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A Witness to History

by Gregory Johnson

Many have sworn an oath to secrecy about events during wartime. They are mostly kept, some to the grave.  Top Secrets sometimes have an expiration, usually around fifty years, when their impact is no longer deemed damaging.

I was born in Japan in 1949, four years after the Rising Sun of the Empire of Japan had forcibly been set by the United States and the Allied Forces after the bloodiest war in history.  Born into an Air Force family stationed in a country we defeated and now occupied, has led to an interesting life, common to many military families perhaps, but certainly not ordinary by civilian experience.  I was an infant in Japan with no conscious memories of that time but our family was stationed there again for three years and I got to live out the adventurous times of my youth from ten to thirteen years of age with some very formative experiences.  Japan in the late fifties was on its way to recovery from the horrendous aftermath of WWII but there was still much evidence of the costly destruction of combat, both on the landscape and in the populace.  As children of occupied Japan we were given some extra education and sensitivity about the history of the time, our responsibilities for being good representatives of the U.S.  I was even chosen as a youth delegate in a student exchange program.  I always thought we American kids got the better part of the deal as we got to stay at the Emperors Palace, treated as dignitaries, ride his horses, taste the finest cuisine they had to offer - wasted on our hot dog and hamburger sated palates.  The Japanese students meanwhile got to stay on our noisy Misawa Air Force Base and I suppose seeing fierce warplanes and military equipment could have been a thrill to them, but they were more likely apprehensive given their most recent history.

It was not easy to relate to the Japanese at that time and at that age and I felt that my efforts to befriend them were mostly rejected.  There were huge cultural differences of course, but even at that age I understood they had suffered greatly. There was still shock and anger in the land and much resentment toward their occupiers.  Our American exuberance didn’t seem to penetrate these enigmatic alien beings and I felt a certain type of rejection I had never felt before.  In spite of some of these disturbing new emotions, I was still very intrigued with the culture and explored off the security of our American enclave as much as possible.  Traditional Japanese dress was not yet changed much by Western influences and being in town was like being back in the days of the Samurai – wooden and paper houses, dirt streets, stinky fish markets, and open benjo ditches (sewers) while quite normal to the locals were all amazing to me.  What also sunk in at that early age was a certain sense of beauty and the attention to detail that is peculiar to the Japanese people.  The myriad sensory stimulations that sunk into my awareness in those years had an impact that has remained with me as I have aged.  Most likely those impressions drew me back to that culture as I later awakened to my own spiritual quest which danced around all of greater Asia – India, Tibet, China as well as Japan and Zen Buddhism through connections with the San Francisco Zen Center and the teachings of Suzuki Roshi.

I keep flowing through my life’s moments as interesting themes surface and re-surface.  In spite of growing up in a military culture, groomed for service to the country, and spending some of my adult years in the military and public safety service, I found it more suitable to make my impact through a different mindset, cultivating a more peaceful approach to service.  That said, I recognize, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita standing on the hill facing his enemies, some of whom were even family and  friends, having to play out his part in the cosmic drama, I too have made my choices and will follow them to some unknown conclusion.

Along the way there are always intersections, crossroads that made me pause and question the interplay of seemingly random events.  I left Japan and entered Junior High School at Travis Air Force Base in northern California where I was compelled to learn more about WWII history. I was drawn to a time that seemed so familiar to me as though I too, had lived through it in another life.  Some of what I experienced in Japan made more sense as I learned about their ancient history and subsequent major conflict with the U.S. in the 1940’s.  I studied in depth those war years through high school and college as an ROTC cadet.  One of the last books I read of those war years was John Hershey’s, Hiroshima.  I wept. was torn emotionally by the horror of it all, the suffering, the misguided abuse humans inflict on one another.  It drove home my desire for a greater compassion and understanding, something that made sense of the carnage and its aftermath I had read about and results I witnessed first hand.

These musings resurface time to time, more so again in recent years as we morph from all out warfare to our current time of world wide terrorism.  The specter of total war has been tempered by the concept of MAD, (Mutual Assured Destruction) in the Nuclear Age and we seem to be more content with smaller expressions of our destructive anger because the alternative is so unspeakable.  Japan is the only nation to experience and witness the dawn of nuclear Armageddon.  In the intervening years there has been much written and debated about the necessity of dropping Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Because Hiroshima was the first to experience such destruction from a single bomb using the new technology and suffered the greatest loss of life, it will always have a unique distinction and represent in a single name, our worst fear of unleashed lethal insanity.  The other two names associated with this event are the names of an American mother and her son, now part of history.  The name Enola Gay was painted in simple block letters on the nose of a B-29 Superfortress, the United States largest four engine bomber that had been trying to hammer the Japanese homeland into submission with high explosives and firebombs for months on end. Now it had the distinction of being Americas first nuclear attack weapon.  Enola Gay was the mother of then Col. Paul Tibbits, the aircraft commander and the man chosen, along with his crew, to be the ones to deliver the first and next to last nuclear bomb ever exploded in anger.  He accomplished his mission, fulfilled his duty as a soldier in the final year of a long war and went on to become a Brigadier General in the US Air Force.  Tibbits was known to be single-minded of purpose, blunt, and unequivocal about his role in unleashing the most destructive weapon known to man, and always felt he saved many more lives then he destroyed by helping bring the warlords of Japan to their knees and ultimate surrender.

