Atomic Footprints on the Sands of Time: A Visit to Hiroshima

“When the rich wage war it’s the poor die.” ~Linkin Park, Hands Held High

“Holy cow, there it is,” I said to Jody as I caught sight through our airliner’s window of the distinct “T-bridge” which served as the aiming point for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is 1945. “What an incredibly easy feature to spot,” I thought to myself rather coldly in a manner reminiscent of my bombardier/navigator background flying nuclear-armed attack aircraft with the US Navy. I hadn’t expected to spot this little-known aspect of that fateful bombing on our flight into Hiroshima, but what better way to start our Far East Fling in this iconic Japanese city.

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter  shown by the Rings

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter shown by the Rings

13This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a single weapon dropped from a single aircraft that effectively destroyed the city and killed an estimated 140,000 human beings. All politics and revisionist history aside, August 6th should serve as a time for everyone to reflect on the very nature of these devastatingly inhuman weapons. And our visits to the city’s ground- zero park and monuments provided another uniquely Japanese perspective. If you are interested in the scale of destruction visited upon Hiroshima during WWII, check out what would happen to your own hometown if attacked by the same sized weapon, see Hometown Atomic Bombing. Keep in mind that modern air-delivered nuclear weapons are many orders of magnitude more powerful than those of WWII; their use on densely populated urban centers would result in casualties numbering a million or more.

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

Before I continue, and regardless of your perspective on the use of nuclear weapons, there exists an inextricably truism about war, one that has remained unchanged as long as there has been armed conflict:

When the rich wage war, it is (primarily) the poor (and innocent) that die.

Sure, there is a cadre of well-educated and financially secure people who chose the military as a profession or answer a patriotic call. And yes, generals do from time to time die in conflict. Politicians? Almost never, unless executed afterwards. But such losses of the more elite sectors of society pale in comparison to the suffering of the masses. The vast number of casualties grieved in war has always been that of bystander civilians…either through direct action – like the intentional bombing of civilian populations, or through secondary effects of war – such as disease, famine, and the hazards of unexploded ordnance.


The City, Before and After the Atomic Bombing

I’ve blogged about the atomic bombings of Japan before (see They Deserved It for more). We dropped the bombs at the time in order to avoid what would have been a bloody ground assault on the Japanese mainland, which would have cost millions of lives at a minimum. Putting aside the still-raging debate of whether or not Japan would have surrendered the fall of 1945 or winter of ’46 without the atomic attacks, the bombs worked in avoiding countless deaths…on both sides of the Pacific.

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

But there’s nothing like visiting Hiroshima to underscore the stark reality of nuclear warfare. Taking a small ferry into the city from nearby Miyajima Island, our first eyewitness views of the iconic “A-Bomb Dome” came into view as we rounded Hiroshima’s peace memorial park. The memorial, still standing tall under bright blue skies, is eerily silent in its nearly demolished state.


08The A-Bomb Dome is an iconic structure, left nearly as it was in 1945 (see Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop for another example of leaving only a single unaltered structure as a war memorial). Internationally recognized as a symbol of war, it immediately exudes the inexplicably suffering that the modern atomic age can bring. But our day and night-time visits there were only the beginning of our growing awareness of the multi-dimensional anguish experienced there during the closing days of WWII.


14The Peace Memorial Park – of which the A-Bomb Dome is part, is a huge greenspace near the city center of Hiroshima. Surrounded by rivers and canals, the park exhibits various memorials, sculptures, and testimonies, along with the remains of tens of thousands of victims hastily cremated in the days following the attack. The combined ashes of over 70,000 people are still kept in within a burial mound found in a quiet corner of the park; there are still over 800 individual containers of ashes of known (named) people still unclaimed.

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

17The Children’s Peace Monument in the park is one of the more popular and most visited. Here under the “Atomic Bomb Children Statue” is told the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia caused by bomb-produced radiation. She is immortalized at the top of the statue found there, holding a wire crane above her head. In the days prior to her death, Sadako attempted to create a thousand folded paper cranes in hopes of helping to rid the world of nuclear weapons; tradition in Japan holds that if one folds such a number of origami cranes, they are granted on wish. Sadako achieved her goal and continued to fold even more cranes in the last months of her life. But ultimately she passed away in October 1955, her one wish left not granted…. Her story is presented in more detail and accompanied by many photos in the nearby Peace Memorial Museum.

Children's Peace Monument

Children’s Peace Monument

Today the Children’s Peace Monument serves to commemorate both Sadako and the thousands of other child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. People from all over the world offer thousands of brightly colored origami cranes, both in honor of those children, and in the hopes of a safe, more peaceful world.


