Life After Wartime

My mother, who is 88, told me last month that it had been a long time since she’d seen Paul Tibbets in the Bob Evans restaurant on the east side of Columbus, Ohio. She thought this was odd; she ate lunch there so often, and he ate lunch there so often, that his absence worried her.

When he died this month at age 92, the obituaries centered, of course, on the controversy over the dropping of the atomic bomb from the B-29 piloted by Mr. Tibbets and named in honor of his mother, Enola Gay. The half-century-old debate did not rivet him. Perhaps people expected him to be surprised when the subject came up, as if he was somehow unaware of what he had somberly been asked to do by his government during wartime.

Pictures of American exhilaration on V-J Day in 1945 — people dancing in the streets, sailors kissing girls — the country has always cherished. The nation seemed not quite as eager to commemorate the actions that brought the peace. Mr. Tibbets understood. He knew that when the United States decided it was time to bring World War II to a sudden end, it wasn’t in need of a poet or a philosopher. “They were looking for someone who wouldn’t flinch,” he told me once. “That was me.”

He was a precise and careful man, consumed by details. In the sky above Japan that August day, he polled his crew: “Do we all agree that this is Hiroshima?” Afterward, he noted that he could taste the bomb in his mouth. “It tasted like lead.”

I was fortunate enough to spend time talking with him and traveling with him and writing about him. On the road, I would see him make up his hotel room or clear his plates in a restaurant. When I would tell him that other people would do that, he would say that no able-bodied man should expect another person to do this work for him.

Once — this was when some championship sports team or other had been invited to the White House for congratulations — I asked him if any president had ever invited him for a visit.

He said it only happened once — right after the war, when he got word that Harry Truman wanted to see him. “We met in an irregular-shaped room,” Mr. Tibbets said, almost certainly referring to the Oval Office. “It was short and quick. He offered me a cup of coffee. Truman asked me if anyone was giving me a hard time, saying unpleasant things to me because of the bomb. I said, ‘Oh, once in a while.’

“Truman said, ‘You tell them that if they have anything to say, they should call me. I’m the one who sent you.’”

On this Veterans Day I will think about the men and women in their 70s and 80s whom I would see when I was with Mr. Tibbets. These were soldiers and sailors, now grown old, who had expected to be sent to Japan for the land invasion, and perhaps die on those shores. Instead, they came home. In Mr. Tibbets’s presence they would sometimes weep, barely managing to say: “Thank you.” He would mostly nod, a little embarrassed.

His hearing was almost shot, the result of years of airplane pistons pounding near his ears. He sometimes seemed a little lonely, and I don’t think I have ever known someone for whom the phrase “carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders” had at one time been more literal.

Of the quiet flight back from Hiroshima, he said he had two enduring recollections: “The memory of being so tired. And of believing that the war was finally over.”

It was reported that he claimed never to have lost a night’s sleep after the mission, and some saw this as a show of indifference. It was the opposite. He slept well, he told me, because “we stopped the killing.” He was at peace, he said, because “I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did.”

Bob Greene, the author of Duty, a book about his father and Paul Tibbets, and the forthcoming When We Get to Surf City.