A City Made of Ashes

Once out the gate, nothing to see,
Just white bones covering the plain,
A starving woman on the road
Embraces a child and abandons it in the grass.
—Wang Can, “Seven Sadnesses”

In the eternal silence
of infinite spaces, smaller and vaster than the mind can imagine, particles began to collide. Too small a storm to conceive, so picture a steel ball, faster than sound, colliding with a gasoline truck, that truck erupting, and two pieces blasting away and finding more trucks in a cloud of them: a whole line of such paroxysms, pyramidal, blooming from matter into the original chaos, one after another.

A bullet of hollow uranium, weighing eighty-six pounds and packed with enough cordite to get it up to a thousand feet per second, smashed into the fifty-seven pound spike at the other end and merged with it, creating a supercritical mass. The uranium-238 had been spontaneously firing neutrons from the start, letting them loose from an unsustainable weight. There was a chance, in the last 1.35 milliseconds before the bullet and the spike violently assembled, that the uranium would predetonate in a fizzle, a fraction of its potential, but chance waited until they had joined. In that violence, a freed neutron hit a fissionable atom of uranium-235 and split it in half. Each division produced two isotopes and fired off two or three more neutrons, and at least one of those would hit another fissionable object, by law of statistics. The chain reaction occurred with such gravity of speed and intensity that the reaction continued uncontrollably, and the binding energy of the split atom discharged with all the rage of war’s coldest dreams.

The shell that contained this catastrophe was only ten feet long and two feet wide. It had fallen from a half mile up, loosed from the clapping doors of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, early on the morning of August 6, 1945. The crew laughed and called it Little Boy, “an elongated trash can with fins,” because pilot Paul Tibbets barely knew what an atom was. He named the plane for his mother, and his crew wrote lewd missives for Hirohito on the nose of their 8900 pound charge. There was a Fat Man, too, a more complex device held in reserve. Little Boy was a uranium gun that fell thirty thousand feet through a soft cotton cloud bank, floating for a slow minute on a white parachute, before the cohesion of the a uranium-235 atom was blasted apart, 1900 feet above the earth, suspended there so that the might of unshackled atoms would affect a maximal area. It was the most perfect aiming-point that Colonel Tibbets had seen in the whole damn war.

In an instant, the world came to an end. The shell was disintegrated—disassembled into a vapor of particles by a nuclear fire hotter than lightning but made by man, which roared out in waves: more potent than thirteen thousand tons of TNT. Its exact strength was unknown, its design experimental, the critical mass of enriched uranium barely understood, before just enough was loaded into the Little Boy to sustain a chain reaction of sufficient magnitude for genocide. It was perceived in its conception as gunpowder on a larger scale: one bomb to drop where before the Air Force once needed a hundred thousand to level a city. There was no thought for the imprecision of its carnage or any other non-practicality.

Below in the coastal plain was a city called Hiroshima, the City of Water, built on the delta of the Ota River, which split into seven channels as it flowed to the warm Inland Sea; and directly below was Nakajima-chō, a neighborhood known for its doctors, artists, and craftsmen, and with a few offices of the municipal government. It was a quarter past eight in the morning, and the air-raid warning system had sounded the all-clear. The American fly-over had dropped something on a parachute which could not possibly be a bomb. There had been no warning.

(No leaflets fell before the atom bombs, as they did before the bombing runs on other cities of Japan, to nobly proclaim: “Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.”)

The shelters emptied all the people of Hiroshima into the streets, and the schoolgirls were lined up for a rescue exercise, and there were men and women on their way to and from work or breakfast, and bicycles on the banks of the canals, and the old streetcar was full, and old men sat on the benches by the bridges. The storefronts were swept, the thin families anxious for food ration slips, and it all looked the same as anywhere else in the world, even with a lost war, just a little slower and sadder than before.

The explosion annihilated in an instant the center of Hiroshima, in a biblical way. The stone and wood of the buildings, and the flesh and memory of the people inside them and in the street, ignited so luminously, that all matter was converted into vapor, disintegrated, and blown away. The water of the canals evaporated, and the stone dikes cracked and splintered. The neighborhood became a plain of ashes and dusty roads, invisible under a screen of horror.

