The Ralph Nutter Story
When Ralph Nutter finished his initial combat tour–25 B-17 bombing missions over France, Belgium, and Germany–he knew he was lucky too. But it’s the sort of luck that would give some people nightmares.
Nutter had been quickly promoted to group navigator, flying with Colonel Curtis LeMay, a man he greatly admired. He had been awarded commendations and a flying cross and congratulated by U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. from his home state of Massachusetts. General Heywood Hansell had just put him in charge of the navigation for the B-29 program over Japan.
But the B-17 daytime bombing raids over Germany had lost as many as 16 percent of their planes per mission. Without radar or fighter support, the so-called flying fortress was extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. From Nutter’s initial group of 22 navigators in training, he was one of only two survivors. He’d seen his friends and comrades shot down. He’d watched as men who dangled helplessly from their parachutes were strafed with machine-gun fire.
Convinced that the war against Hitler had to be won, Nutter heeded LeMay’s advice not to dwell on the losses. He’d witnessed men in the B-17s literally blinded and paralyzed, not by enemy fire but by fear. The rest of them did what they had to not to think about it. Nutter felt bitter at the loss of his friends and comrades. But he remembers LeMay telling him, “Ralph, you’re probably going to get killed, so it’s best to accept it. You’ll get along much better.” And that, Nutter says, is what he did.
When Nutter came down to earth he had trouble adjusting to life behind a desk. He was back at HLS in a classroom that to him seemed virtually unchanged, except for the students, so many of whom had also served in the war–although the war, he says, was the one thing he and other veterans absolutely never talked about. “We were sick of it,” he said. “We studied and we drank.” Although he didn’t talk about the war, he dreamt about it; the nightmares caught up with him. One dream took him back to the confines of the bomber, and he woke up to find he’d broken the glass in the window by his bed in an attempt to escape.
Nutter never mentioned the incident to any of his professors but says that the faculty cared about the welfare of the veterans. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to be a lawyer or that he was qualified. He remembers the encouragement of Professor Edmund Morgan and Vice-Dean Livingston Hall. He also remembers the words of Professor Zechariah Chafee, who decried the anti-Communist hysteria that was sweeping the country. “He told us if we didn’t support civil liberties when we graduated from law school, we would lose the values we fought for in the war.”
Chafee’s words stuck with Nutter, and during his career he has tried to act on them. He took on discrimination cases for minorities and union members, and became involved in litigation to try to win back the property of Japanese-Americans that was confiscated during the war. Recently he traveled to Guam, where he had been stationed, to try to help win water rights for the Chamorro people.
Nutter says the most valuable lesson he learned from the war was from Curtis LeMay: “If you believe something, don’t be bothered if they criticize you.” Nutter points out that as a judge in the Los Angeles courts he came under fire for supporting the rights of antiwar demonstrators but also those of the Ku Klux Klan. Nutter, a liberal Democrat, says his great respect for LeMay isn’t dampened by his mentor’s reputation as one of the most conservative military leaders in America. As a general, LeMay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Nutter says these bombings, which he helped to coordinate, have troubled him, but he hopes that LeMay was right that they were necessary to save American and Japanese lives. Nutter has completed a book about his war experience and the two generals who shaped it, The Possum and the Eagle, forthcoming from Presidio Press early next year.
As Nutter is talking about the war, he is interrupted by a phone call from the firm in Los Angeles where he is of counsel. Would he be free to help defend a local living-wage measure? A silly question for a man who refers to himself with gusto as that “white-haired labor law bastard.” Now–like 60 years ago–he is barely able to contain his exhilaration at the idea of taking up a good fight.
The Honorable Ralph H. Nutter, Judge, Superior Court, Los Angeles County (retired) passed away peacefully at the age of 91 in Santa Barbara, California, on Saturday, January 28, 2012.
Judge Nutter was born in Norwood, Massachusetts, to Ralph Nutter and Mildred Starbird Nutter. He had one sister, Ruth, now deceased. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School A.B., J.D., in 1948 and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1948 and the California Bar in 1949. After serving as Attorney and Hearing Officer for the National Labor Relations Board 1948-1951, he was in private practice 1952-1959.
He served as Judge, Municipal Court of Los Angeles County 1959-1961, and was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1961 by Governor Pat Brown. In 1967, he was Presiding Judge, Law Department, Superior Court and was author of Los Angeles Superior Court Rules for Writs and Receiver. In 1968 he was Justice Pro Tem for California Court of Appeal for the 2nd Appellate District.
He was a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and California and Los Angeles County Bar Associations. In 1987 he was listed in The Best Lawyers in America. In 2001 he was appointed Special Assistant Attorney General of Guam. Judge Nutter was admitted to the Federal District Court, Ninth Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Nutter was proud of his service as a decorated combat flier in the European and Pacific theaters in World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and left the service in 1945 as Lieutenant Colonel. Ralph Nutter was a true WWII hero, serving as navigator for five generals including Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell. In 2002 he published With the Possum and the Eagle, The Memoir of a Navigator’s War over Germany and Japan.
Ralph loved being with his family, climbing in the High Sierras and playing tennis.
He is survived by his loving wife of 38 years, Dale Nutter, his sons Curtis Nutter (Laurie) and Eric Nutter and daughter Tarah Nutter (Jay Ginsberg), his stepdaughter Jamie Beutler (Larry) and stepson Robert Blitzer (Donna). He adored his eight grandchildren: Christopher Nutter (Andrea), Kimberly Van Wert (David), Cory Singer (Sean Sullivan), Grace Singer, Laurel Singer, Adam Nutter, Rebecca Alvarez (Alex), Erica LeBlanc (Aaron) and six great grandchildren. He was an affectionate, supportive uncle to Carlene Tockman, Dianna Brake (Terry), Lynn Hale, Nicole Levine (Richard), Tracy Scharf (Jeff) and Andrew Lotwin.
Private services are planned. Memorial donations may be made to Harvard Law School Annual Fund, in honor of Ralph H. Nutter, 125 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.