THE ATOM BOMBERS SPEAK
The men who destroyed Hiroshima describe their later lives and tell how they feel now about DUTY, GUILT, THE NEXT BOMB
ON AN AUGUST MORNING IN 1945, very early on a day that turned out to be a warm and sunny one, seven United States Air Force B-29’s left the Pacific island of Tinian and began a six-hour journey northwest to Japan.
Three of the planes went thirty minutes ahead, to scout the weather. A fourth, standing by for emergencies, dropped off at the intervening island of Iwo Jima. A fifth carried cameras and a sixth bore other instruments to weigh and measure what was about to happen on the ground below.
The seventh and most important aircraft was one named the Enola Gay, in honor of the mother of its pilot. Ten miles and two minutes from their destination the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, silently turned over the controls to his bombardier, Major Tom Ferebee.
Almost at once, because he had a good radar man behind him and even though they were six miles high. Ferebee saw exactly what he
MACLEAN’S CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
was locking for in the cross-hairs of his Norden bomb-sight. It was a small bridge, and when two dots came together in the sight Ferebee knew the rest would happen automatically. The bomb known as Little Boy, sometimes called Thin Man, would be on the way to Hiroshima.
Little Boy was the first atomic bomb ever dropped in anger and when it exploded fortythree seconds after its release all the history and all the prospects of the human race underwent a change beyond all reckoning and beyond all guessing.
When the bomb bay opened Ferebee shouted: “It’s clear!” and turned the controls back to Tibbets. Tibbets repeated a manœuvre he had practised as long and carefully as a baseball player practising a bunt just inside the third-base line. The difference was that now his life, and others, hung on the result. He
threw the big plane around at an angle of 150 degrees and plunged it down to gain speed while the two observation aircraft behind him did the same.
As they’d known would happen no matter how quickly they turned and ran, two massive shocks hit them from the blast of their bomb below but the three planes righted themselves and lurched on home.
"My God, what have we done?” Captain Bob Lewis, the copilot, shouted as he saw the plumed wreckage boiling and leaping up at them above its 80,000 dead.
Major Claude Eatherly, who piloted the weather plane that sent the final signal to go in. was soon so deep in remorse that he’s been in mental hospital nine times, seven times at his own request and twice by forced committal. For a while he turned to crime — holding up filling stations with toy guns and cashing bad checks. Twice he’s tried suicide. He’s always claimed his motive was to destroy the public
picture of him as hero. “I feel / killed all those people,” he has said.
Paul Tibbets, who formed and trained the A-bomb squadron anti personally piloted the first bomb to Hiroshima, has a vastly different attitude. “People still ask me, ‘How did you feel?’ ” he wrote afterward. “I might answer with a question: How do you feel? We're all living in the atomic age together.”
Tom Ferebee, who made the bombing run, lined up the sights and dropped the bomb, has much the same philosophy. “As far as I’m concerned,” he told me when I met him recently in Cieorgia. “it was just another mission that I was assigned to.”
Partly due to Claude Fatherly’s often proclaimed and well-publicized sense of guilt, the men who flew to Hiroshima and those who flew three days later to destroy Nagasaki with another atomic bomb have acquired, in the seventeen years since, a set of myths and images unique in all history. Because, in those two furious mornings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they brought an end to the most terrible war ever fought, they are regarded by some people as the war's greatest heroes. Because, in a few split seconds, they killed or wounded a quarter of a million people, most of them defenseless and unwarned civilians, they are regarded by others as the war's greatest criminals. Yet a third school holds them to be martyrs, doomed to an eternity of nightmares over a world they never made.
A few weeks ago I was assigned to find and visit some of the first atomic bombers and ask them to talk about their memories of August. 1945. and the ways in which their lives and thoughts have gone since then. The truth, except in the case of the gentle and tormented Eatherlv—whose torments don't all stem from
Hiroshima — is strangely anticlimactic. Most members of Paul Tibbets’ 393rd Bombardment Squadron are now' in their forties and firmly settled down to getting their growing families through school and to jobs as prosv as selling insurance, farming and managing cand\ factories. Tibbets. like two other members of the crew that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, has remained in the United States Air Force, where he’s now a Brigadier-General on his way to a new posting as officer in charge of Insurgency C ontrol (i.e. helping friendly governments, as in Laos, to put down or contain uprisings unfriendly to the United States).