There was a flash, an instant where a sun hung over Hiroshima. The crew of the Enola Gay saw their skeletons through closed eyes, and their plane was blown upwards hundreds of feet by a sudden force from below. People ten miles from Hiroshima, who happened to be looking towards the city at that instant, were stricken blind, as Lot’s wife was turned to salt, by something ten times brighter than earth’s star. Light bulbs burst and the sockets sprayed sparks, the clocks all stopped their movement, and then everything went white.

The Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall was one hundred and sixty meters northwest of the hypocenter, where it was twenty million degrees. It was the only structure left standing, just a skeleton of brick walls; because the bomb exploded nearly overhead, and its vicious explosion pressed straight down before lashing outward. All the rest of the heart of Hiroshima scattered on the atomic wind. The streetcars folded in on themselves and the buildings crumbled to dust. Heat rays turned the people into shadows on the pavement.

Shockwaves trundled instantly outward from Nakajima-chō, through more neighborhoods, houses, families, and people. The second floor of the clock store in the Hondori quarter tumbled to the ground level and leaned away. A camphor tree in the Kokutaiji Temple, three centuries old, tore loose from roots that webbed out three hundred meters in all directions, and was flung into the street along with a storm of tombstones. The Urakami Cathedral burst apart like a ripe fruit someone had dropped, and eight hundred and fifty of the faithful, whose sect had survived all Tokugawa’s purges, died like candles. The wind blew out the windows of the Fukuoka department store in Hatchabori and the interior caught fire. The store was afterwards one of the few buildings left standing, in wrecked form, though all those stone walls that survived the blast burned like lanterns through the veil of smoke. People were tossed from their balconies and buried in their houses. A sixteen-year-old boy, a telegram messenger, riding his bike two miles from the blast, was first blinded by the flash from behind him and then thrown ten feet away, along with his twist-tied bicycle. Those who survived the blast died in the firestorm that lashed through the neighborhoods and roamed out hungrily to devour the rest of the Hiroshima.

Most lethal casualties occurred in the blast area, the mile around the hypocenter, where they were burned to charred husks by flash or firestorms; they were entombed in collapsing buildings, crushed by debris, torn to pieces by metal and glass, or by more malicious forces of radiation. Nearly all the students of the nearest school, Shiroyama Primary, died, although they had been sent home with the air-raid siren. And twenty thousand Koreans died, captive laborers who should not have been there. The cindered dead lay in the street, arms raised in last agony, breathless from the storm, scorched with heat—it was impossible to later tell if they were men or women, old or young, lying there.

Fifty thousand people swept up in a furnace, devised by mankind with no other purpose in mind. Everyone within a half a mile of the blast would die, if not immediately then protractedly, of an invisible killer. The fires spread, and so did this, invisibly and unceasingly. Many more than fifty thousand would die after the fires had.

Yoshito Matsushige was a photographer for the Chugoku Newspaper who lived two miles from the hypocenter and had just finished breakfast:
There was a flash from the indoor wires as if lightening had struck. I didn’t hear any sound, how shall I say, the world around me turned bright white. And I was momentarily blinded as if a magnesium light had lit up in front of my eyes. Immediately after that, the blast came. I was bare from the waist up, and the blast was so intense, it felt like hundreds of needles were stabbing me all at once. The blast grew large holes in the walls of the first and second floor. I could barely see the room because of all the dirt. I pulled my camera and the clothes issued by the military headquarters out from under the mound of the debris, and I got dressed.

Matsushige made his way into the city.

From a greater distance, a horrible aspect could be perceived over the city: a mushroom of ash, bent and twisted and clumped together, rose up over a sea of fire. It was a particle whirlwind of the vaporized city, capped in a cloud of soot and atomic dust. Twenty minutes later it rained heavy and black in areas northwest of the city. It was slick as oil on the skin, and it was as lethal as anything else that day: those who felt the rain died horribly, with bleeding gums and rotting hair and horrible sores. For three months afterward fish died in ponds and rivers, and people who drank from the wells or who walked through the areas where it had rained suffered bouts of the sickness.

