By Di Freeze
Paul Tibbets remembers that day well. It was a perfect day for a bombing run. His mission was important, so he would need to make sure that his cargo hit its aim. He knew he could do it. Still, he hadn’t slept much the night before, thinking about the flight the next day that would be one of the most momentous events in his life.
Now, it was time. The 12-year-old grabbed two or three of the candy bars, and tossed them out gleefully. Looking back, Tibbets, now 88, says that day was when he subconsciously opted for a career in the sky.
“Nothing else would satisfy me, once I was given an exhilarating sample of the life of an airman,” said the man who, 18 years later, would pilot a bomber to Hiroshima “with a cargo of death instead of chocolates.”
Tibbets chronicled his story in “The Tibbets Story,” in 1978, and again, in an updated version, “Enola Gay,” in 1998. These days, he still travels constantly, sharing his story.
He came to be in the cockpit of Doug Davis’ biplane that day in January 1927, due to his father’s wholesale confectionary business.
“He was the area distributor through Central and Southern Florida for Curtiss Candy, which had developed this candy bar called a Baby Ruth they wanted to sell,” Tibbets said recently.
He explained that Doug Davis was an “an entrepreneur who was always trying to figure an angle for an airplane to play a part.”
“He sold Curtiss on the idea of dropping those candy bars from an airplane over large congregations or gatherings of people,” he said.
Paul Warfield Tibbets, the boy’s father, came home one evening and said the pilot was arriving in the next day or two, and told of his plans.
“I’m listening with all ears,” said Tibbets.
On the day that Davis was to arrive in his Waco 9, Mr. Tibbets allowed his son to accompany him to his business.
When Davis arrived, he was in the normal barnstorming apparel of the day—leather jacket, whipcord breeches, leather helmet and goggles. Years later, when Tibbets wrote about the meeting, he couldn’t remember if the aviator wore the trademark white silk scarf or not, but if he hadn’t, that was his “only shortcoming as a celebrated member of the barnstorming clan.”
Young Tibbets was excited to be standing so close to “an honest-to-God aviator.”
When he could, he asked questions, like if the aviator had ever looped the loop, to which the answer was “Lots of times,” and does a tailspin make you dizzy, to which Davis said, “Well, maybe a little bit, sometimes.”
Soon, two or three warehouse workers were attaching a small paper parachute to each bar. Young Tibbets pitched in to help. After a couple of cases were ready, Davis told the senior Tibbets that he would need somebody to go with him and throw the candy bars out of the front cockpit, since he would be in the back flying the airplane.
“I volunteered right quick,” said Tibbets with a grin. “My old man looked at me and said, ‘Not you!’ Doug Davis said, ‘Mr. Tibbets, I’m not going out there and kill myself, because I have a wife and two lovely daughters. I won’t hurt myself and I’m not going to hurt him.’ My dad had a sympathetic partner. Bob Smith looked at my old man and said, ‘Paul. Let him go.’ My old man reluctantly said okay.”
Tibbets remembers arriving at a pasture, and seeing the “Baby Ruth” biplane.
“It looked beautiful to me,” he said. He watched and waited as Davis prepared, wondering if they’d ever get up in the air. Once the engine came to life, Davis still “sat there.”
“He was checking with me to be sure I had my safety belt on and all that sort of thing,” Tibbets said. “I kept thinking, ‘Gee whiz! Let’s get going. Let’s fly.’ Sure enough, pretty soon he said, ‘Are you ready?’ and I said, ‘Yep.’ He pushed the throttle forward on that thing and we started across the ground. The airplane is jumping. I kept trying to figure something out. I said, ‘We’re not going very fast.’ But then I looked out again and that stubble was going by fast. About the same time, the airplane is off the ground.”
Tibbets explained that he’d been used to riding in an automobile on highways at a fast speed that could be judged by telephone poles and picket fences quickly going by.
They arrived over the Hialeah racetrack about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Davis flew around slowly, letting people get a good look at the biplane, before he began throwing the candy bars and yelled for young Tibbets to start doing the same.
“We stayed there probably for 10 minutes or longer before we had exhausted that supply of candy bars,” he said.
