A Military Chaplain Repents
Emmanuel Charles McCarthy
by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy
August of 1945 Rev. George B. Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with
the U.S. Army Air Force, was stationed on Tinian Island in the South
Pacific. He was assigned to serve the Catholics of the 509th Composite
Group. The 509th Composite Group was the Atomic Bomb Group. He served
as a priest for those who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. After 22 years as a military chaplain he retired as
a Lieutenant Colonel. What follows is an interview with him by Rev.
Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. Rev. George B. Zabelka went to meet his
God on April 11, 1992.
McCarthy: Father Zabelka, what is your relationship to the atomic
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945?
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.
were your duties in relationship to these men?
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.
Did you know that the 509th was preparing to drop an atomic
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.
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?
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
God certainly could not have expected you to act on ideas that had
never entered your mind.
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
do you think that?
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 Ė and I donít 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.
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 childís 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
Ė and I said nothing.
not? You certainly knew civilians were being destroyed by the thousands
in these raids, didnít you?
Oh, indeed I did know, and I knew with a clarity that few others
could have had.
do you mean?
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.
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
Yes, I knew
civilians were being destroyed, and knew it perhaps in a way others
didnít. Yet I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians
to men who were doing it.
Because I was "brainwashed"! It never entered my mind
to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids.
I was told it was necessary; told openly by the military and told
implicitly by my Churchís leadership. To the best of my knowledge
no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids.
Silence in such matters, especially by a public body like the American
bishops, is a stamp of approval.
whole structure of the secular, religious, and military society
told me clearly that it was all right to "let the Japs have
it." God was on the side of my country. The Japanese were the
enemy, and I was absolutely certain of my countryís and Churchís
teaching about enemies; no erudite theological text was necessary
to tell me. The day-in-day-out operation of the state and the Church
between 1940 and 1945 spoke more clearly about Christian attitudes
towards enemies and war than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas
was certain that this mass destruction was right, certain to the
point that the question of its morality never seriously entered
my mind. I was "brainwashed" not by force or torture but
by my Churchís silence and wholehearted cooperation in thousands
of little ways with the countryís war machine. Why, after
I finished chaplaincy school at Harvard I had my military chalice
officially blessed by the then Bishop Cushing of Boston. How much
more clearly could the message be given? Indeed, I was "brainwashed"!
So you feel that because you did not protest the morality of
the bombing of other cities with their civilian populations, that
somehow you are morally responsible for the dropping of the atomic
The facts are that seventy-five thousand people were burned
to death in one evening of fire bombing over Tokyo. Hundreds of
thousands were destroyed in Dresden, Hamburg, and Coventry by aerial
bombing. The fact that forty-five thousand human beings were killed
by one bomb over Nagasaki was new only to the extent that it was
one bomb that did it.
fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction
of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in and to a world and a Christian
Church that had asked for it Ė that had prepared the moral consciousness
of humanity to do and to justify the unthinkable. I am sure there
are Church documents around someplace bemoaning civilian deaths
in modern war, and I am sure those in power in the church will drag
them out to show that it was giving moral leadership during World
War II to its membership.
I was there, and Iíll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere
in the Church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was
totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best Ė at worst it was
religiously supportive of these activities by blessing those who
say all this not to pass judgment on others, for I do not know their
souls then or now. I say all this as one who was part of the so-called
Christian leadership of the time. So you see, that is why I am not
going to the day of judgment looking for justice in this matter.
Mercy is my salvation.
said the atomic bombing of Nagasaki happened to a Church that "had
asked for it." What do you mean by that?
For the first three centuries, the three centuries closest to
Christ, the Church was a pacifist Church. With Constantine the church
accepted the pagan Roman ethic of a just war and slowly began to
involve its membership in mass slaughter, first for the state and
later for the faith.
Orthodox, and Protestants, whatever other differences they may have
had on theological esoterica, all agreed that Jesusí clear and unambiguous
teaching on the rejection of violence and on love of enemies was
not to be taken seriously. And so each of the major branches of
Christianity by different theological methods modified our Lordís
teaching in these matters until all three were able to do what Jesus
rejected, that is, take an eye for an eye, slaughter, maim, torture.
seems a "sign" to me that seventeen hundred years of Christian
terror and slaughter should arrive at August 9, 1945 when Catholics
dropped the A-Bomb on top of the largest and first Catholic city
in Japan. One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would
have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. (Three orders
of Catholic sisters were destroyed in Nagasaki that day.) One would
have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard
of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldnít bomb Catholic children.
like that Catholic pilot of the Nagasaki plane, was heir to a Christianity
that had for seventeen hundred years engaged in revenge, murder,
torture, the pursuit of power and prerogative and violence, all
in the name of our Lord.
walked through the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited
the place where once stood the Urakami Cathedral. I picked up a
piece of a censer from the rubble. When I look at it today I pray
God forgives us for how we have distorted Christís teaching and
destroyed His world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the
Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process, which
began with Constantine, reached its lowest point Ė so far.
What do you mean by "so far"?
Briefly, what I mean is that I do not see that the moral climate
in relation to war inside or outside the Church has dramatically
changed much since 1945. The mainline Christian Churches still teach
something that Christ never taught or even hinted at, namely the
Just War Theory, a theory that to me has been completely discredited
theologically, historically, and psychologically.
as I see it, until the various churches within Christianity repent
and begin to proclaim by word and deed what Jesus proclaimed in
relation to violence and enemies, there is no hope for anything
other than ever-escalating violence and destruction.
membership in the Church means that a Christian chooses not to engage
in violence for any reason and instead chooses to love, pray for,
help, and forgive all enemies; until membership in the Church means
that Christians may not be members of any military, American, Polish,
Russian, English, Irish, et al.; until membership in the Church
means that the Christian cannot pay taxes for others to kill others;
and until the Church says these things in a fashion which the simplest
soul could understand Ė until that time humanity can only look forward
to more dark nights of slaughter on a scale unknown in history.
Unless the Church unswervingly and unambiguously teaches what Jesus
teaches on this matter it will not be the divine leaven in the human
dough that it was meant to be.
choice is between nonviolence or nonexistence," as Martin Luther
King, Jr. said, and he was not, and I am not, speaking figuratively.
It is about time for the Church and its leadership in all denominations
to get down on its knees and repent of this misrepresentation of
with Christ cannot be established on disobedience to His clearest
teachings. Jesus authorized none of His followers to substitute
violence for love; not me, not you, not Jimmy Carter, not the pope,
not a Vatican council, nor even an ecumenical council.
Father Zabelka, what kinds of immediate steps do you think the
church should take in order to become the "divine leaven in
the human dough"?
Step one should be that Christians the world over should be
taught that Christís teaching to love their enemies is not optional.
Iíve been in many parishes in my life, and I have found none where
the congregation explicitly is called upon regularly to pray for
its enemies. I think this is essential.
offer you step two at the risk of being considered hopelessly out
of touch with reality. I would like to suggest that there is an
immediate need to call an ecumenical council for the specific purpose
of clearly declaring that war is totally incompatible with Jesusí
teaching and that Christians cannot and will not engage in or pay
for it from this point in history on. This would have the effect
of putting all nations on this planet on notice that from now on
they are going to have to conduct their mutual slaughter without
Christian support Ė physical, financial, or spiritual.
am sure there are other issues which Catholics or Orthodox or Protestants
would like to confront in an ecumenical council instead of facing
up to the hard teachings of Christ in relationship to violence and
enemies. But it seems to me that issues like the meaning of the
primacy of Peter are nowhere near as pressing or as destructive
of Church credibility and Godís world as is the problem of continued
Christian participation in and justification of violence and slaughter.
I think the Churchís continued failure to speak clearly Jesusí teachings
is daily undermining its credibility and authority in all other
Do you think there is the slightest chance that the various
branches of Christianity would come together in an ecumenical council
for the purpose of declaring war and violence totally unacceptable
activities for Christians under all circumstances?
Remember, I prefaced my suggestion of an ecumenical council
by saying that I risked being considered hopelessly out of touch
with reality. On the other hand, what is impossible for men and
women is quite possible for God if people will only use their freedom
to cooperate a little.
knows what could happen if the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople,
and the President of the World Council of Churches called with one
voice for such a council? One thing I am sure of is that our Lord
would be very happy if His Church were again unequivocally teaching
what He unequivocally taught on the subject of violence.
Fr. Zabelka, why after 39 years did you now decide to return
to Japan and join in a peace pilgrimage that will culminate for
you in Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1984?
I am old now. Soon I will go to meet my God. When the invitation
came to join this peace pilgrimage, I felt that God had offered
me "a great grace," as we used to say. So, I accepted.
What do you mean, God has offered you "a great grace"
by an invitation to join a peace walk?
I do not mean to quibble about words but I did not experience
the invitation as a request to join a peace walk. The invitation
entered into my soul as "pilgrimage" not "walk."
A pilgrimage is a journey one undertakes to holy places for holy
But what holy places are you going to visit in Japan? My understanding
was that you were going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Calvary, the place where Christ suffered and died at the hands
of the civil and religious politicians of His day, is the holiest
shrine in Christianity. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are Calvaries. For
here, Christ in the bodies of the "least" was again tortured
and put to death hundreds of thousands of times over by exactly
the same dark and deceitful spirit of organized lovelessness that
roamed Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
Calvary is where Christ suffered. He did not suffer in Hiroshima
God, Christ, lives in every human being. Our Lord tells us that
what is done to the "least" is in fact now done to Him
(Mt 25). I believe that! That is the only kind of God that I could
adore and love, a God who lives in human history and suffers with
people. I could only fear a god that sat as a depersonalized king
above the anguish of humanity. This is part of what the Incarnation
is all about. Christ suffers and dies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Therefore to condone or support war is to condone or support the
call to "Crucify Him." To kill in war is, in fact, to
be a "Christ-killer." Iím sorry I can say nothing
else Ė if Calvary is a holy place, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are holy
said that a pilgrimage must not only be to a holy place but for
holy reasons. What are your reasons?
Peace! Peace is the fruit of communion with God. It is obvious
to me that I, as well as humanity in general, are not in full communion
with God, that we need to be reconciled with God. Jesus tells us
that the condition now for reconciliation with God is reconciliation
of human beings with each other. The Christian is explicitly called
to be an agent of reconciliation. The first step in the reconciliation
process is repentance for oneís sins, for what one has
done to separate people from each other and thereby separate humanity
from God. The reason I am going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to
repent and to ask the forgiveness of those living and dead whom
I have damaged by my failure to love Christically.
you were not actually on the planes that dropped the atomic bombs
on those cities, were you?
No, but that is irrelevant moral thinking in the 20th century.
Modern war and oppression are carried out by a long chain of individuals,
each doing his or her job meticulously while simultaneously refusing
to look at the end results of his or her work. There is no state
or corporate evil that is not the result of personal sinfulness.
In August of 1945, I, as a Christian and as a priest, served not
as an agent of reconciliation but as an instrument of retaliation,
revenge and homicide. My explicit and tacit approval of what was
being done on Tinian Island that summer was clearly visible for
anyone to see. Beyond this, I was the last possible official spokesman
for the Church before the fire of hell was let loose on Hiroshima
on the Feast of the Transfiguration 1945 Ė and I said nothing.
I was the officially designated Catholic priest who by silence
did his priestly patriotic duty and chose nationalism over Catholicism,
Caesar over Christ, as the "Bockscar," manned by Christians
in my care, took off to evaporate the oldest and largest Christian
community in Japan Ė Nagasaki. No, the fact that I was not physically
on the planes is morally irrelevant. I played an important and necessary
role in this sacrilege Ė and I played it meticulously. I am as responsible
as the soldier who stuck the spear in the side of Christ on Calvary.
I come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to repent and to ask forgiveness
from the Japanese people, from my faith community at Nagasaki and
Isnít it a bit of rhetorical exaggeration to say you were a
priest that played a role in a sacrilege?
Not at all. I mean it literally. If someone walks into a church
and destroys the altar and statues, etc., it is called a sacrilege.
A sacrilege is the desecration of what is considered holy. But for
the Christian, the ultimate place of the holy is the human person.
We are the "temples of the Holy Spirit." Therefore, every
act of violence toward a human being is an act of desecration of
the temple of God in this world. War for the Christian is always
sacrilege. There is no such absurdity as a Christian ethic of justified
sacrilege. I am a priest who played a role in a sacrilege and that
must be said by me and others like me without equivocation or else
the future is a nightmare.