The survivors stumbled away through an aftermath of hell discharged. There was a plain of skeletal trees, cropped walls, solitary chimneys, and a vast, heartless vacancy of reddish rubble where a city had died. The sky of day was dark as night, and the city burned and the ruins smoldered. A temple gate still stood in the devastated field, an upturned car, and the steel frame of a factory looked like a pile of rubber bands. Of the city’s seventy-six thousand buildings, seventy thousand had been destroyed by the blast or the fires. Of the three hundred thousand people who lived in Hiroshima, God knew how many survived it. They cried out from the ruins, staggered up, lacerated and bleeding and burnt, with nothing to sustain them. Young mothers abandoned the charred forms of infants, and it must have seemed like the world had ended: a state of things impossible to process, when all there is to consider is the possibility of mere survival.

The ragged mob moved across the Miyuki Bridge and away from the infernos in the dead lands. The schoolgirls of the Daiichi Middle School and the Girls’ Business School crowded around a policeman who had taken the lid off a can of cooking oil: the only balm available. They had been ranked outside their schools, prepared to evacuate buildings after the air-siren blared and when the bomb went off. They wore the rags of their clothes and of broken blisters and had emerged from the fires into a horrible pain.

Yoshito Matsushige, the photographer, happened to be nearby:
I thought this must be photographed and held the camera in position. The scene I saw through the finder was too cruel. Among the hundreds of injured persons of whom you cannot tell the difference between male and female, there were children screaming, ‘It’s hot! It’s hot!’ and infants crying over the body of their mother who appeared to be already dead. I tried to pull myself together by telling myself that I’m a news cameraman, and it is my duty and privilege to take a photograph, even if it is just one, and even if people take me as a devil or a cold-hearted man. I finally managed to press the shutter, but when I looked the finder for the second time, the object was blurred by tears.

They had never seen these injuries before. Their blistered faces hung in lacerated ribbons, and there was not enough cooking oil. The flash had imprinted the patterns of clothing and bag straps onto raw flesh. Thousands of people in the blast area had their eyes burned out and their skin charred to purple and rugged black, so they walked with their arms out to keep from painful contact. It was beyond belief.

Philip Levine wrote a poem about the horse they found in the road, stripped of its hide, down to the pink muscle.
They spoke of the horse alive
without skin, naked, hairless,
without eyes and ears, searching
for the stableboy’s caress.
Shoot it, someone said, but they
let him go on colliding with
tattered walls, butting his long
skull to pulp, finding no path
where iron fences corkscrewed in
the street and bicycles turned
like question marks.
Some fled and
some sat down. The river burned
all that day and into the
night, the stones sighed a moment
and were still, and the shadow
of a man’s hand entered
a leaf.
The white horse never
returned, and later they found
the stable boy, his back crushed
by a hoof, his mouth opened
around a cry that no one heard.

They spoke of the horse again
and again; their mouths opened
like the gills of a fish caught
above water.
Mountain flowers
burst from the red clay walls, and
they said a new life was here.
Raw grass sprouted from the cobbles
like hair from a deafened ear.
The horse would never return.

There had been no horse. I could
tell from the way they walked
testing the ground for some cold
that the rage had gone out of
their bones in one mad dance.

They wandered down to the river, all the blind and bleeding, with shell-shocked eyes and impossible memories. They were completely silent. The sky was full of ashes and the horizon was on fire. Their children were all dead, and most were naked. Their clothes had been burned off, and they escaped the pain of the burns and the horror of the smoke by clinging down into the black current. They washed their faces and wept. Some lay on their backs, as the burns seized up and lethargy stole over, and let themselves float out to die, until the seven waterways were clogged with naked corpses, yellow and black, that the tide mercifully carried away to sea.

