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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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'We were at war; our job was to win it' -- WASHINGTON | "I don't know quite what to expect tonight."

Paul Tibbets, 86, said this to me in the minutes before he was scheduled to begin speaking at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Tibbets -- the combat pilot who in 1945 flew an airplane he named for his mother, Enola Gay, to Japan, who with his crew dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, and who thus brought World War II to an end -- was back at this museum he had once vowed never to set foot in again.

He appeared uncomfortable in the midst of a crowd near the auditorium where he would speak. His hearing -- almost completely gone now, the result of years of bomber engines pounding next to his ears -- has made him self-conscious among groups of people he cannot easily understand. He had asked me to come here with him for what was going to be an important evening in his life, one way or another.

"Have you ever spoken here before?" I asked him.

"In 1994," he said with an edge in his voice. "But there was no microphone."

He was referring to the rage he felt when the Smithsonian -- preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American victory in World War II -- made plans to mount an exhibit around the Enola Gay itself. The exhibit, though, would honor not the Americans who fought and died in the war, or their loved ones at home who prayed and waited for them. The 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, as it had been planned, centered on the devastation on the ground in Japan. "For most Americans," the Smithsonian's original script said, "this . . . was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism."

Many Americans -- revolted by what seemed to be the Smithsonian's utter disregard for the sacrifices the World War II generation paid after the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor -- voiced their anger and sadness at what the Smithsonian planned to do. American Legion Commander William Detweiler wrote to President Clinton:

"The hundreds of thousands of American boys whose lives were . . . spared [by President Truman's decision to use the bomb], and who lived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic achievement, are, by this exhibit, now to be told their lives were purchased at the price of treachery and revenge." Some veterans were reduced to helpless tears by what they saw as an unfathomable act of contempt toward them by the Smithsonian.

Tibbets -- the man who flew the Enola Gay -- went to the Smithsonian late in 1994. What exactly he said to the officials there occurred in private -- this is what he meant when he told me he had spoken there before, "but there was no microphone" -- but here are his public words at the time:

"At the behest of my government, I recruited, trained and led the members of the 509th Composite Bomb Group. We had been given a mission. That mission, quite simply, was to deliver a special weapon that would, we all prayed, bring about a swift end to World War II. We were at war. Our job was to win it. . . . My country did what it believed to be the quickest and least costly (in terms of lives lost) way to stop the killing. There is no need for apology."

Leaders of Congress joined veterans groups in objecting to the planned exhibit. The director of the Air and Space Museum was forced to resign; a scaled-down and more evenhanded exhibit was mounted in the museum. The whole thing had left a putrid taste in Tibbets' mouth; it had told him everything he thought he needed to know about what the Smithsonian thought about the men who won World War II.

But now, in 2001, the Air and Space Museum was under new directorship -- and Tibbets had been invited to make a speech at the museum.

When he and I had first gotten to know each other, he had said to me: "Sometimes I think that no one really understands. . . ."

He looked upon this visit as one way to learn the answer to that -- to see how the United States feels about the men, most of them now dead, who were asked to fly the bomb to Japan and end the terrible war.

"I guess we'll find out," he said.

The story continues in tomorrw's column.

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

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