Life After Death in Nagasaki
Part III: A Walking Tour
Within hours of the explosion, people who appeared uninjured started getting sick. They started to vomit, their gums began to bleed, their hair fell out and red spots appeared on their faces. Then they'd die. It was a cruel and agonizing way to die. Thousands of people died this way.
Highway 34 running through the middle of town.
The LA Times reporter Anthony Weller was the first American to reach Nagasaki in early September, nearly three weeks after the bomb. His first article on the a-bomb "disease" is fascinating because it illustrates just how ill-prepared everybody was to deal with this mysterious new illness.
NAGASAKI, Saturday, Sept.8 -- In swaybacked or flattened skeletons of the Mitsubishi arms plants is revealed what the atomic bomb can do to steel and stone, but what the riven atom can do against human flesh and bone lies hidden in two hospitals of downtown Nagasaki. Look at the pushed-in facade of the American consulate, three miles from the blast's center, or the face of the Catholic cathedral, one mile in the other direction, torn down like gingerbread, and you can tell that the liberated atom spares nothing in the way. The human beings whom it has happened to spare sit on (illegible) One tiny family board their platforms in Nagasaki's two largest (illegible) hospitals, their shoulders, arms and faces are strapped in bandages.
Showing them to you, as the first American outsider to reach Nagasaki since the surrender, your propaganda-conscious official guide looks meaningfully in your face and wants to know: "What do you think?"
What this question means is: do you intend saying that America did something inhuman in loosing this weapon against Japan? That is what we want you to write.
Several children, some burned and others unburned but with patches of hair falling out, are sitting with their mothers. Yesterday Japanese photographers took many pictures with them. About one in five is heavily bandaged, but none of showing signs of pain.
Some adults are in pain as they lie on mats. They moan softly. One woman caring for her husband, shows eyes dim with tears. It is a piteous scene and your official guide studies your face covertly to see if you are moved.
Visiting many litters, talking lengthily with two general physicians and one X-ray specialist, gains you a large amount of information and opinion on the victims. Statistics are variable and few records are kept. But it is ascertained that this chief municipal hospital had about 750 atomic patients until this week and lost by death approximately 360.
About 70 percent of the deaths have been from plain burns. The Japanese say that anyone caught outdoors in a mile by half-mile area was burned to death. But this is known to be untrue because most of the allied prisoners burned in the plant escaped and only about one-fourth were burned. Yet it is undoubtedly true that many at 11:02 o'clock on this morning of Aug. 9 were caught in debris by casual fires which kindled and caught during the next half hour.
But most of the patients who were gravely burned have now passed away and those on hand are rapidly curing. Those not curing are people whose unhappy lot provides the mystery aura around the atomic bomb's effects. They are victims of what Lt. Jakob Vink, Dutch medical officer and now allied commandant of prison camp 14 at the mouth of Nagasaki harbor calls "disease." Vink himself was in the allied prison kitchen abutting the Mitsubishi armor plate department when the ceiling fell in but he escaped this mysterious "disease X" which some allied prisoners and many Japanese civilians got.
Vink points out a woman on a yellow mat in hospital, who according to hospital doctors Hikodero (sic) Koga and Uraaji (sic) Hayashida have just been brought in. She fled the atomic area but returned to live. She was well for three weeks expect a small burn on the heel. Now she lies moaning with a blackish mouth stiff as though with lockjaw and unable to utter clear words. Her exposed legs and arms are speckled with tiny red spots in patches.
Near her lies a 15-year-old fattish girl who has the same blotchy red pinpoints and nose clotted with blood. A little farther on is a window lying down with four children, from one to about 8, around her. The two smallest children have lost some hair. Though none of these people has either a barn or a broken limb, they are presumed victims of the atomic bomb.
Dr. Uraji Hayashida shakes his head somberly and says that he believes there must be something to the American radio report about the ground around the Mitsubishi plant being poisoned. But his next statement knocks out the props from under this theory because it develops that the widow's family has been absent from the wrecked area ever since the blast yet shows symptoms common with those who returned.