There were bodies everywhere. Some burned with a blue, infernal fire that melted the flesh to black ink. Children with holes for eyes and skin like bark raised their arms to the sky from the rubble. Bodies burnt and bloodied, of people who had swarmed across the water tanks and collapsed over and against the lip, dead even as they drank. They bowed as if in worship of the young woman, whose pregnant body floated in the dark pool of slow poison. In some way the worst was the young girl in the shredded dress, who died alone, leaning against the bank of the Enko River, with gashed limbs and a cauterized face, and her fingers in her mouth. But how could any claim pity over any other on a day so merciless?

Yoshito Matsushige continued to walk and to drown his horror in a cold work.
I saw a burnt streetcar which had just turned the corner at Kamiya-cho. . . . There were perhaps fifteen or sixteen people in the front of the car. They lay dead, one on top of another. Kamiya-cho was very close to the hypocenter, about two hundred meters away. The passengers had been stripped of all their clothes. They say that when you are terrified, you tremble and your hair stands on end . . . I stepped down to take a picture, and I put my hand on my camera. But I felt so sorry for these dead and naked people, whose photo would be left to posterity, that I couldn’t take the shot.

After that, I walked around, I walked through the section of town which had been hit hardest. I walked for close to three hours. But I couldn’t take even one picture . . . There were other cameramen in the army shipping group and also at the newspaper as well, but the fact that not a single one of them was able to take a picture indicates how brutal the bombing actually was. I don’t pride myself on it, but it’s a small consolation that I was able to take at least five pictures. . . . Those of us who experienced all these hardships, we hope that such suffering will never be experienced again by our children and our grandchildren. Not only our children and grandchildren, but all future generations should not have to go through this tragedy. That is why I want young people to listen to our testimonies and to choose the right path, the path which leads to peace.

People abandoned their buried families and searched for food and shelter. The water was all poisoned. The sixteen-year-old telegraph messenger, thrown ten feet by the blast, felt no pain until he reached the nearest blast shelter. His entire back, his chest, and his left side turned beet red and crystalized into hard white blisters. He lay there for three days and nights, moaning and shouting for death, with only ash and motor oil for a balm. On the fourth night they carried him to a medical station. This was a place beyond reckoning.

Many of the survivors of the blast and the fires might have survived, but the overworked doctors denied attention, and in some cases food, to anyone with severe injuries. There was not enough of anything. Others should have survived, though the bomb’s atomic rays invisibly and irreparably scarred them. Their hair fell out at the roots and they shivered in the middle of summer. Those only slightly affected looked like tonsured and emaciated monks, and the hair grew back after fifty days. The doomed lost all their hair, and their teeth and flesh, and bled from every possible source. They were blind and wept to be killed. It was an unknown plague, an invisible death, and nobody had an answer, only the apathy of too much innocent blood, abandoning the sick to death.

Soldiers entered the city two days after the bomb. They handed out rice until there was none left, then they collected corpses and burned them on great pyres of rubble, turning the sky black again. They buried tens of thousands of corpses, desiccated, unidentifiable, uncountable, under a mound only twenty feet across. It took months to bury them all. Seventy, one hundred, one hundred and forty thousand—they could not count the dead: some had vanished without a trace, or some would continue to die in a mysterious, untraceable circumstance.

The message arrived in Washington just before midnight on the previous day: Top Secret from the Twentieth Air Force: “Subject: Bombs Away Report 509 SBM 13 Flown 6 August 1945 . . . 1 a/c bombed Hiroshima visually through 1/10 cloud with good results. Time was 0523152. No flak or E/A opposition.” The second signal said, “Altitude: 30,200 feet . . . Enemy air opposition: Nil . . . Bombing Results: Excellent.”

It was indistinguishable from the other missives dispatched, after each of the American air-raids that leveled sixty-five cities and liquidated a half a million people in Japan. Major General Curtis E. LeMay’s bombing campaign had previously flown around Hiroshima. American brass with the Manhattan Project selected Hiroshima, as one of a pool of cities to be left unharmed, so that the full effect of an atomic weapon might be known. There were no military targets there, only stalled industry and innocent people; and all of them—the doctors, wives, schoolchildren, and all the pensioners and early joggers, and the sketchbooks and diaries and life savings, and all the lives, not just numbers, that were in an instant smashed apart by a force unknown to man—were all liquidated in the name of a scientific discovery and its boastful demonstration. The nuclear bomb simply offered a more efficient destruction than the fleets of B-29s.

