Jacob Beser remembered lives lost -- and saved


Years after the bomb went off and the first mushroom cloud appeared, he still remembered that the weather was lovely. The nightmare atomic age was born in the dazzling sunlight of God's most peaceful heaven. Jacob Beser always held onto the details.

He was still a young man the first time I heard him tell the story. It was 1962, 17 years after he'd helped bring an end to World War II, and Beser was already sensing that the world would forget the incidentals.

He died 11 days ago, at 71, and the concern was increasing. Time steals from memory. Beser remembered the sunny sky, as well as the fires below. He remembered the living as well as the dead. And he knew that some were pointing only to the chilling devastation which ended the war but pushed aside the years of wholesale killing that preceded it.

He was the only man who flew on both atomic bomb missions over Japan. Some had trouble with that, and told him so. They'd use the word murder. Beser would stiffen and ask, "Don't you read any history? Don't you know about the lives that were saved, and not just the ones that were lost?"

"He had no regrets about what he did," his wife of 43 years, Sylvia, said the other day at her Pikesville home. "But he worried that young people had no concept of what had happened. It's the old line: If you don't study history, you'll repeat it."

In the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about 180,000 Japanese lives were ended. Beser remembered taking off about 2 o'clock that morning, in the plane called Enola Gay, and flying over Iwo Jima when they got weather reports marking Hiroshima as a clear target.

"We were over there about 8:15," he said one day not long ago. "From there on it was just clear sailing. The weather was beautiful. No clouds, no fighters, no flak, no nothing."

He was working in the back of the plane when the bomb went off. There were no windows back there, and he was wearing polarized welding goggles, but he could see the bright flash and in a few moments went forward to gaze out a front window.

"By the time I got there," he said, "there wasn't much to see except what you see in pictures: a lot of smoke and debris, and a mushroom cloud. On the periphery of the thing, you could see fires burning.

"It looked like when you go to the seashore and stir up the shallow water: Everything was billowing around. The cloud was about 10,000 feet higher than we were, though we were about 30,000 feet from the ground. It was all over in a couple of seconds for the people below."

He remembered there was much heavy drinking that night: not in celebration, he always stressed, but in drastic need to break the pressure. About 70,000 people had been put to death in that morning's blast, and everyone in the crew would live with that knowledge for the rest of their days.

But Beser was the only one from the Enola Gay to fly that second mission, three days later over Nagasaki in the plane called Bock's Car. The day was overcast, but just before they hit the bomb run there was an opening in the clouds and, suddenly, down below, was the waiting Nagasaki: soon to be enflamed, with thousands more lives taken, in an act that would effectively bring the war to a close.

Through the years that followed, those two flights became Jacob Beser's footnotes to history. Sometimes there were anonymous telephone calls, calling him a killer. Sometimes the confrontations were face-to-face.

Sylvia Beser remembers a reunion of the Enola Gay crew, some years back, where a Ban the Bomb demonstration was held outside.

"Didn't you have any feeling for all those Japanese youth?" one demonstrator demanded.

"What do you think we were?" Beser replied. "We were children, too."

He was 24 when he flew the atomic bomb missions. He'd graduated from Baltimore City College, gone to Johns Hopkins University, but dropped out of his engineering studies the day after America entered the war.

In the long and delicate peace that followed, he worried that people had forgotten Pearl Harbor and the death marches and the camps where men starved. He worried that the world no longer remembered the alternative to the dropping of those bombs: invasions of the Japanese mainland, tens of thousands on both sides who would be killed in traditional combat, the war stretching on and on.

"He always said, if he had to do it over again under the same circumstances, he would have," Sylvia Beser said. "And you know, people who were in the war would tell him, years later, 'You saved my life. I was marked off to go into Japan, if it hadn't been for the bomb.' "

One woman touched him as deeply as anyone. It was seven years ago, at ceremonies Beser attended in Japan, marking the 40th anniversary of the bomb. A Japanese woman, who'd been in Hiroshima when it was leveled, told him, "You had a job to do, and you did it."

"I don't know if I could be so forgiving," Beser said.

And yet, on a morning some years back, standing outside the same Baltimore Hebrew Congregation where farewell services were held for him the other day, Jacob Beser said this:

"You might hear a lot of stories about fellas from those missions cracking up. But nobody who was on those planes ever killed himself. We were all fighting in a war, that's all. You can debate the morality of the thing, but it's a moot point.

"I mean, war itself is immoral. And if you're out to kill a man, it doesn't matter whether you do it with a gun or a bomb."

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