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William Downey’s Interview – Part 2

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Throughout his life, Chaplain William Downey maintained close relationships with many of the members of the 509th Composite group. In this interview with Paul Filipkowski, Chaplain William Downey recalls the events that contributed to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He discusses the controversy that surrounds the bomb, especially in light of the events of the Cold War, and defends his belief in the use of the bomb. Downey also addresses the claims of George Zabelka, who once claimed to be the chaplain who served with the crew of the Enola Gay. Downey finally gives his own opinion on American policies and sentiments during the Cold War.

Date of Interview:
January 19, 1987
Location of the Interview:


William Downey: The depersonalization of the world, and what the Soviet Union does to their own people in mental hospitals in the process of destroying them, so all people would be destroyed everywhere. So, it is not the peace I want. It is not peace that I want. It is peace with justice. It is peace with freedom. It is peace that makes it possible for a man to dream his dream and stretch and strain and sweat to attain it. Without that, peace is a fraud and a delusion and a pretty word for tyranny. Do you follow me?

Paul Filipkowski: Uh-huh.

Downey: Well, I want to say a few things about [Fr. George] Zabelka now. Zabelka made an address in a peacenik meeting up in a Catholic college in Syracuse. Ben Aura, being head, heard about it, went on up there, and publicly questions Zabelka about his being a chaplain in the 509th and “What about Downey?”

“I was the Catholic Chaplain,” he says. Well, he was a Catholic Priest who came in to say mass a few times. The way bond groups operated in World War II was, they had one chaplain per bond group. About two-thirds of the bond groups had Protestant Chaplains, about one-third had Catholics, because that is the ratio of Catholic and Protestants in the service anyway. It was the Protestant chaplains’ responsibility to give Catholic coverage, religious coverage for Catholic personnel.

However, in a big installation like Tinian of the Marianas, there was a Senior Catholic Chaplain on the island, and he scooted people around. So Zabelka was scooted over there. Two Sundays in August, I do not know how many other Sundays he was there.

I wrote the President, a Jesuit, that I wanted to know the name of the man who set this up, because I had a letter I wanted to send him, a copy of which I enclosed. Feel free to read the letter before you send me the guy’s name, the coordinator of the conference. Well, he sent me the guy’s name and indicated in a letter to me that Zabelka—what was it he said. Zabelka, we fellows would say, he got an awful lot of mileage out of a weekend call.

Anyway, I sent the letter. In the letter, I said, at best, Zabelka was an itinerant priest who was sent to go and then went. He was not there day to day. A Chaplain is involved in the whole complex of an organization, and he was not there day to day. He came in and said some masses. Now, I do not know how many he said. I did not check up on the Catholic priest who came in the area. I did not know him. He came and he went. He was about as much a Catholic Chaplain—there were others that did it too.

Filipkowski: Other Catholics?

Downey: Other priests came. He was not the only priest that came. In August, he only came twice. There were two other Sundays in August who was coming in. How many Catholic Chaplains are going to lay claim to this?

I wrote in the letter also that he is either a fraud or mentally affected. He is a psychological case, or a fraud. I am not in a position to make that judgment which he is, but I do not see any other alternatives but those two.

Now, it is a fact that I have not made a lot in my own self about this. Mostly, I like to forget. Successful in leaving it alone for many years, until I heard about this Zabelka and then I am very angry. I tell you, I got a thousand miles.

Now he was probably with that peace march, probably was. He digs that kind of jazz. I did not see his name mentioned anywhere. He goes to these peace conferences and peace study groups. In Canada, in their local paper, there was a big article that “The Chaplain to the men of the Enola Gay was coming there to speak.” They had called my neighbor down here two doors away about this. “What is going on?”

“Nothing.” Then I called them in Canada and found out the name of the paper, and then I called the paper. Then I said to them these kinds of things and I said, “Here is the telephone number of General [Paul] Tibbets, who commanded the whole operation. Call him and find out what he says.” I know what Tibbets would say. I do not think there was any more publicity about it. I also had to get ahold of the man who was setting this up, the coordinator, but I could never get ahold of him.

Filipkowski: I think one of those speeches I mailed to you is his Canada speech.

Downey: I did not see a Canada speech, but I saw several speeches. He might be giving the same one over. I got this stuff here. I would love to be in a deal like that. No point in being over there, milling around and all that stuff and getting arrested and carrying on like a bunch of savages. No point going over there. If I could only get that guy in some peace conference deal, so I can question him face to face. I think he is reasonably well read about this, but all this talk about the Gimmick [possible misspoke – Gadget]. Those airplane pilots of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. [Charles] Sweeney came out of that squadron, that is all a B-29s.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: These guys did not know what the hell was going on. When they were in Wendover Field, Utah, they are used to going out and take training runs over the south, and this sort of thing. They did not have any idea what was going to be dropped.