Then it was back to the pasture, where they would load up again, since someone from his father’s shop had brought more Baby Ruths.
“He said, ‘Let’s go to Miami Beach and have some fun,'” said Tibbets. “He cranked it up again and off we go. Well, I’m completely amazed by all of this. Right then and there, I fell in love with an airplane. There is no question in my mind about that. I just had the time of my life, really, over on the beach, because he’d go up and down the beach and we’d see people running. I’d be trying to throw candy bars to them.”
When that mission was accomplished it was back to the pasture, where Davis announced that it was enough for the day. Although the pilot would go up again several more times that week, Tibbets would stay on the ground, since there were others at the warehouse anxious for their turn in the sky.
“I was perfectly satisfied,” said Tibbets. “I didn’t beg to go and he didn’t ask me if I wanted to.”
Pre-Candy Bombing Days
Paul Tibbets Jr. was born on Feb. 23, 1915, to Paul Warfield Tibbets and Enola Gay Haggard, in Quincy, Ill.
Although Tibbets was too young to remember World War I, he does remember his father coming home in uniform, after serving overseas as a captain with the 33rd Infantry Division. And he remembers moving around quite a bit when he was a boy.
When he was 3, the family moved from Quincy to Davenport, Iowa. A couple of years later, they bought a house in Des Moines, Iowa.
Part of the reasons for the moves was Paul Tibbets Sr.’s involvement as a salesman for the family wholesale business, an endeavor through which he had also met Enola Gay, a “redheaded Iowa farm girl.”
The couple would have one other child, Barbara, who was born five years after her brother.
In the winter of 1923-24, Paul Tibbets Sr. traveled to Miami to visit his mother, which led to another move.
“He departed Iowa in a snowstorm and got to Miami a couple of days later on a train,” said Tibbets. “He said, ‘My God! There’s no damn reason to live in Iowa.’ They had us packed up and moved down to Miami.”
However, they returned to Iowa every summer for a long vacation on an uncle’s farm, where the boy learned to farm, milk cows, shoot a rifle and shotgun, and hunt rabbits and other small game.
In Miami, Mr. Tibbets and Bob Smith would launch Tibbets and Smith, Wholesale Confectioners, which soon became the largest business of its kind in the state and would be sold to a large Tampa cigar and tobacco firm in 1930. The decision to sell was partially due to the fact that Paul Tibbets Sr.’s help was needed in Chicago to help dispose of the family-owned grocery houses, after first getting them back on their feet. Four years later, the family returned to Florida.
In the meantime, in 1928, when Tibbets was about to enter the eighth grade, he entered the Western Military Academy in North Alton, Ill, which he would attend for the next five years. His father had attended Bless Academy in Mexico, Mo., and considered the academy a sure way to “mold character.”
It did the job, but the years weren’t Tibbets’ happiest. He says that he became reconciled to the restrictions imposed by the military school “in much the same manner as a convict accepts prison life.” He would later look on that period as useful in preparing him to cope with various situations he would face in the years ahead.
Tibbets graduated from the military academy in June 1933. He would be enrolling at the University of Florida in the fall, but first, he would reacquaint himself with airplanes.
He had a 1931 Chevrolet, courtesy of his grandmother on his father’s side, and he had a little pocket money, since his father provided him with a weekly allowance that was “reasonably generous.” In his travels around Miami, he had discovered what was known as Sunny South Airport, which was in the northwest part of town and was basically “a grass airport.”
One day, he arrived at the airport, and began looking around. A man came up and asked if he could be of help. Tibbets replied that he was just looking, but the man questioned further.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to fly and I just want to see how you do it,” Tibbets said. “He said, ‘It’s real simple. We can put you in an airplane and we can take you up and start teaching you to fly.'”
Tibbets remembers that the price was $7 for 30 minutes of instruction. He pulled the money out of his pocket and said, “I want to do it.”
“He said, ‘Okay, now, let’s slow down,'” said Tibbets. “The man’s name was Rusty Heard. He was a Reserve naval mechanic and pilot. He was a mechanic for this place, instructor pilot, etc. We became real good friends. I flew with Rusty as regularly as I could.”
