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Jewish World Review May 3, 2001 / 10 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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'I was the old man -- I was 29 years old' -- WASHINGTON | If Paul Tibbets had any question about how he would be received at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum -- the place he once felt had belittled and insulted not just him and his crew who flew the atomic bomb to Japan and ended World War II, but every American soldier of their generation -- those doubts evaporated the moment he walked into the room where he was scheduled to speak.

The room was the museum's Langley Theater, where big-screen IMAX movies about flight are usually shown -- and every one of the nearly 500 seats was filled. So many people had come out to see him on a warm spring night that the overflow had to be seated in the museum's Albert Einstein Planetarium, where they could watch a closed-circuit feed.

And if Tibbets, at the age of 86, still questioned how the people who run the museum feel about him, and his crew, and the mission they were asked to carry out for their country, those doubts went away as he was being introduced to the audience.

Gone from the Smithsonian are the officials who, in 1994 and 1995, planned on mounting an exhibit around Tibbets' B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, that told the story of the end of World War II from the point of view of the enemy, and portrayed the U.S. as vengeful aggressors assaulting a Japanese military that was trying only to "defend [its] unique culture against Western imperialism." The director of the museum at that time was a man who had been born in Prague, raised in Istanbul, and did not come to the United States until 1946, after American fighting men had saved the world.

Today the director of the National Air and Space Museum is John R. Dailey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general. It was Gen. Dailey who introduced Tibbets to the audience the other night, and his words were:

"Tonight we will share an evening with a great American hero."

Tibbets, when he got to the stage, did not mention the controversies of 1994 and 1995; he simply thanked the audience for coming, and asked them to watch a short film.

The film, about the mission to end the war, featured interviews with his crew members, some now dead. There was newsreel footage of Tibbets, just after he had returned from the flight to Hiroshima. He was 30 in the newsreel; I have gotten to know him only late in his life, and the voice I have come to know is that of the man in his 80s. On the screen, the voice was different -- steady, slightly drawled, self-assured beyond belief: the voice of a magnificent young combat aviator. The eyes of the young pilot, over all the years, stared challengingly off the screen.

When the film ended, the older Tibbets began his talk. It was no-nonsense, filled with details of his flight, and memories of his men. He said when he first assembled the unit that would win the war, he overheard his soldiers talking about "the old man." They were referring to him. "I was the old man," Tibbets said. "I was 29 years old."

He talked about how he chose the crewmen who would fly with him to Japan; he named some of them, and then said, "There were some more boys in there." Boys.

His summation of his mission, and its effect on the world at war, and on the bone-weary American soldiers, sailors and airmen, was direct: "We succeeded in putting the carnage to an end, and everyone got to come home."

When it was time for questions, Gen. Dailey had to repeat the audience's words; because of Tibbets' severe hearing loss, he needs help at such moments. But he welcomed the interaction with the audience; he sensed that in this building now they were not his adversaries, but were grateful for what he and his men had done for their country. He gave them the answers to what they wanted to know.

And they gave him an answer, too. When he was finished speaking, they stood and cheered for him, they were on their feet and applauding and thanking him, letting him know that they understood. Their cheers built in volume and intensity, and the old pilot nodded almost imperceptibly to let them know that he heard them, and that he, too, understood.

What Tibbets would tell me later about all of this will be reported in tomorrow's column.

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

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