrong. The other weapon, the Nagasaki weapon, they could have rendered it just as safe as it was when they took off. 

Ryan: Oh, you mentioned Germany a moment ago and I understand Germany was a potential target during this time. How so? I mean for the atomic bomb.

Tibbets: Yes, that’s correct. When I was given my assignment in September 1944, one of my directives or “terms of reference” using military terminology was that I would have a capability to perform a split operation. In other words, half of my unit could go to the European theater and bomb Germany, and half could do Japan because they wanted simultaneous bomb drops, if that took place.

Ryan:  Had they ever selected a city in Germany?

Tibbets: No, no, no, they never got to it. Because like I said, April of ’45 was when the first targets were selected for an A-bomb. By that time, Germany was whipped, and everybody knew it. There was no use thinking about it.

Ryan:  Many times people have tried to recreate the whole scenario of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, Walter Cronkite, several people did specials on the air. They purported to show the actual bomb being dropped and everything else. Was there actual footage? Was this truly the footage of what happened over there?

Tibbets: There was a man in one of the airplanes flying accompanying me that had a hand-held 8 mm camera. That man did take some films. It wasn’t his, but a friend of his said, “Hey, take some pictures for me,” and he did that. I have seen one release of that, which lasted just a few seconds. But the other films that have been made have used all kinds of B-29 situations purporting to be the bomb dropped. They have shown explosions that actually occurred at Alamogordo, or taken place in the desert after that.

Ryan:  There was a lot of erroneous reports, too. I think one of them said that you had fighter escorts that led you in.

Tibbets: Well, that is quite erroneous. We did not have fighter escorts. As a matter of fact, General LeMay had issued orders that no airplane would be anywhere near. I think they had a 200-mile radius of those cities that we started out to attack. He did not want another airplane in the air. Just take the weather airplanes first. They were one hour ahead. They observed the weather, and then got out and started on their way by Tinian. So they were not over Japanese territory when we actually arrived in Japanese territory. I had two airplanes accompanying me. It took two airplanes to drop the required instruments the scientists, the Los Alamos people, wanted dropped. Two airplanes did that and accompanied me. Over the Japanese territory at that time there were three B-29 airplanes.

Ryan:  But there was no real failsafe mechanism. In other words, if anything happened aboard your aircraft that had the bomb, if it went off prematurely or exploded in the plane, there was no backup.

Tibbets: No, there was no backup at that time to bomb at that moment. I call it the number two position – the man that flew off of my right wing – was Charles Sweeney, Major Sweeney. He was the squadron commander of that organization that had the B-29s. I wanted Sweeney to drop the second weapon. I had him fly on my wing so that he and I could talk back and forth in I would say shaded, coded terms: cryptic and whatnot. We had a little thing arranged between us that I could inform him of every move that I was making. And my comment to him was “Chuck, if I make a mistake, I don’t want you to make the same one,” because I knew he would take the second one. 

Ryan:  If you would, describe that specific moment when the bomb left the airplane and your people were looking down. They saw it being delivered on the target below.

Tibbets: When the bomb left the airplane, of course we were 10,000 pounds lighter right to start with. That gave me the opportunity to, in terms of the vernacular, roll the airplane over on its side and pull it around in an unusually steep curve for an airplane of that size and at that altitude. We were at 33,000 feet. But I had practiced this time and time again, and understood how to do it. We did just exactly that very thing.

As I made that turn and leveled that airplane out, my tail gunner sitting in the back says, “Here it comes.” Well, he had seen the explosion before we did. He was the only one that could look directly at it. What he said was, “Here it comes,” meaning, “Here comes the shock wave,” and that’s what we wanted. 

How hard is that shock wave going to hit us? It had been predicted to be somewhere between two and three G-forces. It hit. We had an accelerometer in the airplane to measure it. The measurement turned out to be right at 2.5 G-forces. Airplanes are built to take that. Now, in that time of that turn, my thought was, of course, “Get the airplane around,” but that was kind of a mechanical move. I kept thinking, is it going to explode before it should? That was the one thing I was concerned with as far as safety is concerned. When I was well into that turn, I figured okay, the fusing mechanism is working the way it is supposed to work. Actually, when the shock wave hit me, I said, “There is success.”

Ryan:  Tell me, when you did look back after you had banked the plane, what did you see?

Tibbets: I just continued a normal turn to again face the city. I flew south of the city, Hiroshima, so that the people in my airplane, the people in the two airplanes that accompanied us to drop instruments to record the blast, would be able to take these cameras and make pictures. We knew that it would be three or four days before a photographic reconnaissance airplane could be sent up there to do it. Weather was one thing and then there was a certain worry about contamination.

Ryan:  I am assuming you were wearing some sort of glasses, too, or something to shield that.

Tibbets: They gave everybody in those airplanes a pair of welder’s glasses to protect from the brilliance, or eye damage, from the flash, which they said was equivalent to ten times the brilliance of the sun. Well, one would have to imagine how bright that is, but it was definitely bright because we saw it inside that airplane. The whole sky lit up when it exploded.

Ryan:  I doubt that you actually saw what happened on the ground though. I mean itself.

