Throughout his life, Tibbets seemed more troubled by other people's objections to the bomb than by 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 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."
(U.S. Army Air Force)
"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."
'An emotional thing'
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."
After the war, Tibbets said in 2005, 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.
The museum had planned to mount an exhibit that would have provided the context of the bombing, including the discussion within the Truman administration of whether to use the bomb, the rejection of a demonstration bombing and the selection of a target.
Veterans groups objected that it paid too much attention to Japan's suffering and too little to Japan's brutality during and before World War II, and that it underestimated the number of Americans who would have perished in an invasion. They said the bombing of Japan was an unmitigated blessing for the United States and its fighting men and the exhibit should say so.
Tibbets denounced it as "a damn big insult."
The museum changed its plan, and agreed to display the fuselage of the Enola Gay without commentary, context or analysis.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton plans a photographic tribute to Tibbets, who was inducted in 1996.
"There are few in the history of mankind that have been called to figuratively carry as much weight on their shoulders as Paul Tibbets," director Ron Kaplan said in a news release. "Even fewer were able to do so with a sense of honor and duty to their countrymen as did Paul."
Tibbets told the Dispatch in 2005 he wanted his ashes scattered over the English Channel, where he loved to fly during the war.
He is survived by 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.
On the Net
Enola Gay Remembered Inc.: www.enolagay.org