Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., the Army Air Forces pilot whose bombing run over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 introduced nuclear war, died Thursday at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 92.

Tibbets suffered from a variety of ailments and died of heart failure, said Gerry Newhouse, his longtime friend.

The pilot never apologized for unleashing the devastating explosive force and insidious nuclear radiation that leveled more than two-thirds of the buildings in Hiroshima and immediately killed at least 80,000 people.

To him and millions of supporters, dropping the atomic bomb was a justifiable means of shortening World War II, preserving the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen that military experts said might have died in a final Allied invasion of Japan.

“I never lost a night’s sleep over it,” Tibbets had said.

But to millions of detractors, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima was a cosmic example of man’s inhumanity to man, an act that left the world teetering on the brink of self-annihilation.

“I made one great mistake in my life – when I signed a letter to President Roosevelt recommending that an atomic bomb be made,” said physicist Albert Einstein, one of the first to conceive of such a weapon.

Tibbets was more than just the pilot of the Enola Gay, the propeller-driven, four-engine bomber, named for his mother, that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Described by his commandant, Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold as “the best damned pilot in the (Army) Air Force,” Tibbets was hand-picked to command the mysterious 509th Composite Group, the first military unit ever formed to wage nuclear war. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, another plane from the 509th leveled much of Nagasaki with another nuclear bomb.

, prompting the Japanese surrender.

Tibbets chose the planes that flew those missions — specially reconfigured B-29s, then the largest operational aircraft on Earth, stripped of armament and armor plating to lighten them for their extended journeys.

He selected the combat veterans who manned the bombers. Many of the crewmen were personal friends who had flown missions with him over Nazi-occupied Western Europe and North Africa.

Tibbets picked an isolated air base straddling the Nevada-Utah border where the men of the 509th trained for their mission. And he drove his men hard, weeding out those who fell short or talked too much about what they were doing.

Proud, prickly and a perfectionist, Tibbets never doubted that he was the man for the job.

Born in Quincy, Ill., on Feb. 23, 1915, he moved to Florida with his parents while still a child. His father, a candy distributor, hired a popular barnstormer, Doug Davis, to fly over Hialeah racetrack as a promotional stunt. The 12-year-old Tibbets rode as a passenger, tossing handfuls of Baby Ruth bars to the crowd below.

“From that day on, I knew I had to fly,” Tibbets said.

Tibbets’ father, a believer in discipline, shipped his son off to Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., the following year. Tibbets liked the military life, and despite subsequent premedical studies at the universities of Cincinnati and Florida, he enlisted as a cadet at the Army Air Corps Academy at Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1937.

By late summer 1942, nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into World War II, Tibbets was flying some of the first U.S. bombing raids over German-held targets in Western Europe. Two months later, he led the bombing runs supporting the American landings in North Africa.

In early 1943, Tibbets was recalled to the United States to begin testing a new super bomber, the B-29.

In September 1944, Lt. Col. Tibbets was summoned to a secret military conclave in Colorado, where he was told that he had been selected over dozens of other candidates to head a unit called the 509th Composite Group.

“My job, in brief, was to wage atomic war,” he wrote in his book, “Flight of the Enola Gay” (1989).

On June 18, 1945, President Harry S. Truman approved military plans for the invasion of Japan. The initial assault, by 815,000 troops, would begin on the island of Kyushu on Nov. 1, followed five months later by an attack by 1.2 million troops on the island of Honshu. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said it could take 10 years to wipe out the last pockets of resistance, with total American losses reaching 1 million men.

Less than a month after Truman approved the invasion plans, the first atomic bomb was tested successfully at Alamogordo, N.M.

Believing that the Japanese should have one last chance to avoid the bomb, Truman issued an ultimatum: surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese ignored the demand, which made no mention of nuclear weapons.

Outmaneuvering some top officers who sought to take over the bombing mission, Tibbets rallied support from Washington to retain his command of the 509th and announced that he would be piloting the plane that dropped the first bomb.

Forcing an unhappy Capt. Robert A. Lewis to accept the secondary role of co-pilot in what had been Lewis’ B-29, Tibbets ordered his mother’s name, Enola Gay, painted on the side of the fuselage.

Several hours before dawn on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, lumbering under the load of the 9,700-pound bomb, struggled up off a runway on the island of Tinian for the 1,700-mile flight north to Hiroshima. Two other B-29s accompanied the Enola Gay to monitor the event.

Seventeen seconds after 8:15 a.m., from an altitude of 26,000 feet, the bombardier, Maj. Thomas Ferebee, released the bomb. Tibbets, who carried poison pills for the crew in case the B-29 went down, put the plane into a sharp, diving turn to speed away from the imminent explosion.

At 8:16 a.m., 1,890 feet above the center of Hiroshima, the bomb detonated with a core temperature estimated at 50 million degrees.

“My God, what have we done?” Lewis wrote in his logbook.

The shock waves severely shook the retreating plane, but did not damage it.

Sgt. Robert Caron described the view from his seat in the tail gunner’s turret as “a peep into hell.”

Tibbets looked back to see an immense mushroom cloud.

“It had already risen to a height of 45,000 feet, and was still boiling upward like something terribly alive,” he wrote in his book. “Even more fearsome was the sight on the ground below. Fires were springing up everywhere amid a turbulent mass of smoke that had the appearance of bubbling hot tar.”

The flight back to Tinian was uneventful, and Tibbets alighted from the plane to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was added to a collection that included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal and a Purple Heart he received for wounds suffered when his bomber was struck by cannon fire over Europe.

Months later, Truman commiserated with Tibbets at the White House about the criticisms over dropping the bomb.

“It was my decision,” Truman told him. “You didn’t have any choice.”

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Tibbets’ military career would continue for another 20 years. Although most of his assignments involved relatively routine desk jobs, his past sometimes haunted him.

In 1965, then a 50-year-old brigadier general in what had become the U.S. Air Force, he was appointed deputy director of the U.S. Military Supply Mission in India. When the Indian news media called him “the world’s greatest killer,” an embarrassed State Department recalled him and shut down the mission.

A year later, Tibbets retired from the military. For three years, he worked as an aviation adviser in Europe, then returned to the United States and a job with Executive Jet Aviation, an air taxi service in Columbus. He eventually served as the company’s board chairman.

In 1976, Tibbets piloted a restored B-29 that dropped a simulated, miniature atomic bomb at an air show in Texas. The re-enactment, complete with a little mushroom cloud, prompted a protest from Japan. Tibbets called the Japanese reaction “ridiculous,” but U.S. government officials apologized.

When Executive Jet changed ownership in 1985, Tibbets quit the business world but remained active, making scores of public appearances, including many on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima in 1995.

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Tibbets said he wasn’t proud of all the death and destruction and Hiroshima, but he was proud that he did his job well.

“I didn’t start the war,” he said. “I didn’t do anything except what I was told to do; what I had sworn to do, years before, which is “Fight for the defense of this country.’ “

Tibbets is survived by his wife, Andrea; sons Paul III, Gene and James; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Because he feared giving protestors a place to demonstrate, Tibbets did not want a funeral or headstone, Newhouse said. He requested that his ashes be scattered over the North Atlantic Ocean.

AP-NY-11-01-07 1555EDT

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