Tibbets’ bombardier and old friend, Tom Ferebee. has stayed in the air force too and is now colonel in charge of maintenance at a
heavy bomber base near Savannah, Georgia. Wyatt Duzenbury, who was their first flight engineer, is at another U. S. base in Newfoundland. The other seven members of the crew of the Fnola Gay are all doing somewhere between fairly well and very well in places as far apart as New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Colorado and California. The man w'ho piloted the bombing plane to Nagasaki. Charles W. Sweeney, has been recalled to duty from the reserve
and is now' a brigadier-general in Europe. Jacob Beser, the only man who was aboard both bombing planes, the Fnola Gay at Hiroshima and Bock's Car at Nagasaki, is a Westinghouse space scientist in Baltimore.
The only thing that sets the veterans of the two atomic missions apart from other veterans of the Second World War is the extent to which they’ve lost touch with each other. Charles Levy, a Philadelphia insurance man who was on one of the two planes that reached Nagasaki, has, after great difficulty, organized a
squadron reunion for next August in Chicago. His greatest problem is getting correct and upto-date addresses. Except in the rare cases of the men who stayed in uniform, the Air Force records are seventeen years old. And except in the even rarer cases of men like Fatherly, who’ve been in hospital or gone on pension, the U. S. Veterans Administration has no readily sorted-out records either.
"I've often wondered about trying to get the squadron together.” Tibbets. its old commander, said recently in Washington. "But it seemed to me it wouldn't work. They were a great bunch of flyers, a great bunch of specialists, the best pilots in the world, the best navigators, the best bombardiers and radar men. the best flight engineers and tail gunners. When they put me in
charge they told me I could have anybody, anybody in the United States, anybody from any theatre of operations. Hardly anyone knew7 anyone else when we w'ere assembled and except for the practices and tryouts, we only flew the two big missions.
“The security we worked under w'as brutal— absolutely brutal. In our training days in Utah if a man from the squadron took a forty-eighthour pass to Las Vegas, the chances were the stranger sitting next to him in the bar was from the FBI and what’s more the bartender might
have been from the FBI too. I was, naturally, the first man in the squadron to know we were working for an atomic bomb; that was when we were test-flying and modifying the B-29 in Utah and in the Pacific. It wasn’t until we were on the way to Hiroshima that I told my crew what we really had aboard. They’d known of course that it was something very powerful, but our only names for it were The Thing, the Gimmick, the Brute, the Beast, finally Thin Man or Little Boy.”
At least tw'o members of the Tibbets squadron. through fairly harmless indiscretions, were transferred overnight and without explanation, to Alaska. Another has recalled how during the early days of training in Utah, a platoon of civilian atomic scientists showed up at their base. “Who’s that man, honey?” his wife asked when she looked out the window and saw' one of the scientists bustling past their quarters. “He’s a sanitary engineer,” her husband said. “What in the world does a sanitary engineer do?” the wife asked. “Why baby,” her husband said, “a sanitary engineer does sanitary engineering.” “Oh,” she said.
Security was so tough that in an attached ordinance unit the company commander decreed that except within the heavily guarded limits of their base, no member of the unit
could speak to any other member. Just before they finally told Tibbets that he was to drop an atomic bomb, his father wrote him from their home town in Georgia, “There's a man down here been asking some mighty funny questions about you. You in trouble up there?” And finally, when Tibbets w'as about to be ushered in for his first full briefing on the nature, existence and pow'er of the A-bomb, an officer wearing the insignia of a lieutenant-colonel approached him in the anteroom and asked two extremely personal questions about two incidents that went back to his early school days and his adolescence. “1 discovered right then.” Tibbets reflected recently, “That this man knew as much about me as 1 knew myself and I'd better not try lying to him. So 1 told him the truth, which was mildly embarrassing, and he ushered me in to hear about the bomb.” Tibbets, as do all the other members of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki crew's, exudes an astonishing youthfulness; it is hard to remember that, in that far-off August they were, basically, a group of all-star athletes, one or two still in their teens and the rest in their twenties. Now', at forty-six, Tibbets looks as fit and energetic as a good welterweight boxer or a professional hockey player. All the members of his squadron that 1 talked to hold him in great respect, some in awe, one or two in affection and one or two in something close to hatred. One of the squadron legends—which happens to be true and which Tibbets himself confirmed to me— has to do w ith the time in Utah when he administered a spectacular rebuke to several of his test crews by teaching two young girls to fly the B-29 and then put it through a public show of aerobatics.
