Enola Gay pilot unsure how visit to be received
By B.J. Reyes
When he returns this weekend to the Northern Mariana Islands for the first time in nearly 60 years, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets is unsure how he will be received.
After the fierce Pacific battles in June 1944 that led to the establishment of U.S. air bases on Saipan and Tinian, Tibbets arrived the following year as a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps who assembled and trained the teams that would drop atomic bombs on Japan.
He went on to pilot the B-29 bomber Enola Gay on its historic mission to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, another U.S. bomber dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, leading to the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
"I don't know what kind of a mental image they've had of me; possibly that I had horns out of my head and a tail with a spear on the end of it," Tibbets said yesterday. "I wanted to let them know who I am, and where I came from, and why I did what I did. They've given me the opportunity to do that."
Tibbets, 89, was in Hawai'i yesterday on his way to the Marianas for ceremonies beginning tomorrow in the capital city of Saipan marking the 60th anniversary of the battles for Saipan and Tinian, which took place June 12 to 18, 1944. He is scheduled to deliver the event's keynote address Tuesday, during a formal commemoration ceremony.
Tuesday marks the day 60 years ago when the United States invaded the Japanese-occupied islands.
Saipan would not be secured until July 9, 1944, at a cost of 3,000 American, 30,000 Japanese and 900 local lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Just 1,250 miles south of Tokyo, Saipan and Tinian became sites for U.S. airstrips used for launching B-29 bomber attacks against Japan's main islands.
Veterans began arriving in the Marianas, about 3,800 miles west-southwest of Hawai'i, last week.
Tibbets said he didn't want to participate in the ceremonies at first, but after thinking it over changed his mind.
During his stopover in Hawai'i yesterday, he visited Pearl Harbor and the decommissioned battleship Missouri, where Japan's formal surrender took place
Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II.
He also signed copies of his 1998 book, "Return of the Enola Gay."
Fifty-nine years after his historic mission, Tibbets remains defiant and proud about his role in the atomic age.
"Ask me to do it again under the same circumstances, I wouldn't hesitate," he said during a brief meeting with reporters. "I think I did the right thing."
He said his stance has been backed by many retired Japanese servicemen, including Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese carrier force air strike leader who led the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Tibbets said he had the chance to meet Fuchida, who died in 1976, at a military reception some years after the war.
"The man ... walked up to me, stuck out his hand and he said, 'I'm Fuchida, shall we talk about it,' " Tibbets recalled. "I looked at him, he saw I didn't understand, he said, 'Man, I led the attack on Pearl Harbor.' I said to him, 'You sure did surprise us,' and he said, 'What the hell do you think you did to us?'
"We talked for 30-40 minutes and he said, 'You did exactly the right thing because Japan would've resisted an invasion using every man, woman and child, using sticks and stones if necessary.' That would've been an awful slaughter."