Tibbets said that there were too many things going on that summer that prevented him from soloing. However, he would be back the next year, in 1934, and again hook up with Heard, and become very familiar with a Taylor Cub.
“I loved that thing because I learned that you have to have some kind of a reference to keep the airplane flying level,” he said. “The second rib around the cylinder, if I kept that on the horizon, the airplane was flying level.”
After he had spent enough time in the plane, Heard announced one day that they were going to review everything they’d done so far. He added that he thought Tibbets could probably fly the airplane.
“We go out there and he has me make a couple of landings,” Tibbets said. “He said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get out. You go have some fun.’ He got out. About that time, of course, I put the power to the airplane and took off. Here comes a Navy biplane of some type, zoom, straight in front of me. I didn’t know what he was doing. He’s just flying in front of me. I’m looking down on the ground. Rusty’s waving his arms and doing all kinds of things.”
Not sure what he should do, Tibbets went around and came in for a landing, as he watched Heard’s hand signals, instructing him to stop.
Later, they found out that the pilot was a lieutenant commander in charge of the Naval operation at Opa-locka, and discovered the reason for his behavior.
“He was trying to get out of there because they were going to bring a dirigible in,” Tibbets said. “Rusty told me later, ‘He was trying to get word to you. That’s why he pulled in front of you.'”
Tibbets said he saw the lieutenant commander later, after World War II had started. At that time he was a major and Tibbets was a lieutenant colonel.
“I gave him hell,” said Tibbets. “He apologized.”
Years before Tibbets discovered his fascination for airplanes, his future had been decided.
“My father had told me some time in my early youth, as I was getting into school, ‘There’s always been a doctor in the Tibbets outfit until I came along. I didn’t even get a college degree. You’re going to be a doctor,'” said Tibbets.
Tibbets didn’t question it.
“The old man was pretty positive,” he said with a chuckle. “If he said I was going to be a doctor, then I was going to be a doctor.”
It was because of that game plan that Tibbets had enrolled at the University of Florida. However, that university wouldn’t take him through all the necessary steps, since it had no medical school at that time.
“In fact, I think it was the second year that I enrolled there that the Gainesville paper comes out and talked about a record enrollment of students at the University of Florida—2,800,” he says.
While at the university, Tibbets found the freedom as difficult to handle as he had first found the discipline of the academy, and promptly forgot the purpose of going to college—to acquire an education. Since girls were “partial to college men with motorcars,” and he had a Chevrolet roadster, he could often be found at dances or the movies, or parked along one of the lonely roads around Gainesville, “necking.” However, he found plenty of time “to raise hell and play poker” with his male student friends. As a result, he almost flunked out of school.
Arriving home for Christmas vacation in 1933, he found his dad in a state of frenzy over his first semester performance.
“He made it clear that since he was paying the tuition it was my job to see that he got his money’s worth,” he said.
Tibbets hated letting him down, but was even more sensitive to his mother’s obvious disappointment. He resolved to buckle down and study. Although his grades improved, he still found himself on academic probation. Still, pleased that he was trying, his father presented him with a new sporty Airflow DeSoto.
His sophomore year would be his last on that campus. To complete his premed studies, his father had decided to enroll him at the University of Cincinnati, and after a year, enter its well-known medical college.
Since it was generally known that he would someday become a doctor or surgeon, he was permitted to view the profession “from the inside.”
“The family had a number of doctor friends, several of whom had invited me to watch them at work, even in hospital operating rooms,” he said.
His father’s decision to send him to Ohio rather than a medical school nearer home came about through his friendship with Charley Crum, a former Ohioan who was retired and living in Miami. Each summer, when the family went north to Illinois or Iowa, Crum and his wife accompanied them as far as Ohio. They would stop at Cincinnati and visit Crum’s nephew, Dr. Alfred Harry Crum, an urologist whose brother, Louis, was a student in the University of Cincinnati’s medical college.
Tibbets would live with the Crums, not far from the university, and get a further taste of the medical profession, since Dr. Crum operated two clinics that specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases, and was on the staff of a major Cincinnati hospital. Tibbets spent weekends working as an orderly in the hospital, and on Saturday nights, could often be found in the emergency room, helping to move people who were brought in from accidents. Sometimes, he and Louis administered shots to patients at the clinic being treated for gonorrhea and syphilis.
