A-bomb vets anxious for sign of appreciation

August 19, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THIS YEAR the anniversaries passed without notice. Hiroshima, missing somewhere off the edge of our consciousness. Nagasaki, beyond much American recollection. In her home in northwest Baltimore County, Sylvia Beser, widow of Jacob Beser, the only man who flew both atomic bomb missions over Japan, leafs through old photo albums and wonders about the national memory.

"The kids don't understand," she says softly. "Even V-J Day this year, there was nothing."

In October, surviving members of her husband's old unit, the 509th Composite Group of the 20th Air Force, who gathered anxiously on the island of Tinian in the South Pacific 54 years ago, who ushered in the atomic age with the devastation of two Japanese cities and ended World War II, will reunite in Washington.

They've done this before. But this time, they hold their collective breath a little, waiting for word about the nation's official appreciation. In the pipeline is a request for a presidential citation for the group -- they've never gotten one -- putting the highest official stamp of thanks on their efforts.

"They're all getting up in years," Sylvia Beser says now. She mentions Paul Tibbetts, the pilot who took his mother's name and placed it on the plane that flew over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945: Enola Gay. And Fred Bock, whose name was used for the Bock's Car that flew over Nagasaki three days later. And Chuck Sweeney, the pilot on that second mission.

"Freddie's recovered from a brain tumor," Sylvia Beser says, "and he sounds real good. Chuck's in a wheelchair. He's had a bad heart. But we're hoping they can come to the reunion, and Paul, too, although he doesn't like Washington very much."

Their names are all vague remnants of two flashes of fire at the finish of a terrible war. Jacob Beser, who went to high school at Baltimore City College and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, dropped out to join the Air Force after Pearl Harbor, which is another name resonating less profoundly with the passing years.

Memories fade, and today's politics are sometimes superimposed over yesterday's.

Beser, radar man on both missions, knew the number of lives that were taken by the bombs but never had regrets. If the bombs hadn't been dropped, he always said, then thousands on both sides of the conflict would have died from conventional weapons.

Once, when the Enola Gay crew gathered years after the war, a Ban the Bomb demonstration was held nearby. One man confronted Beser: "Didn't you have any feeling for all those Japanese youth?"

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

He was working in the back of the plane when the bomb went off over Hiroshima. Years later, he remembered the bright flash that filled the plane, and the copilot crying, "My God, look at that SOB go." In a few moments, Beser went to the front and gazed out a window.

"It looked like when you go to the seashore and stir up the shallow water," he recalled one time. "Everything was billowing around. It was all over in a couple of seconds for the people down below."

He remembered there was much heavy drinking that night: not in celebration, he stressed, but in ferocious need to break the pressure. About 70,000 people had been killed in the blast, and everyone in the crew would live with that knowledge for the rest of their lives.

A week ago, one of Beser's four sons, Eric, spoke from the pulpit of the Chizuk Amuno synagogue to commemorate the anniversary of the war's end. He remembered his father talking about the aftermath of the bomb runs, how he sat on the beach on the island of Tinian the day before Japan's surrender.

"He thought about his relatives that he had visited in Hamburg, Germany, in 1939 in an unsuccessful attempt to talk them into leaving," Eric Beser said. "He thought about the foster brothers and sisters his mother had taken in, as director of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Baltimore. These were children rescued from the concentration camps."

War itself was the crime, Jacob Beser always maintained. The manner of killing was only incidental to that crime.

"Jake was very touched by so many men who came up to him over the years," Sylvia Beser says. "They'd tell him, 'I was scheduled to go over there and fight. You saved my life, man.' But people forget that today."

Such words sustained all those who flew the missions over Japan: The bombs ended the organized killing, and brought home millions whose lives were still on the line.

That's what the old crew members will recall in October, when they gather in Washington.

Jacob Beser, an engineer at Westinghouse Electric in his civilian years, died in 1992, at 71. But some of the others will be there.

There's a private tour of the White House scheduled. And maybe, Sylvia Beser says, that presidential citation will finally arrive. When other memories have faded, it would be nice if recognition might finally come from the nation's highest leader.

Pub Date: 08/19/99

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