Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Remembering Hiroshima

The city of Hiroshima, Japan, gained instant world-wide attention on August 6, 1945, when it was all but demolished by a bomb few knew existed, the atomic bomb. The United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare that day. (The flash of the explosion is said to have been seen as far away as Shanghai, China.)

It was an event that stunned the world, destroyed the city on Honshu, Japan's largest island, and introduced what some call the Nuclear Age. As bad as it was, it hurried the end of World War II against the Empire of Japan.

The bomb, delivered by B-29s, had been ironically nicknamed "Little Boy" when "Big Devil" would have been more descriptive. On August 9, a second nuclear bombing took place over Nagasaki. This bomb had been nicknamed "Fat Boy." The weird custom of naming bombs reveals how war bends the mind and spirit of those who take part. The enemy is not viewed as human, but something to be killed or humiliated.

Earlier President Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to the Japanese, but it was ignored by the emperor and the war party.

The two bombs killed as many as 140,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki. Roughly half of these deaths were on the days of the bombing. Many died later from shock, trauma and the awful radiation burns, followed by cancer deaths, malnutrition and illness. The majority were civilians. (The total devastation was still far below what Japan poured out on China and Southeast Asia from 1930 to 1945.)

It did not take many days for the Empire of Japan to see what they were up against. Reality brought the nation to its knees. On August 15, Japan surrendered. The actual signing was September 2, officially ending Japan's plan to rule all of Asia and become a world power. Germany had surrendered on May 7, ending the war in Europe.

Japan, following occupation by American forces, started all over with a new constitution and policy forbidding Japan from nuclear armament and non-nuclear principles. (If only the rest of the world's nations had done the same. Now, 64 years into the Nuclear Age, life as we know it will always hang by a thin thread of ultimate and possible annihilation atom by atom.)

Many are the books and articles, documentaries and films made around the events of August, 1945. None is better than John Hersey's 1946 book "Hiroshima." John Hersey was born in 1914 in Tianjin, China, to missionary parents and lived there his first dozen years. He was for a time Sinclair Lewis's secretary and a journalist.

Out of his own life and experience he was able to tell the Hiroshima story through the lives of six people and what they experienced that day. He does not preach, nor give any historical or political analysis. As one reviewer of the book says, he tells the story from the oft-neglected human or civilian side.

The story was written for the New Yorker Magazine, but due to the interest the article took over the entire edition that month.

Through the six survivors Hersey gives a human and moving picture of that day and the following weeks. One was a Jesuit Priest who had been a long resident in Japan. The others were Japanese: a widowed seamstress, two doctors, a Methodist minister and a young woman clerk at the tin works.

One of the doctors was the only doctor in the hospital unhurt. He thought only his hospital had been hit. Hersey writes, "... while outside, all over Hiroshima, maimed and dying citizens turn their unsteady steps toward the red cross hospital to begin an invasion."

Some present day critics do not think the book is dramatic or forceful enough. Have we become too enamored with war movies and hair-raising tales to realize what real horror and total devastation are like? Hersey's tone and uncluttered presentation needs to be read by a new generation.

The scene of that horror has become a spiritual center of the peace movement. The Peace Memorial Park there is dedicated to those killed in the raid. The Atomic Bomb Dome is the only ruin left and the only building to survive the blast.

No comments: