Bob Greene’s book about his father’s death reports conversations he had with Paul Tibbetts, who lived in retirement not far from the Green family home in Columbus, OH. For those who might not know, Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. (February 23, 1915 – November 1, 2007), was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force, best known as the pilot of the Enola Gay – named for his mother – the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb in the history of warfare. That bomb, code named “Little Boy,” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945.
Any child of “Greatest Generation” parents, especially those of us who are losing or have lost them, can surely relate to Greene’s reflection on this Memorial Day. Today I am remembering James H. Wolfgang (August 13, 1922 – March 20, 2015), whose one and only “European trip” was via Omaha Beach in 1944, and for whom Memorial Day was always very meaningful.
“Do people know my name?” Tibbets asked. He was repeating the question I had just asked him. A soft, private look crossed his face.
“They don’t need to know my name,” he said. The deed he had carried out was one of the most famous the world has ever known; it will be talked about in terms of fear and awe forever. He, though, even here in the town where he lived, was not as famous as the local television weatherman.
“People knowing my name isn’t important at all,” he said. “It’s more important—it was more important then, and it’s more important now—that they know the name of my airplane. And that they understand the history of what happened. “Although sometimes I think that no one really understands the history.”
And so we started to talk. Neither of us knew it that day, but it would be the first of many conversations—about the war, about the men and women who lived through it, about their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters: the lives of those of us who came after them, who inherited the world that they saved for us.
As I sat with Tibbets that first day—thinking of my father in his bed just a few miles away—it occurred to me that Eisenhower was dead, Patton was dead, Marshall was dead, MacArthur was dead. And here was Tibbets, telling me in the first person the story of how the great and terrible war came to an end.
… gradually the stories would expand in context, would begin to explain to me certain things not just about this man, but about the generation of men and women who are leaving us now every day.
It is a wrenching thing, to watch them go. As the men and women of the World War II generation die, it is for their children the most intensely personal experience imaginable—and at the same time a sweeping and historic one, being witnessed by tens of millions of sons and daughters, sons and daughters who feel helpless to stop the inevitable.
For me, as my father, day by day, slipped away, the over-whelming feeling was that a safety net was being removed—a safety net that had been there since the day I was born, a safety net I was often blithely unaware of. That’s what the best safety nets do—they allow you to forget they’re there. No generation has ever given its children a sturdier and more reliable safety net than the one our parents’ generation gave to us.
The common experience that wove the net was their war. And as I began to listen to Tibbets—to hear his stories, later to question him about the America that preceded and followed the war from which his stories came—I realized anew that so many of us only now, only at the very end, are beginning to truly know our fathers and mothers. It was as if constructing that safety net for their children was their full-time job, and that finally, as they leave us, we are beginning to understand the forces that made them the way they were.
Tibbets began to speak, and as I listened I thought I could hear a rustle of something behind the words—I thought I could hear the whisper of a generation saying goodbye to its children.