He was one of them. One among the millions who answered their country’s call during a time of great need. He had lived through the Great Depression with them and, when war came to America, he and his brethren brought the fight to our enemies. Behind their military efforts millions of others labored on the “home front” unleashing unparalleled industrial productivity, engineering ingenuity, scientific development well beyond its time thereby forever altering the course of history and all that was to follow. In four short years they prevailed on numerous military fronts, ultimately victorious in a world wide war, they showed their greatness as beneficent victors. They returned home igniting the growth of this nation allowing it to emerge, as they aged, as a pre-eminent global leader, standing alone by 1989, triumphant, as the” Lone Superpower.”
He was of that generation that, almost posthumously, became celebrated as “The Greatest Generation”. And that they were. They put one foot in front of the other and carried on. They did what needed to be done without question, complaint or conflict. They did not seek recognition or reward. Most never spoke of their experiences during those years. It was this quiet strength and humility that finally brought them their due as we looked inward at what we had become.
He was one of those millions who did not seek the moment yet gracefully allowed the moment to find him. Indeed, many were called, few chosen. History found these men and women, they sought it not.
We learn about some of these people, we are somewhat vaguely familiar with their names. Today, they are probably alien to students in high school and college. Students, media and our culture as a whole, are more interested in celebrity and sports, scandals and crime than in our not-so-distant-history.
Putting aside all the subsequent controversy surrounding his most historic act, for the moment putting on hold the debate that has raged for the last 60 years, we should take a moment to look simply at the man. Yesterday, November 1, 2007, 92 years after his birth in Quincy, Illinois on February 23, 1915, Paul Tibbets died.
Paul Tibbets, who was hand-picked in September 1944 to lead the ultra secret 509th Composite Group of the Army Air Corps, will live on in history more for what he was part of than for who he was. But, he was one of them. He was given a task, a task so new and novel that many involved feared they could ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth.
While the famous and not yet famous scientists, physicists and engineers labored under the tutelage of Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, while General Leslie Groves oversaw a vast, unprecedented industrial effort with facilities from coast to coast, Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets had to devise the safest, most effective method by which to deliver the first atomic bomb. He carefully chose his crews and staff, stripped down the huge B-29 “Flying Fortress” to accommodate the weight of his unique payload and trained for precise delivery for many months in secrecy near Wendover, Nevada before relocating his operations to the theater of combat in the South Pacific. The 509th set up shop on Tinian Island and prepared for the day President Truman would send word to make the 1700 mile flight to Japan. That call came and his famously “infamous” mission began in the predawn hours of August 6th, 1945.
The utilization of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that day and on Nagasaki, three days later, was the course chosen by Mr. Truman as an alternative to a land invasion of main land Japan. Estimates of American casualties from such an assault ran as high as one million dead. General Douglas MacArthur speculated it could take up to “ten years” top wipe out pockets of Japanese resistance.
Paul Tibbets memorialized his mother by painting her name, Enola Gay, on the B-29 he piloted that day. He knew not, could not have possibly ever imagined, the ramifications, repercussions and perpetual consequences his mission would produce.
Before his death Retired general Paul W. Tibbets requested that his ashes be scattered over the English Channel where he had flown so many missions prior to his command of the 509th. Also, at his request, there will be no tombstone or marker signifying his final resting place. He feared such a site would attract his detractors, protestors and that it would become not a place of rest but a scene of conflict. This humble, decent man had endured enough back lash in life, he sought true rest for his eternal soul.
Paul Tibbets said as late as 2005 that he never regretted dropping the bomb, never lost sleep over it. Such comments have been used by his many detractors to caste him as cold, monstrous, unfeeling. He was none of those. He was much more than he ever let on or anyone ever knew.
In my life I have been blessed to know some of them. Men, whose names are never to be written in history books, yet none less heroic for their efforts during World War II. I have sat besides them on the subway, passed them on the street, and have seen them in church. I have drank with them in bars from the South Bronx to Hoboken. Some remained strangers; nothing more than familiar faces here and there. Others I came to know well, very well, some well enough to mourn their passings to this day.
Men like my uncles Joe and Steve. Men like Sante Cantonese from South Philly and Sergeant Major Larry Massino who turned 18 as a Marine on Tarawa. Men like John Avallone, Bill Boss, and Bill Collins. Men who were on Normandy, and in North Africa. Men, who as boys served on ships, make shift bases and in the infantry. Men (boys) who knew, as they stood on a wooden landing craft riding the waves into some anonymous out-cropping of rock in the South Pacific, that they would most likely die that very day. They were my mentors and teachers, coaches and disciplinarians.
Of course, there is my father; a man possessed of such quiet dignity and strength. He lived through it all from the depression and into today always teaching, always speaking quietly, telling me the stories of those men. It was he who sat on the edge of my bed in the Murphy room when I was a child and told me things like, “With the help of God and a few Marines, MacArthur returned to the Philippines”, and “Uncommon valor was a common virtue”.
I am proud to have known such things from such an early age; it has some how allowed me to have, to feel a connection with that time. It has provided me a respect for history and those who made it even though they did not realize it at the time.
Today, as I approach deeper middle-age, I appreciate it all the more. Reading of Paul Tibbets death yesterday stirred me. It hit me subtlety and overtly, it brought back some memories I’d not pawed in some time. I thank my father for the memories, lessons and appreciations he gave me. I prayed for Paul Tibbets soul last night. May he find eternal peace. And that is the prayer I will offer for my father when his time comes which, I believe, remains a long way off. After all, those guys are survivors.
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