According to Japanese doctors, patients with these late developing symptoms are dying now a month after the bomb's fall, at the rate of about 10 daily. The three doctors calmly stated that the disease has them nonplussed and that they are giving no treatment whatever but rest. Radio rumors from America received the same consideration with the symptoms under their noses. They are licked for cure and do not seem very worried about it.
His cavalier and skeptical attitude towards these people amidst such carnage is striking to today's reader. We easily forget the hatred and mistrust that existed between American and Japanese 70 years ago. We now know that what he and the other doctors were witnessing was acute radiation poisoning.
The threat from radiation came in two forms. The first, known as prompt radiation, was a very brief and very intense shower of neutrons and gamma rays that coincided with the initial blinding flash. This extremely powerful radiation penetrated most surfaces and gave a potentially deadly dose to anyone within around five kilometres of the hypocenter. Around 20% of the final tally of dead are thought to have succumbed to this momentary blast of radiation.
The second, better known, kind of radiation poisoning came from the fallout. Following a nuclear explosion enormous quantities of highly-radioactive particles are blown high into the atmosphere. Then the heat and ash from city-wide fires saturate the clouds and cause rainstorms. The radioactive particles hitch rides on the rain drops and fall out of the sky back to earth, hence the name. At Nagasaki rain began to fall half an hour after the explosion. The rain was coloured black by the ash. It stained clothes and skin, and it was incredibly poisonous.
Because the bomb burst about 500 metres off the ground, far less fallout resulted than would have if it detonated on impact with the ground. A ground impact will force millions of tonnes of dirt and dust into the air which returns to the ground much more rapidly, picking up a cargo of radioactive particles along the way. Detonating the bomb 500 metres off the ground was not done to spare the Japanese, quite the opposite: an airburst would maximize the physical devastation. Thus the fallout was not enough to cause acute poisoning, but they did put those living in Nagasaki and downwind of it at greatly increased risk of cancers in the months and years ahead. One famous Japanese photographer who took many of the photos used in this essay arrived in Nagasaki on August 11. He died from leukemia shortly after.
After about a week the radiation in the city returned to the normal background levels. Yet for the survivors, who became known as the hibakusha, literally "explosion affected people," the ordeal had just begun.
After the war the Japanese Government granted the designation of hikabusha to anyone within two kilometres of the bomb hypocenters within two weeks after the bombings. It also included those in the downwind fallout areas and those not yet born but whose hikabusha mothers were pregnant with them at the time. Between Hiroshima and Nagasaki 650,000 people met these conditions. 192,000 are still alive in 2014.
As a group the hibakusha have higher prevalences of leukemia and other cancers. Children in the womb on August 9 had an enhanced likelihood of being born with birth defects (though, crucially, not those conceived afterwards). Currently about 1% of the surviving hibakusha have diseases that can be directly attributed to the atomic bombs. Many suffer from symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder like anxiety and depression. One study found half of the hibakusha had contemplated suicide.
The official hikabusha designation entitles the survivors to a special allowance from the Japanese Government, but it also makes them targets of severe discrimination from the rest of Japanese society.
General Douglas Macarthur became overlord of Japan in the years after the war. His administration censored information about radiation sickness.
Afraid of arousing Japanese anger at the occupation authorities, General MacArthur's government censored information about the atomic bombs and radiation sickness in the years after the war. The Americans went so far as to confiscate diaries, poems, films and photographs made by survivors who recorded their experiences. As a result a number of rumours about Nagasaki, Hiroshima and the people who lived through the bombings were able to take root. The belief that the bomb's lingering effects were hereditary and even contagious became widespread, a belief that persists to this day.
In reality numerous studies have since shown that children born to hikabusha and conceived after the bombings do not have elevated risk of birth defects, cancers or related ailments. Radiation poisoning is not hereditary and not contagious. Nevertheless, most of the hikabusha and their children were ostracized by highly conservative Japanese society. Unable to secure marriages or jobs, many withdrew into seclusion. As one hibakusha interviewed in the Japan Times explained:
"In Tokyo, I became aware that people have both sympathy and fear toward hibakusha," she said. "Their terror regarding the hibakusha image and to our radiation exposure often made people cautious in dealing with hibakusha," she said.
She added that her daughter once nullified her engagement after her fiance's parents persistently asked whether the couple's baby might have deformities.
