The Legend of Enola Gay

Or the nuclear dawn of humanity.

By Christian Nielsen

Carrol is a small city in the state of Iowa, in the US Midwest. That’s where the story began. In 1912, Paul Warfield Tibbets and Enola Gay Hazard decided to unite their lives. They had two children, Paul and Barbara. Tibbets was a pastry merchant with an unrelenting sense of discipline. He imposed on his son a medical career but Paul was fascinated by aviation. In dialogue with the English newspaper The Guardian, Paul revealed that his father hated planes and motorcycles. When he told her that he was going to drop out of college to join the Air Force to fly fighter jets, what he received was a stark warning. “I’ve sent you to school, I’ve bought you cars, I’ve given you money to go out with girls… but from now on you’re on your own. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead, I don’t give a damn.”

That brutal slam of his father’s door made him reel for a moment. Paul, as he confessed more than once, did not see himself as a doctor. “I only thought about airplanes, that was going to be my life,” he assured the British newspaper.


Once the father’s sentence was pronounced, Enola took her son aside and whispered in his ear: “Paul, if you want to fly planes, do it, everything will be fine.”

In fact, it was. The young man immediately left university and joined the US Air Force. His debut as a military pilot was in the Africa campaign where he commanded squadrons of B-17s, the flying fortresses with which the US would break through, years later, on the European stages. Tibbets built a solid reputation for efficiency and mettle even in the most dangerous combat situations. That earned him that in September 1944 he was summoned to train crews for a new type of bomber, the B-29, capable of flying at 9,700 meters, out of reach of the deadly Japanese Mitsubishi Zero.

By then, the Manhattan project was advancing rapidly towards the construction of an explosive of high destructive power, the atomic bomb. Tibbets was still ignorant of that detail. The 509th Operations Group had been especially assigned to him, which had to develop good combat experience but, above all, rehearse a maneuver that would leave the crew of the brand new B-29 open-mouthed.


In the Cold War US Navy, nuclear submarine crews knew of a maneuver called Ivan Loco (Crazy Ivan) used by USSR sailors to disorient their rivals. It consisted of a sharp turn that took the ship off course to get lost in the depths and later appear in another place.

Tibbets’s comrades were faced with something much the same. First the plane reached 9,500 meters to face a straight and level flight from there. At one point, the commander would sound a buzzer and begin a countdown from 100. Then “ten, nine, eight,” etc. would be heard. When the zero sounded, the plane turned violently 45 degrees and began a terrifying dive that put the four engines at full speed, causing the entire structure of the plane to shake, thus exceeding its maximum speed of 580 kilometers per hour. Morris Jeppson, one of the crew members who participated in those trials, would confess years later that the maneuver disoriented them all. “They were the craziest flights we had ever taken part in before. We would only understand it on August 6, 1945.”

The explanation was simple, if you had all the information. The idea was to move away as quickly as possible from the zero point of the explosion and that, in the midst of the propeller plane era, could only be achieved with a controlled fall of the ship to add the earth’s gravity to the power of the engines. And the most disturbing of all was that they had 45 seconds to get to safety. Otherwise, they would be evaporated in milliseconds.


On August 5, 1945, Colonel Tibbets found out. Hiroshima would be bombed the next day. They chose it because the city had never been bombed. The Little Boy bomb was being installed aboard the B-29. His immediate superior slipped Tibbets this ominous prospect: “Paul, be careful with this mission. If you are successful, you will be called a hero. But if you fail, you could go to jail.”

The pilot was in front of the silhouette of the B-29 in which the number 82 stood out, next to the cockpit windows. He thought that that cold number meant nothing and that he needed to put the ship under the protection of something more significant and transcendent for him. So he had his mother’s maiden name, Enola Gay, painted.

On that day, a previously unknown Iowa housewife was forever linked with the nuclear dawn of humanity.

No legends, pure and hard reality.

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