COL PAUL TIBBETS, THE ATOMIC BOMB, THE BRADLEY THEATER, AND ME
AUGUST 6th, 1945, WAS THE DAY THAT COL. PAUL TIBBETS FLEW THE ENOLA GAY TO HIROSHIMA
I was 14 years old, a doorman at the Bradley theater in downtown Columbus, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later, when one was dropped on Nagasaki. I don’t remember where I first learned about it, but I do have recollections of the screaming headlines in the Columbus Ledger and Enquirer newspapers. I don’t think I fully grasped the lasting effects of those blasts at the time, just that I, like everyone else I knew, was glad that the U.S. had the weapon and not the other side.
I do remember exactly where I was and what happened six days after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, because that was when Japan surrendered, ending the most destructive war in history. I was on duty at the Bradley. It was the only time I ever recall that a feature film was stopped for an announcement. A slide came up on the screen saying that the theater was going to broadcast a bulletin from WRBL. The projectionist connected the sound system to the radio station and we heard the announcement that Japan had surrendered and the war was over. People cheered, of course, then left. The theater became virtually empty.
We could hear the mill whistles blowing and horns honking on Broadway outside the theater. Though on duty, we just couldn’t stand it any longer, and went out on the street to see what was happening. Cars were circling Broadway bumper to bumper, horns blaring away, and the sidewalks were full of excited smiling people, and, though Columbus had no skyscrapers from which to throw confetti, people adjusted by tearing strips off of newspapers and tossing them in the air. The sidewalk was littered with paper.
I knew of no one at the time who said we should not have dropped the bomb. It ended the war, and that was justification enough. Our servicemen and women would be coming home. Besides, after four years of anti-Japanese propaganda in movies, radio programs, magazines and newspapers, most people had no love at all for the Japanese. It wasn’t until later when we saw newsreels in theaters of the human suffering, mainly civilians, including children, that we started to comprehend the moral dilemma of the event. Still, as President Truman had said, dropping the bombs ended the war and saved possibly a million American lives and millions of Japanese lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Estimates of the time it would take to win the war without dropping the bombs ran from six months to two years.
Once, when Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, came through Columbus to see some old friends in the 1980’s, he gave me an exclusive interview, which aired on WTVM. I had to promise not to reveal the location of the interview because Tibbets did not like for people to know his whereabouts since he could attract anti-nuclear bomb demonstrators.
Once the interview started, he told me, if I remember correctly, that the crew had been told it had a special bomb on the plane, but only he, his co-pliot, and the scientist aboard the plane who came along to arm the bomb in flight, knew what kind of bomb it was. The rest of the crew didn’t know until they saw the mushroom cloud.
How did he live with the knowledge of knowing the bomb killed about 140,000 people, most of them civilians? He said that he was doing his job, and that he agreed with President Truman that it would end the war and save many more lives.
Tibbets achieved the rank of Brigadier General before he retired in 1959. He died in 2007.
Though there has been great proliferation of nuclear bombs in too many countries for comfort, none has been used in war since the United States dropped them to end World War Two. So far, even the nationalistic fanatics have not dared use one. The balance of nuclear terror has held. Nobody would win in a nuclear exchange; the world, we are told, would become uninhabitable. The danger, however, is still very much with us.