Friday, July 28, 2023

75 Years After Hiroshima : The Paul Tibbets Story


[Note from the author: this story was first published in Aug. 2020 hence the reference to the 75th anniversary.]

My phone lit up with the word "Nuke" on it. I had U.S. Air Force Brigadier General (ret.) Paul W. Tibbets IV in my phone contact under just his pilot callsign. "Time to chat?" Nuke texted. I replied, "For sure."

It's not every day you come across a Rolex GMT-Master that has logged over 1,000 hours in the B-2 Stealth Bomber, including combat missions. This was my most sensitive Rolex article to date and Nuke was calling to tell me what I could show in pictures. 

"We can't show anything that is part of the B-2's defensive management system," he said. "The fuel display is a big no-no," he added. How about the kneeboard? "I see joker and bingo numbers written on it," he replied. "We don't want to show that."

General Paul "Nuke" Tibbets is a former B-2 pilot, instructor and examiner, and the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross award. He has since traded his stealth bomber for a civilian Boeing 747. 

But back in 1999, as a young U.S. Air Force captain with a GMT-Master on his wrist, he had already made aviation history. He lead the world's first B-2 combat sortie, penetrating Yugoslavia's airspace and going undetected against its advanced air defense system. During that stealth night mission, he targeted 16 impact points and blew up military production facilities, including the Smederevo Petroleum Product Storage near Belgrade. A day at the office wearing his trusty Rolex.

But it is during some of those long 30-hour missions at high altitude in the B-2 that Nuke had plenty of time to glance at his wrist and remember his grandfather, Paul Tibbets Jr. 

"It was an emotional time when my grandfather gave me the watch," Paul told me. "It's the one thing in life that he valued, that he treasured, that he passed on to me. I felt honestly that he was passing on the torch."

Paul Tibbets' grandfather had also retired as a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force. And if that name sounds familiar, it's because Paul's grandpa made history as well. Paul Tibbets Jr. had one of the most important missions of World War II as the pilot in command of the B-29 Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945. He flew to Hiroshima 75 years ago this week to help put an end to World War II.

Obviously, Tibbets Jr. wasn't wearing a GMT-Master at the time, as the model hadn't been invented. But when the World War II veteran went on to become the CEO of the first fractional business jet company in the world, he was among a handful of pilots in the company to be handed a GMT-Master 1675 by a new corporate client: Rolex USA itself. Rolex had gifted the watch as part of an advertising campaign for the GMT-Master.

The watch of the bomber-pilot-turned-CEO was manufactured in 1966. And it stayed on his wrist until his grandson graduated from U.S. Air Force pilot training in 1990. 

"He knew I was fascinated with the watch," Paul told me. "I had commented several times on it." 

Paul spent four years at the U.S. Air Force Academy. On the morning of Paul's pilot training graduation in 1990, the famous Enola Gay pilot attended the ceremony and took off his Rolex GMT-Master.

"He literally slid the watch over to me on the table and said, 'I want you to have it,'" Paul told me. When Paul inquired to have the GMT-Master serviced in 2004, he contacted Rolex SA in Geneva. Rolex, knowing its provenance, restored the watch to specs pro-bono. 

"I don't have a uniform of his," Paul told me. "I don't have his wings. I don't have any of his Air Force memorabilia. The only thing I have is that watch."

The timepiece is as old as Paul. With a 1,259,261 serial, it was manufactured the year of Paul's birth, 1966.

There is a tradition in the military where a pilot takes his first set of wings, snap them in half and give half to someone really important to the pilot while keeping the other half. 

Paul Tibbets IV snapped his first set of pilot wings and gave his grandfather that half. "He is a hero of mine," he told me. And Paul's grandfather gave him the Rolex. Paul described it as a "pretty emotional time." 

"And my grandpa knew that," he said. "My grandpa wasn't really known to be an emotional guy. But I think that's a pretty significant event when he handed me that watch."

"It's the most special relationship between the two of us," he said. "Because when I wear that watch, I think about my grandpa."

I finally asked Paul whether he will give the Rolex GMT-Master to his son, Paul Tibbets V, who is now 18. "That's my plan," he said. Then he added, laughing: "Probably when he gets a little older, and I know that he'll take care of it!"

Special thanks to Dwayne Stich and Nick Gould for their invaluable contribution to this story. Read more Rolex pilot stories by Capt. Danny Crivello here.