February 18, 1999
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Student Pursues Facts About Hiroshima Pilot

By Willian J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Joshua Jones displays newspaper photos of Claude Eatherly, who piloted the weather plane for the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Major Claude Eatherly took off from the Pacific island of Tinian on August 6, 1945, and flew into history and tragedy.

He piloted his plane, the Straight Flush, over Hiroshima, Japan, checked the weather, and radioed to Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets that visibility was clear.

Tibbets, piloting the Enola Gay, followed Eatherly over Hiroshima and dropped history's first atomic bomb on the city, killing 92,000 people and disabling thousands more, most of them helpless civilians. A second bomb destroyed Nagasaki and 40,000 lives three days later, effectively ending World War II.

Tibbets later was assailed as "insane" by antinuclear activists for remarking that he felt no guilt over dropping the bomb, while Eatherly became the focus of a national guilt complex.

Eatherly was discharged from the Air Force in 1947 for cheating on a written test, then spent the next 17 years in and out of jails and psychiatric hospitals. Psychiatrists, pundits, and publications blamed his problems on the guilt they believed he felt for his role in the nuclear holocaust.

Last year, Anne Harrington, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, gave some letters about Eatherly and his problems to Joshua Jones, now a senior at the College. In them, Gunther Anders, a German philosopher, claimed that the U.S. military tried to prevent Eatherly from putting forth his views against the nuclear arms race by confining him to psychiatric military hospitals.

"That went against everything I had learned about democracy and freedom of speech," Jones, 20, recalls. "I couldn't believe that this had really happened, and I decided it was something I should look into."

Insanity Hearing

Jones found that Eatherly had been the subject of an insanity hearing in his native Texas in 1961. The ex-pilot had a history of committing or trying to commit strange crimes. He would hold up convenience stores with a broken or fake gun. Sometimes he demanded that his victims put all the money in a bag. Then he would walk out, leaving the bag on the counter.

The pilot seemed like an ideal case study for Jones, whose father, a psychiatrist, shared his interest in the history of science. To Jones, Eatherly's predicament went beyond the adventures of one man to include elements of the history of the Cold War and the nuclear fear it bred, the media's reaction (or overreaction), and even changes in the practice of psychiatry.

Jones obtained funds for his project from the Harvard College Research Program, which provides small grants to students who wish to do their own research rather than assist professors with their investigations.

Eatherly had been in and out of a Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital in Waco, Texas, and his brother tried to have him declared insane at a 1961 juried hearing in that city. So Jones headed to Waco.

There, he tried to access Eatherly's medical records. However, he needed permission from the family, specifically from Eatherly's brother, and the brother was no longer willing to discuss the case.

Jones, however, was able to find and talk with jurors from the sanity trial and a local newspaper reporter who had followed Eatherly's life. Jones also interviewed Ronnie Dugger, a visiting scholar at Harvard who wrote a book about Eatherly in the early 1960s. That was an era when Cold War fear over nuclear attacks reached its height. It was also a time when the media portrayed the ex-Hiroshima pilot as someone who had been driven into sickness and suffering by his nuclear guilt.

Both Dugger and William Bradford Huie, who also wrote a book about Eatherly, thought the ex-pilot was using the media to get publicity as well as funds from the Veterans Administration to support a gambling habit and lifestyle that he otherwise could not afford. They didn't deny that Eatherly was sick, but questioned whether his mental illness was related to the Hiroshima bombing.

At the 1961 hearing, the court declared Eatherly competent enough to manage his affairs. Two years later, he married his second wife with whom he fathered two daughters. After he died in 1978, Eatherly's first wife claimed that his problems stemmed from disappointment over not being chosen to drop the first atomic bomb.

Jones found that some of Eatherly's flight crew supported that idea. Other pilots and crews considered him to be the best pilot in their unit. However, Tibbets outranked Eatherly and commanded the unit assigned to drop the bombs, putting him in a position to make the historic drop.

"Eatherly's feelings about this never received much publicity because they didn't fit his image as guilt-ridden, antinuclear pacifist," Jones notes.


Soon after he left the Air Force, Eatherly began running guns to Cuba to support anticommunist rebels. Critics claimed such an adventure destroyed his credentials as a pacifist. Proponents said he did it to help keep communism from our shores. Eatherly was caught but never tried or jailed for gunrunning.

In the 1950s, he was arrested for forgery, passing stolen checks, and robbery. Eatherly also made two attempts at suicide during the '50s. In 1957, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to burglarizing two post offices in Texas. The court released him into the custody of his brother.

"Claude Eatherly was a man of contradictions," Jones comments. "I found myself searching for the man versus his myth."

Was Eatherly a war hero, or a victim of the war? Did the bombing bring on his mental suffering, or was he naturally unstable? Did the press and public manipulate him, or did he manipulate them?

"I believe he definitely had psychiatric problems aside from any instability associated with the dropping of the bomb," Jones concludes. "Once people began talking about him as an icon who suffered from mental illness as a result of Hiroshima, he grew into that image."

In that sense, Eatherly was as much a victim of himself as he was of the war, says Jones. His feelings of guilt may not have been as intense as many people imagined. He didn't actually drop the bomb, nor did he stay around to watch it explode. Yet, even if he was manipulated by the press and antinuclear organizations, he may not be innocent of taking advantage of the situation.

Finally, Jones concludes that the accusation that started him on his quest -- the idea that the federal government tried to lock Eatherly up to shut him up -- isn't true.

"Uncovering all the facts and accurately reconstructing what happened may be impossible now," Jones admits. "But I definitely think the project was worthwhile. I learned a great deal about fears and attitudes during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s and about a time in psychiatry when individual treatment was replacing institutional treatment."

Jones enjoys studying the history of science. "I'm thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in the field, or going to medical school," he says. "Or I might do both, get an M.D. and Ph.D."

In any case, Jones is sure he's not finished with Eatherly. "The research raised enough unanswered questions for me to want to follow the story further," he says, "although I'm not sure where it will take me."


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College