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Paul Tibbets

Commander of the 'Enola Gay'

Paul Warfield Tibbets, pilot: born Quincy, Illinois 23 February 1915; married (two sons); died Columbus, Ohio 1 November 2007.

Well before the event that sealed his place in history, Paul Tibbets had the reputation of being "the best flier in the [US] air force". But his lasting distinction was only partially due to his skill as an aviator. Tibbets was the pilot and commander of the Enola Gay, the B-29 aircraft that dropped the first nuclear bomb in history, on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

The mission's origins began in September 1944 when Tibbets, then already a colonel, was chosen to head the special air unit that would carry out "Project Alberta" – the codename for the plan to deliver the atomic weapon that was being developed at Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the ultra-secret Manhattan Project.

By the time the bomb was successfully tested in July 1945, Hitler's Germany had been defeated and Japan was left as America's sole enemy, and the obvious target for any use of an atomic weapon. Tibbets, then aged 30, was sent to the Pacific, and after several practice runs, and a full-scale dummy mission, the attack was set for 6 August.

The day before, Tibbets formally christened his specially modified B-29 Superfortress – victory number 82 and serial number 44-86292 – the Enola Gay, after his mother. Shortly before 3am local time the following morning, the plane took off from Tinian island in the Northern Marianas for the six-hour flight north to Hiroshima.

At 8.15am the Enola Gay and its crew of 14 discharged the five-ton "Little Boy" bomb over Hiroshima – the first time that man had used a nuclear weapon against his fellow human beings. Technically, the mission was flawless. In the blast that signalled the dawn of a new era of mass destruction, a city was obliterated, between 70,000 to 100,000 people died, and numberless others were injured.

Like President Harry Truman who ordered the attack, Tibbets never expressed regret over his role, whatever the controversy that has raged ever since. It was his patriotic duty, he insisted, to carry out an attack that shortened the war.

"I'm not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I'm proud I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did," he said years later. "You've got to take stock and assess the situation at that time. We were at war, and you use anything at your disposal. There are no Marquess of Queensberry rules in war". And, he added, "I sleep clearly every night."

Tibbets had joined what was then called the Army Air Corps in 1937, when he enlisted as a flying cadet at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. In 1942 he was named commanding officer of the 340th Bomb Squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses, which operated out of Britain against Nazi Germany. Two years later, he was reassigned to the US, to test-fly the new longer-range Superfortresses that would carry out the missions against Hiroshima and, three days later, against Nagasaki.

Tibbets retired from the US Air Force in 1966 – but not before becoming the unwitting subject of a diplomatic incident when he was appointed military attaché to the US embassy in New Delhi. The assignment was scrapped after all India's political parties protested at his presence. In later life, he headed an air-taxi company based in Columbus, Ohio.

Rupert Cornwell