An Australian named Wilfred Burchett was among the first journalists to enter the ruined city, four weeks after its apocalypse. It was a rubble heap of broken people, apathetic and traumatized, who wore gauze masks against the hellfire smell of a radioactive earth. The war was over, but he spent a night in jail before the police released him to a friend named Nakamura and a translator. Nakamura took him to the Fukuoka department store, one of the few buildings still standing, where the haggard police who had based themselves there debated whether or not they should shoot all of the visitors. Instead, the chief of police provided Burchett and his companions with a car and driver and a loathing wish: that the journalist, who he took for an American, could see “what his people had done to us.”

Burchett’s report in the London Daily Express was the first to mention radiation and fallout.

I write this as a Warning to the World

He wrote that “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence.” There was nothing but flat rubble for miles around. The driver took Burchett to one of the first-aid camps that had sprang up in the ruins.
In these hospitals I found people who, when the bomb fell suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects. For no apparent reason their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose, and mouth. At first, the doctors told me, they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died.

When Burchett returned to Tokyo, reeling with the first signs of a yet unidentified condition, he attended a press conference called by senior US officials in the wake of the story he dispatched from Hiroshima, and a similar headline sent by George Weller from Nagasaki. Brigadier General Thomas Farrell was the deputy head of the Manhattan Project, and he told the reporters that the atomic bomb had been detonated high enough over Hiroshima to avoid “residual radiation.”

“Have you been to Hiroshima?” asked Burchett.

“No,” said the General, adding, “Those I had seen in the hospital were victims of blast and burn, normal after any big explosion. Apparently the Japanese doctors were incompetent to handle them or lacked the right medication.” He dismissed the idea that any who had not been in the city during the explosion suffered a later affect.

“Why were fish still dying a month after the blast?”

“I’m afraid,” said the General, painfully, “you’ve fallen victim to Japanese propaganda.”

Hiroshima was put off limits to journalists. The first-hand reports by the two journalists were censored in the US and abroad. At issue was the invisible death that Burchett called “the atomic plague” and Weller “Disease X,” whether it existed, and whether it was a danger to the American servicemen about to occupy the two vanished cities, or to Americans near the New Mexico test site. The Japanese victims, so many of whom wasted away needlessly, were wretched enemies beyond mercy or compassion.

Afterwards, Burchett wrote: “I was whisked to a US Army hospital where doctors told me my low with-corpuscle count was caused by antibiotics I had been given for a knee infection.” It was a condition of radiation sickness, and he died of cancer shortly after the publication of his book, Shadows of Hiroshima, in 1983.

On August 8, 1945, Dr. Harold Jacobsen of the Manhattan Project confirmed the most feverish public imaginings: “Hiroshima is contaminated with radiation. It will be barren of life and nothing will grow for seventy-five years.” Though Jacobsen rescinded his inaccurate claim in America, amid a general panic, and a year later the Manhattan Project continued to insist that there was no persistent radioactivity at the bomb sites; in Japan, a fearful knowledge slowly spread that the bomb was definitely atomic. The Americans said that any scientist attempting to verify the state of Hiroshima would be committing suicide, the blockade on journalists continued, and they warded off any discovery of the deepest threat of the terrible energy, a power they scarcely understood themselves, because this was the first and only time it had been tapped in this way.

A month after the bomb, disregarding the warnings and making a careful study, Professor Masao Tsuzuki of Tokyo University concluded, “The rumor about seventy-five years is completely mistaken. In the ruins of Hiroshima’s Gokoku Shrine, sprouts have already grown to fifteen centimeters. There are so many mosquitoes and flies that white rice balls can be mistaken for black bean rice cakes.”

