Reflections - HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

The course of history changed on August 6, 1945, when Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr. piloted the first nuclear bomber, Enola Gay, and delivered the first nuclear weapon in combat. A week after the attack, the Japanese government surrendered unconditionally, thus ending the most catastrophic war in history.

Leading up to that history-changing event, Colonel Tibbets visited Los Alamos, the birthplace of the first nuclear weapon, to learn more about “the device” he was charged with safely, securely, and accurately delivering.

Sixty-seven years later, his grandson, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV, USAF, visited LANL. Colonel Tibbets, himself a nuclear bomber pilot who flew B-1s during the Cold War and flies B-2s today, has combat mission experience in wars as far apart as the Balkans and Afghanistan. His visit to LANL in April of this year was his first, but most likely not his last; Tibbets is also commander of the Air Force Inspection Agency, based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Tibbets shared one of his grandfather’s wartime stories during this visit. It was in 1945 when the colonel was stationed at Wendover Army Air Field, in Utah. There he trained flight crews and oversaw the modification of their B-29 Superfortress bombers assigned to deliver the device. These modified B-29s were called “Silverplates” because that was the code name of the modification project. The nuclear mission and the special modifications to the planes remained top secret.

One morning, a general who commanded another unit stationed at Wendover went to the secure area where the colonel’s mysterious Silverplates were parked and insisted on inspecting them. The young guard, maybe 19 or 20 years old, entrusted with protecting the entry point to the planes, denied the general’s demand and stated, “General, if you take one more step, I will have to shoot you.” The general did not test the young guard’s resolve.

Upon returning to his headquarters, the frustrated general demanded Colonel Tibbets report immediately. The colonel duly met with the general who relayed the story of being threatened by the young guard. At the end of the exchange, the general asked, “What I really want to know is, was the soldier under your command really going to shoot me?” Colonel Tibbets replied, “Absolutely.”

“My grandfather pointed out, proudly, that he ‘had the upmost confidence in his people to do the right thing at all times—without hesitation,’” said Tibbets. “I like to repeat this story because I believe we have the best recruits in the Air Force, just like my grandfather had back then. And we count on them and trust them to do everything we give them to do—without hesitation—whether guarding our nuclear weapons or flying our airplanes or staying on alert 24/7 with our missiles. It’s an enormous amount of responsibility, and we don’t think twice about it because they’re just that well trained and dedicated to their mission.”

He paused and added, “My grandfather also used to say, ‘We hope we never have to use nuclear weapons in anger again. But if you think about it, we use these weapons every day— as a credible deterrent. We, as a nation, should never forget that.’”

On July 16, 1945, just over two years after its work began, the Laboratory successfully tested the world's first nuclear weapon. Less than one month later, that bomb design plus another completely different bomb design were successfully used against Japan, helping to bring World War II to an abrupt halt.

–Alan Carr

Above: Pride and joy: Grandfather and grandson Tibbets together flying the only flyable B-29, Fifi, left in the world. The younger Tibbets was an Air Force captain when the photo was taken near Midland, Texas, in 1998. (Photo: courtesy Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV.)

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