One man’s journey to Hiroshima

06Aug17

Before visiting a new city Esteban and I usually read up on its history. But thanks to an overambitious itinerary, we knew little about Rouen when we arrived in September of 2015.

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Rouen was among Europe’s most prosperous and influential cities during the Middle Ages.

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Our first night was a blur (I’ll tell you about the bedbugs sometime …), and we spent our first full day doing laundry (see the parenthetical statement above). So it wasn’t until our second night that we saw the magnificent cathedral — and then, only as a backdrop for the son et lumière light show.

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When I finally did see the cathedral, it was awe-inspiring both in its size and intricacy.

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But not until our last morning did I sneak a peek of the gorgeous Gothic interior.

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On one side of the ambulatory there was an exhibit about World War II. It was there I learned that Rouen had been heavily bombed, and the cathedral seriously damaged. If you look closely you can see a few modern restorations, such as these stained-glass windows.

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One photo in the exhibit showed the French flag flying over the city’s ruins.

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Another poster showed the fire-gutted cathedral. The heat from the fire had been so intense that it melted the battant of the church’s oldest and largest bell, Jeanne d’Arc (bottom image, on the right).

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Some of the photos showed light pouring into the cathedral through gaping holes in the roof; others showed the craftsmen who had poured in to repair the 12th-century sanctuary.

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I didn’t expect to revisit these memories a few months later in New Orleans, of all places — but they came flooding back when Esteban and I visited the National World War II Museum with our friends Liz and James.

Upon entering we were given an electronic “dog tag” that would allow us to follow one enlisted man’s journey through the war. My man was named Paul Tibbets.

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Born in 1915 in Illinois, Tibbets fell in love with aviation as a boy, after a barnstorming pilot promoting Baby Ruth candy bars let him ride along. Although he studied medicine for two years to appease his father, Tibbets enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps 1937 and qualified as a pilot in 1938.

He quickly gained such a reputation for his skill and temperament that he became the personal pilot to General George S. Patton, among other Army brass.

When the United States entered World War II, Tibbets shipped out to England and began flying heavy bombing raids over Europe. Again proving himself skillful and level-headed, he was named commanding officer of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, flying B-17 Flying Fortresses.

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One of the exhibits showing the devastation from Allied raids.

Tibbets was also chosen to lead the first daylight bombing raid over Europe — an exceedingly dangerous task. His target? ROUEN. My legs felt shaky when I realized that “my” man had been responsible for the smoldering ruins in the photos I’d seen only a few months earlier.

Esteban’s, James’ and Liz’s dog tags led us in different directions, so we meandered into the Pacific theater.

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I thought of my distant relative Douglas Munro — the only Coast Guardsman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor — but didn’t find him among the profiles of courage. You can read his story here.

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It was moving to see some of the men’s belongings — especially their handwritten diaries and their sketches. I wish we’d had time to read more of the accounts, which ranged from descriptions of daily routine to accounts of unimaginable horror.

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In fact, I appreciated this about the museum: The curators showed us the machines of war, but also their devastating effects. In remembering conflict, history too often forgets the human cost.

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We were nearing the exit, and I was growing worried I’d somehow missed the end of Tibbets’ story. There was one more stop on his tour, though.

In March of 1943 Tibbets returned to the U.S. to help test the new B-29 Superfortress, and in September 1944 he was given command of the 509th Composite Group, a new squadron with a top-secret mission.

On August 6, 1945 Tibbets and his crew of 11 men — many of whom had flown with him in Europe — took off from Tinian Island. Tibbets had named the airplane Enola Gay, after his mother. Its destination was Hiroshima.

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My legs felt weak once again as I looked at the flight log from that fateful day and surveyed some of the artifacts that were later recovered. I couldn’t stop staring at the melted glass bottles.

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“Did Tibbets know what he was about to do?” I wondered. “Did he regret having carried out his mission?”

You can hear the answer to these questions for yourself, in Tibbets’ own voice.

Tibbets retired from the U.S. Air Force on August 31, 1966. He moved to Columbus Ohio 10 years later, where he was president of Executive Jet Aviation until he retired in 1985. Paul Tibbets died in 2007 at the age of 92.

According to biography.com, “He requested no funeral and no headstone, fearing it would provide his detractors with a place to protest. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the English Channel.”

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Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Tibbets’ flight over Hiroshima.

In his classic piece Hiroshima John Hersey wrote that,

What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

May we never lose our collective memory of what happened at Hiroshima.



41 Responses to “One man’s journey to Hiroshima”

  1. Wow!
    Powerful piece. I have been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima–but could only handle the museum in Hiroshima once, and decided not to go in Nagasaki.
    The most frightening thing for me was not the melted artifacts, but when there was only a shadow burned onto a wall of one person.
    Hopefully, never again.

    • 2 Heide

      I’ve read about the shadows of people burned onto stone walls, Anthony — and given how the very idea haunts me, I’m not sure I could handle seeing the real thing. I admire your strength in going to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been. As you say, hopefully never again.

      • The museums were overwhelming. The cities themselves were fascinating and interesting. Nagasaki is such a geographically interesting city, just the way things are built up the slopes. The food was also awesome, and the tram network was quaint.

        • 4 Heide

          What a charming little guidebook you’ve just written! In a handful of words you’ve painted such a rich picture, Anthony …

  2. Thanks! Your images are–as usual–beautiful and engaging. But this post is especially comprehensive with the full range of details and memories your share from the museum. This collective memory is so crucial for us all to keep in our minds and hearts.

