What it feels like to drop an atomic bomb

Paul Tibbets, the man who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

In May 2010 I went to an entertaining talk by the writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink and other bestsellers. Midway through he made a throwaway comment about the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. ‘Imagine how it felt to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima – how do we feel about that kind of moral responsibility?’ The implication of this rhetorical question was that the pilot must have been desperately wrestling with the ethical consequences and dilemmas of releasing the world’s first atomic weapon on the unsuspecting city.

Malcolm Gladwell is mistaken. In actual fact, the US Air Force pilot, Paul Tibbets, experienced no profound moral quandaries about his actions, either before or after dropping the bomb that killed an estimated 140,000 people. In a revealing interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel in 2002, when aged 87, Tibbets described exactly what happened on the historic mission in the Enola Gay.

It was absolutely perfect. After we got the airplanes in formation I crawled into the tunnel and went back to tell the men, I said, “You know what we’re doing today?” They said, “Well, yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission.” I said, “Yeah, we’re going on a bombing mission, but it’s a little bit special.” My tailgunner, Bob Caron, was pretty alert. He said, “Colonel, we wouldn’t be playing with atoms today, would we?” I said, “Bob, you’ve got it just exactly right.” So I went back up in the front end and I told the navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, in turn. I said, “OK, this is an atom bomb we’re dropping.” They listened intently but I didn’t see any change in their faces or anything else. Those guys were no idiots. We’d been fiddling round with the most peculiar-shaped things we’d ever seen.

So we’re coming down. We get to that point where I say “one second” and by the time I’d got that second out of my mouth the airplane had lurched, because 10,000lbs had come out of the front. I’m in this turn now, tight as I can get it, that helps me hold my altitude and helps me hold my airspeed and everything else all the way round. When I level out, the nose is a little bit high and as I look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just great.

Tibbets tells the tale as if it were an exciting action movie. The tension builds, everyone’s on alert, the timing is crucial – and the execution is perfect. A job well done. Terkel gave his interviewee the opportunity to explore the ethics of his actions, but received little response:

Studs Terkel: Do you ever have any second thoughts about the bomb?
Paul Tibbets: Second thoughts? No. Studs, look. Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That’s what I believe in and that’s what I work for.

Ultimately Tibbets justified his action with the age-old reason that he was just following orders: ‘I did what I was told’.

Terkel then asked him about his thoughts on the September 11 bombings, and how the US should respond to the threat of terrorism. His emphatic reply displayed the simplistic topography of his moral beliefs:

Paul Tibbets: We’ve got to get into a position where we can kill the bastards. None of this business of taking them to court, the hell with that. I wouldn’t waste five seconds on them…
Studs Terkel: One last thing, when you hear people say, “Let’s nuke ’em,” “Let’s nuke these people,” what do you think?
Paul 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.

It is certainly worth reading the whole interview, which first appeared in The Guardian. I think the most remarkable aspect is that Tibbets seemed to display no empathy for the victims of the Hiroshima bombing. Flying up high in the sky, he never came into contact with the people he killed, or with the survivors. He never saw the burned skin, the charred bodies, the faces of the children wandering alone looking for their parents. His distance from the victims was essential to his empathetic denial.

I wonder if Tibbets, who died in 2007, ever allowed himself to see some of the rare original film footage taken immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including shots inside emergency hospitals where people were being treated for the effects of the radiation. It is so harrowing and horrifying that the US government denied its existence for two decades, and only publicly released it in the late 1960s. In 1970 Erik Barnouw produced a 16-minute film using the footage called Hiroshima Nagasaki August, 1945. If you watch it, I warn you that you will not like what you see, that you may have to turn away from the reality of what human beings can do to one another. I have rarely seen anything so disturbing.

6 thoughts on “What it feels like to drop an atomic bomb

  1. He is truly an American hero! He deserves a medal of honor. ! I salute him!

  2. This man is pretty disgusting to me. Not caring about the huge amount of lives you took and being proud that the mission went perfectly. And how he would just blow up the middle east too. This guy was perfect for this mission, because he has zero regard for another human’s life, even the innocent.

  3. The thing you guys dont understand is you didnt see what the japs did to the american people. Imagain seeing almost everyone you care about die because of them. Its not that he has zero regard for human life, its the fact that he is the reason why american soldiers lifes stop being killed. look at how the war in the middle east ended now? if it was me i would have done as many tatical strikes as possible and saved a few american lives.

  4. He said that he felt bad about doing it, but he did not regret it. I think that is how most people at the time probably felt. He understood that he was going to kill people, and end lives of children and people who had nothing to do with the war (although every Japanese citizen was trained to fight), but he knew Japan would continue to fight, and that more people would die, and dropping the bomb was the option that would result in the least death and fewest injuries and casualties.

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