Special Edition Spotlight Story by Colonel Cole Kingseed: "The Man Who Dropped the Bomb"

Clear Path for Veterans is honored to work with author Colonel Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army-Ret., who has offered to write a quarterly article for the Clear Path newsletter highlighting many inspiring Veteran and military stories for our readers. This is the second special edition article in this series and is extracted from his chapter in Old Glory Stories (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006).

The Man Who Dropped the Bomb

Brigadier General Paul Warfield Tibbets is a member of the most exclusive fraternity of warriors in the world, a band of brothers that consists of but two veterans: the pilots who initiated the nuclear age in warfare. Moreover, Tibbets is the chairman of the board. As commander of the 509th Composite Bomb Group in 1945, he delivered the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. From the pilot’s seat of the Enola Gay, a plane that he named for his mother, Tibbets saw the city shimmer in the morning light and then suddenly disappear.

In the late spring of 1998, I had the good fortune to visit General Tibbets in his modest home in Columbus, Ohio, a mere ten miles from where I had attended The Ohio State University as a graduate student twenty years earlier. Prior to my own retirement from the U.S. Army, I had asked the General to visit West Point to speak to my cadets.  Tibbets graciously declined my offer, citing his inability to hear questions from his audience due to hearing loss in his right ear. He countered my request, however, by offering to host me for a short visit at his home in east Columbus.

At the appointed hour, he met me at his door and directed that I sit at a kitchen table.  “No questions are off the table,” he said, “What would you like to know?” Before I asked General Tibbets, I was struck that I was sitting in front of a man who had shaped history some fifty-odd years ago. Here was the commander whose very action had changed the course of World War II.

Naturally, I asked him about the mission over Hiroshima. I was astounded when he claimed that the mission was “the most boring flight” he ever made. “Everything went according to plan.  We had rehearsed the mission countless times. The bomb would explode exactly forty-three seconds after bombardier Tom Ferebee released it from the plane.” When I inquired as to what he attributed the mission’s success, he responded emphatically.  “The crews of the 509th Composite.” 

I should not have been surprised because every commander takes pride in a unit that he has trained and prepared for war. The 509th was Tibbets’s personal creation in every sense of the word.  He had selected the crews personally, developed a meticulous training plan, deployed them to Tinian, and then conducted the final rehearsals.  As commander, he had flown the initial mission.

We then discussed leadership. “Leaders are not made; they are born, stated Tibbets. “My focus has always been on the ‘instincts’ of a leader. You can make a manager, but not a leader.  The keys are the ability to assess a situation and the willingness to make the difficult decisions. Leaders must make decisions.”   

He elaborated on the loneliness of command. “When you command a unit, and my unit was more important than most, you must distance yourself from the men.  Regular human relationships do not enter into the equation. You cannot afford to be too close to the men in your command because you have to make the life-and-death decisions on a daily basis.  The job of being in command is lonely by definition.”

My final question is a question that I asked every veteran from the Greatest Generation: “How do you want to be remembered?” Tibbets immediately replied that he desired no special recognition. The name of the plane means more to him than any personal attention given its pilot. I am content that we did what reason compelled and duty dictated.” I suspect every veteran of the armed services feels the same.

– Column by Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, USA-Ret.

Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, USA (Ret.) is a thirty-year Army veteran who commanded at the platoon, company, and battalion levels.  During his career, he served in the Infantry in a variety of military assignments, culminating in his tenure as full professor of history and chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Colonel Kingseed holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University (1983) and a MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College (1992). The author of Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis of 1956 (1995), The American Civil War (2004), From Omaha Beach to Dawson’s Ridge: The Combat Journal of Captain Joe Dawson (2005), Old Glory Stories: Army Leadership in World War II (2006), the #10 New York Times bestseller Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters (2006), -seventy-five articles on leadership, and 325 book reviews, Colonel Kingseed is a founding partner and the retired president of Battlefield Leadership, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in history-based leadership programs.  Kingseed also serves as a private leadership consultant and president of The Brecourt Leadership Experience, Inc., whose clients have included BlackRock, General Electric, EY, Deloitte, Merrill Lynch, Underwriters Laboratories, Bayer Corporation, State Farm Company, International Paper, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Ameriprise Financial.   In 2009 Colonel Kingseed won the prestigious Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award for his article on U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and his leadership during World War II.