However, after a successful first year at the university, he realized he was losing his enthusiasm for a career in medicine, for mainly three reasons. First, he had come to see that it was a “killing profession.” Physician friends of Dr. Crum, many less than 50, died from heart attacks and other problems induced by hypertension and overwork. Second, Crum was constantly complaining that the country was “drifting toward socialized medicine.” The third and most important reason was his growing infatuation with the airplane.
“When I got to Cincinnati, one of the first things I did was go out to Lunken Field,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for any instruction at that time. I could take off and land it; that’s all I needed to know. I could have the fun of flying that airplane 30 minutes at a time, which I did.”
Tibbets knew he was getting close to having to do “some hard thinking.” He knew that becoming a doctor required complete dedication, as would an aviation career. Even Crum sensed that his interest in flying was superseding his enthusiasm for a medical career. Around the table at nightlong poker games in which he frequently participated, the doctors often talked of difficult operations or newly discovered medications, while he talked about flying.
Crum told the young man he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a doctor, and Tibbets agreed that he might be right. However, he was afraid of what his dad would say if he dropped out of school. Crum encouraged him to follow his dreams, as his father had done.
In the fall and early winter of 1936, Tibbets struggled to make a decision, which was helped out by the fact that the introduction of the Douglas DC-3 was taking “air travel from the adventure category to one of safety and reliability.” He decided that his father wasn’t likely to foot the bill for the training he would need for a career in commercial aviation, however.
One day, at the Crum house, just before Christmas, he was flipping through a “Popular Mechanics” magazine, when these words caught his eye: “Do you want to learn to fly?” With the advertisement for the Army Air Corps was the address of the adjutant general. Tibbets sent in an inquiry and received an application to become a flying cadet, filled that out and sent it back.
He was soon heading home for the holidays, knowing he would have to break the news to his parents. The task of telling his mother was easier than he had thought. While she prepared lunch, sensing that something was bothering him, she asked if something was on his mind. He told her that he was leaving college to learn to fly airplanes with the military.
When she asked if he had told his father, and the answer was negative, she said, “Well, I think you should. He’s coming down the side of the apartment building. You better tell him what you’re going to do.”
The lunch plates had almost emptied by the time Tibbets gathered up all the nerve he could muster, and told his father his plans.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Well, all right. You know, I think I’ve done pretty good by you, so far. I’ve got you this far in school. You’ve got an automobile. You’ve had a pretty good life. But it’s all finished today. If you want to go fly airplanes, go. Kill yourself. I don’t give a damn,'” remembered Tibbets.
Up to that point, Enola Gay Tibbets had sat quietly listening. Now, she looked at her son, and said, “Paul, if you want to fly, you go ahead. You’ll be all right.”
After passing his physical examination, Tibbets entered the Army Air Corps on Feb. 25, 1937, with his formal induction at Fort Thomas, Ky.
“I was committed—government property,” he said with a smile.
Then, it was off to basic training at the flying school at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas. He did well in basic, getting the highest-flying rating. The record was important at that point because the cadets with the best ratings were most likely to be given their choice of advanced training—pursuit or observation—when they moved to Kelly Field on the other side of town.
Tibbets was inclined toward flying the fast fighters, or pursuit planes, however, one of the company tactical officers at Randolph advised him otherwise, saying if he were to fly fighters, once he got through training he would be going into the GHQ (General Headquarters) Air Corps. He guaranteed Tibbets that if he went there, for at least a year all of his flying would be in formation, with someone else deciding where he went and how he got there. However, he said if he chose observation he’d be doing most of his flying alone, and able to make his own decisions.
The reasoning appealed to Tibbets’ “independent nature,” and he asked for observation. The decision was one of the most important of his life, since it opened the door to multiengine flying, an experience that would bring him to “an unanticipated rendezvous with history.”
Upon graduation from the advanced training program at Kelly Field, Tibbets, with 260 hours in his logbook, “became a brand-new second lieutenant.”
His graduation took place in February 1938. A special person had arrived to see him graduate. Tibbets introduced his father to a couple of his instructors, and was later thrilled when Paul Tibbets Sr. told him that after visiting Kelly, and seeing what went on there, he had a different outlook.