Atomic bombing survivors, referred to as hibakusha in Japan, today number only about 183,000. Their average age is 80, very close to Japan’s average life expectancy. And many are still fighting illnesses and injuries traced to the bombings seven decades ago. We encountered a few of these hibakusha during our walks through the Peace Memorial Park, where they set up small ad hoc displays and tell their stories. Some even sell books, or offer internet sites dedicated to their story and/or cause.

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

One survivor we met was only a small child at the time of the attack, while another was yet to be born, still inside her mother’s womb. These witnesses, both of which spoke very good English, provided a unique, live first-hand account of the bombing that cannot be experienced in any other way. Hiroshima is doing all they can to record these personal accounts; it is important these stories do not disappear, lost to time and circumstance.

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

31But it was visiting the Peace Memorial Museum located in the park that the horrors of Hiroshima are presented on a personal, human level. Perhaps the most moving – in a long line of terribly tragic stories, mostly involving children and teenagers, is that concerning a lone tricycle, mangled and rusted, displayed in a Plexiglas case under subdued lighting. This child’s bike remains in silent tribute to the demise of just one 3-year-old boy, but is analogous to the misery felt throughout the city so long ago in August of 1945. The boy’s name was Shinichi Tetsutani, and was nicknamed “Shin” by his family (see Shin’s Tricycle for an illustrated account by Shin’s father).

Shin's Tragic Trike on Display

Shin’s Tragic Trike on Display

29“The air was filled with the sandpapery sounds of cicadas rubbing their legs together in the nearby trees,” states Shin’s father, Nobuo Tetsunani, describing the calm and sunny morning of the bombing. Shin and his best friend, a little neighbor girl named Kimi, were outside playing with his favorite toy, a tricycle with red handlebars, no different from one might find in the hands of an American child deep in the heart of the United States. At 8:15 that morning, though, the first atomic bomb used in anger detonated high over the city. In a bright flash, everything changed for everyone. Forever.

Horrors of the Atomic Age

Horrors of the Atomic Age

The massive over-pressure created by the blast and expanding fireball created an “explosion so terrible, a flash so blindingly bright, I thought the world had ended,” the boy’s father said. “Then, just a quickly, everything went black.” Shin’s home collapsed in on the entire family.

Finding Shin

Finding Shin

In the chaos following the attack Shin could not be located. His family frantically searched among the wreckage of their destroyed home, where they found the small boy pinned under a heavy and fractured beam of the house. He was badly hurt. “His face was bleeding and swollen,” his father solemnly recalls. “He was too weak to talk but his hand still held just the red handlebar grip from his tricycle. Kimi was gone too, lost somewhere under the house.” Shin would not survive the night.


Shin needed to be buried, but Nobuo could not bear the thought of his son being left so alone in a faraway grave. Instead, he decided to bury Shin in a grave in the backyard of their flattened home. He was placed to rest with Kimi, both lying beside his beloved tricycle.


22Decades later, in 1985, Shin‘s father decided to move his son’s remains and entomb them more properly in the family grave. He and Kimi‘s mother unearthed the backyard grave, where they found “the little white bones of Kimi and Shin, hand in hand as we had placed them.” But Shin‘s father had all but forgotten about the tricycle. The very next day he donated the trike to the Peace Memorial Museum in the hopes of making the world a safe place for all children to play. And today, the legacy of this 3-year-old boy continues to remind us all of the horrors of war and of the atomic age.

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

27Yes, the stories featured in the museum primarily focus on children and teenagers, which of course maximizes the emotional impact on visitors and makes it appear, on the surface, that every victim of the bombing was wholly innocent of wrongdoing in WWII. The museum focuses little on Japan’s significant military presence in Hiroshima, nor on their culpability in causing the War in the Pacific or the long history of crimes against humanity committed by their forces in the region starting in Manchuria in 1931. But, as the opening quote states, those most responsible remained unaffected. It was, by and large, innocent civilian bystanders, those trying to live their lives as best they could under extreme circumstance beyond their control or influence, who suffered the most.

Fused Sake Cups

Fused Sake Cups

Interesting, an oral survey was offered us by Japanese volunteers upon exiting the museum. Only a couple of questions was asked, one of which was, “Did today’s visit change your opinion of nuclear weapons?” I answered truthfully and said, “No,” but quickly qualified my answer that I was already anti-nuclear weapons before visiting. I wonder if most Japanese think America and most Americans as pro-nuclear.


Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to ridding ourselves of the atomic plague. The world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and countries in possession all seem reluctant to break their collective addiction to the notion of nuclear deterrence or strength and security through the atom (see Fortress of Peace for a future than can be quite different). Worse, other nations who wish to be recognized actors on the global stage take every effort in obtaining such destructive technologies. A visit to Hiroshima can help to change both perspectives, even if it is one person at a time.

