ROUGHLY THREE decades ago, when Jerry Beser was a student at Pikesville High School, his history teacher delivered a lecture about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The teacher said there were no survivors from the crews of the two American bombers.
"All the men died," the teacher said, "because they were so consumed by guilt."
Jerry Beser raised his hand and declared, "Nobody told my father that."
His father was Jacob Beser, who lived without guilt or apology for many years thereafter. He was the only man to fly on both atomic bomb missions, whose 60th anniversaries we mark this month. Hiroshima was three days ago, and Nagasaki today. Jacob Beser was a graduate of Baltimore City College who dropped out of the Johns Hopkins University to join the war, then served as the radar man on both missions that finally brought an end to the organized killing.
"I'm thinking about him right now," Sylvia Beser, his widow, was saying yesterday morning. They were married for 43 years. She's still in touch with Paul Tibbetts, the pilot of the Enola Gay, which flew the Hiroshima mission, and with crew member Dutch Van Kirk.
They were all part of the 509th Composite Group of the 20th Army Air Forces. They climbed aboard the Enola Gay in the darkness of 2:20 that Aug. 6 morning on the island of Tinian in the Pacific and prepared to remove the first of the two doomed Japanese cities from the face of the Earth. The other crew members are gone now, but it was old age or infirmity that took them, Sylvia Beser says, and not guilt.
"There's so much misinformation about these men that's still out there today," she says. "Jake was sustained by people who came up to him through the years, guys who fought in the war, who told him, `Thank you. You saved my life. If it hadn't been for you, I'd have gone to the Pacific.' But there were the others, yes. He was so annoyed with the people saying we shouldn't have done it, that it was wrong to kill so many people. And he certainly had no guilt over it."
She's heard the arguments about morality for more than half a century now, from those who draw a distinction between killing by degree and killing all at once, and has her ready answer to it.
"Japan said they would fight us to the death," she says. "Thousands more would have died if they hadn't dropped the bomb. How long would it have been before Japan would have had an atomic bomb of their own?"
Sixty years after the end of World War II, we still wrestle with such questions, still aware that, in the moments Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated, their destruction foreshadowed all manner of future possibilities that haunt humanity today.
Once, when the Enola Gay crew gathered for a reunion 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."
If the bombs hadn't been dropped, he always maintained, then thousands on both sides of the conflict would have died from conventional weapons. Humanity never runs out of the means to kill. You do not need atomic bombs to dynamite subway systems or fly airplanes into tall buildings.
Beser always said it was pointless to debate the morality of the bombs. They did what they were supposed to do: kill the enemy, just as millions around the globe had already been killed; and save Americans who might have had to invade Japan; and end the awful bloodshed at last.
He spent his life explaining why the bombings were necessary. Sometimes there were angry late-night telephone calls from strangers. Sometimes, face-to-face confrontations. Beser was not insensitive to legitimate argument, but he never backed down.
"War itself is immoral," he said repeatedly over the years. "If you're out to kill a man, it doesn't matter whether you do it with a gun or a bomb."
But he became a part of history by sheer numbers - the thousands killed by the bombs, and the thousands more who died in the atomic fallout aftermath - and by the terrors of the nuclear age that it introduced.
Thirteen years since Beser's death, at 71, his widow and children continue to be startled by his life. When Sylvia Beser moved, months ago, from their longtime home in Pikesville, she discovered a memoir her husband wrote, and some old letters and film. The family's trying to organize what she calls "a lot of archival material, stuff that's really historical."
The world marks the 60th anniversary of the bombings with sobriety. And, hopefully, with a moment to remember Jacob Beser's sentiments: War itself is immoral. The means of waging it are only incidental.