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Too Important to Be New

Dark Star

by Ronnie Dugger
World, 254 pp., $5.95

About soldiers, Randall Jarrell wrote these lines:

And his dull torment mottles like a fly’s
The lying amber of the histories.

The subtitle of Ronnie Dugger’s book Dark Star is “Hiroshima Reconsidered in the Life of Claude Eatherly of Lincoln Park, Texas.” That vast distance, that more-than-global discrepancy between Lincoln Park and Hiroshima attracts and then exhausts in its vastness the speculative mind. It was an easy flight in a B-29 but an impossible one for the imagination. For twenty-three years these celestial and infernal regions have been, as Eliot said of Milton’s regions, “large but insufficiently furnished apartments filled by heavy conversation.” The current non-proliferation treaty is heavy conversation. All the years of worthy alarms and arguments against the Bomb seem a heavy dark Miltonic wind.

But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversation, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.

Milton again; this time, Dr. Johnson is speaking of him. Even Milton, vastest of poets, would fail here. But lesser voices must try to sound in that void.

The tale of Claude Eatherly, sometime “Hiroshima Pilot,” has been told in every sort of voice, the sob sister’s, the wounded, the heavy political, the righteous, the half-crazed, the unctuous, the clinical, the self-advertising, even in the voice of honest human concern. Ronnie Dugger, former editor of that outpost of reason in the Southwest, The Texas Observer, tells the story in modest, honest, human concern. His concern is for Hiroshima’s victims, for the victims of the future, and for poor Claude Eatherly of Lincoln Park, Texas. It is not Dugger’s fault if the celestial and Infernal regions are too much for him. They have been too much for everyone.

THE TALE ITSELF is surely familiar. In 1957, a Texas reporter discovered that a man in jail for robbing a Post Office was a former Air Force Major who had been involved in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Immediately misinformation stormed around the world. It was sometimes said that Major Eatherly, who was pilot of the weather plane that scouted the mission and declared the target clear, had been the pilot of the bombing plane itself. More seriously, it came to be widely believed that Eatherly was being held in a veteran’s mental hospital by the United States Government because he was attempting to state publicly his repentance for his act and his belief in atomic disarmament. Led on by the disjointed and often inaccurate letters of Eatherly himself, Günther Anders in 1961 published their correspondence (as edited by Anders), leaving the impression that Eatherly was indeed being persecuted. This led to further publicity, in Europe, Asia, and here, to poems, petitions, and widespread misapprehensions. Yet for all the damage this publication may have done, including damage to Eatherly, the correspondence may also have been a life-line to poor Eatherly when he seemed to be foundering in the security ward at Waco; and Anders cannot be blamed (blamed!) for some confusion and excitement in the peculiarly complex and baffling circumstances that always seem to tangle themselves about mental illness, that contagious malady. These were compounded by the barbed wire of criminal law and of legal “sanity” rulings. Anders was thousands of miles away and could not know that Eatherly was not being railroaded. Few people, public officials or relatives, would even answer his letters.

William Bradford Huie was drawn into the case by his suspicions that an injustice was being done. But he soon determined that few things were as they seemed. Eatherly’s history had been distorted at almost every point, and Eatherly himself was not always able to tell fact from fiction, from the sensationalist fictions that had exploited him in the press, on television, and, as cooked up for movie grabs by Paul I. Wellman and A.B. Guthrie Jr., in a highly fantasized film script, NBC, sponsored by the American Tobacco Company, presented a television drama based on the Eatherly story. Its executive producer, according to Mr. Huie’s book, was Everett Rosenthal; producer and director, Robert Lewis Shayon; script by Jerome Coopersmith. The story lightly disguised Eatherly as “Pete Morgan,” although the show was widely publicized as the story of Claude Eatherly; and cruelly, indecently, it made a cheap lie of Eatherly’s torments. For drama, he had to be a Cotton Bowl football star, a war hero, which Eatherly never was at all. But Huie’s Hiroshima Pilot ended all this sort of thing.

In Huie’s view, far from seeking punishment for his war guilt through foolish crimes, Eatherly had invented his war guilt precisely to evade punishment for forgery and robbery. Reviewing the book in these pages, April 20, 1964, Edgar Z. Friedenberg declared Huie was justified in correcting the distortions which Eatherly himself seemed to have encouraged, although he found Huie strangely lacking in compassion and finally in understanding, both of Eatherly and, as a supporter of American nuclear policy, of the climate of the times. But the book was generally taken to have blotted out Eatherly’s testament for peace.

DUGGER’S “DARK STAR” speaks up for Claude Eatherly, whom he has come to know and like as a man. He tells in detail the story of a Texas boyhood, of his life as an Army flier, and of a bizarre adventure in gun-running after the war; he makes plausible, even inevitable, Eatherly’s eventual confusion, loss of identity, and torment. There is little to controvert the harsher facts of Huie’s record; only a number of statements by persons involved, inherently unprovable, that the Hiroshima nightmares did begin before and not after the crimes. All that remains to say is that Eatherly, of course, deserves nothing but sympathy and his exploiters nothing but contempt. There is no moral at all to this except that the distance between Lincoln Park and Hiroshima is either non-existent or too great to be imagined.

Many people wanted to believe, once, that the unwilling terror and remorse suffered by this American boy would serve us all; that this hot pilot, consummate poker plunger, tail-chaser extraordinary, democratic master of his adoring crew, tall, lean, with a tough cowpuncher’s face, would redeem humanity when even he, no intellectual, no coward, no pinko, even he couldn’t stand it. But he was only a movie cowboy after all. No fault of his; but the world will have to look elsewhere.

That distance between Texas and Asia, a distance, or a time, is as great and as empty as that between the deaths in Hiroshima of 90,000 or 126,000, or 230,000 Japanese (how could they be counted?) and the deaths that today for all of us and our children and our friends crouch under the earth or ride in the air or cruise beneath the sea. Even these deaths are connected only logically, and not, it seems, in our imaginations, with those daily hundreds of Vietnamese and American deaths we are unable to prevent. We can say that there is no difference, that for the dead at Troy as for the dead at Khesanh, their death was the end of the world, the end of the world for them. But they died knowing (bitterly?) that the rest of the world went on. When our hydrogen devices blow, it will really be the end—as we are so tired of hearing.

It may be that we do imagine this truly, and that our failure to think of anything to do about it lies in some profound imagining that this is only fair. Perhaps we have grown tired of history, “the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” visited at random on some of us here and there as our tribes and cities and states and grand alliances have gone about their business of crashing into one another. There has been no lack of information and exhortation on peace, but peace doesn’t seem to catch on. All wars produce leaders, or we are led to imagine that they do. But this hydrogen peace, infinitely more dangerous than any war the world has yet seen, has not produced a man in whose name more than a few thousand of us could rally. This is not the fault of Einstein, or Schweitzer, or Russell, or, though we should not say it yet, of Dr. Spock; great men all. When we want really to do something, we find a leader. But to bring about the end of the world we may not need one at all.

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