    • 6 Heide

      Thank you for your kind words and for your insightful comment, Patti. As I wrote this post I kept thinking of George Santayana’s lesson that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

  3. Wow, so much here. The name Paul Tibbets was nagging at me until near the end when I finally remembered his connection with the Anola Gay.

    The other common thread was the damage inflicted upon Catholic communities during the war. Catholics were not far above Jews in the Nazi view with many priests and nuns meeting their ends in those same concentration camps.
    It is amazing the number of the old cathedrals of Europe managed to survive. And few know that Nagasaki was home of a significant pocket of Catholicism in Japan.

    A beautifully woven reminder of the collateral damage that comes from war.

    • 8 Heide

      I was among those who didn’t know Nagasaki was home to a significant Catholic population, JP — so thank you for the added layer of history and significance.

      I also wasn’t aware that the Nazis persecuted Catholics as systematically as you describe, although of course it makes sense that they would hold in contempt any faith that would preach tolerance and obedience to anything above the Nazi party.

      As for those cathedrals around Europe that survived the carpet-bombings: A historian friend told me that often they were deliberately left standing as landmarks for pilots during subsequent raids. If you look at photos of Cologne after the war, for instance, the only thing left standing among the rubble is the magnificent cathedral. Thank goodness they didn’t have GPS yet, else even the cathedrals would have been wiped off the face of the earth. So heartbreaking …

  4. WOW HEIDI i am soo glad to have found your blog ROUEN cathedral is jaw dropping and having visited you have PERFECTLY captured the experience your photos are amazing thanks for sharing with us all xxx

    • 12 Heide

      I am honored and pleased that you think I’ve captured Rouen well, JJ! It is a beautiful city and there are so many more stories to tell … so stay tuned! And in the meantime, thank you for making my day with your kind comment.

  5. Beautiful photos

  6. Stunning images, as usual. A powerful story full of meaning. Thanks!

  7. I loved the images of the cathedral and was wondering about your title and then it hit me – swung right from awe to horror – as usual your photos are awesome.

  8. Loved hearing how you and Esteban search the history of those places you are going to visit. Rouen is beautiful. The images you captured are unique and so well presented. What a wonderful experience for you to have been able to have together. You have added more dreams to our travel itineraries, lol. Isn’t it great knowing these images are burned into your minds and will always have the joy of having been there!!!

    • 20 Heide

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could drive Daisy through Rouen? Actually, there are lots of camping areas in rural Normandy, so I think such a trip could be arranged. 🙂 Thank you very much for being such a loyal reader, Audrey, and for always being so kind.

  9. That light show is amazing. Beautiful photographs…as always.

    So happy to hear that Esteban has made a full recovery.

    • 25 Heide

      I’m glad you were able to catch a bit of the light show — isn’t it spectacular? Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your kind words.

  10. Amazing photos! Wow!!! Love the story as well.

    • 27 Heide

      What a kind compliment, coming from one of my favorite travel writers! Thank you.

  11. 28 uncleskee

    Thanks for sharing this. I have Tibbit’a book and in visited the New Orleans museum you mentioned. Also, I remember World War II.

    Those who would have protested at Tibbit headstone aren’t old enough to recall the fear I knew during that wst.

    • 29 Heide

      Thank you for adding your voice and perspective here, Uncleskee. I would love to hear your thoughts on the World War II museum, as someone who remembers the war. I thought they did a beautiful job of giving context to several military decisions — and of showing the human side as well, such as the fear and loneliness and outright despair that so many felt during those years. I am glad you came through it and hope you’ve found a way to record your memories for future generations.

      • 30 uncleskee

        I pasted a response, then while checking to see if it was all there it got sent. If you don’t think it’s all there send me an email to: n7net@yahoo.com and I’ll resend it.

  12. Goodness! What an amazing read. Thank you for this Heide….totally appreciate it. The stained glassed windows definitely did it for me 🙂

    • 32 Heide

      You know what’s funny, Sóla? I took those stained-glass windows as an afterthought because they seemed so plain compared to the bursts of color I’m accustomed to seeing in European churches. But when I got home and started thinking about them further, I rather appreciated their comparative austerity. They’re a nod to the city’s history and an acknowledgment that although Rouen has been rebuilt, much was still lost. If ever I’m lucky enough to go back that symbolism won’t be lost on me next time. And I hope YOU have an opportunity to visit someday, too! It’s a beautiful city; quite the photographers’ paradise. 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by!

      • Oh you’re very welcome Heide. I’m so glad you decided to take the photographs of the windows after all. Definitely a two thumbs up for me ;). It would be delightful to hopefully visit that location some day too….my fingers will remain crossed from now until then. I hope you had a super weekend x.

  13. Seems like an incredible trip in an incredible city!

    • 35 Heide

      It certainly was, on both counts. Thank you so much for stopping by, Logan!

  14. Wow!! amazing photography

  15. An excellent post – a great journey of photos from gorgeous visuals to reminders of things that should never be forgotten because in human history they are repeated over and over again in different forms and times. I love the history you included, thank you! Beautiful, poignant journey –

    • 39 Heide

      Thank you for your kind words, Lara — I’m always extra-honored when you like one of my posts. 🙂 It’s sad, scary and ironic though that it seems possible Hiroshima’s tragic history could be repeated. I deeply hope cooler heads can prevail.

      • Yes, please – we know human history repeats itself over and over for the same reasons – but we have to keep working towards humane treatment in all things and growth of understanding and cooperation. Appreciate your post, Heide – all of them!


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