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Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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The combat pilot returns to a troubling place


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WASHINGTON | He never thought he would have any desire to set foot in this place again.

It had disgusted him that much.

Yet here he was, on a warm April night.

"That's a Ford Tri-Motor," Paul Tibbets said to me. "They called it the Tin Goose."

We were at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, standing on a balcony, looking at an old aluminum-skinned airplane that was suspended from the ceiling. The Tri-Motor had been introduced in 1926.

"It really looks like a piece of history," I said.

"History?" Tibbets said. "Hell, I flew in the thing.

"It was before I even got into flight school. I was in San Antonio, I was an air cadet, and this barnstorm pilot came to a carnival. A fellow by the name of Brown. He was with a flying circus.

"He put on this show -- I remember, he had hooks on each wing, and the trick was to fly low and to use the hooks to pick up these flags that were on the ground. He asked if anyone wanted to go up for a ride. I said I would."

"Were you frightened at all to get in the thing?" I said.

"Didn't know enough to be," Tibbets, 86, said. "Didn't know any better. I thought it would be like going for a ride in a Model T. . . ."

Tibbets -- the U.S combat pilot who flew the atomic bomb to Japan, who with his crew dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who brought about the end of World War II -- was here tonight at the invitation of the Smithsonian. He wasn't quite sure what to expect. He had asked me to come with him.

In 1994 and 1995 -- in one of the greatest insults imaginable to the American soldiers, sailors and aviators of World War II -- the Air and Space Museum made plans to exhibit Tibbets' B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay (named for his mother), and, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, to emphasize the point of view of the enemy.

Not the Americans who had fought and died; not the Americans who had been held in Japanese prison camps. The Smithsonian exhibit, as planned, seemed determined to portray the U.S. as an unfeeling and needlessly bellicose country choosing to assault a nation that had done little to warrant such hostility. The script for the Smithsonian exhibit, in its original draft, said: "For most Americans, this . . . was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism." The Japanese deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to be emphasized; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the deaths and torture of American soldiers in the Pacific and in Europe, were not.

There was a great public outcry against the Smithsonian at the time -- "What they're doing is an insult to an entire generation," said Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana -- but if the entire World War II generation was being insulted by the Smithsonian, it was Paul Tibbets who was personally being degraded and mocked.

He was 29 when the United States asked him to do the seemingly impossible: to assemble a secret military unit to try to end the war. He was 30 when he flew the Enola Gay to Japan and ended the war.

He was accustomed to people trying to avoid thinking about the carnage at Hiroshima. They weren't the ones who had been asked to end World War II. He was.

But what the Smithsonian had planned to do, on the 50th anniversary . . . the depth of the affront. ...

"I was used to it," Tibbets told me the other night. "The Enola Gay was turned over to the Smithsonian in 1949, in the hopes that it would be taken good care of. But when I would see it in the years after that, it kind of made me sick at my stomach.

"For years they left the plane unattended to at an airfield and open to the elements, to be stripped by souvenir hunters. It's as if they were embarrassed by the plane. That airplane had been a beautiful thing, and I'd see it and it was a barren pile of junk.

"You strip that airplane, and to me it was like someone you care for losing a leg or an arm. If you're a pilot, a plane that means something to you is not a piece of machinery. It's someone you love.

"Your life is riding with that airplane. If the tail is shot up, if the wings are shot up, if you lose part of an engine . . . can she get you home? That good old airplane . . . she never let me down."

Which is why what the Smithsonian had planned to do in 1995 -- to demean the Enola Gay, and thus Tibbets' crew, and by extension the U.S. fighting forces -- had made Tibbets ask himself what his country had become, and whether it had forgotten what the soldiers had bled and died for.

But here we were, inside the Smithsonian on a spring night in 2001. In tomorrow's column, the story continues.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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