This post is not for the faint of heart. I will not sugar-coat anything. Read it only if you are prepared to look the specter of war in the face. Since it is something I am often asked about and have been asked again quite recently, I will reflect on my visit to Hiroshima and remember what I can. (We’re coming up on the anniversary of the bombing in a few days.)
The story begins for me when I was in Mr. Jones’s fifth- or sixth-grade reading class at the end of the 1970s. (I don’t remember which year it was; I had him as a reading teacher both years.) In the class, we read part of a book that is seared forever into my memory: The Bells of Nagasaki (Nagasaki no Kane), by Dr. Takashi Nagai. The excerpt we read (which may have been more “adaptation” than “excerpt”) was called “Child of Nagasaki,” and focused on the true story of Dr. Nagai’s daughter Kayano.
Dr. Nagai had been diagnosed with leukemia before the end of the war; he most likely contracted it from years of exposure to the X-ray machine used on his patients. He was only expected to live about three more years at the most. Then came August of 1945, and the bomb.
Kayano — though she lived about thirty years before our time — was a child just like us. She had a bigger brother Makoto. To keep the two children farther from potential air raids, they had been taken a short distance outside Nagasaki to stay with their grandparents. When the bomb fell, Kayano was four years old.
On August 9, 1945, Kayano saw a flash in the sky as if the sun had exploded, and a force like an invisible hand threw her across the room. When she looked up, something like a monstrous black tree made of smoke was towering over Nagasaki. And from that point on, life for her was nothing at all like the lives we knew.
Her father, also hurled across the room and half-buried in debris, had severe facial cuts from flying glass, but he stayed at the hospital for three or four days, working round the clock to treat the injured and the dying who filled the wards and lined the halls. His own home and his wife had been incinerated in the initial blast. Mrs. Nagai, a Christian, had been reduced to a soft pile of ash with her rosary nearby.
Dr. Nagai, his head swathed in bandages, trudged to the grandparents’ home to check on them and the children; he firmly warned Kayano and Makoto not to touch the strange, black rain that was falling. A short while later, the grandmother made the trek to the Nagai home and brought back some bone fragments from the children’s mother. (This is not as morbid as it sounds to western ears; Japanese cremate their dead, and the charred bone pieces that remain after cremation are handled with honor according to funerary custom. These bone fragments are called okotsu and are often kept in the home for awhile before being placed in a family grave.)
Dr. Nagai himself lived for several more years. His spiritual journey led him from Shintoism to atheism and ultimately to Christian faith. He wrote bestselling books that related the experience of Nagasaki to the world; the income thus generated was channeled into various means of helping the victims of war. Makoto and Kayano grew to adulthood; Kayano became a teacher.
That reading assignment terrified me on a deeper level than any fictional horror story I’d read. Even as kids, we were all too aware of the missiles in the silos and in the submarines: missiles aimed at the U.S.S.R., missiles aimed at all the major U.S. cities, missiles aimed at the whole world, and tense nations squared off against one another, each with the power to launch an irrevocable armageddon. I imagined the things Kayano Nagai had seen; I imagined it happening in Taylorville, Illinois. It kept me awake at night.
I knew there was nowhere to run from a nuclear holocaust. Tour guides at Mammoth Cave, answering the inevitable question, would explain that no, even a deep cave would offer little protection from radioactive fallout: a cave is an open, breathing system, full of water and air from the surface. Unlike the tornadoes that frequently devasted farms and towns in the Midwest, nuclear weapons brought more than city-leveling explosions; they poisoned the air, the water, and the ground. You were far better off if you died in the initial blast, because to be alive after it, when the black rain fell, was a nightmare beyond the power of any words to convey. One phrase used by eyewitnesses to describe the condition of still-living victims of Hiroshima was “the Death-in-Life.”
Hiroshima, as I understand it, had been spared most of the relentless bombing experienced by many other Japanese cities. On that clear, late-summer morning in 1945 (August 6th for the Japanese, because Japan is a day ahead; in the States, we remember it as the 5th), people were beginning their routines — finishing breakfast, heading for work, thinking about what a hot day it would be. There was the faint drone of a plane. . . . But just a single aircraft, not a squadron of B-29s with their payloads of thunder and fire; just a single aircraft, and very high up, barely a speck in the sky. Nothing to be alarmed at.
The plane made a sharp turn and raced away from the city. It was about a quarter past eight.
