Memories remain powerful

Saturday, August 8, 2009

E.W. (Elbridge) Bartley Jr. is a resident of the Missouri Veterans Home in Cape Girardeau. He served more than 40 years as a United Methodist pastor. On Aug. 6, 1945, Rev. Bartley was Lt. Bartley on the island of Saipan in the South Pacific, far from home and attached to the Second Marine Division. The B-29s leaving the air base on nearby Tinian would fly over his encampment, causing the flaps on his chaplain's tent to rustle noisily. On that particular morning, however, the planes left so early Lt. Bartley didn't hear a thing. He didn't know until it was over the magnitude of what that air convoy had done.

Lt. Bartley was preparing -- as his entire division was -- for the expected invasion of Japan that fall. For him and for his comrades, it was a gruesome prospect. The Japanese would be protecting their home turf fiercely. Many Americans would certainly die in the assault.

But the U.S. ground invasion never took place. The events of Aug. 6 and 9 rendered it moot. On Aug. 6, the first atomic bomb, called "Little Boy," was dropped on Hiroshima. Roughly 140,000 people either died instantly or in the months that followed as a direct result of radiation poisoning. Three days later, "Fat Man" was dropped, triggering a death count in the city of Nagasaki estimated at 80,000 by the close of 1945.

President Harry Truman, still Missouri's only White House occupant, made the fateful decision to use the new weapon. As his personal diaries reveal, the nation's 33rd chief executive felt he could not look the mothers of American servicemen in the eye and tell them he had the means to end the war quickly and failed to use it.

The Enola Gay, accompanied by two escort planes, left Tinian on Aug. 6 at approximately 2:45 a.m. The B-29 got its unusual name to honor the mother of its pilot that day, Col. Paul Tibbetts. Tinian was the logical spot for launch -- it being the closest American air base to Japan.

On that morning, the crews of the three planes gathered for a prayer with Chaplain William Downey, who offered these words:

"Almighty Father, who wilt hear the prayer of them that love thee, we pray thee to be with those who brave the heights of thy heaven and who carry the battle to our enemies. Guard and protect them, we pray thee, as they fly their appointed rounds. May they, as well as we, know thy strength and power, and armed with thy might may they bring this war to a rapid end. We pray thee that the end of the war may come soon, and that once more we may know peace on Earth. May the men who fly this night be kept safe in thy care, and may they be returned safely to us. We shall go forward trusting in thee, knowing that we are in thy care now and forever. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

I thank God for those like Harry Truman who must make enormous decisions that mean life and death. I am also grateful for World War II veterans like my friend Elbridge, the man in the wheelchair up the road. His memories -- as is the case with so many others of his era -- remain powerful. Their past service was so important to the freedom enjoyed by later generations -- even if that service is today generally unknown and unrecognized.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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