The B-29 was in its development stage, a monster of more than forty tons that was still being stripped and modified to carry the five-
ton bomb and enough fuel to make the long haul from Tinian to Japan and back. Finally, to reduce the weight, they cut out all its armament except the bombrack and two machine guns. But in the first tests the plane was still
troublesome. It flew erratically and laboriously and several times its engines caught fire. Even Boeing, the makers, in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars involved in the contract, wanted to give up on it. But Tibbets insisted this was getting close to becoming the aircraft he needed for the job he had to do and his word, on this project, was very close to law. They kept tinkering with the big clumsy plane, but after a few' minor mishaps and one disastrous crash. Tibbets found some of his crew in a state close to silent mutiny. “Nobody came right out and refused an order or anything like that, of course,” he said, “but it was amazing the number of excuses some of the crews started to find for not going up on another test. They weren't feeling good, the weather was lousy, there was something wrong with the wiring, or the port engines just didn't sound right."
There were two young and pretty Wasps working at the base, Wasps being the women's auxiliary of the air force, whose normal duty was to fly transport and passenger planes or ferry combat planes in order to release males for more difficult and dangerous work. Over a period of two weeks, Tibbets secretly took the two Wasps on several flights aboard the B-29 and showed them how to fly it. Then, one dull morning, when no other B-29 w'as flying, he sent them up alone. They circled the field for a good half-hour and performed several fairly spectacular stunts.
“When the plane came down, all the regular crews were gathered on the field, waiting to see
who'd been flying it. When these little-bitty girls stepped out—” Tibbets got up from his desk, still chuckling at the memory, and held his hand at roughly the level of his own chest to indicate their size—“these little-bittv girls, neither of them weighing more than a hundred and ten pounds, marched out and across the field and these great big football players just stood there gaping, first at the girls and then at each other. They didn't need any sermon, and there wasn't much more talk about the B-29 being unsafe to fly.”
“Tibbets was a tough man and a good man." C laude Fatherly said not long ago in Galveston. Texas, between puffs on a big cigar and sips of a big bourbon and Coca-Cola. "I'm disappointed in him but I've got no hostility. I’m not in the least angry with anybody else in the squadron. I wish some more of us who'd seen the awful results had spoken out against this race for more and bigger bombs, but there's all this talk of deterrents and some of it seems to make
sense and everybody has to think these things out for himself. 1 think most of the men 1 flew w ith have turned out to be mistaken, but 1 don’t know of any I'd call wicked or vicious.
“You know', that’s a funny thing,” Charles Levy was saying a day or so afterwards in Philadelphia. “I disagree with Fatherly's attitude as much as he disagrees with mine. War's a terrible thing, but once you're in one you might as well fight the best war you can. I'm not ashamed, as 1 know Eatherly is, of what we did. In fact I'm proud. We killed a lot of people, but by cutting the war short, we saved a lot more. We saved a lot of Americans. We saved a lot of Japanese.”
When he spoke again of Eatherly it was with affection. “He was a fine pilot—maybe twentyfive, a big raw kid out of Texas. It’s a funny thing you know, but the only crew in our whole squadron that's ever held a reunion was Eatherly's. And this was after. not before, Claude had been arrested half a dozen times for crimes ranging from forgery to armed holdup, had been committed to the mental hospital at Waco maybe ten separate times, had attempted suicide twice, had been divorced by his wife and left by his three children, had insulted everybody in the squadron by implying we were no better than a bunch of paid assassins. But no matter what he does to you or to anyone else it's still pretty hard not to like him. 1 played a lot of poker with him in Utah and in the Pacific —usually there wasn't much else to do and since we all got pretty good pay and allowances
the stakes were
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“f got sick of seeing little 500and 1,000-pound bombs bounce off submarine pens like tennis balls”
highly interesting. Fatherly was easily the best poker player in the squadron. He’d look at you and make his call or his raise, and he’d keep looking at you with his poker face and there was just no way to tell the difference in his look whether he had a tight or a busted flush.”
