The Question of Major Eatherly

The Hiroshima Pilot

by William Bradford Huie
Putnam, 318 pp., $5.95

In the last sentence of his book, Mr. Huie declares: “I believe the story of Claude Eatherly and his publicists curiously illuminates the time in which we live.” How true—how very true—this statement is, and how livid the illumination. I have no independent source of verification of the account Mr. Huie unfolds. I cannot judge the accuracy of the book; but I must take it for what it is. There isn’t unfortunately, much doubt about that.

Mr. Huie’s summary of the public record, which I accept, is clear. Claude Eatherly, a former Major in the United States Air Force, was the commanding officer of a weather-scouting aircraft assigned the duty of observing weather conditions in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He flew over the city, reported that the weather was lovely, and was 225 miles away by the time Colonel Tibbets actually dropped the bomb. He had nothing to do with the selection of the target, and was too far away to see the flash of this primitive thermonuclear device, much less to inspect the damage it inflicted. Huie tells us that Eatherly flew only one more mission—a similar reconnaissance of a city that was not bombed—before his discharge.

Subsequently, in civilian life, Mr. Eatherly has certainly had serious problems of “adjustment.” Everyone who knows him seems to have found him likeable; but he passed bad checks and confessed to two attempts at post-office robbery, though he was acquitted of these on psychiatric grounds. He has attempted other robberies, in a bizarre manner; and on September 13, 1960, his brother who, by Mr. Huie’s account, had patiently tried to help him throughout his difficulties, filed an application to have him committed indefinitely to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco to which he had often been confined previously. The judgment rendered was ambiguous, holding Eatherly to be mentally ill and requiring hospitalization, but not finding that he needed a guardian. He was returned to the hospital; left it seven months later, and was living in Galveston, Texas, on an authorized “trial visit” away from the hospital in March, 1962, when Huie sought him out. Huie relates that Eatherly asked him to write a book about him, and also asked for $500 for cooperating. A few days later Huie agreed to do so, warned Eatherly that the book might not be favorable to him, and paid him the $500. “I had already written his check, and I had also written four letters for him to sign.” The letters were to the Office of Public Information of the Air Force, the Director of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco, and to the Chief Legal Officer of the VA in Washington and, mirabile dictu, to J. Edgar Hoover. They authorized these officials to make every record bearing on Eatherly available to Mr. Huie, and Mr. Eatherly signed them. In retrospect, the judgment of the jury at the lunacy hearing that Mr. Eatherly did not need a guardian …

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