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Herb Rothschild Jr.: A tale of two pilots

The behavior of Claude Robert Eatherly (1918–1978) during the three decades after being discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1947 with the rank of major and a Distinguished Flying Cross was that of a deeply disturbed man. Shortly after discharge, he joined an abortive plot of private adventurers to overthrow the Cuban government. At least twice he attempted suicide by drugs, committed forgery, held up banks and post offices without taking anything, served a little time in jail and more time in VA psychiatric wards, and for a while spoke out for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Colonel Paul Tibbets, who commanded Eatherly’s B-29 squadron and piloted the Enola Gay, wrote that he couldn’t understand why Eatherly felt so guilty. Although he commanded the weather B-29 that scouted Hiroshima about an hour ahead of the Enola Gay, he had already returned to base when the bomb was dropped. “Actually, Major Eatherly did not take part in the attack and did not see the bomb blast that was supposed to have haunted him through many sleepless nights.”

Apparently, Tibbets was never haunted by his part in the destruction of more than 100,000 people. In 1989, recording his reflections on Hiroshima for the Voices of the Manhattan Project, an oral history project of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society, he recalled thinking on his first bombing mission, “People are getting killed down there that don’t have any business getting killed. Those are not soldiers.” But then he thought back to a lesson he had learned during his time at medical school from a doctor friend. The doctor explained to Tibbets that the reason some of the doctor’s classmates had washed out was because “they had too much sympathy for their patients.” Tibbets thought, “I am just like that if I get to thinking about some innocent person getting hit on the ground. ... I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business. I was instructed to perform a military mission to drop the bomb. That was the thing that I was going to do the best of my ability. Morality, there is no such thing in warfare ... You have got to leave the moral issue out of it.”

In contrast, during his period as a peace activist, Eatherly wrote, “I have for some time felt convinced that the crisis in which we are all involved is one calling for a thorough reexamination of our whole scheme of values and of loyalties. In the past it has sometimes been possible for men to ‘coast along’ without posing to themselves too many searching questions about the way they are accustomed to think and to act — but it is reasonably clear that our age is not one of these. On the contrary, I believe that we are rapidly approaching a situation in which we shall be compelled to re-examine our willingness to surrender responsibility for our thoughts and our actions to some social institution such as the political party, trade union, church or State.”

The annual Hiroshima-Nagasaki Observance in the Rogue Valley doesn’t focus on the vexed issue of whether the U.S. should have used the atomic bombs. Instead, it encourages us to take responsibility for making sure nuclear weapons are never used again. The only way to do that is to abolish them, which our government, absent grassroots pressure, will never do. For information about the events from Aug. 6 through Aug. 9, visit www.peacehouse.net.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.