Hiroshima was by then almost entirely free of radiation; only the survivors, the hibakusha (被爆者, means literally “explosion-affected people”), would retain the evidence in their bones and the medical books they must carry at all times. An entire generation, young men of promise, infants in the womb, would suffer from indefinable ailments. (A seventh of those who survived the attack were Korean laborers, returned to their native country after the war, and there forgotten and left to their disease.)

A twelve-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was two when the bomb was dropped, imagined that if she folded a thousand paper cranes, she could wish herself free from the leukemia that suddenly struck her with a few months to live. She had a pox on her neck and purple spots on her legs, and her mother called it “an atomic bomb disease.” Her family was poor, though her mother bought silk fabric and made a kimono for her when she was in the hospital—“Mother, you did too much for me”—and she used advertisements and medicine wrappers, the wrappings from gifts to other patients, and paper that a friend brought from school, folding carefully each crane until the real crane appeared to grant her wish. Her mother wrote a letter after her death:
‘How hard her fate is, though she wants to live so much! How pitiful she is, though she wants to live so much! Sadako, I want to do something for you by all means,’ I thought, but there was nothing I could do and I thought tenderly of her. . . . No one is lovelier for a mother than the most miserable child.

Sadako finished only six hundred and forty-four origami cranes, for lack of paper. When she died some of her cranes went to her classmates, who folded more for her, and others were put in her coffin. Her story swept the world in children’s books, and today the Heiwa-koen, the Peace Park in Hiroshima, is strung with tens of thousands of paper cranes. Schoolchildren make pilgrimage there from all over Japan.

Many of the hibakusha who yet live hide what has become a new origin. A prejudiced fear of atomic victims follows a popular ignorance, and those known to be hibakusha or even their children can be refused employment and excluded socially. The Hiroshima maidens are those who by the deformity of injury or the reputation of radioactivity could not find a husband. Twenty-five of them were brought to the United States for reconstructive surgeries, in the most pitiful tribute. Excepting a few unheard activists of nuclear disarmament, they kept their heads down and restored order to shattered lives. The young telegram courier, thrown from a red bike, spent three years and seven months in the hospital, with several operations to treat his radiation burns. He has had two children and continues to speak out for the elimination of nuclear arms.

Hiroshima is today rebuilt, the survivors fade from view, and the only remnant of the atrocity of the atomic weapon is the A-Bomb Dome, that lonely wreck across the [Honkawa River] from the Peace Park, where there is a small museum with a few horrific dioramas and several crowds of schoolchildren in uniforms and various states of distraction. The city struggles to keep alive the memory of its annihilation. Every morning at 8:15, directly beneath the hypocenter where the bomb went off, a clock chimes a reminder. Every year on August 6 the city holds a memorial. The prime minister of Japan would meet with hibakusha there, until 2004, when tradition ceased as the dominant parties strengthened their arguments for the development of a nuclear program in Japan. The Western atomic powers of America, France, and Britain, where the technology is under increasing censure, had never attended the ceremony until the sixty-fifth anniversary of the attack in 2010. The survivors have not forgotten. In the evening, thousands go to the Ota River to release paper lanterns, with a single candle and a dead name, into the seven canals. Streams once choked with corpses carry flickering lights out to sea, to be dashed to nothing by the waves.

The most glorious outcome of the bombing of Hiroshima is the absence of hatred or vengeance in the casualties: not questioning the justice of the attack, but expressing the tenderest wish to avert any future use of nuclear power as a weapon, as well as a heartfelt opposition to any war. Still they realize, with the greatest pain, that what they perceive as the most excessive use of force in history is to most Americans a just action. Distant crusades hold a savage allure to the belligerent Western races; as Desiderius Erasmus wrote, “War is sweet to those who have not experienced it.” America has such little experience with this brand of war, and what we have endured, in 1943 and 2003, drove us only to commit greater and more deadly atrocities than were perpetrated against us without warning.

Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki received a warning. With nuclear weapons, maximum death was the means, the terror of a successful test the ends. Major General Leslie Groves had pushed, as a target for the Manhattan Project’s second test, the city of Kyoto, disregarding history and a cultural heritage to match Rome or Paris—to the General it was the only city “large enough in area for us to gain complete knowledge of the effects of the bomb,” that had not already been incinerated by five months of firebombing. Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, chose a more precise target, so that Truman’s test would not be compared to Hitler’s solution.

Truman later called the shock of Hiroshima a just retribution for Pearl Harbor’s. He declared, with the almighty bombast of wartime radio: “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

On the morning of August 9, the “Fat Man,” an implosion-type bomb with a plutonium heart, killed between sixty and eighty thousand people in Nagasaki. Soviet armies were already in Manchuria. A third bomb would be ready on August 19, a fourth in September, and a captured pilot told the Japanese that the Americans had a hundred atom bombs. Emperor Hirohito’s speech, broadcast on August 15, made no mention of surrender, only the acceptance of certain provisions to earn a lasting peace by “enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.” The nation wept, and many officers committed suicide rather than face disarmament.

The Emperor said in his speech, “The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

The American government proposed in historical retrospect, and it is widely taught and accepted without a thought for regret beyond what is polite to display in the case of a necessary horror, that the mission of the Enola Gay was the only way to avoid the specter of massive American casualties in a ground invasion of the Home Isles. Most military officers at the time expected an invasion planned as Operation Olympic, but for the commanders in Washington, who knew from Magic intercepts of Japan’s faltering strength, the islands’ impending starvation, and who expected the Russian Red Army to sweep across Mongolia at any moment, the planned operation was an irrelevant contingency, even before the technological demonstration with which they concluded the campaign. Japan was a crippled, isolated thing, and in trembling fear of what Russia would impose on the fallen; and I would argue that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima primarily for the benefit of the Soviets, so Stalin would know where he stood in the scheme of power that emerged among the victors of this war, so men would know where this pitiful race now stood in relation to the universe: masters of science, despising life.

“Nothing new about death,” said Major General LeMay, chief of the Marianas bombers, with the most heartless shrug,—“nothing new about deaths caused militarily. We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of nine to ten March than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” He boasted of sixty-five cities cities “cremated” in five months, regretting nothing: if only his terrorism had shortened the war by a single day. The nuclear bombs were merely redundant additions to his B-29 runs, which alone killed five hundred thousand people and left five million homeless, in addition to the intended purpose of destroying factories already starved to irrelevancy by the American blockade, their production diminished or halted.

Nor did Colonel Tibbets, the pilot and christener of the Enola Gay, ever express any regret, only pride and contentment that he had done something necessary to the best of his ability. He said in a 1975 interview, “I’m not proud that I killed eighty thousand people, but I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did,” he said in a 1975 interview. “You've got to take stock and assess the situation at that time. We were at war. You use anything at your disposal.” He said, “I sleep clearly every night.” A year later Tibbets flew a restored B-29 Superfortress in a stunt at a Texas air show, as a fake mushroom cloud bloomed below, everyone filled with patriotic pride. He called a Smithsonian exhibit on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, of the Enola Gay and the destruction it caused, “a damn big insult.” Before his death he requested no funeral nor a headstone, fearing his death would be used as a protest. Thus the biggest murderer in history had his ashes dispersed in the English Channel, to the potent reflections of newspapers and the thoughtless relief of a nation anxious to forget him.

Yet Tibbets is blameless. If it had not been him, someone else would have played the pale horseman. They would have clawed their way into the cockpit for a chance at ending the war against a faceless foe, far beneath their wingspan.

Nothing could halt the Enola Gay—it possessed an impetus of its own, as do all great convulsions of history. It was as impossible to stop as the Holocaust, as anything once the mob is convinced it must be. But to accept Hiroshima with stolid victory and squandered remorse turns the greatest insult possible to its voiceless victims and the human race. To understand the atomic bomb as a potential necessity, even a regrettable contingency to save the lives of thousands of armed sons, makes the bomb a thing that is acceptable, to the lasting shame of our forgiven but unrepentant nation.


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