Toyu-kai's Murata said many group members also experienced employment or marriage discrimination, while many others still hide the fact that they were exposed to the atomic bomb.
"As seen in the widespread rumor that no plants would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years, the disastrous condition of Hiroshima and its people after the bombing imprinted a deep fear of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the minds of Japanese," she said.
"Another rumor maintained that hibakusha have contaminated blood that is inheritable or even transmittable, which only furthered people's fears," Murata said, adding that such talk must have fueled discrimination.
She said there are still many hibakusha who are hesitant to get a hibakusha certificate, which grants better welfare assistance, due to concerns that it will reveal that they were exposed to the bomb.
Was it the Right Decision?
On August 15 Emperor Hirohito made a radio broadcast to his people, imploring them to "endure the unendurable": Japan would surrender. Modern scholarship has convincingly showed this decision owed more to the Soviet Union's declaration of war on Japan than the threat of further atomic bombardment. Furthermore some of President Truman's top commanders opposed using the bombs, including Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz.
This has opened the door to a bitter historical debate over the decision to drop the bomb, perhaps the most contentious in all historiography. Would Japan have eventually surrendered if the bomb had not been dropped? We know today that they almost certainly would have. Was dropping the bomb a crime against humanity? Absolutely. So can the bombing be justified? With the power of hindsight, probably not. But if we put ourselves in the shoes of people alive at the time it seems a perfectly understandable that it did happen.
I was surprised to see this monument in Nagasaki given the deep suspicion and mistrust with which many Koreans regard Japanese, primarily for their failure to adequately acknowledge the crimes the Japanese occupiers committed in Korea. I found the last paragraph particularly poignant. It turns out Japan has said sorry for the war many times.
It is tempting to look at the atomic bombing as the culmination of a course Japan set itself upon in 1931, when it invaded Manchuria. For almost 15 years the Japanese ran rampant across Asia, visiting murder, rape and every form of savagery upon an entire hemisphere. Somewhere between 10 and 20 million Chinese were killed. They were butchered like cattle during orgies of rape and pillage in Nanking and dozens of other cities. They were clinically dissected alive or deliberately infected with the bubonic plague in the laboratories of Unit 731. Likewise, Koreans, Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians, Burmese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and people from a whole plethora of islands across the Pacific suffered under absolutely brutal Japanese regimes. American, British, Dutch, Australian, Indian and Canadian prisoners of war were enslaved, tortured, and murdered en masse. Japan broke all the rules of war and humanity. They can hardly have asked for quarter when they had given none.
That is certainly the view many people in China, Korea, and other former Japanese colonies take today. When I told a Chinese friend about the tragedy at Yamazato Primary School he shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes, but look what they did to China."
Japanese doctors of Unit 731 hose down a small Chinese girl with freezing water. Given what we know of the unit's practices, it seems likely this was being done to freeze her limbs solid so that they could then be amputated to study the effects of blood loss.
The decision to drop the bomb can also be understood in light of the bitterness of the struggle. The kamikaze attacks by airmen, soldiers and sailors in the closing months of the war had as their goal not victory, but the killing of Allied soldiers. Japan was beaten yet they persisted in the slaughter. This shocked and appalled citizens of the Western democracies. Many reasoned that if the Japanese did not value their own lives, why should Allied leaders? If an atomic bomb causing incalculable bloodshed and destruction in Japan could save just one young American life, why not drop it? Indeed, the war had led most Americans to take on racist attitudes towards the Japanese, viewing them as something less than human: a 1944 poll found that 13% of Americans favoured "killing off" all Japanese people, while a further 33% believed Japan should be "destroyed as a political entity."
Kamikaze attacks were not limited to aircraft. During the Battle for Okinawa the Yamato, the largest and most powerful warship in the world, was given enough fuel for a one-way trip to hurl herself at the American fleets. She didn't make it that far. In this dramatic picture she is seen dodging bombs from American dive-bombers. The titanic ship was hit a number of times shortly after this photo was taken, quickly capsizing and sinking. How were American leaders to react to such suicidal waste?
