combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Shattered and Dismayed

He wasn't your typical decorated war hero. Most people around him neither knew about nor cared that Major Claude Eatherly had played a pivotal role in bringing World War II to a close. But then, maybe he didn't deserve to be honored or respected. Not the way he was carrying on.

Eatherly, like a lot of military people, left the service ill equipped for civilian life. Lacking a college degree, he settled for a grease monkey job at a Texaco station near his home town in Texas, where all too often, he failed to show up for work. He was often drunk, gambled excessively and suffered from severe depressions. On at least two occasions, he attempted suicide. When he needed money, he forged checks or committed hold-ups. He was sentenced to jail three times, and was admitted to a mental hospital nine times.

No one knows with certainty whether Eatherly's behavior was war related. It may have been.

Once he was regarded as one of the military's top pilots. He was a member of the elite 509th Composite Group stationed at Tinian, a select group chosen to make B-29 raids on Japan. Considered as one of the top five pilots from among this group, Eatherly was given the special assignment as scout pilot for the Hiroshima mission. This required that he fly over the targeted city; then, if conditions were favorable, return to a rendezvous point to accompany the bomb-carrying craft to its destination.

While contemplating Eatherly's conduct, I couldn't help examining my own post World War II behavior. First, let me emphasize that my role as a U. S. Marine combat infantryman pales in comparison to that of Eatherly's. Still, there are similarities worth noting.

I never cease to be amazed at the mind numbing process that one undergoes during military basic training. In my case, the Marines, within a few weeks, managed to take a common farm boy and convert him into a gung-ho fighter with a killer mentality. A kid who never harmed anyone suddenly takes on a violent personality, one eager to find a human target. It's an awesome transformation, one which millions have experienced. Some, like me, seem especially pliable for such a changeover.

It's the reverse process, getting retrofitted for ordinary civil life, that is often short changed. Our armed services seem little concerned about restoring people back to normalcy. Indications are that for many – perhaps for most – adapting back to civilian life came easily. For me, it did not.

World War II occurred during a time when I was graduating from High School and, under ordinary circumstances, would have pursued a college education. I loved books, and looked forward to higher learning. It was not surprising, then, that following World War II, I immediately enrolled in college. What was surprising, is that somehow, I had lost all interest in studying. I was far too restless. I longed to return to a military camp where I could participate in combat exercises, run up hills with full gear, and spend leisure hours with my newfound family. After one year in college, I made my move back to military life, the one career I now seemed fit for. Attempting any other course at that time would surely have resulted in failure, and possibly a life of disaster. My restlessness during that year took me down paths I might otherwise never have traveled. I was a prodigal, hell bound, with no sense of direction.

Eatherly found little help through psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. He was living in a world outside the reach of such assistance. Most of those living in that small Texas town may have had little understanding of the nightmarish mission that had been his. How do you explain to old acquaintances that you feel a personal responsibility for annihilating several hundred thousand people, mostly through radiation burns? Who might you find there – or anywhere – that could comprehend the dismay brought on by the mind-shattering experiences in his memory? Who was there that could offer help?

The early end to the war saved millions of us from having to invade Japan. Anyone who has ever been to that heavily populated island can vouch for the horrendous massacre that would have ensued, had we been forced to invade. At every turn, invasions leading toward ending the war had been met with fierce resistance. Driven by a deified authority, the Japanese proved to be tenacious fighters. Few surrendered, preferring suicide as a less shameful alternative. After the spirited battles at Saipan, the bloody encounter at Iwo Jima, and the long, intense confrontation at Okinawa, a quick resolution of the war seemed in America's best interest. Eatherly played a huge role in bringing that about.

Eatherly, who died of cancer in a veteran's hospital in July 1978, remains a hero in my book. I would have been proud to have met with him over a cup of coffee during his post-war trials. It would have afforded me an opportunity to express my appreciation for his heroism. I'd like to think that he would have received some small measure of comfort from that, as well. Imagine it – two mixed up combat veterans who did what we had been asked to do – companionably savoring our brotherhood, wordlessly or volubly.

Few know that Eatherly's remains lie in a national cemetery in Houston, Texas. Even fewer remember him at all. It's just as well. Yet, how different things might have been if one or two people had stopped along the way to say thanks.

by Al Schneider
... who is retired from the military, having served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force, with writings previously published in Stars and Stripes, The Wittenberg Door, The Covenant Companion, and other local or literary publications. An earlier version of this story appeared in Senior Perspective.

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