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
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
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
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