Tibbets: No, we did not. We did not see that because by the time we turned around to look at it, there was nothing but a black boiling mess hanging over the city. It was actually obscuring everything but something on the outskirts. You wouldn’t have known that the city of Hiroshima was there unless you had seen it coming in. 

Ryan:  General, you were supposedly quoted as saying after the bomb was dropped, looking back and saying, “My God, what have we done?” Is this true?

Tibbets: That is a misquotation. I don’t know how it got turned around. But you know using some rather terse statements “My God,” “Look at that thing,” or something like that. 

Ryan:  Sure.

Tibbets: I don’t ever remember anybody – and I’ve asked the crew in later years – did anybody say, “Look at what we have done?”

And they said “Oh no, but we uttered some exclamations that were rather terse.”

Ryan:  During the Vietnam War, there is an incident that stands out in many people’s minds, the My Lai incident when many civilians were killed. I suppose many people would say that really didn’t differ in any way from what you did. Both of you destroyed innocent lives. How do you react to that?

Tibbets: Look, civilians have been killed in every war. Now, it depends upon how they are killed. Let us take two instances right quick. Number one, Germany for instance is an industrial country that had basically isolated industry similar to what we have got in the United States. Yes, when you bomb the factory, bombs went astray and innocent people got killed.

Go to Japan. Japan didn’t have the type of industry that we are talking about. Japan had a little community that in one house they built some part of a machine and in another they built something else and finally they get down to the point. So what I am saying is that a whole city could contribute to that. This is where many, many people were killed during the war with firebombs and with the atomic weapons. They were killed, but I can’t separate that because they all contributed to the war effort and capability no matter what. Even a shopkeeper in Germany who was feeding, say, the factory workers that were working to make munitions. It was still there.

Now, Vietnam and Korea were instances where we are aware of individuals being killed under the term, and I have used the quotation, “a suspected enemy,” a suspected soldier. Some of these suspected people were less than that. On the other hand, we do know from firsthand information that they even made booby traps out of children over there, and this could kill our GIs. I do not know. It is a terrible decision to have to make.

Ryan:  Have you ever had any regrets or any psychological problems as a result of this, or suffered any guilt feelings? Do you feel that what you did was right? You got a lot of flak over that, didn’t you? 

Tibbets: Yes, after the fact there was quite a bit. This was basically a result of Russian propaganda, who took the position that nobody but a crazy man would do that for any country. With that situation, I am supposed to have lost sleep over what I did, have a certain amount of morose, and so forth. I can assure you, I have never lost a night’s sleep on the deal.

The man that flew the airplane over Hiroshima to observe the weather [Claude Eatherly] became, should we say, unbalanced after the end of the war. But he had had a problem of mental incapacities, disabilities, leading up to the wartime. Declared competent. He was a good pilot. He flew a good crew for me. But when he got pushed out of the Air Force unceremoniously, because of drinking habits and gambling, he, I guess, wanted to seek publicity. What he did was to hold up post offices in Texas with a water pistol, hoping to get caught. Now, this played into the hands of the propaganda machine because here was a man that had been to Hiroshima. He was mentally unbalanced. A book was written that played that particular part, but didn’t subscribe to the fact that this man had anything to do with the dropping of the bomb but rather to report weather.

Ryan:  But he was really the only one of the crew—

Tibbets: He was the only one, but as I said unfortunately, he got too much publicity and the propaganda machine was fed by some of his utterings, appearances, and his personal behavior. Remember, I had come from a peacetime Air Corps, where safety was the rule if you were going to fire a gun or you were going to drop a practice bomb or do something. Well, you had to ascertain by every means available that the range was clear, that nobody could possibly get hurt by the act that you were about to perform.

The first time I dropped bombs on a target over there, I watched those things go down because we could do it in B-17s. I watched them go down. Then I watched those black puffs of smoke and fires in some instances. I said to myself, “People are getting killed down there that don’t have any business getting killed. Those are not soldiers.”

Well, then I had a thought that I had engendered and encountered for the first time in Cincinnati when I was going to medical school. I lived with a doctor. He would tell me about previous doctors, some that had been classmates of his, who were drug salesmen. That is, they were selling legalized drugs for drug houses and so forth and so on, because they could not practice medicine due to the fact that they had too much sympathy for their patients. They assumed the symptoms of the patients and it destroyed their ability to render medical necessities. I thought, you know, I am just like that if I get to thinking about some innocent person getting hit on the ground. I am supposed to be a bomber pilot and destroy a target. I won’t be worth anything if I do that.

Now, I have been lucky because if I had to make up my mind and want to reject something, I can reject it and I do that. So that was one of the things that I was faced with when, as you say, I was on my way to the target. But before that time, Tom, I was clearly convinced in my own mind, and I had people telling me how much property and lives that bomb would take when it exploded because it was nondiscriminatory. It took everything.

Ryan:  Yes.

Tibbets: I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business. I was instructed to perform a military mission to drop the bomb. That was the thing that I was going to do the best of my ability. Morality, there is no such thing in warfare. I don’t care whether you are dropping atom bombs, or 100-pound bombs, or shooting a rifle. You have got to leave the moral issue out of it.


Copyright 1989 Joseph Papalia. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Joseph Papalia. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.