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Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the pilot of the B-29 Enola Gay who trained at Wendover Field for the mission that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, died Thursday. He was 92.
The World War II icon - who later attracted a bit of controversy - passed away at his Columbus, Ohio, home and requested no funeral and no headstone, according to The Associated Press. Longtime friend Gerry Newhouse said Tibbets feared a grave site would give his detractors a place to protest.
Tibbets, a flying ace, also led the first American daylight bombing raid on German-occupied territory prior to spending a year in Utah's west desert during the run-up to Hiroshima. He still is revered in Wendover.
In September 1944, then-Col. Tibbets, U.S. Army Air Corps, was tapped, at age 29, to command a special and secretive unit based near the Nevada-Utah line. He created the first strike force designed specifically for atomic aerial bombardment.
The 509th Squadron, also known as "the atomic air fleet," was composed of 15 B-29 bombers and about 1,800 personnel, according to Wendover, Winds of Change, by South Jordan resident Ronald R. Bateman.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets and his 13-man crew dropped the 5-ton bomb called "Little Boy." Three days later, a second B-29, piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney, delivered "Fat Man" over Nagasaki.
On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
In 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Tibbets recalled for his squadron comrades the days in Wendover leading up to the war's dramatic conclusion.
"We weren't going to be bothered by visitors there," he chuckled at the gathering, and remembered that some in the 509th had taken to calling the desert burg "Leftover."
"You all landed there and probably felt the same way I did when I first saw it: What did I do to get punished like this?"
But old-timers in Utah's western-most town idolized Tibbets and the crew of the Enola Gay - and they still do. In a Salt Lake Tribune interview earlier this year, Bonnie Tillbury recalled the World War II hero. She was 16 when the 509th came to Wendover and remembered Tibbets as a bigger-than-life figure.
"I met him when I went to work at the signal office at the base," she said. "And my mom would baby-sit for them once in a while. We were proud to know him."
Tibbets, who named the famous B-29 after his mother, was later questioned about whether dropping the bomb was morally defensible. It immediately killed an estimated 75,000 people and left tens of thousands of others seriously injured and ill with radiation poisoning.
The Enola Gay skipper was quoted on a number of occasions saying he had no regrets because the atomic attack precluded a land invasion and saved innumerable American lives.
After his 1976 re-enactment of the bombing at a Texas air show, Tibbets was roundly criticized, and Japan demanded an apology. In 1995, another brouhaha erupted over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Toward the end of his life, Tibbets put the bombing in perspective.
"We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background," he told The Columbus Dispatch in 2005. "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."