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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 seems not to have covered all possible contingencies.

There is no point in summarizing here the squalid, highly circumstantial account that follows of Eatherly’s petty crimes and imprisonment, the collapse of his marriage, and his sojourns in the mental hospital; whether it is true or misleading, it is soap-opera. Mr. Huie’s interest in Major Eatherly seems to me justifiable. The Major has become a hero in England, and, of course, in Communist countries, where his legend is deliberately exploited. He is believed to have been the actual commander of the mission that dropped the first atomic bomb, and his subsequent derangement is attributed to his unbearable burden of guilt. Mr. Huie makes a far more plausible case for the interpretation that Eatherly suffered from neglect rather than from guilt, and made up his guilt in order to dramatize himself. Where “pacifists”—the print of the book hisses when Huie uses this word—portray Eatherly as committing bizarre crimes in order to court punishment for his guilt, Huie sees him as seeking to appear more deranged than he is in order to avoid imprisonment and increase his disability pension. And so it may be. Mr. Eatherly has corresponded with and sometimes worked with the people who have portrayed him as a hero, as he did with Mr. Huie; and he seems to have made no effort to correct their untrue statements. The most egregious and unjust of these is that he is a prisoner in hospital, prevented by the authorities from declaring his guilt. Edmund Wilson’s brief comments on Eatherly in The Cold War and the Income Tax did give me that impression.

What makes it so unjust is that if the book—despite Mr. Huie’s efforts—has a hero, it is the Veterans Administration. With a moral sensitivity I would not have believed possible for a bureaucracy, it has, by Mr. Huie’s hostile account, maintained through the course of its unrewarding relationship to its difficult charge a concern for Major Eatherly and a respect for his rights that commands my astonished admiration. Both in Waco and in Washington the authorities responded to Mr. Huie’s letters of authorization by pointing out that, since, in their professional judgment, Mr. Eatherly was mentally incompetent, they could not accept them, and refused Mr. Huie access to Eatherly’s records. Mr. Huie responds:

I consider this sort of secrecy dangerous, improper in the United States, and I told them so. But Dr. Middleton and Mr. Brickfield insisted that the law gave them no other course. Dr. Middleton invited me to visit the Waco hospital, to inspect it from basement to attic, and to talk at length with Dr. McMahan [the director of the hospital]. But only with Dr. McMahan, and not about the medical record…. The VA decision did not prevent my obtaining most of the pertinent information about Eatherly. The decision did, however, force me to employ a device which is abhorrent to me. To this point, I have named the source of whatever I have reported. But from this point [p. 93] I must resort, in a few cases, to quoting only the “informed source.”

Mr. Huie resorts, as well, to innuendo and animadversion. His particular target is the psychiatrist who was placed in charge of Eatherly’s case in the spring of 1956, whose testimony was largely responsible for Eatherly’s acquittal at his trial for postal robbery in December, 1957. This physician, whose full name Mr. Huie repeats from time to time in case the reader might have forgotten its implications, was Dr. Oleinick Pavlovitch Constantine. “Fair, stocky, strongfaced, amiable, he is unmistakably Russian. In appearance and manner he reminded me of General Zukov.” Even as a child, Oleinick Pavlovitch seems to have been offensive, since the Red Army drove him, along with certain other children, out of the country at the age of nine. The fact that his father was a Baptist set in train the events that ultimately brought the boy as a medical student to Baylor University, and hence to Waco, where he settled, and where, ultimately, he met Mr. Huie. Samarra would have been a lot shorter trip.

Mr. Huie is particularly suspicious of Dr. Constantine’s change of Eatherly’s diagnosis from “anxiety reaction” to “schizophrenia”; which increased his disability compensation and influenced the postal-robbery jury to acquit him. Huie insists that he is not himself a psychiatrist, and regards Constantine’s diagnosis as questionable because other psychiatrists at the hospital disagreed with it. But Eatherly was Constantine’s patient; and if one wishes to write a book about a man the meaning of whose life depends on the validity of psychiatric diagnoses one must know something about the uncertainties inherent in the field. Mr. Huie does not even seem to grasp the idea of ambivalence in human behavior: he attacks Eatherly’s sincerity and consistency, and insists that if Eatherly were really crazy or guilt-ridden he wouldn’t goof-off about it. In his initial telephone conversation with Mr. Eatherly, and before he had met him, Mr. Huie told him, “I’m only a reporter. The only thing about you which interests me is the truth.” But his suspicious contempt for his subject makes this statement quite untenable. Here is Mr. Huie’s account of their first meeting.

