Paul Tibbets Jr., the Enola Gay pilot, was father to Paul Tibbets III, who served in the military as an Army reservist pharmacist and hospital administrator and eventually retired as a colonel. His son—grandson of Tibbets Jr.—is also Paul Tibbets.
Paul Tibbets IV is a retired Air Force brigadier general and decorated bomber pilot, and his legacy is not lost on his fellow airmen. They gave Tibbets IV the callsign “Nuke” early in his flying career.
Tibbets IV flew the B-1 bomber and then the B-2 stealth bomber, a nuclear-capable, long-range strike aircraft. His 29 years of military service include combat missions in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Balkans—and a flight in a restored B-29 with his grandfather.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb and his grandfather’s historic role, Tibbets IV spoke with National Security Science magazine.
The atomic bomb made history and changed the world but also must be very personal to you. What are your thoughts as we recognize the 75th anniversary?
I am honored to be a Paul Tibbets. When my wife was pregnant with our son, I asked my grandfather what he thought of us naming him Paul W. Tibbets V. He chuckled, so I was certain he and my father had the same conversation when my mother was pregnant with me. Granddad was excited that the family name was alive for another generation. But he was also cognizant of the potential pressure from others on our son with this name recognition.
I am so proud of Granddad and those he served with during World War II. Those were challenging times, requiring bold action. President Truman recognized this and, after careful consideration and deliberation, made the decision to use these special weapons to end the bloodshed on both sides. Millions of lives were saved, as were generations of people. Now, 75 years later, we still have these weapons underpinning our national security.
Many people will say they wish nuclear weapons were never invented, but I disagree. Although I fear these weapons and honestly don’t like them, we know what a world without them looks like. We lived in a world without them before August 1945, and what did that world look like? In the six years of World War II, an estimated 50 to 80 million people died. And that doesn’t include the wounded. That’s more than 30,000 people killed every day for six years.
Since August 1945, we’ve had regional but not global wars. In the Korean War, an estimated 52,000 Americans were killed. In the Vietnam War, about 58,000 Americans were killed. Each of those wars equaled close to just two days of killing in World War II. That’s what a world without nuclear weapons looks like.
Success is avoiding war and loss of life. So I’m grateful for the nuclear deterrent. Although we must be prepared for conflict, I truly believe deterrence is the highest calling of any military person.
What do you think your grandfather would say about the bombings 75 years later?
He said many times that, on order from the president, they were given a mission that was expected to accelerate the end of World War II and save countless lives. It was their job to ensure its success. That type of mission had never been done before, and it required an enormous amount of teamwork—the military and political leadership, scientists, weapons experts, and the airmen who would ultimately maintain, load, and fly the aircraft. On this significant anniversary, I think he would say how proud he is of our men and women serving in the military today, who are carrying on the legacy of all who have served before them.
Your grandfather named his B-29 “Enola Gay” after his mother. What was she—your great grandmother—like?
My grandfather was very close to his mother. He described her as very kind, loving, and supportive. When he dropped out of college to pursue aviation, his mom encouraged him, while his father did not. Granddad knew the missions they were training for would be remembered throughout history, and he wanted his B-29 to have a meaningful and unique name. When he told his mom, he said she giggled with great appreciation.
What did your grandfather think about you becoming a bomber pilot, too?
Although I knew about my grandfather’s historic role, it didn’t really hit home until he visited the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1987, where I was a cadet, and spoke to my class. It was the first time I heard his experiences from him, in depth. He attended my pilot training graduation and, years later, shared a discussion he had with the commander. My follow-on assignment was to fly the B-1, and my grandfather wondered if he inadvertently had anything to do with my bomber assignment. The commander told him I earned that assignment, having finished in the top of my class. That made Granddad happy.
You’ve flown two restored B-29s, one in a 2017 celebration of the Air Force’s 70th birthday and another in 1998 with your grandfather—the only time you’d ever flown with him. What was that flight like?
My grandfather had given up flying due to his hearing loss. At the Commemorative Air Force airshow in Midland, Texas, we were given the opportunity to fly in the B-29 named Fifi, which Granddad flew back in the ’70s. It was a once-in-a-lifetime offer for the two of us, but due to his hearing difficulty, my grandfather was not particularly excited, though with a little encouragement from some friends, he agreed. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. The look of pride on his face was priceless.
How does the B-29 compare to today’s modern-day nuclear-capable bomber, the B-2?
The B-29 was very advanced for its day, like the B-2 is today. The B-2 carries on the legacy of the B-29 with its conventional and nuclear roles.
In addition to creating the world’s first nuclear device, Los Alamos has made nuclear weapons more effective, safe, and specific to military needs. Can you comment on what this means to those who would be asked to deliver the weapons, if needed?
Our military men and women rely on the skill and expertise of the talented experts at Los Alamos and our other national labs, who make “safe, secure, and reliable” the cornerstones of our nuclear weapon mission. We are deeply grateful to the labs for all the technological advancements that ensure the public’s trust and keep our aircraft maintainers and operators safe. We are inextricably linked with our brothers and sisters in the labs, who are true patriots, who love their country and make a difference every day.
You’ve visited Los Alamos several times and have even signed the replica of the B61 nuclear bomb displayed in one of the main buildings. How do you see the Lab’s impact on our national security?
Los Alamos is a national treasure. Because we operate the weapons systems provided by the Department of Energy, those of us in the Department of Defense are indebted to all the men and women at the national labs. Together we are part of what I would call the highest calling of our nation. The Air Force cannot fly, fight, and win if we fail at our first and most important mission: to deter. And successful deterrence is defined through the work we do together.