“He said, ‘After talking to these men that are teaching you to fly, and seeing that they’re dedicated, I feel a whole lot better about it. I’m not going to worry anymore,'” Tibbets recalled.
Because of his academic position, graduating at the head of his class, Tibbets proudly led the class in their fly-by review. Later, he said good-bye to his father, and began the wait for his orders.
Flight B, 16th Observation Squadron
His first assignment was to Flight B, 16th Observation Squadron, Lawson Field, Fort Benning, at Columbus, Ga., where his operations officer would be Lt. William H. Tunner, who was later to earn fame flying the Hump in the China-Burma-India Theater and after the war for commanding the successful Berlin Airlift.
Romance came into Tibbets’ life not long after his arrival, when a bachelor friend invited him on a double date. Tibbets’ date would be Lucy Wingate, from Columbus, whom he would marry in June 1938. In late 1940, the couple gave birth to Paul Tibbets III.
Around that same time, Tibbets was introduced to multiengine aircraft in the form of the B-10 twin-engine bomber. At Fort Benning, he also made the acquaintance of Lt. Col. George S. Patton, who, while there, would be promoted to colonel and brigadier general. Patton would be Tibbets’ occasional hunting companion and skeet-shooting rival.
At one point, said Tibbets, Patton decided that the airplane would be a useful tool in developing tactics for the armored brigade he had been sent to Fort Benning to organize. Wanting to observe tank maneuvers from the air, Patton requested the Pentagon to authorize flight training and the assignment of an airplane for his personal use so he could be his own “eye in the sky” when his tanks were operating on the ground.
When his request for an airplane was denied, he bought his own airplane, a two-place Stinson Voyageur. Tibbets and another second lieutenant were assigned to take turns piloting the plane.
3rd Attack Group
When the Army Air Corps looked for men for the 3rd Attack Group at Hunter Air Force Base, Savannah, Ga., being supplied with the new Douglas A-20 attack bomber, they searched for pilots with more than 1,000 hours of twin-engine time. They came across Tibbets’ records. By then a first lieutenant, at that time he had over 1,500 hours in the B-10, many earned towing targets.
He was assigned as the engineering officer for the group’s 90th Squadron. Flying the A-20 would be an adjustment. Instead of flying at high altitude, flight would be low and in tight formation.
Their orders were to fly at no more than 100 feet above the ground on all tactical missions. The reason for this training was that the Air Corps knew from reports out of Europe that the Germans were building flak towers throughout their country and occupied lands that were 100 feet or less above the ground. Their training would allow them to operate below the fire from those installations, and to use the natural terrain as a shield.
“They were teaching me to bring an airplane in and hold it real close, no matter what happened,” he said, adding that he was told to forget what he was seeing and just “ride that plane.”
“They said, ‘Whatever it does, you do the same thing, because the guy who is leading that airplane is not going to run you into the ground,'” he said. “I liked that very much. It was really precision flying.”
Since the U.S. was also just beginning to organize a civil defense system “of sorts,” Tibbets and others would also work their way up the East Coast, intent on showing the inadequacy of the air attack warning systems. The idea was to get past air raid wardens before they had time to send off an alert. Theoretically, said Tibbets, they “wiped out most of the East Coast populations.”
What The Hell Is Orson Welles Up To Now?
In early December 1941, Captain Tibbets received orders to join the 29th Bomb Group at MacDill Field, Tampa, Fla., where he was to train in the new Boeing B-17, the four-engine “Flying Fortress,” once he arrived at the field in January.
However, those orders were to be interrupted. Shortly after they came through, Tibbets flew to Fort Bragg, N.C., to fly attack missions over ground troops as part of an Army maneuver. The next day, while flying back to Savannah, he was enjoying the day and the aircraft he was flying, while listening to the radio—their method of navigation.
“I’m going along and a man comes on the radio and says, ‘Please stand by; we’re going to have an important announcement to make.’ I was nonchalant about the whole thing,” Tibbets said. “Then, an excited voice comes on and says, ‘We have just been notified that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.’ I said, ‘What the hell is Orson Welles up to this time?’ The radio announcer was yakking, but I wasn’t paying any attention to him. I arrived back at Savannah, and pandemonium is supreme.”