His appearance was no surprise. I’ve visited too many jails and mental hospitals not to know that the “disordered” man today often looks “just like everybody else.” Eatherly is six feet tall, and smokes cigars. His jaws have fleshened, to make his face round; and his forehead slopes backward to curly, reddish receding hair. He had arrived in an old-model car, and his dress was ordinary. He doesn’t appear alert, but I sensed calculation in his manner. He seemed distrustful, watchful, each word is a maneuver.

Then, later, when Huie was checking out one of Eatherly’s check-passing episodes:

Every criminal has what police and the television dramatists call his “MO”—his “mode of operation”;…I studied Claude Eatherly’s MO.

But a far more serious defect in the book than its hostility toward its subject is its moral obtuseness. And this, paradoxically, makes the book really an important document of our times: an incomparable bit of authentic mid-century Americana. From this point of view, Major Eatherly almost vanishes; he recedes, at least, into the background that made the entire series of events perhaps inevitable. Take, for example, these comments from two different letters to Huie from former members of Major Eatherly’s crew; which Huie cites to show how normal American young men react to peripheral participation in the historic events at Hiroshima:

We have three children, all girls…. We live in a lovely home overlooking the village and facing the Green Mountains of Vermont…We have lived in Ukiah since 1946 when I got out of the service. We have a nice home, swimming pool, patio, etc.

Or this verbal comment on Eatherly by a third crew member:

He was a swell guy to drink with and chase girls with. He always carried the book with plenty of girls in it. From Wendover, Utah, we used to race in two cars over that hundred miles to Salt Lake City. The Skipper and I would pass the whiskey bottle back and forth, from one car to another, at eighty miles an hour. Certainly it didn’t occur to me that there was anything abnormal about the Skipper.

Or Huie’s:

Every one of the 1800 men in the 509th thought he had some role in the support of Hiroshima…. These are proud Americans: they are proud because they think they “ended the war.” And “Hiroshima” to these men means, not a city, but the attack on Hiroshima.

Or these remarkable words in which Mr. Huie, speaking to Eatherly, “tried to make retraction easier for him”:

Hiroshima was something different; it wasn’t another air battle like Schweinfurt or Ploesti. It was a deliberate demonstration of terror. The men who ordered it were well-intentioned men who thought they were acting in the name of humanity.

Yet, there are people who call Dr. Strangelove satire. Patriotism is an admirable human quality even in 1964. But it has gotten a bit tricky to handle, and requires, I think, rather more intellectual dexterity and compassion, for others and for oneself as an American, than Mr. Huie brings to bear in the book he calls, with heavy irony, The Hiroshima Pilot. I share his disgust at Mr. Eatherly’s willingness to allow his life story to be distorted and misrepresented in foreign countries. But indignation on this point is beyond me.

It isn’t Mr. Eatherly, after all, who has harmed our moral reputation. The people who criticize us for imprisoning and attempting to silence a remorseful man—as they have been led to believe we have done—at least do us the honor of believing we might have produced one They do not despise us primarily for what they think we did to Major Eatherly; I wish they did. They hate us for what we did in fact do to Hiroshima—I mean the city, and its people, not the attack. They hate us for being, so largely, the kind of people who could have spoken of it as Mr. Huie does.

But we did do it, to a nation already defeated and attempting, through the Russians, to sue for peace. One of Mr. Huie’s recurrent complaints against Major Eatherly is that he misrepresented his combat record when, in fact, he had never been under fire: “The Japs had nothing to bother you at that altitude by July, 1945,” one of his crew members remarked. This is not a factor that could reasonably be held to augment the guilt of a minor officer in the Air Force. But it does augment Mr. Truman’s guilt, and ours.

Eatherly, certainly, is no hero, and he may be as miserable a creature as Mr. Huie makes him out; though Dr. Constantine seems to have been guided closer to the truth by a mixture of compassion and professional competence. But even if Mr. Huie has painted Mr. Eatherly accurately, I am afraid that he has still not recognized him.

Just what did we expect, anyway—something more dignified than a poor, publicity-seeking, middle-aged man too weak to defend his country’s reputation at some small sacrifice to his own? Is it distressing to find the victory—and the victors—of Hiroshima mockingly exploited by a man who passes bad checks, figures small angles incompetently, and makes an inextricable mess of his life? Does the promise of the nuclear age merit a more stirring betrayal? On the contrary, I find it reassuring that the gods, after all they have been through, have retained their sense of proportion. Everyone, even in America, is eventually served by precisely the Fury he has summoned.

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