Fr. McCarthy: Father Zabelka, what is your relationship to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945?
Fr. Zabelka: During the summer of 1945, July, August and September, I was assigned as Catholic chaplain to the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island. The 509th was the Atomic Bomb Group.Q: What were your duties in relationship to these men?
Zabelka: The usual. I said Mass on Sunday and during the week. Heard confessions. Talked with the boys, etc. Nothing significantly different from what any other chaplain did during the war.
Q: Did you know that the 509th was preparing to drop an atomic bomb?
Zabelka: No. We knew that they were preparing to drop a bomb substantially different from and more powerful than even the "blockbusters" used over Europe, but we never called it an atomic bomb and never really knew what it was before August 6, 1945. Before that time we just referred to it as the "gimmick" bomb.
Q: So since you did not know that an atomic bomb was going to be dropped you had no reason to counsel the men in private or preach in public about the morality of such a bombing?
Zabelka: Well, that is true enough; I never did speak against it, nor could I have spoken against it since I, like practically everyone else on Tinian, was ignorant of what was being prepared. And I guess I will go to my God with that as my defense. But on Judgment Day I think I am going to need to seek more mercy than justice in this matter.Q: Why? God certainly could not have expected you to act on ideas that had never entered your mind.
Zabelka: As a Catholic priest my task was to keep my people, wherever they were, close to the mind and heart of Christ. As a military chaplain I was to try to see that the boys conducted themselves according to the teachings of the Catholic Church and Christ on war. When I look back I am not sure I did either of these things very well.Q: Why do you think that?
Zabelka: What I do not mean to say is that I feel myself to have been remiss in any duties that were expected of me as a chaplain. I saw that the Mass and the sacraments were available as best I could. I even went out and earned paratrooper wings in order to do my job better. Nor did I fail to teach and preach what the Church expected me to teach and preach – and I don’t mean by this that I just talked to the boys about their sexual lives. I and most chaplains were quite clear and outspoken on such matters as not killing and torturing prisoners. But there were other areas where things were not said quite so clearly.Q: For example?
Zabelka: The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute would take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.Q: Why not? You certainly knew civilians were being destroyed by the thousands in these raids, didn’t you?
Zabelka: Oh, indeed I did know, and I knew with a clarity that few others could have had.
Q: What do you mean?
Zabelka: As a chaplain I often had to enter the world of the boys who were losing their minds because of something they did in war. I remember one young man who was engaged in the bombings of the cities of Japan. He was in the hospital on Tinian Island on the verge of a complete mental collapse.
He told me that he had been on a low-level bombing mission, flying right down one of the main streets of the city, when straight ahead of him appeared a little boy, in the middle of the street, looking up at the plane in a childlike wonder. The man knew that in a few seconds the child would be burned to death by napalm which had already been released.Yes, I knew civilians were being destroyed, and knew it perhaps in a way others didn’t. Yet I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to men who were doing it.
This is an extract from the interview, and you may read the full interview here.