Pilot Journal
Friday, July 1, 2005

60 Years After

General Paul Tibbets and Enola Gay navigator Dutch Van Kirk look back on one of the most famous moments in history

60 years afterPaul Tibbets joined the Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1937. In 1942, Tibbets joined the 97th Bomb Group in the Bolero Mission, ferrying B-17s, P-38s and C-47s from Bangor, Maine, across Greenland and Iceland to the European Theatre. He flew the B-17 Flying Fortress with the 340th Bomb Squadron Bombardment Group in Europe and later flew missions to support the Allied invasion of North Africa.
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At 2:15 a.m., on August 6, 1945, Paul Tibbets and Dutch Van Kirk took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific and were headed for Hiroshima, Japan. Van Kirk, the navigator, remembers that night.

60 years after
Early in World War II, Gen. Paul Tibbets piloted a B-17 (left) named the Red Gremlin. With navigator Dutch Van Kirk, he flew a number of missions in the European Theatre and later flew in support of the Allied advance into Africa. Later in the war, the two would fly together in the Enola Gay to drop the world’s first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Sixty years after that historic moment, Tibbets and Van Kirk reunited to discuss the flight and to look at how they would like history to remember them.
Van Kirk: We knew what we had on board. There weren’t a lot of usual conversations. Some people slept. Paul took a nap. Tom Ferebee [the bombardier] slept a lot. You’ve got to understand, the navigator is the only guy working all the time. Everybody paid attention... Dick Nelson read a book, something about a prize fighter or something of this type. Everybody expects a lot of Hollywood. It wasn’t. We just went up there and did our job.

After a seven-hour flight, Van Kirk had navigated the Enola Gay over the target just 15 seconds off their intended ETA. Tibbets climbed the aircraft to 30,700 feet and bombardier Tom Ferebee entered last-minute wind corrections into the Norton bomb site. Tibbets reminded his crew to put on the heavy Polaroid glasses they had been given to protect their eyes from the blast. At 9:15 a.m., the Enola Gay shuddered as it released the 9,000-pound payload. Tibbets immediately put the B-29 into a steep diving right turn to escape the effects of the eminent blast.

Robert Oppenheimer, the man who headed the U.S. development of the atomic bomb, had told Tibbets, “Your biggest problem may be after the bomb has left your aircraft. The shock waves from the detonation could crush your plane. I am afraid I can give you no guarantee that you will survive.”

Paul Tibbets:
I had my nose down, trying to maintain my speed and trying to get around. I was just bringing the nose of the airplane up on the horizon, and the whole thing lit up in pinks, blues and white. Oh, God, you never saw anything like it; it was instantaneous.

Van Kirk: You saw the white cloud hanging over the city. Underneath the cloud, the entire city was just covered with smoke and dust. It looked like a pot of boiling oil down there. The bomb vaporized the air and you could see the shock wave coming. Then suddenly, it felt like somebody hit the airplane with a telephone pole.

Airborne instruments determined the Enola Gay was 101⁄2 miles from the center of the blast and that the airplane had experienced a 2.5 G shock wave. In the movie Above and Beyond, Tibbets is credited with looking in awe over the ruins of Hiroshima and saying, “My God, what have we done?”


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