In a 2008 address to the student body of the Air War College, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates challenged young Air Force officers to begin thinking about the kind of leaders they wished to become. “Do you want to become somebody” he asked, “or do you want to do something?” Without necessarily denigrating either choice, he made it clear that these were two distinctly different paths, with each requiring its own mindset and preparatory goals. It was clear though that he thought our present-day military could use more of those committed to a mission than to their own advancement.
I was personally much-struck by the Secretary’s point, both as an ex senior non-com serving in several very different chains-of-command at a time of war, and as an amateur – but serious – military historian. The World War II period (1941 – 1945) presents the student of military history with an interesting array of star-studded leaders serving during a time of changing national service demands – and with that a huge change in the very culture of military life. During a time of such a clash of “peacetime” vs. “wartime” cultures within the ranks, consider the one between disciplined “old timers” and greenies just out of high school, college or jerking sodas at a local milk bar. Consider the cadre of Junior Officers who had plugged away for ten or fifteen years for their coveted silver bar or Captain’s tracks only to see a small “army” of “kids” get their commissions after some good luck and 90 days of OCS - Officer’s Candidate School.
And the upper ranks did not escape unscathed by the outbreak of war. Many field grade officers who had already reached or passed their level of competency were now promoted a notch or two beyond as swelling numbers gave birth to new advancement possibilities. In this maelstrom of administrative shuffling, many deserving but “quiet” candidates got “passed over” while astute “political” officers moved upward.
When on August 17th 1942 , a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with the name Butcher Shop painted on its nose rose from the rough runway of Grafton-Underwood air field in Britain’s East Anglia to lead 11 other “Forts” on America’s first strike of WWII against Nazi-occupied Europe, the airman at the controls was a 27-year-old major named Paul W. Tibbets; that’s right, the same Paul Tibbets who three years hence would be flying a Super Fortress named the Enola Gay carrying the Atomic bomb which would bring about the end of the war. Tibbets would also lead the first 100-bomber strike deep into Germany.
Tibbets was a rising star and a close associate of that group of leaders who made strategic bombing an eventual winning strategy, and his leadership skills forged the foundations of the air campaign in the pacific which would bring the Empire of Japan to the surrender table in 1945, before which he would have to restore the confidence of reluctant air crews even to fly the “cursed” giant.
Described by Eisenhower as the Allies’ very best pilot, it would be Tibbets who would be given the responsibility of flying the Supreme Commander and his headquarters staff from England to Gibraltar in preparation for the invasion of North Africa. After being transferred to Africa and the newly formed 12th Air force himself, and while awaiting his promotion to Colonel to be carried out, Tibbets manages to get on the wrong side of another Colonel on his way upward. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and with 43 missions under his belt, he objected to a mission planned by Colonel Lauris Norstad to go against an enemy target at 6,000 feet – the best possible “killing zone” for Nazi gunners. In the end Tibbets agreed to lead the mission if Norstad would fly as his co-pilot. Group aircrews were relieved when the altitude was changed to 20,000 feet. Norstad cancelled Tibbets’ promotion and – superior in the changing chain of command in the following years – blocked his progress.
In every command in which he served, Paul Tibbets – not always quietly – left things better than he had found them. He saw a future for jet-powered bombers and pioneered development of the B-47. When it was seen that the long-awaited B-29 program was in danger of failing, Tibbets was sent to save the super bomber and restore the confidence of grown men who were refusing to fly in the dangerous Boeing plane which had even killed its test pilot. He ended up accumulating more B-29 flight hours than any other pilot, and in the process working out a host of problems, lightening the plane’s weight by 7,000 pounds, and demonstrating the giant’s ability to turn inside that of the P-47 fighter in simulated air combat. Training two women pilots to handle the big bomber, he used a demonstration to shame male pilots refusing to fly.
The next time you view the motion picture, Twelve O’clock High written by Bierne Lay, Jr. and released in 1949, you are seeing a story based upon the 97th and 306th bomb groups of the 8th Air Force in the early days of the U.S.A.A.F. in WWII. Gregory Peck plays the part of Gen. Frank Armstrong, who ten years later was my C.O. The tough no-nonsense pilot he chooses to be his Deputy – with the fictional name of Joe Cobb – is really Paul Tibbets, played by actor Joe Kellog.
After many years of research and thinking about it, I believe that General Paul Tibbets, whose ashes were scattered over the English Channel, is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and certainly an example of one who lived to DO something.