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Jewish World Review May 4, 2001 / 11 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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'We did what we were supposed to do' -- WASHINGTON | Mission accomplished.

That is how Paul Tibbets, 86, felt as he left the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on a recent warm spring night. He had come to make a point -- and to find something out for himself.

Mission accomplished, on both fronts.

"I felt proud," Tibbets told me. "I felt that they understand what we did, and why we did it."

In 1994 and 1995, Tibbets -- and many World War II veterans -- felt the Smithsonian had gone out of its way to denigrate and insult the U.S. soldiers, sailors and aviators who fought and died to win World War II. The Smithsonian's planned exhibit back then -- an exhibit that would commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war's end by emphasizing the enemy's point of view -- was so repugnant to veterans, and came under such criticism, that it was eventually scrapped.

But the bad taste had remained in Tibbets' mouth. He was the combat pilot who, at the request of his country, had flown the Enola Gay to Japan, had, with his crew, dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and had ended the long and terrible war. If the Smithsonian--the repository of America's history--was going to belittle what he and his crew did. . . .

Well, that was something the old combat pilot was unwilling to forget.

But on his recent visit here, at the invitation of the Smithsonian, he had spoken in the Air and Space Museum, had been treated with respect by the museum's current administrators (the ones who planned the insulting exhibit are gone), and had been greeted with warmth and appreciation by an overflow audience. For his crew -- most of them now dead -- and for all of the fighting men of World War II, he felt they had, however belatedly, received the understanding they deserved.

He told me he holds no ill feelings toward current Smithsonian officials: "It's like with the Japanese. I'm not angry at the Japanese today -- they're not the same ones we fought."

The second thing that made Tibbets feel proud was the reaction from the people in the audience -- people across a broad spectrum of ages. For years he has worried that, with the passage of time, Americans will forget what the World War II soldiers were asked to do, and why they were asked to do it. Especially his flight to Hiroshima -- his flight to end the war.

"Those people in the audience," he said. "They made me think they really do know why we were asked to carry out our mission. For the first time in years, I get the feeling they know."

He was concerned that some of the people who met him in the museum might have thought his silence when they spoke to him came from haughtiness, or disinterest in what asked.

"I was just afraid to make a fool of myself," he told me. "I just can't hear."

His hearing loss came from years of bomber pistons banging next to his ears: "Years ago, I learned not to reply unless I know what is being said to me. When someone speaks and I don't hear them, I have to just say nothing. It's embarrassing as hell."

He doesn't know how many years he has left. But he is very pleased that the Smithsonian, in a huge new air museum it is building near Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, will display the Enola Gay, completely restored. The plane will thus be a visible part of our nation's history forever.

The real honor, though, he said, comes when men his own age approach him -- as they do all the time -- and "come up to me and say, `You saved my butt. I got to come home.' And they shake my hand. That's the greatest compliment I can get."

These are the men -- my late father was one of them -- who were on their way to Japan for the land invasion. They came home instead, because Tibbets and his men ended the war.

He doesn't care what the Smithsonian's curators say about the Enola Gay this time around. If he had his way, they would do it in one sentence.

"Just hang a sign on the nose of the plane," Tibbets said. "Have the sign say: `We did what we were supposed to do.'"

"Does that refer to your crew, or the plane?" I asked.

"Both," Tibbets said. "Both."

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

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