When Paul Tibbets died in January 2007, he had been retired from the Air Force since 1966. He was never forgotten, however, and never would be. He was the man who dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat against an enemy city. But instead of being interred at home or at Arlington National Cemetery with all his brothers in arms, he was cremated and his ashes spread across the English Channel.
It wasn’t that Tibbets was not proud of his service. At the time of the Hiroshima bombing, he was one of the youngest but most experienced pilots in the Army Air Forces. He proudly named his airplane Enola Gay after his beloved mother. He even re-enacted the bombing in a B-29 during a 1976 Texas air show and denounced the Smithsonian’s exhibition of the actual plane when it debuted because of the exhibition’s focus on the suffering of the Japanese people and not the brutality of the Japanese military.
His family was also a proud military family. His grandson is an Air Force Academy graduate who came up flying B-2 Spirit bombers. But when Tibbets died at age 92, he requested cremation with no headstone – and no funeral — military honors or not.
The elder Tibbets was concerned that any grave or headstone he left behind would become ground zero for anti-nuclear weapons protests, anti-war protesters, or a place for any other kind of revision historian to make a stand against what he saw as the right history. Instead of that, he opted to be cremated and his ashes spread across the English Channel, where he had flown so often during the war.