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.
Rouen was among Europe’s most prosperous and influential cities during the Middle Ages.
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.
When I finally did see the cathedral, it was awe-inspiring both in its size and intricacy.
But not until our last morning did I sneak a peek of the gorgeous Gothic interior.
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.
One photo in the exhibit showed the French flag flying over the city’s ruins.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Did Tibbets know what he was about to do?” I wondered. “Did he regret having carried out his mission?”
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.”
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.