“Fatherly," l evy went on. "would bet on anything. He’d chew his cigar and bet on whatever you could think of. Once, in the mess at Utah, some of the pilots were complaining about the B-29, as a lot of them often were. ‘Hell!’ Fatherly said, ‘that aircraft’s so tame I can take it up and bring it back with salt on its tail.' So he made a bet on it — I can’t remember what it was. And so the next day, on a test run, he took his B-29 over the salt flats. He dove it to the ground and at the last split second he pulled it out of the dive and sure enough, he covered the underside of the tailpane with Utah salt-sand and brought the damn thing back with salt on its tail."
Another time Fatherly made a boast that he’d be the first man in their squadron to drop a bomb on Tokyo. They were then flying one-bomb one-plane missions, using conventional bombs, to soften the Japanese up to the notion that a single B-29 couldn't really do much harm. The A-Bomb squadron was supposed to stay away from Tokyo and its ack-ack and fighter planes, but Fatherly bet a fifth of a bourbon he’d get there anyway by pretending his primary target was weathered in. He got to Tokyo, 280 miles from where he was supposed to be, dropped his bomb and brought back photographs to show' he had.
“Yes.” Colonel Tom Ferebee reflected in Savannah, “Fatherly wasn’t the kind of man you forget. He was good with his plane, good with his crew, good with his cards, good with his whisky, good, I hear, with his women. I just can’t understand why he suddenly discovered there was nothing good about what we did to win and end the war.”
“I’m sorry Fatherly’s had so much trouble," General Tibbets, his old commander. said. "They say he’s gone crazy but if anybody’s got a right to be crazy it's not him. it's me. All he did was fly a weather plane into Hiroshima and call back to me that he could see a big hole in the clouds and then advise me to come in and drop the bomb.
“I’d been living for a year with the knowledge of what that bomb really had inside, I’d built the squadron that took it there and I took it there myself. But you know I’ve never lost one minute of sleep, not one minute. Before I ever heard of the atomic bomb, I flew twenty-five missions over Europe and out of North Africa into the Mediterranean. I got sick of seeing little five-hundred and thousand-pound bombs bounce off the submarine pens like tennis balls. If we had to have bangs, 1 w'as in favor of bigger bangs. Little Boy was the biggest bang in history and if they told me to drop it again and the circumstances were the same. I’d drop it."
Charlie Levy, another of the men I met from Squadron 393, was aboard one of the two planes that reached Nagasaki. "There’s no way to describe it,’’ he said. “Suppose you're thinking of every color you ever heard of. it doesn't matter what the color was, or how delicate or subtle it was, ochre or heliotrope, there the color was, boiling and churning and bubbling up at you from the ground.
“I wasn't scared.” Charlie Levy said. “Nagasaki was a tougher trip than Hiroshima because the blast came up from
between two hills, higher and quicker. I was in the nose at first but when we were clear of the blast 1 thought I’d go back and get some coffee. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. I could move my arms but not my legs. ‘Pass the coffee, please,’ I shouted to the copilot. ‘I’d like to,’ he said, ‘but I just can’t get up.’
"When we got back to the base and the
medics started poking at us and analyzing us I told one of them about this fit of paralysis. He said it was nothing to worry about, it was just a normal reaction to a sudden and blinding shock.”
While trying to organize next August's reunion in Chicago, Levy has been sending form letters to the members of the squadron he’s been able to find. They don't
differ by a syllable from the letters other former military men have been getting since the war broke up . . .
“Ralph Curry, Marilyn and Jon—just moved from Chicago to a small town about thirty-five miles out—moved to a new town and new job—now' manager of a jewelry store—Best of luck in your new' position." . . .
Anuí on a more general theme Levy’s last bulletin said: “Need we say we'd like this to be a successful reunion? Think back, at one time in our lives, we spent more time looking at each other, living with each other, and risking our lives for our families and country. We spent time standing in a job, waiting for mail call, or in a line for chow, some on the ground waiting for a plane to return, others in the air wishing they were on the ground. Don’t you think you owe it to your War Time friends to meet and greet with them for ¿t least a few days after 17 years?”
