Grandson of legendary Air Force pilot reflects family legacy

  • Published
  • By Stefan Bocchino
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories and commentaries focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Col. Paul W. Tibbets IV, the Air Force Inspection Agency commander, is the grandson of retired Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the pilot in command of the "Enola Gay" when it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945.

Colonel Tibbets said that while growing up, he was aware of what his grandfather had done during World War II. His father spent a 30-year career in the Army Reserve as a pharmacist and hospital administrator, retiring as a colonel.

"My father had the biggest influence on me joining the Air Force," Colonel Tibbets said. "When I was in 9th grade, I became involved in youth service projects. It was a passion of mine to serve. My father said 'You seem to be very interested in serving -- what do you want to do with your life?' I told him I was interested in serving, and he told me to look into something like the ROTC or service academies."

Colonel Tibbets applied to the service academies and was accepted to the Air Force Academy, where he spent four years training for his Air Force career.

"The time that I spent with my grandfather was very limited growing up," Colonel Tibbets said. "It was an honor being a Tibbets, and I will always consider him a hero. The last time I saw him before leaving for the Air Force Academy, he told me, 'Paul, just remember, people are going to know you because of who I am. You be who you are and don't worry about who I was.' What I found out later was that he was really concerned his service would somehow have a negative effect on my career. I took his advice to heart the best I could."

During his time at the Academy, Colonel Tibbets was interested in flying. Following graduation, he was selected to attend Air Force pilot training; multiple factors went into the deciding which aircraft he would be assigned to fly. According to the colonel, the first factor was the needs of the Air Force. From there, consideration was given to his 'Dream Sheet,' listing the planes he wanted to fly. Finally, the instructor's provided an evaluation as to which weapon system would be best for him based on performance.

"There was no favoritism when I was chosen for bombers," Colonel Tibbets said, who has been in the Air Force for 22 years.. "The Air Force can't afford to put someone in a job for which they're not qualified. I was told that it wasn't because of who I was, but because it was the best fit."

During World War II, General Tibbets flew B-17s in Europe. Later in the war, he returned to the U.S. to test-fly the B-29 Superfortress. He was selected to command the 509th Composite Group that was connected to the Manhattan Project. On Aug. 6, 1945, he flew a B-29, which he dubbed Enola Gay after his mother's name, during the bombing of Hiroshima.

"Even though there was controversy over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my grandfather said he never lost one minute of sleep," Colonel Tibbets said. "He emphasized that, 'My country asked me to do something, and I set forth with the men in the 509th Composite Group to accomplish it to the best of our ability, and it helped bring the war to an end.' It is interesting being a senior officer now and thinking about the challenges those men went through. They never lost focus on the mission they were to carry out, and they did it beautifully."

Colonel Tibbets was previously assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. That was the same unit his grandfather commanded during the bombing of Hiroshima.

"I competed to go to the 509th and was selected," the colonel said. "It was quite an honor to be in that organization. It's a highly skilled, highly capable organization with a very unique mission. Later, I was selected to command."

He commanded the 393rd Bomb Squadron, an operational squadron of B-2 'Spirit' aircraft at Whiteman AFB, within the same wing his grandfather commanded.

"The wing commander made the decision that commanding the unit was where my skills were needed," Colonel Tibbets said. "It was one of those opportunities that the Air Force has given me, to command an operational squadron, and I'm obviously honored and thrilled to be a part of something like that. You add on that it was my grandfather's squadron and it meant just the world to me. Just as my grandfather did, I was focused on serving those entrusted to my command to the best of my ability. I thought, 'I won't let them down, I can't let my grandfather down, and I don't want to let my Air Force down.'"

During a deployment in 2010, Colonel Tibbets spoke on Veterans Day about the attributes of his grandfather and the crew of the Enola Gay.

"These were men of courage, in the air and on the ground," Colonel Tibbets said. "In the latter days of World War II, the Allies were faced with a terrible dilemma. The Japanese had proven to be a proud, courageous and determined people, willing to die for their emperor. The invading of Japan was necessary to end the war. The decision was pending that would cost an estimated 1 million allied casualties and possibly 5 to 6 million Japanese casualties. The alternative was dropping a bomb on two cities in Japan, which would result in significantly less bloodshed and hopes of ending the war. The bombing was a choice made by our leaders to swiftly end the war, thereby guaranteeing our future and freedoms."

People have different perspectives on the rights and wrongs of this decision.

"We should not shy away from intellectually discussing this with people who are 180 degrees off from your opinion," Colonel Tibbets said. "That's one of the reasons why I wear this uniform, so people can have the right to voice differing opinions. I think it's important for me as a 'Paul Tibbets' to think about what my grandfather went through."

He also spoke about the decision-making that directs military action.

"We execute military orders from our politicians, who decide what needs to be done," Colonel Tibbets said. "People who think my grandfather and his crew were warmongers are missing the point. They had a military mission to carry out. They were also told that maybe it would help end the war. Would you not want to be a part of that? You might not, but at least understand what they did. It came down to a simple (question): Can we end the war and save lives?"

General Tibbets died in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 1, 2007 at 92.

"It is a real privilege to serve our great nation, being part of something bigger than ourselves," said Colonel Tibbets, who took command of AFIA in July. "I am so proud of all our Airmen and joint partners, who are a very small percentage of all Americans who are wearing the uniform and defending freedom. I love it."