After landing, Tibbets approached his operations officer and brought up his orders to report to MacDill. He was surprised when he was told not to worry, because, in a way, MacDill was coming to him.
“He said, ‘They had orders to move all their airplanes to Savannah because they’re afraid the Japanese will send a submarine up into Tampa Bay and start shooting MacDill,” said Tibbets.
Tibbets’ response was, “That’s the most stupid damn thing in the world.”
“I didn’t know anything but I knew you don’t do that,” he said. “I’ve been around water enough. You don’t send a submarine into where you only have 20 feet of water.”
However, Tibbets wasn’t too surprised.
“One of the things I’ve learned was that the Army was structured just like an iron fence,” he said. “They had their way of doing things and there was nothing going to change it.”
Forming An Antisubmarine Patrol
Tibbets would soon learn that priorities had changed. The B-17s he thought he would be flying would instead be taken away from the 29th and sent to the Pacific. In the meantime, when an officer from MacDill arrived the following day, Tibbets “reported in.”
He was soon told he had a temporary duty to take about 30 Douglas-built B-18 twin-engine bombers and personnel he would choose to Fort Bragg, at Pope Field, where he would form an antisubmarine patrol.
Of the B-18, Tibbets said it wasn’t “worth a hoot” as a bomber, since it couldn’t carry much of a load and didn’t fly fast.
“But it was a wonderful airplane just to fly around in,” he said.
Once the squadron was operational and the B-18s equipped with bombs, they were assigned to patrol the East Coast from Cape May, N.J., to the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico.
Once his temporary duty was over, Tibbets arrived at MacDill, where he would become the commander of the new 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, which would be transitioning to the B-17, and would soon move on to Sarasota, Fla.
At Sarasota, orders eventually came in for Fresno, Calif. Shortly after they arrived, thinking they would be going to the Pacific, they were unexpectedly told to report to Bangor, Maine. Tibbets and his squadron would soon be on their way to England.
Movement of the 97th BG started in mid-June. The large-scale ferrying operation included 49 B-17s as well as P-38s and C-47s. Leaving Bangor in small groups, the aircraft would make their way to England via Labrador, Greenland and Iceland.
A new commander is posted to a World War II American heavy bomber group conducting daylight bombing runs over Germany and occupied Europe. Fighters escorts haven’t yet arrived from the U.S. Morale is low and the unit is functioning poorly. Can a new commander, Gen. Frank Savage, turn the “hard luck” bomber group into a disciplined fighting unit?
Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett asked that question in their novel, “Twelve O’Clock High,” later to become a movie. The fictitious general in the book is loosely based on Col. Frank Armstrong, who arrived at a base called Polebrook, a short distance northeast of London, some time after Tibbets did in early July.
Tibbets said that things were indeed lax at Polebrook, but soon changed under the “no nonsense” officer.
Shortly after his arrival, Armstrong appointed Tibbets, a major by then, his executive officer.
Tibbets’ first of 25 combat missions in the B-17 would be on Aug. 17, 1942. Although future missions would be made in the “Red Gremlin,” on this day he was piloting “Butcher Shop.” That aircraft and 11 following his lead bombed railroad-marshaling yards at Rouen, an important city near the Channel coast in northern France, in the first American Flying Fortress raid and initial daylight raid by an American squadron against German-occupied Europe.
Although Tibbets led that mission, according to military protocol, war histories would record that Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, head of the Eight Bomber Command, “officially” led the raid. The reason was that Eaker, on board the Yankee Doodle, which led the second formation of six B-17s, was the highest-ranking officer on the flight.
The 97th remained in England during the late summer and early autumn of 1942.
Tibbets would lead another history-making raid in October. The attack on Lille would be the first time they were able to put more than 100 bombers in the air for one raid, as well as the first time they would be joined by B-24s of the newly operational 93rd Bomb Group, and twin-tailed Liberators.
Tibbets’ closest call occurred on the way back from a successful attack on a German installation at Le Trait, when they encountered a squadron of Me 109s, and were soon under attack from three different directions.