One elderly man, sitting on a porch that faced away from the blast, suddenly had the entire house flipped over on top of him. I’m guessing you’ve also heard the famous account of the man who was vaporized, but whose shadow remained on the wall behind him — a human silhouette slightly lighter than the charred surface all around. No one at first had any concept of the magnitude of the destruction. Everyone thought it was a localized cluster-bomb, and that they’d had the misfortune to be near it. No one could conceive that such damage had been done by a single bomb.
I visited Hiroshima with some friends in — as nearly as I can figure it — about 1990. (Anyone who has my newsletters from that era can check this date, and maybe you can find an important detail or two that I’ve forgotten. I would love to be able to compare my memories now with what I wrote then. Maybe someday. . . .)
I remember arriving before noon and having a picnic lunch under some willow trees beside a little river near the Peace Park. Hiroshima, since long before the war, had been famous for its willow trees. They are green and shimmering, more slender and wispy than the big-crowned weeping willows I grew up with in the Midwest. (In Japan, willows are strongly associated with ghosts — they’re the trees beneath which ghosts appear. This is an ancient belief and has nothing to do with Hiroshima, but it’s ironic.) At that picnic near the Peace Park, I remember watching some ducks swim and feeding them with pieces of our lunch. I remember thinking about what the riverside must have looked like in late 1945. I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I could be standing there.
You may have seen pictures of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) — the domed, skeletal girder framework of a building that was the only thing left standing after the bomb went off. The structure remained because it was in the blast shadow, directly under where the bomb exploded. (The bomb was designed to detonate in midair to maximize the force of its destruction. Its blast spread outward from that central point, so only that one building, standing beneath the “hole of the doughnut,” was spared. Well, it wasn’t spared, it was burned to a crisp — but its framework stayed up, and was still there in the early nineties. I’m not sure it’s still there; it seems I heard a rumor awhile back that it was in structural trouble.)
And I mean, it was the only thing left standing. In the museum you can see a 360-degree composite photo taken from ground zero. (Remember when “ground zero” had a more general meaning for Americans, referring to the point at which any bomb went off? Now we have our own “Ground Zero,” which overshadows any other use of the term.) This photo is in stark black-and-white, and occupies the wall of a large, round room, so you can turn all around and see it as if you were standing there at the bomb site. It shows nothing but devastation to the horizon in every direction — no buildings, no trees, no people, no vehicles — miles and miles of nothing.
One floor of the museum has glass cases displaying artifacts: sometimes barely-recognizable globs of melted and re-hardened metal that were once everyday objects.
I vividly remember a set of maps of various major world cities. With concentric circles and shading, each map showed the range and degree of effect if an atomic bomb equivalent to the Hiroshima device were to be detonated in that city. Only a couple years before, I’d been a student in the Chicago area; I spent a long time studying the Chicago map, noticing which part of the city would be utterly obliterated, which parts would experience collapsed buildings and immolation, which would undergo shattered windows and widespread fires . . . and how far outside Chicago there would be some effects . . . and how far the deadly radiation would extend . . . and how very, very far out you’d have to be to experience no effects. Studying the impact of a similar bomb on a city I knew pretty well brought the horror home on yet another level. [And that was a little old pioneer rinky-dink A-bomb — a mere firecracker compared to the nukes of today.]
The museum had copies of the flyers dropped all across the Japanese countryside by Allied planes, flyers in Japanese urging the people to surrender, to stop supporting their government, whose policies were only leading them to increased suffering. There’s no way to measure it, but I wonder what effect, if any, such flyers had. When a farmer in his paddy picked one up and read it, did he think anything beyond “This is enemy propaganda”? I’ve heard from various friends and older people here that the Japanese government propagated the image of Americans as looking like demons, with faces like horses. (Of course American propaganda at the time portrayed much the same picture of Japanese as ill-favored, large-toothed, nearsighted monsters.) It is greatly to the credit of “the Greatest Generation” that, when U.S. troops arrived in Japan on occupation duty, people here were stunned at how different they actually were from the horrible reputation that had preceded them; I’ve heard that from several firsthand sources. Also, I knew a pastor of the Japan Lutheran Church who was a WWII veteran. He was stationed in Okinawa when American forces landed there. He’d been told to avoid capture at all costs, since the enemy would torture and kill him — so he fought like mad to escape from the tightening circle of green-clad soldiers. At last he was too starved and weak and exhausted to wriggle any farther, and they got him. And he said it was the best thing that had happened to him since the war began. He was well-treated, clean, and had food and water for the first time in many days.