Charlie Levy is one of the few members of the first atomic-bomb crews who’s decided to build a bomb shelter himself. "Looking at that stuff churning and reaching up at you and wondering what was happening there below it’s not an easy thing to put in the back of your mind,” he says. “1 know' that in the strict actuarial sense, no shelter's a good gamble. But it’s better than no gamble at all. You remember how in the last war they made us all put on gas masks, tear off gas masks, had all of us tearing gas masks off and on all the time. There were at least ten million people carting these things around and if anybody had got really serious about gas, all those masks couldn’t possibly have saved more than a hundred thousand of them. But it would have saved some, one in a thousand, one in a million, who can be sure? That’s the chance 1 w'ant to give my w'ife and children if they start dropping more of the bombs we had to drop.”
Levy is building his shelter primarily to accommodate him and the four other members of his family. But there'll be space and blankets and food for at least a dozen. There won’t be any locked door or any pistols or rifles to scare off intruders. “I hope there'll be room for me inside.” Levy says. "If there isn’t 1 guess I’ll just have to stay out.”
Alw'ays and inevitably the talk about the atomic bombers comes back to Claude Eatherly. I caught up with him in a hotel on the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston. Texas, named, poetically, the S.S. Snort. Eatherly is on a form of leave known as guided visits from the Veterans Administration Hospital at Waco. He lives well, partly on his $264 a month veterans’ cheque as a hundred-percent mental casualty. In collaboration with an Austrian philosopher. Giinther Anders, he has written a book summing up his meditations on Hiroshima and his own part in it. The book, called Burning Conscience, has already been published in a dozen languages. He’s writing another autobiographical book, in collaboration with a ghost. Still another book on him by the American writer. William Bradford Huie, will be published in the fall.
He’s agreed to work on two movies, one documentary and one semifictional. and he’s signed up for a long lecture tour. He has, he says with the grin you’d expect from any cigar-smoking, bourbon-drinking Texan, just bought a beauty parlor in Galveston. “I only keep the books." Eatherly says.
Many people think he’s being exploited by pacifists, both professional and amateur. Giinther Anders, the man from Vienna, had never seen Eatherly when he wrote President John Kennedy accusing the United States of keeping Eatherly in confinement because he’s become a source of public embarrassment. Bertrand Russell has endorsed this point of view.
This charge not only can’t be substantiated, it can't make sense. A spokesman for the Veterans Administration said to me: "If we really wanted to lock poor Eatherly up we all should be fired as jailers. We had him there nine times and every single time we had him there legally and every singjc time we let him out. We treat him the same way we treat other mental cases. When he first comes in he's under close confinement. Then, if he seems calmer, as he always has, he goes into limited confinement. Then he has the run of the place and can go outside if he wants to ask for a pass. Right now he’s on a guided visit—has been since last November. It’s nothing like as strict as parole; in Galveston he’s nearly two hundred miles away from the hospital: all he has to do is let us know w-here he is and what he’s doing."
I had a good long talk with Eatherly
the first part in his hotel roem in Galveston. the second part in a pleasant little private club a mile down the Gulf of Mexico. All the time I talked to him. 1 kept thinking of an even greater flyer of their war. the Canadian fighter pilot. Buzz Beinling. The last time l saw Beurling was two days before his death when he was on his way to fight again, as a mercenary, for the Israelis against the Arabs. It’s only a piece of romance that great flyers all have the same kind of eyes, but it happens to be true that Beurling’s eyes had the same incredibly pale clear blue as Eatherly’s and there was no way to guess what was behind them. It was hard to avoid the suspicion that both these good young men, having become great young men in the war they helped to win. suddenly had to wonder where to go from there and suddenly turned to strange and desperate paths.