One guy, I saw him at the reunion in St. Louis last October. One guy, to my knowledge—see, the security people questioned them a lot about what they thought was going on. This one guy, to my knowledge, had any idea that it might be something nuclear, something atomic. He is a very bright boy and a young man, very bright. His name was Freddy Bock and it was his airplane that was piloted by Sweeney for the second strike, Bockscar, it was called. He figured that it probably had something to do with this. He was attending the University of Chicago and a very bright guy. These guys did not know, the crew did not know until the day before. What is all this crap? Gimmick this and gimmick that [possible misspoke – Gadget]? I cannot recall hearing the word used myself, and I lived with these people.

Filipkowski: The scientists of Los Alamos called it that, you probably read it somewhere.

Downey: Precisely. My point is I do not recall anybody using that word. I lived with it, drank with it. Well, I would like to be there in the meeting. I had this Chaplains’ report for one month, and I did not even remember him being there. Maybe he was not there at all, as far as I knew. I wrote a guy who wrote a guy to find out where Zabelka was. This guy, they did not know Zabelka. Zabelka sent him Photostats or copies of his monthly Chaplain report, so I know he was there for one month, August, twice in that area, because it was reported. He reported something like some weekday masses, I do not know, eight or ten of them, to which anyone hardly came. I was not checking up on him. I had my business to do.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: I had a responsibility for everybody there. [Charles] Levy, he was bombardier on Bockscar but he did not get to go, that was [Kermit] Beahan. Beahan, by the way, is now dying with Lou Gehrig’s disease, whatever the proper name for that is. He was at the reunion, [Tom] Ferebee, [Dutch Van] Kirk. [Bob] Lewis is dead. These people were there, Beahan was there.

No one that I know of that was a party to this business, a principle I mean, ever has regretted it. Now, Van Orenbee makes Beahan as if he is sorry he did it all in his book. Beahan says to me, “That goddam son of a bitch,” meaning Van Orenbee. So much for Van Orenbee’s psychological analysis. He called me. He spoke to me over an hour on the telephone. He was trying to get me to say, one way or another, that I was sorry for it.

Filipkowski: I know it said in the book that he kept mentioning he tried to ask everybody to admit that they were guilty.

Downey: Admit guilt, that they were sorry. I do not know the Lord is on my side, I guess. I am not really sorry.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: I would not say it. He was frustrated as the dickens because he could not get me to say it—especially the Chaplain. Clergymen were regarded as sort of soft-bellied milquetoast type. He was not used to a guy like me, I guess. In any event, Van Orenbee was a slippery fellow.

Levy started off he was on a committee that set this up, the three-day thing, and I was going to go but things occurred that made it impossible for me to go. They wanted me to send this prayer in, which I did. Do you have a copy of that?

Filipkowski: Not the reunion, no.

Downey: Not the reunion, I will show that to you. I wrote this prayer. I closed it according to something’s from the Old Testament, the Psalms. Levy was a Jewish and there were other Jewish guys and I just felt it was the decent thing to do. I wrote about it—just a minute. He entered this prayer, and I will read it to you. I do not know how the hell you can keep up with all of this.

Filipkowski: I bought it from him. I found his address and he sold me the copy.

Downey: “I will say the Lord he is my refuge and my fortress. My God in Him will I trust.” Old Testament. “Almighty God, we who in the days of our youth responded to the call of duty to defend our nation, now call upon thee in these latter days. We give thee thanks for the victory won ensuring peace and freedom for a generation. Thanks for the men of courage who brave the heavens. Thanks for a world rebuilt. Thanks that persons damned and doomed who are set free, children fed, countries rescued, enemies reconciled. Thanks for the 509th Bomb Group, its commander General Paul Tibbets, and all of its men and officers. And thanks for those, who having heard the last bugle call, now live in our memories and in thy bosom.

“Thou has given us great responsibility, has given us great strength to carry this heavy load. Thou has placed before us great challenges and given us great courage to meet them. Thou has placed us as the guardians of freedom’s gates. Give us thy power to defend them. As the barbarian beats against the gate, give us the determination and strength to prevail.

“Oh God bless us with peace, but peace with freedom and justice. Hear my prayer, oh Lord, and give ears to the words of my mouth, where strangers are risen up against me.” Old Testament. “Strangers are risen up against me and oppressors seek my soul. Under thee, oh Lord, do I lift up my soul, oh my God I trust in thee. Let me not be ashamed, and God save the Republic. Amen.”

Filipkowski: What did he find objectionable to that?

Downey: Well, “Today this prayer was read was the 509th Chaplain Colonel Downey wrote for the men. Chaplain Downey regrets that he could not attend by statement, which said that one of the greatest honors of his life was to be part of the 509th Bomber group. Reverend Downey was the person most associated with the crew in the A-bomb mission of the Enola Gay.”

I thought it was immediately following, but he does not have a table of contents. Anyway, was I subconsciously indicating regrets and shame for this bomb, dropping a bomb? Is that what the phrase about “Oh Lord, let me not be ashamed,” is that what that is indicating? To say, “Let me not be ashamed?” I cannot find it here now.

Relative to the finances of Tibbets, one of the movies went above and beyond, where Robert Taylor played his role. I was reliably informed that Tibbets got five thousand dollars for that. Probably his best personal friend was Tom Ferebee. In any event, this guy, Van Orenbee, sort of—

Filipkowski: He tends to stir up controversy.