Japan's suicidal behaviour extended all the way into the realm of grand strategy. The historian H.P. Willmott explains:
There are few things more difficult to explain than an inevitable defeat. It is relatively easy to deal with Germany's defeat in the Second World War precisely because at certain times her victory seemed assured: in the case of Japan, however, there was never any chance of her avoiding defeat in the war she initiated in 1941. Herein lies another problem that confronts the would-be explanation: the process by which Japan initiated a war with the only power that could defeat her. States as mismatched as were Japan and the United States seldom fight one another: even more seldom do they fight wars initiated by the weaker. Herein lies a problem of interpretation to vex perception: the process whereby Japan, from a position of local superiority and safeguarded by provisions of naval limitation upon potential enemies, ranged against herself an alliance that included the world's most populous state, greatest empire, most powerful single state and greatest military power. By any standard, the conjuring of such a coalition against herself was a remarkable achievement.
Even if Japan's only logical recourse in August 1945 was surrender, why should the Allies expect logic from a Japanese government that had ceased to behave as a rational actor when the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbour? We know today that even after the bombing of Nagasaki, some army generals attempted a coup to prevent surrender, hoping for the chance to die fighting Americans in what remained of the streets of Tokyo.
A mighty display of American air power above Japan's formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. September 2, 1945.
Max Hastings is one of the most respected historians of the Second World War today. His books Nemesis: The Battle for Japan 1944-1945 and All Hell Let Loose: The World At War 1939-1945 are some of the best histories of the war ever written (and I strongly recommend them to anyone interested). In an interview with historian Laurence Rees I believe he makes a compelling case that four years of war can corrupt even the most incorruptible, and make an act as barbaric as dropping a nuclear weapon on a city seem logical—even inevitable.
I don’t think any sensible person could say it was correct to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Nobody could applaud the dropping of the bomb, but I think the function of historians is not to impose the values of our own time upon decisions that were made, but all the time to try and think back and understand how things looked to people at the time. Now I’m very out of tune in being sympathetic to the decision to drop the bomb, compared with the current generation of American historians; most American historians today have convinced themselves that it was both unnecessary and wrong to drop the bomb. On the unnecessary point I think one can certainly say that it’s overwhelmingly likely that Japan was going to be defeated, it was just a question of when. One can also see that with the Russian Armies about to sweep into Manchuria and with Japanese industry on its knees because of the strength of the submarine blockade, and finally the terrific fire bombing attack, one can say that there’s no doubt at all that Japan’s doom was sealed. So nobody can possibly argue that it was necessary to the defeat of Japan to drop the bombs.
But you can come at it from a different angle. I think one of the foremost forces of history most visible in the Second World War is what I call, slightly pompously, technological determinism. When weapons existed and when fleets and air forces were created they got used, and there was a moment at which a Hungarian scientist went to the designated American Secretary of State, Byrnes, in 1945 and begged him to think before that atomic bomb was dropped. And Byrnes was furious with this scientist. He said, the US Congress are going to have a great deal to say if it emerges that we have spent 2 billion dollars on creating the most formidable weapon the world has ever seen and we didn’t use it.
The Peace Statue right by the hypocenter. The right arm points to the sky, signifying the threat of nuclear weapons. The left arm is extended outward in a gesture of peace.
Now at this stage in the game it sounds facetious to talk in those terms because we have an understanding today of the enormity of nuclear weapons. We have an understanding that atomic bombs are not like other weapons, but it did not seem so plain to these people at the time. First, I think one must see the decision to drop the bombs in the context of the fire bombing raids that had preceded them. That firebombing by B-29s armed with conventional incendiary weapons had already killed more Japanese than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any notion that there was a significant moral distinction between the fate of the Japanese who died at the hands of the fire bombs and nuclear weapons, seems to me pretty questionable. I don’t think that many of those Japanese who suffered under those raids would have seen much difference between the two.
Secondly, I don’t accept the argument that’s advanced by some historians that the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the first engagement of the Cold War, and that they were designed to impress the Russians more than to defeat the Japanese. I think one simply has to recognise that this extraordinary machine had been in motion, directed by this extraordinary American, General Groves, who was in the charge of the Manhattan project. When Truman became President which was only a couple of months before the bombs were dropped, nobody said to him, Mr President, you’re going to have to make a huge decision about whether or not to drop these atomic bombs, which are very soon going to be ready, on Japan. Instead, they simply said Mr President you should know that you are shortly likely to find yourself in control of the most effective and powerful weapons the world has ever seen and we will have these ready to drop in August.
One thing that is quite extraordinary about the nuclear decision is that at no time was Truman invited, Mr President, today is the day you must decide whether to drop these weapons. He was simply told at every stage of the progress of these weapons towards completion, and there was an absolute understanding and acceptance that when these weapons were ready they would be dropped. It would have required from Truman, who was still a very tentative president, who was still learning how to be president, 2 or 3 months into the job after taking over from Roosevelt. It would have required a huge force of personality, on the part of Truman, which afterwards he displayed, to have reached for the brake and said no, we are not going to do this; that even though the Japanese are still resisting furiously, even though there’s talk that if we have to invade Japan that we’re going to suffer these enormous casualties and even though the Russians have not yet gone into Manchuria. But for Truman to have said, no, we will not do this terrible thing, this is too barbaric a thing to do to these people even if they are our enemies. This would have required a degree of restraint, determination – and these are inadequate words - it would have required a force of will, a force of moral authority from Truman which I think would have been quite unrealistic to have expected at that stage.
Yes, we can now say with hindsight that it was a terrible thing to drop the atomic bombs. You can say in the year 2009 it was a mistake, if you like, but in the summer of 1945… all I know is that what I’m always trying to do is to think myself into the minds of those decision-makers there, and I understand why they went that way; I understand why nobody said no. Everybody who takes part in a war is in some degree morally compromised and corrupted by the experience, and the bigger the war and the longer it goes on the more compromised and the more corrupted you are. But things that would have seemed morally terrible in 1939 didn’t seem that way in 1945. Go back and look at Churchill’s speech in a debate in the House of Commons on air raid precautions in 1937 when Churchill had opted for the high moral ground about bombing. He said, in a war, the nation which sticks to bombing military and industrial targets and does not target innocent civilians is almost certainly not only going to emerge morally purer but is also more likely to emerge victorious than the nation which simply slaughters civilians. He said this in 1937.
Yet in 1942 when he found that the Royal Air Force and its bombers were quite incapable of hitting designated military and industrial targets, in the different climate, fighting a ruthless enemy who was doing terribly well in the war while displaying no moral scruple whatsoever, Churchill changed tack. He signed up to the bombing of cities and at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 when he heard the news of the successful test of the atomic bomb he was exultant, he said to this is a great opportunity; he said to Alanbrooke, now the whole thing is going to be completely different. Now if we have any trouble with the Russians or whatever we can just say - anymore trouble and we’ll drop a bomb on Minsk and then we’ll drop a bomb on Moscow and then we’ll drop a bomb on Leningrad.
Alanbrooke was fairly appalled. First of all he didn’t believe the bomb was going to work, amazing though it may seem at that point, and secondly he was amazed by the, not quite frivolity, with which Churchill spoke, but he spoke with a certain promiscuity about all this, about things that we can now see are so grave and terrible. But people, after being at war for 6 years... it wasn’t so easy to see these great moral issues with the clarity that we can see them now. Then everybody was sick of the war and they wanted it to be over. But they were tired. A huge number of people had died and an awful lot of innocent people had suffered terrible things. If by one day this thing could be ended, by just dropping some more bombs on these Japanese, well, so be it.
Now I’m constantly struck in writing about wars in general, and the Second World War in particular, about the fact that very often decisions on great issues were taken with much less lofty consideration than we might think they deserve. Whole books have been written about the decision to drop the bomb and the decision to attack Dresden. And yet to the people who bombed Dresden it did not seem any different from what they’d done the night before to Essen, the night before that to Leipzig, it was just another operation and they didn’t think very seriously about what they were doing, they didn’t think about the baroque churches and so on. And of course it was unbelievably stupid as well as philistine to bomb Dresden at that stage in the war, but one can understand, when people have been fighting for 6 years and they’re physically and morally exhausted, how they sometimes come up with the wrong answer to these questions that seem to us so huge and terrible. And in 1945 the decision to drop the atomic bombs; it wasn’t necessary to drop the atomic bombs but it seems to me completely unsurprising that that was the way they went.
