Last week saw Japan, and the world, commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which an estimated 220,000 people lost their lives. The bombings marked the horrific conclusion to not only the war in the Pacific, but also a series of napalm firebombing raids by the United States which laid waste to the country and killed many thousands more innocent civilians. (I wrote about this two years ago, in the entry to which this is a follow-up.)
While the firebombings in Japan, much like the carpetbombings of German cities before them, were terribly destructive and indiscriminate in their execution, they proved nothing compared to the inhuman power of the atom bomb, the first of which — codenamed ‘Little Boy’ — fell from a clear autumn sky over the city of Hiroshima, on the morning of August 6, 1945.
On July 20, The Guardian’s G2 section featured excerpts from John Hersey’s infamous account of the aftermath in Hiroshima as published by The New Yorker in 1946. Hersey was one of the first Western journalists to visit the city after the event, and he recorded the stories of some of those who survived the blast and the subsequent devastation. In a succession of scenes from different perspectives, his words convey the sheer chaos and disorientation of that fateful morning almost as vividly as if it were happening today:
>Dr Fujii sat down cross-legged in his underwear on the spotless matting of the porch, put on his glasses, and started reading the Osaka Asahi. He liked to read the Osaka news because his wife was there. He saw the flash. To him — faced away from the centre and looking at his paper — it seemed a brilliant yellow. Startled, he began to rise to his feet. In that moment (he was 1,550 yards from the centre), the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river. The doctor, still in the act of getting to his feet, was thrown forward and around and over; he was buffeted and gripped; he lost track of everything, because things were so speeded up; he felt the water.
>Dr Fujii hardly had time to think that he was dying before he realized that he was alive, squeezed tightly by two long timbers in a V across his chest, like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks — held upright, so that he could not move, with his head miraculously above water and his torso and legs in it. The remains of his hospital were all around him in a mad assortment of splintered lumber and materials for the relief of pain. His left shoulder hurt terribly. His glasses were gone.
On July 24 The Observer featured similarly affecting accounts of Hiroshima’s survivors, the hibakusha. But what’s also striking in the words of The Observer’s David Smith is how, even today, the destruction is still regarded more as a symbol than a real human tragedy:
>The Second World War, in many Western minds, was to make Hiroshima less a geographical place than an image and an event: a blasted landscape dated 6 August 1945, when the American B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay shimmered out of a beautiful blue sky and dropped on it the bomb, nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ by its makers, which seconds later became the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. At 8.15am the uranium atom bomb exploded 580 metres above the city with a blinding flash, creating a fireball that blazed like a small sun with a temperature of more than a million degrees Celcius at the centre. In one second the fireball reached a diameter of 280 metres, sending surface temperatures to 4,000C. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, unleashing a high pressure shockwave, vaporising tens of thousands of people and animals, melting buildings and streetcars, reducing a 400-year-old city to dust.
For survivor Masaaki Tanabe, who was seven at the time,
>Hiroshima is not an image or event but home, a core of identity where his mother and baby brother perished. For decades he could not bring himself to return to the industrial promotion hall [where he played as a child], which has been renamed the A-bomb Dome and granted United Nations World Heritage status. It perches on the corner of a memorial peace park in the shadow of skyscrapers and that most American of landmarks, a baseball stadium.
Smith also spoke to Akihiro Takahashi, a 74-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima bomb who, while in Washington a number of years ago, met Paul Tibbets, commander of the Enola Gay:
>I told him “I’m not going to complain or hold a grudge against you.” I pushed my right hand towards him and he noticed the burns on my hand. He asked, “Is this the effect of the A-bomb?” I said, “Yes”. He looked surprised and shocked.
>I told him the sky over Hiroshima that day was so beautiful, so clear. We felt safe because the alarm was called off at the time. I told him I was even pointing at your airplane. He said, “Oh yes, I could see Hiroshima very well.”
>Before departing, I told him, “We believe as citizens of Hiroshima that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil, and this tragedy should not be repeated in any country in the world. I hope you will try whatever you can do.” He responded, “Mr Takahashi, I understand, but I know I would do the same thing once a war has started and I am ordered to drop the A-bomb.” I felt angry and also sad. But he also told me war shouldn’t happen again because, once a war breaks out, soldiers can do nothing but follow orders.
>The conversation lasted half an hour and he kept holding my right hand. I believe he felt some pain and remorse in his heart. But when I told a friend, he said, “I doubt it”.
Elsewhere, The New York Times asked Joi Ito to write an Op-Ed column to mark the week’s commemorations. He turned in a piece that presents an enlightening window on the complex emotional state of contemporary Japan, on the mixed feelings felt by the generations who have succeeded the atomic bombs:
>For my generation, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the war in general now represent the equivalent of a cultural ‘game over’ or ‘reset’ button. Through a combination of conscious policy and unconscious culture, the painful memories and images of the war have lost their context, surfacing only as twisted echoes in our subculture. The result, for better and worse, is that, 60 years after Hiroshima, we dwell more on the future than the past.
Some Related Links:
* The burning and the haunting: how for some the nightmare of Hiroshima will never end
Survivors describe the horrors of August 6 1945 and the scars that remain.
* ‘I saw both of the bombs and lived’
The story of Kazuko Sadamaru, an extraordinary account of survival against the odds.
* Hiroshima: photography by Hiromi Tsuchida
* Suppressed film of 1945 nuclear attacks to air
Includes a link to a comprehensive Editor & Publisher article on the recently-declassified footage.
* Nagasaki remembers day of destruction, 60 years on
The Guardian’s report of Japan’s commemoration of the Nagasaki bombing on August 9.
* Jonathon Delacour: As We May Incinerate
From two years ago, a fascinating account of the napalm firebombings in Japan, months before the iconic destruction of Hiroshima.