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Brazos Past: Strange case of atomic bomb, veteran, Waco

Brazos Past: Strange case of atomic bomb, veteran, Waco

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A man lauded by peace activists of the 1960s as the “guilty conscience” of American’s atomic warfare — native Texan Claude Robert “Buck” Eatherly — spent a lot of time in Central Texas as a guest of Uncle Sam.

As a psychiatric patient at what was then known as the Veterans Administration Hospital at Waco, Eatherly was repeatedly and periodically confined to the mental health facility throughout the 1950s.

He said he suffered from remorse he felt for his role in deploying the deadliest bomb of the era.

Eatherly’s episodic commitment to the mental ward in Waco played into the popular mythology of the time that unleashing such a horrific weapon on a largely civilian population surely cost participants their sanity. But some sceptics argued that the hot-shot aviator’s only real regret in life was that he had not been chosen to deliver the bomb himself.

Eatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force, in December 1940, after two years of study at North Texas State University. By the war’s end, the former farmhand had logged about 160 missions, but none so noted as his weather reconnaissance duty on Aug. 6, 1945, over Hiroshima, Japan.

His “A-OK” to the Enola Gay meant that Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. was cleared to drop the uranium bomb that incinerated an estimated 100,000 people with a blaze hotter than 10 suns.

Explosive power

“Little Boy,” as the atomic bomb was called, was 12 feet long and more than 2 feet in diameter. It boasted the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT in a single weapon weighing about 9,000 pounds.

All the crews associated with the mission were called heroes for helping speed the end the war. Japan surrendered five days after a second, plutonium bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Eatherly re-enlisted and took part in piloting test aircraft through the radiation clouds at the Bikini Atoll.

Eatherly was discharged from the Air Force in 1947 for cheating on a written test and on the grounds that he was suffering from a “neurosis with psychotic manifestations.” It went downhill from there as he drank too much, gambled too often, drifted from job to job and his marriage crumbled.

Also that year, Eatherly had the first in a long series of run-ins with the law, mostly for robbery, burglary and writing bad checks. His psychological profile deteriorated after two suicide attempts. He staged a robbery with a toy pistol and then fled without the cash, provoking national headlines and head-scratching bewilderment.

During one stay in a mental ward in 1954 for “extreme nervousness,” Eatherly underwent electro-shock therapy.

Not guilty plea

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, Joe Eatherly, who in 1960 committed him again to the VA hospital in Waco.

Psychiatrists, pundits and publications blamed his myriad problems on the guilt generated by his role in the nuclear holocaust.

At a 1961 competency trial, four psychiatrists testified that, though intelligent and personable, Claude Eatherly suffered from schizophrenia and had delusions of leading a great disarmament-oriented peace movement — all stemming from guilt about his participating in the bombing of Hiroshima.

The court declared that although Eatherly was mentally ill, he still was capable of managing his own affairs.

Eatherly became an international symbol of the dangers of nuclear weaponry, lionized abroad and pilloried at home. A German philosopher named Gunther Anders, who corresponded with Eatherly during his confinement in Waco, published a book of his correspondence with him called “Burning Conscience.”

In 1963, Eatherly re-married and fathered two daughters. They lived near Houston on his Social Security and veterans disability compensation. (His widow, Annie Laurie, died in 2004 at age 75.)

Buck Eatherly died in 1978 at age 59, after a three-year battle with throat cancer. A Veterans of Foreign Wars color guard performed and a bugler played “Taps” during his burial service at Houston National Cemetery.

Because of Eatherly’s public nervous breakdown, rumors abounded for years that members of the Enola Gay crew suffered emotional anguish and criminal crack-ups as well.

But Tibbets (1915-2007) never expressed regret for bringing World War II to an end, arguing that countless many more thousands of lives — Japanese as well as American — were spared the horrors of a land invasion.

 
 

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