Prairie Messenger Header

Making a Difference


By Tony Magliano


Catholic priest who blessed atomic bomb crews — and his conversion


Seventy years ago, on August 6, 1945, the single most destructive weapon ever unleashed upon human beings and the environment — the atomic bomb — was dropped by an American B-29 bomber on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing approximately 80,000 people.

Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000 people.

“Blessing” the crews and its two missions, was the Catholic chaplain to the 509th Composite Group — the atomic bomb group — Rev. George Zabelka.

In a Sojourners Magazine interview, the late Father Zabelka explained, “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 on Tinian Island in the South Pacific, where the atomic bomb group was based, planes took off around the clock, said Zabelka. “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. . . .

“Yes, I knew civilians were being destroyed . . . Yet I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to men who were doing it. . . .

“I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids.

“I was told the raids were necessary; told openly by the military and told implicitly by my church’s 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. . . .

“Christians have been slaughtering each other, as well as non-Christians, for the past 1,700 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.”

After years of soul-searching, Zabelka’s complete conversion from being a strong proponent of the “just-war theory” to a total pacifist was announced in a 1975 Christmas letter: “I must do an about face. . . . I have come to the conclusion that the truth of the Gospel is that Jesus was non-violent and taught non-violence as his way.”

Zabelka dedicated the rest of his life to teaching, preaching and witnessing to Gospel non-violence.

In 1983 he and a Jesuit priest, Rev. Jack Morris, organized and participated in the Bethlehem Peace Pilgrimage starting at the nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Washington, and ending on Christmas Eve 1984 in Bethlehem.

When Zabelka reached Maryland, I had the good fortune of hearing him personally share his inspiring story of conversion.

I strongly recommend reading Zabelka’s entire Sojourners Magazine interview by going to this link And consider ordering from the centre for Christian Nonviolence ( the excellent DVD “Fr. George Zabelka: The Reluctant Prophet.” Or just simply go to this link ( to view it.

We can either choose to rationalize and condone violence and war, or we can help God build God’s kingdom of life and love.

In the biblical book of Deuteronomy, the author lays out a divine ultimatum for humanity: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him.”

May we always choose life!

Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist.