by Pa RockThe United States government, under the direct order of President Harry Truman and the auspices of the crew of the bomber, Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic weapon to be used on human beings sixty-five-years ago today. The target, of course, was the crowded Japanese coastal city of Hiroshima. The target was chosen because it was pocketed up against the sea by a group of mountains, thus holding in the blast for maximum effect. US war planners wanted to see just how much damage that baby could do!
Tens of thousands died instantly that morning, and within a couple of weeks the dead numbered around 140,000. Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, annihilating the city and leaving 70,000 dead. President Truman then took to the airwaves and told the world, Japan included, that the third one would go down (Emperor) Hirohito's stovepipe. The Japanese sued for peace shortly thereafter.
I had the good fortune to visit Hiroshima in early 1973, just a scant twenty-seven years after the bombing. My wife and I were living on Okinawa at the time. We caught a military hop to Japan and stayed a couple of nights at the famous Daichi Hotel. (One of the other guests at that time was the then current Sumo Wrestling Champion of the World, Jesse somebody from Hawaii. We shared an elevator with him at one point, which was very crowded with just the three of us!)
But I digress.
Toward the end of our stay in Tokyo, we elected to try to visit Hiroshima. We took the famous Bullet Train south out of Tokyo and through Kyoto. At some point the Bullet Train route stopped, and we had to get off and board onto one of the famous "cattle car" trains where people are literally pushed into packed cars. I remember watching helplessly as our luggage was being handed over heads and went right past us. When we alighted in Hiroshima we were able to reunite with our suitcases.
Once safely off of the train, we were amazed to find that there were no Americans in sight in the crowded city. Eventually we found a police station and went in and asked in anyone spoke English. No one did, but they called a lady who translated. We told her that we needed a place to stay, and a little while later a mama-san showed up and took us to her Japanese inn.
Mama-san's inn was very traditional. She served us green tea at a low table in our room, and that night she came in and rolled out the traditional mats to sleep on.
We spent a day touring Peace Park, which is in the center of the city at the spot known as "ground zero." One structure still stood, a government building that had been fairly new when the bomb was dropped. The iron frame for its dome was still in place, like it had been immediately after the blast. That building, the center of Peace Park, was known as the Atomic Dome.
All of that comes back to me because today there was a picture of the Atomic Dome on the front page of Stars and Stripes. More on that later.
As we strolled into the crowded park filled with memorials from most of the world's countries (excluding, of course, the United States), we were fairly clueless as to what we were seeing. But as luck would have it, a Japanese man approached, introduced himself as "Hiroshi," and asked to show us the park, saying that he wanted to practice his English. Hiroshi explained the monuments and took us to the museum where we donned English headsets and walked through the exhibits of artifacts from the blast. There was a shadow on the side of the museum building of an old man eating a sandwich. It had been burned into the wall when the bomb went off.
Hiroshi also pointed out a laboratory on top of a hill above the city. He said that scientists in that building had been studying the effects of the blast ever since it occurred.
Peace Park was beautiful, both as a monument-filled garden as well as a concept. Most nations had built unique memorials there to celebrate the idea of peace. It was spring, everything was blooming, and everyone was courteous to two young people from the nation that had wreaked so much havoc on their city by the sea.
The other thing I remember clearly about Hiroshima is the pachinko parlors. That is something that was foreign to Okinawa at the time, but they were very plentiful and busy in Hiroshima. We walked into a couple and learned how to play - and won pockets full of little ball-bearings! I also remember cracking open what should have been (by my American standards) a hard-boiled egg at breakfast one morning, only to learn that it was actually raw! (Before leaving Okinawa I did learn to like raw egg stirred in with rice.)
Today, FYI, Okinawa is awash in pachinko parlors - but I haven't ventured into one yet!
Years after that visit I began using John Hershey's Hiroshima as a supplemental text in the high school American history classes that I taught. It is a very simple and moving account of the day of the blast as told by several survivors.
The Stars and Stripes ran a cover story on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima today. There was a memorial service at Peace Park this morning, and, for the first time ever, the United States government had an official representative, Ambassador John Roos, at the event.
President Obama will be in Japan in November, and the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have both extended invitations for him to visit their cities. Considering that Mr. Obama has already won the Nobel Peace Prize, a visit to Hiroshima, at the very least, would seem quite appropriate. He could lay a wreath or establish a US memorial at Peace Park.
The Japanese press has been respectful in its praise of the United States finally showing up at the annual ceremony on the date of the Hiroshima bombing, but many in the press and in the public seem to feel that an apology for the angry destruction of a civilian city is in order. And while I agree that dropping an atomic bomb on anyone was a complete abdication of morality on the part of the United States government, I have this nagging issue with the fact that the Japanese government and military were the clear aggressors in the Second World War.
If an apology is due, and it undoubtedly is, perhaps it should be issued by the Japanese government to the citizens of Hiroshima. Either that, or they could first apologize for Pearl Harbor and then we could apologize for unleashing the atomic age directly upon their heads.
Or maybe we could apologize through an act rather than through words. Something simple, say...American leadership in the complete elimination of the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles. That would be a memorial worthy of a great people.