Downey: Yeah, saying I was ashamed of it. I may not be ashamed, Lord. He did not like Zabelka, that is for damned sure. He thought Zabelka was a fraud. I wrote him several times about different things. He is going to write a second book. I do not think he is ever going to get around to it; I hear nothing about it anymore.

Filipkowski: It looks like he self-published that.

Downey: I am sure that he put it out himself. I am sure.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: I mean, he paid for it. Paolo Books, Winona, Minnesota, whoever heard of them? I think he got involved in this business because [Bob] Lewis, the co-pilot, was a patient of his for a while, and I think that is what stimulated the whole thing.

Now, I never liked Lewis very well. He was a spoiled child, acted like a child sometimes. Angry with Tibbets because Tibbets was going to fly the mission. He was going to be the co-pilot, and several of his crewmembers were bumped off. Pouty little fellow.

The first reunion I ever attended here in St. Louis, last fall. I figured maybe sometimes they might be a little too fluid for me, all the guys getting crocked.

Filipkowski: Yeah.

Downey: I was fearful of that. I do not know that it happened, but I went last year. I just did not want to promote myself in this business, except as it comes up normally and naturally. They told me that Lewis came to these reunions until he sold that notebook, that log.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: The thirty-five thousand [dollars], plus or minus, to Forbes Magazine and he never showed up again after that. I mean, that made the papers all over the country.                                              

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: These guys said, once he got that money and it was all about publicity, he never showed up again. He had hanging in the cockpit a girl’s pair of panties and this sort of thing. You must know by now that I am hardly what you would call a prude, but this is a little offensive to me at least, and offensive to a lot of people who are not clergy.

Filipkowski: Right.

Downey: I never cared much for him.

Filipkowski: Olivi has a diary he wants to sell now.

Downey: Levy?


Downey: There is no Olivi.

Filipkowski: A Nagasaki co-pilot.

Downey: Oh.

Filipkowski: Olivi.

Downey: I know who you mean. Come on over here and sit here.

Filipkowski: He has a flight—

Downey: That will be really interesting. I would like to read the doggone thing.

Filipkowski: Yeah, I wrote to him. He said he would not say anything that was in it until he sold it. I told him to write Forbes.

Downey: Levy, right here is Levy. Freddy Bock’s. L-e-v-y.

Filipkowski: He was on Sweeney’s plane.

Downey: Let me get Sweeney’s crew. Now [Charles] Albury, and Albury was at the reunion.

Filipkowski: Fred Olivi. They had two copilots, for some reason.

Downey: Beahan is a bombardier, then Van Kirk was a navigator. He was at the reunion and he is a complex fellow. It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I would like to read it. I do not believe he was at the reunion. How did you find out he had this?

Filipkowski: He wrote to me and said, “Where can I sell it?”

Downey: How did he know to write you?

Filipkowski: I had written him asking him for an autograph.

Downey: Oh.

Filipkowski: At this time, I was just collecting autographs. He said, “Where can I sell this little notebook I have? It is about ten pages.”

Downey: He was there? I’ll be darned.

Filipkowski: He was.

Downey: Yeah, but I do not remember seeing him. I do not know. Here is the reunion in Philadelphia and they have pictures of everybody, Beahan as an example. There is Freddy Bock, I told you about him, Jake Beser, the radar man.

Through my life, I’ve gotten a lot of fun, a lot of fun of these people who make anti-Jewish remarks and they say, “Oh, the Jews in the Army, they just go in the Quartermaster Corps,” or something like that. This is offensive to me. I said, “Oh sure, sure. They only guy that flew both atomic missions was a Jew. Now what do you think of that?” I have a short string with these anti-Jewish people.

Here are the names. The guys that have died are on here. Here is the prayer I prayed—no, this is a prayer I prayed for the second atomic bomb. They just got it mixed up. The reason was found by Len Godfrey while going through her mother’s file box. She had the second one, not the first one, but they did not know that. Here it is, the one I just read to you, it was printed. This is the one I just came from, and they do not have all those nice pictures, the roster. Here is the 509th picture album, different people who have sent them in. This is from Levy. There is a copy of the prayers. I told you on the telephone line to bring Laurence’s book, I did not have a copy of it.

Filipkowski: I brought a few files. If you want to rummage through these I can make copies of everything.

Downey: A whole bunch of files. I will look through—a local paper bugged me about this.

Filipkowski: The anniversary?

Downey: The anniversary yes. Robert Lewis, sixty-five years old, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, died of a heart attack Saturday. Tibbets said Lewis was a co-pilot. Lewis has survived two crashes and had a reputation for being calm in moments of stress. “I will never get those few minutes out of my mind,” he wrote. His log was sold at auction in 1971 for thirty-seven thousand dollars—I was pretty right about that, I said thirty-five—by a dealer in rare books and manuscripts. It was acquired in 1978 by Malcom Forbes, who paid eighty-five thousand and took Lewis for fifty grand. That is life. 

Copyright 1987 Joseph Papalia. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Joseph Papalia. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.