At one point, a 20 millimeter cannon shell ripped through the right-hand window, and a section of the instrument panel disappeared, as Tibbets felt the sting of flying metal as several fragments imbedded themselves in his right side. Lt. Gene Lockhart, his copilot, had more serious injuries. The exploding shell had torn off a portion of his left hand.
Struggling with the controls, Tibbets at first managed to keep the plane on course, even though the aircraft was still taking hits. Col. Newton Longfellow, riding along as a passenger, had been standing between the pilot and copilot. Tibbets said that Longfellow had a “tough guy” reputation, but in those frenzied moments that followed, all of his “cocksureness and bravado” suddenly left him.
“Reacting with blind fury, he reached over my shoulder and grabbed a handful of throttles and turbo controls, sapping the power of our engines at 25,000 feet,” Tibbets said.
With Lockhart’s blood spurting over the cockpit, Tibbets shouted to Longfellow to stop, to no avail. Longfellow outranked Tibbets, but that didn’t stop the pilot from delivering a powerful backward shot from his elbow to Longfellow’s chin, putting him “out of action.”
Longfellow collapsed at the feet of the sergeant who was manning the ball turret gun, and who would soon fall in a heap on top of the colonel, when he was hit by a machine gun bullet.
The gunner’s weight and the cold air soon revived Longfellow, who, now calmer, was able to put a tourniquet on Lockhart’s arm. Tibbets and the other wounded would later be presented with Purple Hearts.
A Secret Rendezvous
In October 1942, Armstrong told Tibbets, now a lieutenant colonel, that he had been given a special assignment. He would be flying Maj. Gen. Mark Clark to make his rendezvous with the French in preparation for the invasion of North Africa, known as “Operation Torch.”
Upon his return from that trip, he was retained to ferry Gen. Eisenhower, who was to command the overall operation, to Gibraltar. Gen. Clark would serve as his deputy, and Gen. Patton would lead the invasion troops at Casablanca. Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle was in charge of the air forces taking part in the invasion.
Tibbets assembled a fleet of a half-dozen B-17s for another airlift to Gibraltar. On November 2, they flew from Polebrook to the aerodrome in Hurn, England, near Bournemouth, where they would meet the military leaders coming from London by train, arriving early the next day.
When Eisenhower’s party arrived, weather had socked in the B-17s. Eisenhower and his party returned to London, in hopes they could take off the next day. However, conditions were even worse.
On November 5, three days before the first landings in Africa were scheduled to occur, Tibbets and the others were out on the flight line early, in a steady rain and thick fog. It was beginning to look like they might not make it to Gibraltar by the time the parachutists were making their first jumps for the invasion, as they had hoped.
“We’re waiting on the weatherman to come in the jeep,” said Tibbets. “God, it was cold. Water was dripping off of that airplane, coming down the back of your neck. Gen. Eisenhower is standing in a reasonably good position; he didn’t have to put his head down too far. He was on my right and Jimmy Doolittle was on my left. The weatherman comes up, just like old buddies, and says, ‘I don’t look for this weather to break for a week. Eisenhower says, ‘Gen. Doolittle, what should we do?’ Gen. Doolittle says, ‘Ask Paul Tibbets; he’s flying the airplane, not me.’ I looked at the general, straight in the face, and I said, ‘General, I realize what I am taking in this airplane with me, and how important it is to the success of this war, but if I didn’t have you, I’d have been gone a long time ago!’ He smiled and said, ‘Let’s go. I got a war waiting on me.’ We loaded up and moved on out.”
At the beginning of the flight, Eisenhower stood between Tibbets and his copilot, but that soon changed.
“When we were cruising and everything was quiet, he said, ‘Is there any way I can sit between you two fellows and watch what happens?'” said Tibbets. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I got a hold of my crew chief and I said, ‘General Eisenhower would like to ride on something between the two seats.’ He said, ‘Let me go and look.’ He comes back with a two-by-four and he measured it out and said, ‘It will fit between the two seats.’ With that, we slid the two-by-four in place, and Eisenhower had a nice ride to Gibraltar on that thing. It wasn’t comfortable but he never said the first word.”