If what he says is true, and I believe it is, what does that say about our species? In what world can the people who inflicted the horror on Yamazato Primary School be incontestably called 'the good guys'? Only, I think, in a world driven to a fever pitch of insanity by war. That was the most frightening realization from my time in Nagasaki. War turns all of its participants into monsters.
Lessons to Learn
I came away from the whole experience believing that questions of whether the bombing was right or wrong, necessary or not, are now largely irrelevant. Instead there are only two lessons we must learn from Nagasaki and Hiroshima: First, we must never forget what it means to destroy a city with a nuclear weapon, especially as the power to do just that lies with nine governments in nine countries around the world. Secondly, we must remember what an evil force war itself is, capable of warping our morality to the point where the grisly murder of thousands of women and children is seen to be in the interests of democracy. War must never be taken lightly, for even if we win, who knows what kind of people we will have become at the end of it?
This was certainly the chief message at the atomic bomb museum. When you walk inside you have the opportunity to sign a pledge, one so blindingly obvious as to be ludicrous:
"To ensure that no city will ever again be destroyed by a nuclear weapon."
Yet the very real threat remains that not just one or two cities could be destroyed by atomic bombs, but many if not all of them. And they could be destroyed by vastly more powerful bombs than Fat Man.
Even the comparatively small 'tactical' warheads that sit ready in hangars and silos today are much bigger than the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
Consider the destruction we have seen wrought on Nagasaki by what is now considered a preposterously weak nuclear weapon.
Consider that in 2014 there are 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world.
Consider that Russia, China, the United States and the United Kingdom are developing new and improved warheads and delivery systems, and that other countries like Iran are seeking this same power.
Consider that on several occasions the Soviet Union and United States—and India and Pakistan—have come distressingly close to an outright nuclear exchange. This fascinating alternate history timeline paints a very convincing picture of a Cuban Missile Crisis that leads to the depopulation of most of the Northern Hemisphere. The entire chain of events is set in motion by an absurdly minor event: a Soviet submarine commander fails to receive a radio message.
Consider that today many commentators speak openly about a new Cold War with Putin's Russia, and the specters of brinkmanship and miscalculation that follow with it.
An absolutely chilling illustration of just what a nuclear exchange would entail is shown in the British film Threads, which, if you haven't seen it already, you should definitely check it out here. It will keep you awake at night. It was a successor to the documentary The War Game, which was banned from broadcast by the BBC for twenty years because its honest depiction of what would happen to British cities hit by nuclear weapons was thought likely to provoke mass suicides.
On the other hand my trip to Nagasaki inspired hope. The city has recovered from its holocaust and has become a vibrant and open metropolis. The people of Nagasaki work to spread their message of peace and nuclear disarmament to the world. If you google Nagasaki you'll find dozens of people asking whether Nagasaki is habitable today. Not only is it habitable, it is thriving.
Though you might expect the area around the hypocenter to be a quiet place, only steps away is a busy street and shopping district.
But we must never forget what happened there. We must hold our leaders to a standard of humanity that would never permit future use of nuclear weapons on cities.
The Atomic Bomb Museum ended with a photograph taken by an American photographer. Though it had been weeks since that day, people continued to die and the funeral pyres still burned high into the night. The photographer sat and watched rescue workers tossing bodies into the flames. Here's what he saw next.
I saw a boy about ten years old walking by. He was carrying a baby on his back. In those days in Japan, we often saw children playing with their little brothers or sisters on their backs, but this boy was clearly different. I could see that he had come to this place for a serious reason. He was wearing no shoes. His face was hard. The little head was tipped back as if the baby were fast asleep. The boy stood there for five or ten minutes.
The men in white masks walked over to him and quietly began to take off the rope that was holding the baby. That is when I saw that the baby was already dead. The men held the body by the hands and feet and placed it on the fire. The boy stood there straight without moving, watching the flames. He was biting his lower lip so hard that it shone with blood. The flame burned low like the sun going down. The boy turned around and walked silently away.