At first, although I'd come nearly 4,000 miles to find him. I’d decided only to ask Eatherly a few simple questions to check the record. It’s a matter of history, of course, that Eatherly’s weather plane, the Straight Flush, found an opening in the clouds above Hiroshima and wirelessed
back to Tibbets’ bombing plane, the Enola Gay, "Y2. Q2. B2. Cl" — meaning in its simplest interpretation "visibility good high and low. recommend bomb primary target.” Eatherly and his crewknew' the bomb they were escorting was a particularly big and powerful one. but they didn't know' it was an atomic bomb. Nor. although nearly all the written records say he did. did Eatherly fly the scouting plane to Nagasaki. "I flew an ordinary mission the day of Nagasaki, with an ordinary bomb over a city whose name I can’t remember." Eatherly said. "I flew eighty-eight missions altogether, some of them fairly tough, some easy. Hiroshima didn't mean anything special to me until a long time after. Then the real thought of it started coming in and I couldn't live with it or myself.
"1 still see a psychiatrist every day. It’s done me a lot of good. I don’t have bad dreams about the bomb any more, mainly, 1 think, because I’ve done what little I can to stop them dropping the next one. And. you know, I don’t think there will be a next one. I’m an optimist. So far the deterrent has worked: maybe the awful thing we had to do will save the world yet."
It may be that Eatherly’s personal tragedy is slowly getting sorted out. “I talked to my father and my brothers last fall in our home town in Van Alstyn. Just last night I talked on long distance to my former wife. It was about some legal papers she had to know about. She’s remarried and I haven’t seen the children since our divorce. (There are two girls and a boy.) Everything’s fine with them all. 1 don't feel so bad about my criminal record. It didn't hurt anybody but me and it did get some attention for the ideas I’ve been trying to express.”
The last of the atomic bombers I talked to was the only one who rode both the bombing planes—the one with the bomb called Little Boy to Hiroshima and the one with the bomb called Fat Man to Nagasaki. Jacob Beser. who was a radar officer then, is now a defense scientist in Baltimore, specializing in research on space. 1 reached him by telephone from New York but we weren’t able to meet in person and he agreed to answer some of my questions in writing. “Any guilt feeling?” he wrote. "Absolutely and unequivocally none. The manner in which people die in a global w'ar is only a subject for academic discussion — I think the problem to which we should now address ourselves is the elimination of war as an instrument of policy —however, nothing unilateral now at the expense of national survival.”
1 asked him what his strongest memories were. “The one thing." he said, “which really lingers and which 1 think frightens most people is the bizarre nature of the nuclear weapon. It is difficult to conceive of a single implement of war packing such a lethal load. When one considers that we were a single aircraft with a single bomb and that when we left Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their physical condition approached large sections of Tokyo and Osaka, etc., one can’t be unmindful of the tremendous destructive capacity. It was as if the sand at the seashore had been stirred up and dispersed by a large incoming wave.”
I’d asked Beser another question. “As for differences in reaction between Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he answered, “— well, after Hiroshima I hoped inwardly that the Japanese government would capitulate and spare their people more of the same, for Japan was taking a fierce daily pounding even before we operated. At Nagasaki 1 became convinced that no nation at that time could survive in the face of this new punishment, and that the duration of the war could probably be reckoned in hours. I also could not help thinking of the irony of the situation — that Germany, who deserved more of this kind of thing to my way of thinking—although reduced to rubble at tremendous cost— should have been spared this ordeal. 1 felt that any nation — especially a western nation—which stooped to genocide certainly merited this reward.”
"In general," Jacob Beser summed up. “1 regard what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a job that I was selected to perform. I am proud of the trust placed in me by my country—and 1 think I did all that was asked of me to the best of my ability. As for today’s problems—well. I have dedicated my life to the defense of my country in the manner in which 1 feel most qualified. I’m not sure what part my war experience has played in shaping my life other than perhaps giving me a better first-hand understanding of the threat to today’s world. Up to now. 1 have the feeling we have only been treating the symptoms of our problem and not the problem itself. Defense, war-making potential. etc., are all tools for one approach to the solution. What is really needed is understanding and dedication to the elimination of war itself.”
Then Jacob Beser, the only man in the world who has seen two A-bombs drop from planes he was helping to fly. added a last footnote. "We all seem to accept the proposition that wars are inevitable. This can no longer be tolerated. Wars are not inevitable — they don’t just happen — men make them. If we seek the solution to our differences in this framework, I think we may stand a chance. If we don’t, we have all of the tools to eliminate all of our problems—only forever—in a cataclysm of fire as yet unseen in the annals of human existence." ★