He chuckles and says that in his revised book, that chapter is titled “Ike goes to war on a two by four.” Tibbets said they waited around Gibraltar for word that the place had been secured.
“Then I took Mark Clark and his people on in to Algiers,” he said.
For the next several weeks, Tibbets conducted bombardment missions in the North African area, under the direct control of the British, pending buildup of the American bomber forces. He led the first heavy bombardment mission in support of the invasion of North Africa.
He soon reverted to the control of the Twelfth Air Force. With the arrival of the remainder of the 97th BG, he resumed normal combat operations in the Sahara Desert area.
In January 1943, he was reassigned to the Twelfth Air Force Headquarters at Algiers, where he would be Doolittle’s bombardment chief, but report directly to Col. Lauris Norstad, chief of operations.
Tibbets knew that a promotion to full colonel was in the works. However, he believes that a personality clash with the colonel, whom Tibbets described as one of the most “vain and egotistical officers” he had ever met, killed that promotion.
Tibbets admits that the clash might have been avoided if Norstad had been “less arrogant” and he, with a tendency to be “a little abrasive on occasions,” had been “more tactful.”
In a nutshell, when Norstad, with no combat experience, decided to tell Tibbets how to bomb Bizerte, it set the stage “for an explosion during a mission planning session.” Although his relationship with Norstad was strained, Tibbets had no such problems with Doolittle.
“I had a very fine relationship with Jimmy Doolittle,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
In February 1943, Doolittle called Tibbets into his office.
“He said, ‘I just got off the telephone with Gen. Arnold in Washington. He wants my best field grade officer with the most experience in B-17s to come back to the United States. They’re building an airplane called the B-29. They’re having a lot of trouble with it and maybe some troubles for the future could be avoided if we put somebody on that,'” Tibbets recalled.
Tibbets would soon be doing flight test work with the Boeing factory and Air Materiel Command. He did that until March 1944, when he was transferred to Grand Island, Neb., as director of operations under Gen. Frank Armstrong, who started a B-29 instructor transition school.
However, before he could settle into that job, he was ordered to the Army airfield at Alamogordo, N.M., to work with Dr. E.J. Workman, a University of New Mexico physics professor who had been involved in a theoretical study of the Superfortress’ vulnerability to fighter attack. It was Tibbets’ job to put his theories to a test through simulated combat.
The B-29 assigned to him for these tests was fully equipped, including a full complement of weapons and armor plating. However, Tibbets arrived to work one day to be told that the aircraft he usually flew “went bad over night.”
“It didn’t go bad over night!” he said. “They determined it had to have two engines changed and it was going to take at least 10 days to get the engines and change them out there in the woods. Workman was beside himself. He said, ‘Can you do anything to help this thing? I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a flying machine out here. It’s ‘called’ a B-29, but it’s just a flying skeleton. It has no guns in it. He said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t need that. I need the fighter attack.’ I said, ‘That’s great. Let me take that one and go.’ I got up there and got it going.”
Tibbets was amazed at how much easier the plane was to handle when minus 7,000 pounds of tail guns and armament. Besides that, it was able to climb higher. He was having a wonderful time with the attacking P-47s that were doing “the acrobatic stuff that those fighter pilots would do.”
“They’d come in and do victory rolls and all kinds of things, and they’d be talking back and forth,” he said. “Then, it got a little bit less, and finally I heard, ‘Tell him to slow down! I can’t catch him. My engine is overheating.’ I look at my altimeter and instead of being at 25,000, I’m at 31,000. I had just let the airplane drift. I wasn’t flying it; it was on autopilot. So, I put that in the back of my head. I landed, and taxied in because the mission was over.”
He would be able to put that knowledge he had filed away to good advantage in the not-too-distant future.
His experimental work at Alamogordo ended one day with an unexpected telephone call from Gen. Uzal G. Ent, commander of the 2nd Air Force.
“I was told that he wanted me in his office the next morning, and to bring my B-4 bag with me, because I wouldn’t be going back to Alamogordo,” said Tibbets.
On the first day of September 1944, Tibbets winged his way toward Colorado Springs, unaware of the tremendous assignment Ent was preparing to discuss with him.
A Rendezvous With History (part 2)