Our touchy-feely age is one in which families are encouraged to be ‘open’. The old notion of skeletons in the ancestral closet being kept there has been usurped by the growth of the genealogy industry and the popularity of programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, examining every branch on the family tree with forensic thoroughness. Weep over the fate of the Victorian workhouse inmate who was wrongly accused of theft and hanged at Newgate, not to mention the Georgian rake who abandoned his thirteen children to run a Jamaican sugar plantation before succumbing to syphilis. It’s never been easier to unlock the vault housing the life-stories of distant ancestors who brought such shame upon their descendants that their names were rendered forbidden words in polite company for generations.
I’m quite envious of this openness, to be honest. As a child in the 1970s, most of those family secrets remained unspoken and only came out when my grandparents passed away. Even my own parents kept plenty from me until I was into my twenties, and the sad fact now is that anyone of the pre-war generation who could have answered my questions has gone. Not that they’d be keen to talk, of course; it was drilled into them that certain figures were to permanently remain persona non-gratis, even within the secure confines of the family home. What you’re left with is a box full of tiny sepia photographs, and nobody will ever be able to identify half of the people portrayed on them. Rumours of illegitimate births, adopted siblings and asylum incarceration will never be confirmed nor denied. When it comes to the Official Secrets Act, the government has nothing on families.
My maternal great-grandfather was born in Massachusetts – and that sentence reveals everything I know about him. He died a couple of years before I was born and my mother never inquired as to his background. Nobody knows at what age he came to England, whether his US roots stretched back to the pre-1776 American colonial era or if his family had immigrated to the States during the time of the Irish Potato Famine. The only certainty my own grandfather (his son) ever expressed was that we had a relation of some fame, or perhaps infamy. My mother’s maiden name was Tibbott, and as so often happened before the age of precise documentation, the spelling of surnames on birth certificates could change with each member of an extended family to be registered. This would explain why the surname spelling of the American ‘cousin’ we shared had diverged from my granddad’s own. His was spelt Tibbets, and Colonel Paul Tibbets played a rather significant part in a rather significant event that took place exactly seventy years ago today.
From the viewpoint of the Allies, and certainly the Americans, the need to bring the Second World War to an end was imperative in the summer of 1945. It was over in Europe, but continued to rage in the Pacific, largely due to the ferocious do-or-die mindset of the Japanese, for whom surrender was an unthinkable concept. US forces had taken five weeks to capture the allegedly strategic Japanese island of Iwo Jima at the beginning of 1945, a battle amongst the bloodiest of the entire conflict and one that cost the Americans almost 7,000 lives. The Japanese lost a staggering 22,000, for even though they were vastly outnumbered, they would not give-in as death was preferable to capture. Thousands died via ritual suicide.
The prospect of invading mainland Japan and incurring losses that would far exceed those at Iwo Jima was something that many estimates claim would have prolonged the war for at least another year. US bombing raids over Japan had been regular occurrences since June 1944, and though the targets were nominally industrial, Japan’s industry could almost be called ‘cottage’ in nature, with most factories small facilities situated in urban areas, resulting in inevitable civilian casualties and fatalities. The March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo was the most chillingly effective bombing raid of the entire war, with an estimated 80,000-100,000 killed. Despite the horrors unleashed by this bombing campaign, the Japanese remained resolute in their determination to fight to the death and the Allied invasion of Japan, provisionally pencilled-in for October 1945, was hardly an operation guaranteed to bring the conflict to a swift climax.
Salvation came via the Manhattan Project, the Allies’ top-secret development of nuclear weaponry that had undertaken the first-ever detonation of a nuclear device in New Mexico four months after the firebombing of Tokyo. The Potsdam Declaration issued by the US, UK and China in July 1945, the same month of the New Mexico detonation, demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan with a warning of ‘prompt and utter destruction’ should the demand not be adhered to. It wasn’t. With the atom bomb ready and waiting to be used, it now seems inevitable that it would be the last throw of the dice to prevent the autumn invasion of Japan. Perhaps only those involved in the Manhattan Project and President Truman himself were really aware of the devastating damage the bomb could inflict upon its target. The crew selected to fly the plane carrying it over Hiroshima probably had no real idea. How could they? Mankind had never before comprehended any weapon was capable of such overwhelming destruction. When Colonel Tibbets took off in the Enola Gay (named after his mother) at 2:45am on August 6 1945, it took the plane six hours to reach Hiroshima. At 8:15 local time, one era of earth history ended and another began.
Colonel Tibbets was doing a job, obeying orders. It wasn’t the first time he’d dropped a bomb from a plane; his prior experience had an obvious bearing on his selection for the Hiroshima gig. Like Neil Armstrong, Col Tibbets happened to be in the right historic place at the right historic time. What happened in the seconds after the bomb was released from the Enola Gay arguably changed the world more than any great leap forward that had occurred on the other side of August 6 1945, the defining moment that mankind’s incurable desire to impact upon its surroundings had been leading up to for millennia. The image of that immense mushroom cloud rising above Hiroshima and the photos and film of the aftermath have haunted the human race ever since, something that – despite the continuous development of nuclear arsenals in the seventy years following it – have perhaps been responsible for no further employment of The Bomb in warfare after Nagasaki, three days following Hiroshima. We all know the score.
My reaction to discovering I was related to Paul Tibbets was much the same as anybody’s would be upon learning of a connection to someone who was pivotal to a historic event of great significance. A friend of mine once told me ancestors of hers had been drinking buddies of the notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers Burke and Hare; I thought that was quite impressive, but come on – Hiroshima? They don’t come much bigger, nor, it has to be said, sadder.