The Enola Gay was the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and was named after Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets (pictured above).
The bomber was one of the 15 initial examples of B-29s built to the "Silverplate" specification—65 of these eventually being completed during and after World War II—giving them the primary ability to function as nuclear "weapon delivery" aircraft. These modifications included an extensively modified bomb bay with pneumatic doors and British bomb attachment and release systems, reversible pitch propellers that gave more braking power on landing, improved engines with fuel injection and better cooling, and the removal of protective armour and gun turrets.
On 5 August 1945, during preparation for the first atomic mission, Tibbets assumed command of the aircraft and named it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets, who, in turn, had been named for the heroine of a novel. When it came to selecting a name for the plane, Tibbets later recalled that:
... my thoughts turned at this point to my courageous red-haired mother, whose quiet confidence had been a source of strength to me since boyhood, and particularly during the soul-searching period when I decided to give up a medical career to become a military pilot. At a time when Dad had thought I had lost my marbles, she had taken my side and said, "I know you will be all right, son."
Enola Gay, piloted by Tibbets, took off from North Field, in the Northern Mariana Islands, about six hours' flight time from Japan, accompanied by two other B-29s, The Great Artiste, carrying instrumentation, and a then-nameless aircraft later called Necessary Evil, commanded by Captain George Marquardt, to take photographs. The director of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., wanted the event recorded for posterity, so the takeoff was illuminated by floodlights. When he wanted to taxi, Tibbets leaned out the window to direct the bystanders out of the way. On request, he gave a friendly wave for the cameras (see photo at top).
On 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. The bomb, code-named "Little Boy", was targeted at the city of Hiroshima, Japan, and caused the near-complete destruction of the city.
Little Boy unit on trailer cradle in pit before being loaded into Enola Gay's bomb bay
At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 6,000 metres / 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 3,000 metres / 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column.
70,000–80,000 people, 30% of the city's population, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm and another 70,000 injured. Out of those killed, 20,000 were soldiers.
Enola Gay returned safely to its base, The Great Artiste and Necessary Evil following at short intervals. Several hundred people, including journalists and photographers, had gathered to watch the planes return. Tibbets was the first to disembark, and was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross on the spot.
Enola Gay landing at its base after its bombing of Hiroshima
Enola Gay participated in the second atomic attack as the weather reconnaissance aircraft for the primary target of Kokura. Clouds and drifting smoke resulted in a secondary target, Nagasaki, being bombed instead.
After the war, the Enola Gay returned to the United States, where it was operated from Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico. In 1946 it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, and spent many years parked at air bases exposed to the weather and souvenir hunters, before being disassembled and transported to the Smithsonian's storage facility at Suitland, Maryland, in 1961.
In the 1980s, veterans groups engaged in a call for the Smithsonian to put the aircraft on display, leading to an acrimonious debate about exhibiting the aircraft without a proper historical context. The cockpit and nose section of the aircraft were exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in downtown Washington, D.C., for the bombing's 50th anniversary in 1995, amid controversy. Since 2003, the entire restored B-29 has been on display at NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Enola Gay nose, port side, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
The last survivor of its crew, Theodore Van Kirk, died on 28 July 2014 at the age of 93.
"I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese."
- Theodore Van Kirk
In 2005, Van Kirk came as close as he ever got to regret.
"I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life. We unleashed the first atomic bomb, and I hope there will never be another. I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I'm not sure that we have."
“What do you say to people who maintain that there was no need to drop an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima? The Japanese were ready to surrender, that was overkill?” Tibbets was asked. “First of all, war stories are told in two phases. One is the fairly tale, ‘Once upon a time … (Revisionist History). But real war stories are not B.S., this is the way it happened,” he explained with steam coming out of his ears.
Tibbets said at least 80,000 people were killed because of the bomb he dropped. “When I got the assignment to drop the bomb on Hiroshima I knew I had to be successful,” he said. “Because if we were successful we could convince the emperor of the futility of continuing the fight. MacArthur’s headquarters in the Pacific estimated that if we had to invade (the Japanese main Islands) we would lose 1 million men killed and wounded. I’ve been to Japan a number of time after the war. The people over there ask me, ‘Why didn’t you drop the bomb earlier and stop the war?'” Tibbets said.
A couple of years ago the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. had a portion of the “Enola Gay” on display that caused an international flap. He was asked what that was all about. “The Smithsonian had come up with a proposal to display the airplane as an exhibit. It was fraught with errors because revisionist historians had written the whole damn thing,” Tibbets said.
“If you had to drop the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima again and the conditions were similar, would you?”
“I wouldn’t hesitate a minute,” Tibbets replied.
Name: Paul W. Tibbets
Date of Birth: 23 February 1915
Death: 1 November 2007
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Rank: Brigadier General
Unit: 509th Composite Group, 97th Bombardment Group
Commendations: Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Legion of Merit, European Campaign Medal, Joint Staff Commendation Medal, American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, American Campaign Medal
Tibbets died in 2007 at age 92. He had requested cremation and no physical memorial, because it would become a pilgrimage site for nuclear protesters.
Enola Gay Tibbets 1890-1966
How did Enola Gay Tibbetts feel at being so recorded in history? I haven’t been able to find out but it's not something that I would have liked.