COLUMBUS, Ohio Paul Tibbets, who etched his mother's name Enola Gay into history on the nose of the B-29 bomber he flew to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, died Thursday after six decades of steadfastly defending the mission. He was 92.
Throughout his life, Tibbets seemed more troubled by other people's objections to the bomb than by him having led the crew that killed tens of thousands of Japanese in a single stroke. The attack marked the beginning of the end of World War II.
Tibbets grew tired of criticism for delivering the first nuclear weapon used in wartime, telling family and friends that he wanted no funeral service or headstone because he feared a burial site would only give detractors a place to protest.
And he insisted he slept just fine, believing with certainty that using the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they erased because they eliminated the need for a drawn-out invasion of Japan.
"He said, 'What they needed was someone who could do this and not flinch and that was me,"' said journalist Bob Greene, who wrote the Tibbets biography, "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."
Tibbets died at his Columbus home after a two-month decline caused by a variety of health problems, said Gerry Newhouse, a longtime friend.
"I'm not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I'm proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did," he said in a 1975 interview.
"You've got to take stock and assess the situation at that time. We were at war. ... You use anything at your disposal."
He added: "I sleep clearly every night."
Filmmaker Ken Burns said Tibbets' life "helps to take this incredible, gigantic event and personalize it. This is a real human being who changed the course of the world inexorably on that August morning."
Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. was born Feb. 23, 1915, in Quincy, Ill., and spent most of his boyhood in Miami. He was a student at the University of Cincinnati's medical school when he decided to withdraw in 1937 to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
"I knew when I got the assignment it was going to be an emotional thing," Tibbets told The Columbus Dispatch for a story on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. "We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible."
Tibbets, a 30-year-old colonel at the time, and his crew of 13 dropped the five-ton "Little Boy" bomb over Hiroshima the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. The blast killed or injured at least 140,000.
Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing at least 60,000 people. Tibbets did not fly in that mission. The Japanese surrendered a few days later.
"It did in fact end the war," said Morris Jeppson, the officer who armed the bomb during the Hiroshima flight. "Ending the war saved a lot of U.S. armed forces and Japanese civilians and military. History has shown there was no need to criticize him."
Former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, a former Marine fighter pilot, said people who criticized Tibbets for piloting the plane that dropped the bomb failed to recognize that an allied invasion of Japan, which the bomb helped avert, would have resulted in the deaths of several million people.
"It wasn't his decision. It was a presidential decision, and he was an officer that carried out his duty," Glenn said. "It's a horrible weapon, but war is pretty horrible, too."
Tibbets said in 2005 that after the war he was dogged by rumors claiming he was in prison or had committed suicide.
"They said I was crazy, said I was a drunkard, in and out of institutions," he said. "At the time, I was running the National Crisis Center at the Pentagon."
Tibbets retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general in 1966. He moved to Columbus, where he ran an air taxi service until he retired in 1985.
In 1976, he was criticized for re-enacting the bombing during an appearance at a Harlingen, Texas, air show. As he flew a B-29 Superfortress over the show, a bomb set off on the runway below created a mushroom cloud.
He said the display "was not intended to insult anybody," but the Japanese were outraged. The U.S. government later issued a formal apology.
Tibbets again defended the bombing in 1995, when an outcry erupted over a planned 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution.
In his later years, he frequently accepted speaking invitations and signed books on the bombing of Hiroshima, said granddaughter Kia Tibbets.
Author Richard Rhodes said Tibbets' feelings about the bombing he helped plan embodied public opinion at the time.
"He was so characteristic of that generation. He was a man who took great pride in what he did during the war, including the atomic bombing," said Rhodes, who wrote "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
"It's hard for people today to think about the atomic bombings without feeling they were just out and out atrocities, but people at the time had a very different sense of what they needed to do," Rhodes said.
Tibbets told the Dispatch in 2005 he wanted his ashes scattered over the English Channel, where he loved to fly during the war.
Survivors include his wife, Andrea, and three sons, Paul, Gene and James, as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A grandson named after Tibbets followed his grandfather into the military as a B-2 bomber pilot currently stationed in Belgium.