Which bomber dropped the atomic bomb?

75 years after Hiroshima: the death pilot who never showed regrets

It was the first nuclear attack in history: 75 years ago Paul Tibbets commanded the eradication of Hiroshima.With a re-enactment it caused further horror decades later.

Usually people on the ground feel more uncomfortable when they spot a bomber in the sky. But on October 6, 1976, there was an exuberant atmosphere when a type B-29 aircraft flew over the Harlingen airfield in the US state of Texas. Enthusiasm finally broke out among the almost 20,000 spectators when a flash of light flashed on earth - and after the explosion, high clouds of noise rose into the air, similar to a small mushroom cloud.

This resemblance was no coincidence, nor was the exuberance among the air show visitors. Because behind the wheel of the B-29 was Paul Tibbets, a veteran of the Second World War who was revered as a hero in the USA. In distant Japan, however, the name Tibbets was pronounced with a shudder: It was Tibbets who commanded the B-29 bomber "Enola Gay" during the attack on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. When the atomic bomb was first used in human history, the city was destroyed in a nuclear inferno.

You can see historical recordings of the destruction in the video above or here.

Deadly cargo on board

In the early morning hours of the August day in question, Tibbets and his crew took off from the Mariana Island of Tinian. The Colonel named the "Enola Gay" after his mother: Out of gratitude, because without her help, Tibbets would probably not have become a pilot. Tibbets, a lover of the tobacco pipe, passed the time smoking on the long flight through the vastness of the Pacific. In addition, the crew was worried about all sorts of things, because on board they carried the most deadly cargo of all time: the atomic bomb "Little Boy".

B-29 bomber "Enola Gay" 1945: Paul Tibbets (center) was the pilot of the machine. (Source: Courtesy Everett Collection / imago images)

For this reason, the crew had previously been subjected to rigorous training in Utah. Again and again, selected bomber crews threw their load there from a good nine kilometers in the direction of the earth. The requirement was to hit the target to within a few meters. But that was not all: in order to survive in the face of the unleashed destructive power of an atomic bomb, the pilots also had to try out daring maneuvers in order to quickly leave the danger zone behind.

Tibbets, born in 1915 in the US state of Illinois, was transferred to the elite force for two reasons: First, he was considered an excellent pilot who had previously flown numerous missions against the German Reich. Second, he had passed the background check by the relevant authorities.

"There was nothing but death"

So on August 6, 1945, Tibbets was finally able to resolve the uncertainty of the crew of the "Enola Gay" about their mission. In the morning he enlightened the men by naming the target: "Hiroshima". At 8:15 am, the bomber flew over the city at a height of nine kilometers - and dropped "Little Boy". The atomic bomb exploded at a good 600 meters. It was the moment when at least 70,000 people suddenly ceased to exist. The mushroom cloud alone rose about 13 kilometers.

"Boys, you have just dropped the first atomic bomb in history!" Rejoiced Tibbets on board the "Enola Gay". After "Little Boy" was dropped, the pilot had made a sharp turn to avoid his own destruction. To avoid blindness in the face of the glare of the detonation, everyone also wore protective goggles.

While Tibbets was enthusiastic, there was more enthusiasm among his crew. "What did we do?" Noted co-pilot Robert A. Lewis, Sergeant Robert H. Shumard later struggled for words: "There was nothing but death in that cloud."

"Your skin peeled off"

The "Enola Gay" returned safely to Tinian. While there was celebrating, horror reigned in distant Hiroshima. Shigemi Ideguchi, who was stationed in the city as a soldier, wanted to save a girl from the fire. "Her skin was peeling off to the elbow," he recalled in his book. "Songbirds and ravens weren't there either." Tens of thousands died in the "Little Boy" explosion alone, with many more to follow in the next few weeks and months. They died as a result of the radiation to which they were exposed.

Hiroshima on August 6, 1945: Helpers tried to take care of the survivors. (Source: Reuters)

The Americans, on the other hand, were irritated. With an entire city destroyed by a single bomb, US forces expected Japan to surrender immediately. In fact, the Emperor's officers were very much aware that the war was no longer to be won. A corresponding meeting took place in the palace on August 9th. Before this came to an end, another atomic bomb detonated over Japan. "Fat Man" wiped out the port city of Nagasaki, and tens of thousands died again.

But Tibbets and the team of the "Enola Gay" had the dubious merit of having used the world's first atomic bomb in the war. In the decades that followed, the pilot was asked again and again how he felt about the number of people who had perished. "I never had a sleepless night just because I was in command of the bombing," said Tibbets.

US government apologizes

No wonder that he had few qualms about reenacting the attack on Hiroshima in 1976. In Japan, however, there were protests. Hiroshima's mayor, Tibbet's "appearance" in Texas, described it as an "insult to the innumerable dead". Especially since in Japan people were still dying as a result of the atom bomb being dropped. US President Gerald Ford asked the Japanese government for forgiveness for Tibbet's behavior. What impressed him little: In 1977 the death pilot wanted to organize the spectacle again - until he was prevented from doing so by politics.

As Hiroshima and Nagasaki became symbols of the horror of nuclear war around the world, Tibbets maintained his conviction that he had done the right thing on August 6, 1945. He finally died in Ohio in 2007 after a long career as an officer and later as an airline executive. Theodore Van Kirk, former navigator on board the "Enola Gay", told the "Spiegel" two years earlier his very personal lesson from what had happened: "I think people who start war are crazy."

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  • Subjects:
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  • Science and Research,
  • History,
  • Hiroshima,
  • Atomic bomb,
  • Japan,
  • Politics,
  • Paul Tibbets,
  • Gerald Ford,
  • Second World War