Many have shared with me, including my Grandfather, that Brig Gen Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. was full of confidence in his late 20s. Leading bombing missions in World War II was tough work, and he was good at it. Really good.
Gen Dwight Eisenhower and Gen Mark Clark once called him the “best pilot in the Army Air Corp.”
Some also said he could be a little abrasive. But, he spoke his mind and took care of his men.
And always did what he thought was right. No matter the personal cost.
During his time in North Africa, Granddad led numerous successful bombing missions with the 97th Bombardment Group, including many on Bizerte. The Germans had to resupply their forces through Bizerte and the Allies were committed to interrupt the operation of the port and airfield as fast as they could make repairs.
The Commander of 12th Air Force in North Africa, Maj Gen Jimmy Doolittle, flew to Biskra where the 97th Bomb Group was stationed to congratulate the unit on their success on these recent bombing missions. And, as operations were on the rise, he told my Grandfather that since he was the “most experienced bomber man in my command” he was taking him back to his headquarters in Algiers.
Needless to say, Granddad was devastated. He was leaving what he loved – flying and leading in combat – for a staff job. But, he knew this was important work, and he was needed. His new boss and Gen Doolittle’s chief of operations, Col Lauris Norstad, had never flown in combat. He was well connected politically with vast staff experience, but did not have the combat experience needed in a key role like this one.
And one day, it happened.
Granddad was one of a half-dozen officers seated around a long conference table for their morning session, at which plans were to be laid for the next day’s operations. The subject was the resumption of bombing attacks on Bizerte. The series of raids that Granddad had led on the coastal seaport had been effective. They knocked out most of the harbor installations and severely damaged the air base, but reconnaissance now showed that the Germans had been busy repairing docks and other installations. Bizerte was now ready for use once more as a resupply base for Axis forces in North Africa. More anti-aircraft batteries had been installed in the dock area.
Members of the staff were in unanimous agreement that the time was ripe for a new and devastating strike. After designating the takeoff hour and direction of the bomb runs over the target, Col Norstad said, almost casually: “The B-17s will go in at 6,000 feet.”
Now, to be fair, Granddad was the bomber expert, but Col Norstad was the boss. It was typical for him to announce his plans with the expectation that the other officers would nod their agreement and limit their suggestions to a minor detail or two.
Not my Grandfather.
He immediately said, “We can’t send them in at 6,000 feet. We just can’t do it. I’ve been there. I know if we send them in at 6,000 feet, they’ll be wiped out.”
Granddad’s courage in speaking up so abruptly was born of earnest conviction based on his experience in raids over this target. He did admit to me he might have made his point more tactfully!
Col Norstad was furious, and attempted to humiliate my Grandfather. He said: “It appears that Col Tibbets has been flying too much. He may be suffering from combat fatigue.”
My Grandfather snapped. He felt like Col Norstad was calling him a coward. Granddad had flown enough bombing missions over Europe and North Africa to more than use up the odds in favor of getting back safely. Moreover, he had asked for more combat duty but had been brought into the headquarters against his wishes to help make decisions of the kind they were discussing at that moment.
And, Granddad had an emotional as well as a military stake in preventing this invitation to disaster. The crews who would be flying tomorrow’s mission to Bizerte were his friends. As one of the official planners of the raid, he would have had their blood on his conscience if he had not spoken up to head off Col Norstad’s plan.
So, my Grandfather stood up, fists clenched.
“I’ll tell you what I’m prepared to do, colonel. I’ll lead that raid myself at 6,000 feet if you will come along as my copilot.”
Col Norstad promptly backed down under this challenge. He wouldn’t fly a combat mission over a heavily defended enemy target at that altitude. Granddad reasoned it was his duty to scuttle this ill-conceived scheme, whatever the consequences to his career.
The bombers flew to Bizerte the next day at 20,000 feet and the results were excellent.
But Col Norstad never forgot, and worked to have Granddad court-martialed. Gen Doolittle moved him back to the U.S. to fly a “new” bomber before this could happen. But, Col Norstad did ensure Granddad was put on a no-promotion order to Brig Gen for as long as Norstad remained in the service. In 1959, Gen McConnell advocated for and secured Granddad’s final promotion to 1-star!
Granddad would often tell the story about Col Norstad during his travels over the years, and I had the pleasure of hearing it on multiple occasions.
It was important for him to share that one should always do the right thing, no matter the personal consequences.
Yes, he could have been more tactful, but in the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Col Norstad was a very prideful person who knew how to harbor a grudge. He deeply resented Granddad’s performance at that staff meeting. He was also very well connected, and that was not a good combination for Granddad.
However, as I heard often from Granddad, we do what we believe is right with the best of intentions, and let the chips fall where they will.
I took this to heart during my career. Sure, I made my share of mistakes, but I always tried to do the right thing for my Airmen and unit. And, I would frequently receive feedback with words of appreciation for having their back.
Like my Grandfather, I took the approach to lead boldly. Yes, you are more vulnerable, but I believe to my core our Airmen deserve all we have to give. Playing it safe was not an option.
Granddad, thanks for your courage on and off the battlefield. We could ask no more.