Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Chip off a Legendary Block

Sunday's Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, the venerable military newspaper, had a feature article on the Air Force's bomber presence on Guam. For a number of months, small groups of U.S. bombers--B-52s, B-1s and B-2--have rotated to Anderson AFB on Guam, providing an added strategic presence in the Pacific.

Four B-2s from Whiteman AFB in Missouri are currently deployed to Anderson. The detachment is led by the commander of Whiteman's 393rd Bomb Squadron, Lt Col Paul Tibbets. If the name sounds familar, it should. Almost sixty-one years ago, Lt Col Tibbets' grandfather (and namesake), Col Paul Tibbets, was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

"I do think about my grandfather and feel connected to this area," Lt Col Tibbets said. "It's a very humbling experience." Indeed. The Enola Gay launched on its famous mission from an airfield on Tinian Island, which (like Guam) is part of the Marianas chain. Lt Col Tibbets's squadron is a part of the Air Force's 509th Bomb Wing, the direct descendant of his grandfather's World War II unit.

Command of the 393rd is a plum assignment, indicating that the Air Force has bigger things in store for Lt Col Tibbets. His grandfather retired as a Brigadier General, and remains an iconic figure at the age of 91. Unfortunately, the elder Tibbets's career is often summarized in the Enola Gay mission, but his contributions to the Air Force (and strategic airpower) go well beyond that day in August, 1945. Before assuming command of the original 509th (and literally, building that organization from scratch), Paul Tibbets was a B-17 bomb squadron commander in Europe. After the war, he served in a variety of command and staff positions, including a brief posting as Air Attache to India in the 1960s. Unfortunately, he was withdrawn from the post after various Indian political parties protested his assignment, due to his role in the bombing of Hiroshima.

I've never met General Tibbets, but in an era and culture that have come to regard Hiroshima as a black mark on human history (and the United States), I admire Tibbet's unwavering conviction that he did the right thing. In 2005, he told an interviewer from the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch: "If you give me the same circumstances, hell yeah, I'd do it again." General Tibbets understood that his mission would inflict horrific casualties on the Japanese, but it would also save millions of lives on both sides, by eliminating the need to mount an invasion of Japan. Tibbets was equally straight-forward on the issue of collateral damage, and concerns over civilian casualties, as evidenced by this exchange with Studs Terkel in 2002:

Terkel: One last thing, when you hear people say, "Let's nuke 'em," "Let's nuke these people," what do you think?

Tibbets: Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: "You've killed so many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there."

Read the entire interview here. It confirms what General Hap Arnold knew when he recommended Tibbets for command of the 509th--he was the was the right man for an extremely difficult job. Six decades later, his grandson seems to be the right man for the 509th's return to the Marianas. A chip off a legendary Air Force block.

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