The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have stuck with me ever since I first learned about them. As they should – as they should for most people, I think.
On August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was detonated 2,000 feet above the city of Hiroshima in a blast of around 12 to 15,000 tons of TNT. 90,000 to 166,000 people were killed in the following months. Three days later on August 9, a plutonium implosion bomb called “Fat Man” exploded in the city of Nagasaki. This bomb initially killed 39,000 to 80,000 people. The death tolls listed here, of course, do NOT count the casualties, illnesses, and lasting effects the bombs and radiation have had on the people. What is striking about the dropping of the bombs is that although Allied forces were targeting military facilities, there was considerable loss of civilian life. What’s more, the Cold War was just around the corner and both the US and the USSR knew this. For America, dropping the bombs was also a way to demonstrate military power and prestige to Japan’s neighbor, Russia. It was a warning of what was to come; of what could come. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as some Americans like to argue, was not necessarily retribution or revenge for Pearl Harbor. Any loss of innocent life in war is tragic. And while numbers mean nothing next to the personal face of death and loss, I would like to point out that 2,403 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor, and 1,178 were wounded. Most of them military. Now compare that to the loss of almost 129,000 people – mostly civilians – in Japan. This number does not include the numerous fire bombings leading up to “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.”
The US Resource Center explains the breakdown of each bomb’s destruction and carnage:
Flash burns, 20 to 30 percent.
Other injuries, 50 to 60 percent.
Radiation sickness, 15 to 20 percent…
…The flash of the explosion, which was extremely brief, emitted radiant heat traveling at the speed of light. Flash burns thus followed the explosion instantaneously…
Survivors in the two cities stated that people who were in the open directly under the explosion of the bomb were so severely burned that the skin was charred dark brown or black and that they died within a few minutes or hours…
Because of the brief duration of the flash wave and the shielding effects of almost any objects-leaves and clothing as well as buildings-there were many interesting cases of protection. The radiant heat came in a direct line like light, so that the area burned corresponded to this directed exposure. Persons whose sides were to-ward the explosion often showed definite burns of both sides of the back while the hollow of the back escaped.
People in buildings or houses were apparently burned only if directly exposed through the windows. The most striking instance was that of a man writing before a window. His hands were seriously burned but his exposed face and neck suffered only slight burns due to the angle of entry of the radiant heat through the window…
Unfortunately, no exact definition of the killing power of radiation can yet be given, nor a satisfactory account of the sort and thickness of concrete or earth that will shield people… In the meanwhile the awesome lethal effects of the atomic bomb and the insidious additional peril of the gamma rays speak for themselves.
There is reason to believe that if the effects of blast and fire had been entirely absent from the bombing, the number of deaths among people within a radius of one-half mile from ground zero would have been almost as great… Instead of being killed outright as were most of these victims, they would have survived for a few days or even 3 or 4 weeks, only to die eventually of radiation disease…
In America, to this day, there are still arguments about whether it was right or wrong to drop the bombs. Being a student of history, I have always fallen on the side of: it was wrong. I am aware of what the number-crunchers, statisticians, and military historians say in that the bombs were the only way the truly end the war; the only way to save more lives in the long run. But I reject this argument wholeheartedly because the loss of innocent life was far too great. As most people are, I am both troubled and chilled by the primary source accounts of those who witnessed the bombings and the immediate aftermath.
In The Crash of Hard Water, Molly is greatly conflicted about the bombings as an American living in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I do not know my grandmother’s true thoughts on the matter, but I have an idea. From the writing, photos, and things she left behind, I have gathered that the real Molly was a thoughtful, caring, and intelligent person. And having lived in Tokyo for a great deal of time surrounded by and working with Japanese people, I am willing to bet she did not support what happened. If anything, she was most certainly conflicted about it. Despite the rampant nationalism in the US during the war, despite Pearl Harbor, despite the racism against the Japanese, I think it’s safe to assume that at least some Americans were conflicted about their government killing an obscene amount of innocent people. People just like them, getting up and going to work and going about their business until a bright flash forever changed their lives. And the world.
To support my theory, I will use the example of my grandfather (Molly’s ex-husband.) In the early 1950s, my grandfather was stationed at Misawa Air Base on Northern Honshu (although Molly was also in Japan at the time, funnily enough they did not meet until the mid-latter part of the decade in Brazil.) My grandfather’s piloting job at Misawa was running nighttime reconnaissance missions over the USSR, or “taking pictures” as he said when I interviewed him in 2006 about his time in the USAF. Without prompting, he described the Japanese people as “kind, hospitable, and courteous” and went on to say “they did not deserve what happened to them.” This statement and sentiment was profound to me, because my grandfather is as “Greatest Generation” American as they come due to his humble beginnings and service in the USAF from the late 1940s up until the end of Vietnam.
