a personal memoir

Setting the record straight about Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Paul Tibbets inside the Enola Gay.

The name Paul Tibbets, in connection with Hiroshima, the Enola Gay and the bombings that ended World War II, are well known to just about everyone in my generation. But for the younger generation of Pro Pilot readers, I shall summarize a few facts.

Tibbets was one of the most experienced B-17 bomber pilots in Europe and North Africa during World War II. He was selected to fly General Eisenhower to North Africa after the invasion there. When serious problems plagued the production of the B-29, which is not unusual when you try to build an airplane in a great hurry, Paul was transferred to Wichita to fly with Boeing test pilots to solve the problems of the aircraft. As such, he became the most experienced B-29 pilot in the US Army Air Corps.

When it came to selecting a commanding officer for the 509th Composite Group, which was the public name of the atomic bombers group, Tibbets was the obvious choice. A colonel at age 26, he selected the aircraft and the crews for this special mission and flew the Enola Gay on the historic mission to Hiroshima on August 5, 1945.

I met Paul after the war, after he retired as a brigadier general, when he managed the Geneva office of Executive Jet Aviation (today called NetJets). Learjet rented a part of his office for my use and for our man in Geneva.

During many long conversations over many years, I asked Paul a number of questions for which the answers were not publicly known.

As the most famous pilot in the US Army Air Corps that became the US Air Force, why did he retire after 29 years of service at the relatively low rank of a 1-star brigadier general? Paul explained that this goes back to a bombing mission against Bizerta in Tunisia in 1943.
General Hoyt Vandenberg, whom Paul called a "political general," was the nephew of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Alex Kvassay, Paul Tibbets and Douglas Kvassay.

Vandenberg ordered the then Lt Colonel Tibbets to take his squadron on the Bizerta bombing mission flying at 15,000 ft. Tibbets refused to fly at 15,000 ft, saying it was suicide for his men, counting the very effective German 88 mm ack-ack guns.

He agreed to go in at 30,000 ft or down low on the deck, but not at the 15,000 ft altitude.
When Vandenberg insisted, Tibbets went over his head and had the order modified. A higher general officer told him, "You fly the mission any way you want to."

Vandenberg put a report in Tibbets' officer's file stating that he had refused a direct combat order. Such a report follows an officer throughout his career and makes promotions questionable. And Vandenberg, later a chief of staff, still made sure that Paul did not reach a higher command. This was Paul's story, but I asked my good friend George Sylvester, (Lt General USAF ret) who served on high level promotion boards and he stated that a future promotion board would certainly be influenced by a report about a refusal of a direct combat order.

Another question I asked was about the rumor that after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, there were no more bombs immediately available. "Wrong," said Paul. When the Japanese hesitated about an immediate surrender, General Curtis LeMay called Tibbets and ordered him to send one of the specially modified B-29s to California to pick up the 3rd bomb. (The first 2 bombs were delivered to Tinian Island in the ill fated heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis.) By the time the aircraft arrived in the USA, the Japanese had surrendered.

My 3rd question was about rumors that members of the atomic crews had mental problems because of what they did. "Nonsense," said Paul. "I was an officer in a war, ordered to drop a bomb. I did. Period. End of story." Paul explained that the rumors probably started because there was a copilot first lieutenant on his staff who was sometimes acting strangely. Paul had too many other problems than to worry about an odd copilot.

This officer flew as a copilot one day before Hiroshima on an unarmed weather reconnaissance mission. The man had no part in the bombing missions. But after returning to the USA and getting his discharge, the man started not just acting strangely but started robbing banks. When he was arrested and tried, a lot of publicity was attached to the fact that he was part of the atomic mission.

I thought I should document for history these opinions of Paul Tibbets, a great pilot and a true American hero.

Alex Kvassay sold Beech and Learjet aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation
as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, he is now retired in Wichita and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and Algeria.