Enola Gay: History's Surprises
I have always been fascinated by World War II and especially by the history of the Manhattan Project. And that leads inevitably to the B-29 Superfortress and Paul W. Tibbets, whose arc through history put him at the point of two of the war's biggest projects—the bomb and the bomber that would deliver it.
Although it's not commonly known, the B-29 was actually said to be a larger undertaking than the Manhattan Project, at least in terms of total dollars spent. It was so beset with developmental problems that by 1943, when Tibbets showed up in Wichita to help sort out the airplane's shortcomings, there was some doubt that the airplane would be combat ready in time to have an impact on the war. The following year, Tibbets was selected to form what would eventually be the 509th Composite Group. He was 29 years old and responsible for what would become the most important weapon system of the war.
I never met Tibbets—he died in 2007—but I saw him interviewed many times. Inevitably, he was asked if he ever lost any sleep over the horrific results of the Hiroshima attack. Not a wink, he said. It was his duty and he did what was expected of him. Given how complex getting the bomb on target was and how many things could have conspired to make it fail, the fact that Tibbets made sure that it didn't stands as one of the towering examples of military leadership in a war that produced many others. In Tibbets, history found the right man.
From the interviews I'd seen, I always took Tibbets to be a no-nonsense guy and probably not given to sentimentality. When I was preparing this podcast on the restoration of the Enola Gay, National Air and Space restoration specialist Ann McCombs told me that if you were in the cockpit of the Enola Gay today, at the Udvar-Hazy Center where the airplane is displayed, it would appear entirely as it did in 1945 save for one detail. There's an understated pad on the pilot's seat, in place of the hard pan that would have been softened (barely) by a parachute worn by each member of the flight crew.
The pad was placed there to accommodate Tibbets, who traveled to the Smithsonian a number of times and sat quietly in his old seat. Sentimentality? Nostalgia? Or a dedicated commander who well understood his airplane's place in history and wanted to make sure the world would see it as he thought it should be seen? Either way, I'd have given a barrel of pennies for those thoughts. Nearly as fascinating is the story of the Enola Gay's restoration, which you can hear in our long-form podcast. I hope you enjoy it.