Claude Eatherly bigraphy, stories - Pilots

Claude Eatherly : biography

October 2, 1918 - July 1, 1978

Claude Robert Eatherly (October 2, 1918, Texas – July 1, 1978) was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and the pilot of a weather reconnaissance aircraft Straight Flush that supported the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945.

Awards and decorations

  • Air Medal

Career and the bombing of Hiroshima

Eatherly was the pilot of Straight Flush, one of seven B-29s of the 393rd Bomb Squadron of the 509th Composite Group that took part in the Hiroshima mission, which was the culmination of ten months of training during World War II. It departed Tinian Island at approximately 0137 hours on the morning of August 6, 1945, a little more than an hour ahead of the Enola Gay (which carried the bomb) and flew over Hiroshima with the task of reporting the weather conditions.

Later life

He left the Air Force in 1947 and worked at an oil company in Houston, Texas where he became a sales manager for a mobile station. Consumed by guilt he attempted suicide by drugs in a hotel in New Orleans, but he survived and was treated in Waco, Texas in a psychiatric hospital for soldiers. His mental condition slowly deteriorated.

Jerome Klinkowitz, in Pacific Skies: American Flyers in World War II, writes: Shortly after leaving the Air Force in 1947, Eatherly took part in arrangements for a raid on Cuba by American adventurers hoping to overthrow the government; here the former weather pilot's responsibilities would involve a flight of bomb-laden P-38 Lightnings obtained as war surplus. The plot was uncovered, and Eatherly was arrested and prosecuted, serving time in jail for this offense.

Eatherly claimed to have become horrified by his participation in the Hiroshima bombing, and hopeless at the possibility of repenting for or earning forgiveness for willfully extinguishing so many lives and causing so much pain. He tried speaking out with pacifist groups, sending parts of his paycheck to Hiroshima, writing letters of apology, and once or twice may have attempted suicide. At one point “he set out to try to discredit the popular myth of the war hero [by] committing petty crimes from which he derived no benefit: he was tried for various forgeries and forged a check for a small amount and contributed the money to a fund for the children of Hiroshima. He held up banks and broke into post offices without ever taking anything.”Wilson, p ? He was convicted of forgery in New Orleans, Louisiana and served one year between 1954 and 1955 for the crime. He was also convicted of breaking and entering in West Texas. He then became a salesman in a garage and might have attempted suicide again by drug. Some think he committed such acts because of schizophrenia or anxiety disorder, for which he was held for many months at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco, Texas.

It was in this hospital that he began to correspond with Günther Anders, a Austrian philosopher and pacifist, who became his friend in a battle to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons. Eatherly wrote:

Whilst in no sense, I hope, either a religious or a political fanatic, 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 reexamine 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. None of these institutions are adequately equipped to offer infallible advice on moral issues and their claim to offer such advice needs therefore to be challenged.

William Bradford Huie, in The Hiroshima Pilot, cast doubt on the Eatherly story, pointing out that Eatherly continued to practise for potential future nuclear bombing missions in the years following the war. He believes that pacifist and anti-nuclear activists created or exaggerated elements of Eatherly’s story for propaganda purposes, and that Eatherly cooperated in this mythmaking from desire for fame or attention. Some of this skepticism was disputed in Dark Star by Ronnie Dugger. No other persons involved with the bombing of Hiroshima expressed guilt in the way that Eatherly did. Enola Gay pilot and commanding officer of the 509th Composite Group, Colonel Paul Tibbets, said in his autobiography "Flight of the Enola Gay" that he couldn’t understand why Eatherly felt so guilty. While Eatherly did command the weather B-29 that scouted Hiroshima about an hour ahead of Tibbet's B-29 (which was carrying the "Little Boy" atomic bomb), "Buck" Eatherly had already turned back for their Tinian Island base by the time the bomb was dropped. To quote Tibbets: "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."

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