I personally met Tibbits in a not so unlikely environment for me and my fellow pilots – the airport restaurant, where we gather for our jokingly referred to $100 burger because of the expense of flying there in our various winged steeds.  We also refer to this as throwing money into a hole in the air.  The year was perhaps 2003, long after Tibbits had retired and before he died in 2007.  I was having lunch with my friend Alan, a fellow pilot and builder of his own airplane, as was I , when he recognized the now retired General at a table nearby with some of his cronies.  Alan was in his early eighties at he time, had a long and distinguished career, first in the Army Air Corps during WWII flying B-24 Liberators in the Pacific Theater against Japan and then flying our first designated nuclear jet bomber, the B-47 Stratojet.

Alan was also self-assured. He recognized Tibbits right away.  Standing up he motioned me to follow him over to Tibbits’ table where he laid his hand on the retired Generals shoulder with a familiarity born of a common wartime experience.  He apologized to all at the table for the intrusion, but none was needed among this group where it was assumed most were pilots.  Alan introduced himself and me and added, with a bit of a flare, a fact that astounded all, Tibbits especially. What we were about to hear had never passed Alan’s lips before. 

Tibbits, seated with several men, looked up at Alan whose hand still rested on his shoulder and me, sheepishly standing next to him.  The restaurant was abuzz with the usual pilot banter all about us but we, in the bubble, seemed to be in a quiet space reserved for a private moment between these two men. 

Alan commenced, “You may not know this but I was the third person to ever carry a live nuclear warhead to be dropped on an enemy.” 

Tibbits reacted with his known characteristic directness and bellowed, “What the hell are you talking about?!  There were only two times that occurred and I was there for one of them!”  He was almost angry at this bit of information, as to imply only he was capable of shouldering such weight of historical gravity. 

I detected a bit of bemused satisfaction at the reaction Alan got from the old warhorse.  It was as though a gauntlet was thrown down and a man challenged to a duel.

When Alan said the event took place after WWII all everyone began to relax a little.  It was 1950, the beginning of the Korean War. The US was uncertain what was going to happen and un-prepared for all out war on the Korean Peninsula.  Our undermanned and ill supplied troops were in retreat and the Chinese allies of the North Korean communists had amassed a million-man army on the Yalu River between China and Korea.  They were about to drive south which was a sure disaster for our army and the South Koreans.  A single nuclear bomb on the enemy army now assembling would thwart the battle plan of the North.  Alan was assigned to fly a solo mission in a B-50 bomber, a modified B-29 like the Enola Gay, along the western border of Korea with a live nuclear payload.  Gen. MacArthur thought this our only chance to avoid the impending defeat.  President Harry Truman was about to be put in the position, once again, to make the decision.

Alan’s mission was understood to primarily be a test run but he was to be prepared to drop the bomb on the enemy immediately if permission was given by Truman.  That permission was never granted and all the details surrounding the incident are not known but presumably the mission was aborted because of the inherent risks posed by Russian retaliation.  MacArthur was reportedly furious at this decision and in time the tensions between President Truman and him ended in him stepping down and retiring.  “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” was his famous retirement speech that later followed. 

Alan was recalled from his mission that could have had so many unknown future ramifications if completed.  One thing was for sure – one million Chinese and North Koreans would have perished in the most horrific singular devastating event in history.

The collective timeless bubble we were in almost visibly exhaled a sigh of relief but we were all left with our own thoughts of “what if?” to ponder and we few knew we were privy to some great historic event that, if carried out as planned, could have created a very different present.

Paul Tibbits passed away in 2007 unbowed by the enormous part he played in the 20th Century, confident he did the right and necessary thing given the time.  Alan, now 91, also self assured he played out his role of service to the country and against the evils of his day in an honorable way, just recently hung up his wings but will always be a pilot at heart and shares his life with family and privileged friends such as I.

The Enola Gay has been completely restored and on display at the Smithsonian Institute, a quiet reminder of a time when the world went mad but total annihilation has since been held at bay