What do you mean that the future is a nightmare unless you and
others like you acknowledge your role in the sacrilege of war?
Look, I am a Catholic priest. In August of 1945, I did not say
to the boys on Tinian, "You cannot follow Christ and drop those
bombs." But this same failure on the part of priests, pastors
and bishops over the past 1700 years is, I believe, what is significantly
responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the seemingly unceasing
"Christian" blood-letting around the globe. It seems to
me that Christians have been slaughtering each other, as well as
non-Christians, for the past 1700 years, in large part because their
priests, pastors and bishops have simply not told them that violence
and homicide are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. On the
contrary, I would say that the average priest, pastor and bishop
communicates that violence and homicide can be compatible with Jesus.
After all, a machine gun is no more lethal than a broomstick without
the will to kill and the fact is that we so-called Christian "leaders"
by commission and omission, for 1700 years, have been guilty of
supplying a significant piece of the motivational apparatus necessary
to execute the mass slaughter of war. Letís be honest, to justify
an evil is to promote an evil. And letís face it, we priests, pastors
and bishops have been justifying the butchery of war in the name
of Christ for a long time. I might also add here that where more
is required priestly silence is sinful, because silence gives consent
and consent motivates toward the evil.
What do you think must be done to begin to address this situation,
Unless the legitimate successors to the apostles proclaim fearlessly
what the apostles proclaimed fearlessly, that is, that Christís
teachings are teachings of nonviolent love and mercy Ė and unless
they unequivocally repent of their failure and the failure of their
predecessors to explicitly teach this, then a long night of high-tech
terror, torture and desolation is assured all humanity Ė first world,
third world, East and West. What has to be done is that we Christian
"leaders" have to admit openly that we have been engaged
in propagating a bloody moral blunder for the last 1700 years: the
Just War Theory.
Specifically, how does your pilgrimage to Japan for this August
6th and 9th in1984 respond to this need?
If my priestly silence spoke for the Church in 1945 to the fellows
on Tinian, perhaps my priestly request for forgiveness at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki can speak for the Church in 1984. You see, I want to
expose the lie of "Christian" war. The lie I fell for
and blessed. I want to expose the lie of killing as a Christian
social method, the lie of disposable people, the lie of Christian
liturgy in the service of the homicidal gods of nationalism and
militarism, the lie of nuclear security. I want to expose it by
looking into the faces of the hibaksha and saying, "Brother,
forgive me for bringing you death instead of the fullness of life.
Sister, pardon me for bringing you misery instead of mercy. I and
my Church have sinned against you and God." It is hope in the
Power of that small moment of truth, repentance and reconciliation
that moves me to pilgrimage East by the grace of God.
one hour British documentary on Rev. George Zabelka, THE RELUCTANT
PROPHET, is available in a DVD or VHS format from the Center
for Christian Nonviolence.
Emmanuel Charles McCarthy is a priest of the Eastern Rite (Byzantine-Melkite)
of the Catholic Church. Formerly a lawyer and a university educator,
he is the founder and the original director of The Program for the
Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution at the University
of Notre Dame. He is also co-founder, along with Dorothy Day and
others of Pax Christi-USA. He has conducted retreats and spoken
at conferences throughout the world on the issue of the relationship
of faith and violence and the nonviolence of the Jesus. He was the
keynote speaker at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee for
the 25th anniversary memorial of the assassination of Rev. Martin
Luther King, Jr. there. He is author of several books, including
these: All Things Flee Thee because Thou Fleest Me: A Cry to
the Churches and their Leaders to Return to the Nonviolent Jesus
and His Nonviolent Way; Christian Just War Theory: The logic of
Deceit; August 9: The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love.
He has also authored innumerable articles on the subject of violence,
religion and the nonviolent love of friends and enemies taught by
Jesus by word and deed. His audio/video series, BEHOLD THE LAMB,
is almost universally considered to be the most spiritually profound
presentation on the matter of Gospel Nonviolent Love available in
this format. BEHOLD THE LAMB is now available on
mp3CD through his website, either at the cost of $5.00 for a
disc or it can be acquired directly by an mp3 downloaded from
the website for no cost. Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy was
nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his life's work on behalf
of peace within people and among people. He may be reached and his
work may be accessed at the Center
for Christian Non-Violence.