In a Japanese History course, I learned that Emperor Hirohito & the Japanese government initially censored any information about what had happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course there were rumors among the Japanese people; the flash and sheer force of the bombs could be seen and felt from miles away. It is no surprise that the Japanese government didn’t want anyone to know what had truly happened, for it would be admitting weakness and defeat. Eventually, surrender did come.
There is a Japanese word for the people who survived the bombs: Hibakusha, or “explosion-affected-person.” The Hibakusha and their descendants still face illness, hardship, and discrimination today. The bombs may have ended the war, but the long-lasting effects of the bombs have not ended for these people and their descendants. I’m not sure it ever will. The dropping of the bombs will forever be seared onto the collected consciousness of humanity; a turning point for the human race signifying the chilling lengths we are willing to go to in the name of war and “peace.”
Nothing can illustrate better what actually occurred on August 6th and 9th 1945 than the accounts of those who lived it. Please read them below. We owe it to the Hibakusha, and to ethical and compassionate consciousness, to read and remember and never forget. To always strive for and maintain peace and diplomacy first and foremost, at all costs.
The hour was early; the morning still, warm, and beautiful. Shimmering leaves, reflecting sunlight from a cloudless sky, made a pleasant contrast with shadows in my garden as I gazed absently through wide-flung doors opening to the south. Clad in drawers and undershirt, I was sprawled on the living room floor exhausted because I had just spent a sleepless night on duty as an air warden in my hospital. Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me – and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley. Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Through swirling dust I could barely discern a wooden column that had supported one comer of my house. It was leaning crazily and the roof sagged dangerously. Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. By picking my way cautiously I managed to reach the roka [an outside hallway] and stepped down into my garden. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise I discovered that I was completely naked How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt? What had happened? All over the right side of my body I was cut and bleeding. A large splinter was protruding from a mangled wound in my thigh, and something warm trickled into my mouth. My cheek was torn, I discovered as I felt it gingerly, with the lower lip laid wide open. Embedded in my neck was a sizable fragment of glass which I matter-of-factly dislodged, and with the detachment of one stunned and shocked I studied it and my blood-stained hand. Where was my wife? Suddenly thoroughly alarmed, I began to yell for her: ‘Yaeko-san! Yaeko-san! Where are you?’ Blood began to spurt. Had my carotid artery been cut? Would I bleed to death? Frightened and irrational, I called out again ‘It’s a five-hundred-ton bomb! Yaeko-san, where are you? A five- hundred-ton bomb has fallen!’Yaeko-san, pale and frightened, her clothes torn and blood stained, emerged from the ruins of our house holding her elbow. Seeing her, I was reassured. My own panic assuaged, I tried to reassure her.’We’ll be all right,’ I exclaimed. ‘Only let’s get out of here as fast as we can.’ She nodded, and I motioned for her to follow me.
We started out, but after twenty or thirty steps I had to stop. My breath became short, my heart pounded, and my legs gave way under me. An overpowering thirst seized me and I begged Yaeko-san to find me some water. But there was no water to be found. After a little my strength somewhat returned and we were able to go on. I was still naked, and although I did not feel the least bit of shame, I was disturbed to realize that modesty had deserted me. On rounding a corner we came upon a soldier standing idly in the street. He had a towel draped across his shoulder, and I asked if he would give it to me to cover my nakedness. The soldier surrendered the towel quite willingly but said not a word. A little later I lost the towel, and Yaeko-san took off her apron and tied it around my loins. Our progress towards the hospital was interminably slow, until finally, my legs, stiff from drying blood, refused to carry me farther. The strength, even the will, to go on deserted me, so I told my wife, who was almost as badly hurt as I, to go on alone. This she objected to, but there was no choice. She had to go ahead and try to find someone to come back for me. Yaeko-san looked into my face for a moment, and then, without saying a word, turned away and began running towards the hospital. Once, she looked back and waved and in a moment she was swallowed up in the gloom. It was quite dark now, and with my wife gone, a feeling of dreadful loneliness overcame me. I must have gone out of my head lying there in the road because the next thing I recall was discovering that the clot on my thigh had been dislodged and blood was again spurting from the wound. I pressed my hand to the bleeding area and after a while the bleeding stopped and I felt better. Could I go on?