But I digress. I also knew a Christian man who worked in the offices of the Japan Lutheran Church and was a survivor of Hiroshima. He was cheerful and pleasant, but had limited mobility and some spinal disfiguration.
Do you know that the city where I live, Niigata, was very nearly the recipient of the second atomic bomb? There are copies of the orders on display in the Hiroshima museum — I’ve read them. The American high command issued orders to drop the bombs on the primary targets of “Hiroshima and Niigata.” The Hiroshima bombing took place as planned. When the second plane flew over Niigata, the city was having its typical weather that I’m always complaining about: solid cloud cover. The bombardier couldn’t see a thing through his scope. So, following the Plan B protocol, the plane turned south to Nagasaki. I’ve often reflected on that. If Niigata had had nice weather on August 9, 1945, most of the people I know here would either have died or would never have been born. Dr. Nagai of Nagasaki would likely have succumbed quietly to his leukemia; his wife would have had more years to pray the rosary in this vale of tears; and Kayano wouldn’t have seen her terrible “tree” in the sky. But there would have been other Dr. Nagais, other Kayanos up here in “Snow Country.”
Finally, the thing I remember most about the Peace Park and museum at Hiroshima: one wall inside the museum is covered with pictures drawn by children who experienced the bombing. They’re bright, colorful sketches, some messy, some very neat. I don’t imagine that anyone could gaze at those images and read the children’s hand-lettered reports without feeling it on the deepest level. Even after all these years, tears are coming to my eyes at the mere memory of it.
When we were kids, my cousin and I wrote illustrated stories about zombies, or about the attacks of dinosaurs, grizzly bears, or sharks. Like most little boys, we delighted in all things gruesome. The pictures at Hiroshima are quite similar to what my cousin and I produced for fun — mayhem, body parts not where they should be, heavy use of the red crayon. But these were not stories born of the imagination. These were things the kids had seen, and the subjects of the pictures were their family members, their classmates, their teachers, their neighbors. For me, those drawings and words from children are the most eloquent and powerful testimony of what happened at Hiroshima.
Finally, two stories from a friend who was a little girl in Oosaka during the war. (Yes, that’s “Osaka,” but the “o” is actually long, or double.) Unlike the atomic bomb sites, Oosaka was very heavily hit by the conventional bombing raids. This friend of mine was the only member of her class to live through the war. Imagine that — think of those black-and-white photos from our elementary-school days; imagine X’s drawn across the face of this friend, that friend, that friend, the teacher . . . X’s drawn over every single face but yours.
She tells of how, during one bombing raid, a group of her classmates were all scrambling to get inside a bomb shelter; everything around them was going up in deafening explosions, plumes of fire, the ground shaking, rubble flying . . . for some reason, she didn’t make it to the shelter — she fell down or something. Then the next contact bomb landed squarely on top of the shelter, and everyone who had made it inside was killed.
And she tells of wandering down to the river after the bombing raid. She stood on the riverbank, but she could not see the water — not any of it — because the entire riverbed was choked with human bodies. The same phenomenon took place at Hiroshima, and probably at Nagasaki: to escape the horrible heat, the burning, and the thirst, multitudes headed for the river. No river was big enough to accommodate them all.
Hiroshima today is a bustling city again — rebuilt, like nearly all of Japan. The willows are back, and I’d guess they have plenty of ghosts appearing beneath their tremulous branches in the silver moonlight. What’s old in Japan is very old — temples and shrines date back centuries, over a thousand years in many cases. But most of Japan changes its face again and again. I’ve never seen neighborhoods morph as quickly as they do here. You come home from work and a house or building you always pass is suddenly missing. You come home the next day, and a new one has taken its place.
For an account of the Nagasaki bombing and its aftermath, I think it would be hard to find a better book than The Bells of Nagasaki, by Dr. Takashi Nagai.
For Hiroshima, I very highly recommend the book Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Some years ago, I encountered this book when I was trying to learn speed-reading so that I could get through more of the books I’m always wanting to read. I started reading Hiroshima quickly, but it’s a book that deserves a person’s undivided attention. I slowed down almost immediately and read it word-for-word. It follows the lives of several unrelated people — real people from various walks of life, one of them a priest who wasn’t even Japanese — all of whom were in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing. Through interviews and painstaking research, Hersey reconstructs their experiences of that day and the days following. And then he jumps forward a couple decades with follow-ups on what they were all doing then, what their lives had been like since the bomb. It’s one of those books that should be a part of the education of everyone living in our times; it’s a book you won’t ever forget.