And maybe, in a not-to-distant future, the rich will stop waging wars so that we all can live.


Nuking Japan: They deserved it??


“The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” ~ Carl Sagan

“They deserved it,” I said coldly, almost mumbling. We continued to walk the sacred grounds of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, seat of the Shoguns and the leadership of Japan for centuries, absorbing our conversation quietly in the gentle rain.

I almost immediately regretted saying it. And after a few moments, I told Jody, my wife, the same. I sensed she was rather shocked at my matter-of-fact cold-blooded conclusion at the destruction of two Japanese cities in 1945 by atomic bombs, resulting in some 200,000 fatalities….

Devastation at Nagasaki

Devastation at Nagasaki

Some of the 300,000 Chinese civilians raped, tortured and murdered by the Japanese

Some of the 300,000 Chinese civilians raped, tortured and murdered by the Japanese

I do regret saying it, along with my rather immature emotional reaction at the time  Thinking only of the brutality of the Imperial Japanese movement of that time after having recently seen the movie “The Flowers of War,” I felt the unmistakable tinge of vengeance, which just as quickly subsided, replaced by a more reasoned and tolerant understanding.  But as terrible as the atomic bombings were, I cannot be party to the more popular notions of revisionist history and say that I fault or morally judge those who made the decision to conduct such horrific attacks.

The role of the atomic bombings in Japan’s surrender and the US’s ethical justification for the first (and only) use of nuclear weapons has been the subject of scholarly and popular debate for decades. The fundamental issue is whether the use of “the bomb” was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.

American B-29s dropping incendiary bombs over Japan

American B-29s dropping incendiary bombs over Japan

Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by Fat Man on Nagasaki on August 9. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the bombings killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred immediately or during the first day of each bombing. In the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, all compounded by illness, poor diet and unsafe sanitation. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima did have a sizeable military garrison.

Poorly armed and trained, but willing to die

Poorly armed and trained, but willing to die

Supporters of the bombings generally assert that they caused the Japanese surrender, preventing casualties on both sides during Operation Downfall, the impending invasion of the main islands of Japan. The Japanese propaganda of the time stated, “One hundred million [Japanese] will die for the Emperor and Nation.” Although this was clearly hyperbole, President Truman stated in his 1955 Memoirs that “the atomic bomb probably saved half a million US lives,” while Prime Minister Churchill talked of saving “one million American and half that number of British lives.” And these numbers don’t even begin to discuss the losses the Japanese would have suffered had the allies invaded Japan proper. In total, there were over 2.3 million Japanese Army troops alone prepared to defend the Japanese home islands, backed by an active civilian militia of 28 million men, women and children. Japanese casualty predictions varied widely, but all were extremely high; the Vice Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, predicted up to 20 million Japanese deaths alone. From our own War Department estimates of 1945, the invading Allies would suffer between 1.7 and 4 million casualties, including between 400,000 and 800,000 dead; Japanese casualties would range from 5 to 10 million, most dying in a feeble attempt to defend their homeland.

Dresden, Germany.  Conventional bombs with atomic results.

Dresden, Germany. Conventional bombs with atomic results.

Hamburg after a firestorm

Hamburg after a firestorm

Those who oppose the bombings cite a number of reasons, among them a belief that atomic bombing is fundamentally immoral, that the bombings counted as war crimes, that they were militarily unnecessary, that they constituted state terrorism, and that they involved racism against and the dehumanization of the Japanese people. Some of these reasons are quite ludicrous. Military leaders of the time argued that it was simply an extension of the already fierce conventional bombing campaign, an assertion to which I agree. The indiscriminate bombing of cities is another matter, but as a fact, such “crimes” were committed on all sides.  For example, although the atomic bombings themselves are absolutely horrific, the Operation Meetinghouse fire-bombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9–10, 1945, was and remains the single deadliest air raid of World War II and the history of warfare, resulting in a far greater area of fire damage and loss of life than the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Similarly, the conventional bomb-induced firestorm destruction of Hamburg and Dresden in Germany were no less horrific.

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. The way to win an atomic war is to make certain it never starts. And the way to make sure it never starts is to abolish the dangerous costly nuclear stockpiles which imprison mankind.” ~ General Omar Bradley, speech on Armistice Day, 1948

It’s easy to look back from the safety of island fortress America in 2014 and say that use of the bombs was wrong, immoral, and/or unnecessary. I refuse to partake is such missives. While some may argue that time and distance lends clarity and objectivity which allow for moral judgments of actions taken during war, it is the absence of that very same objectivity, not available to the leaders in 1945, which results in the “fog of war.” Without proper context but with expansive hindsight, it is much too easy to place blame and fault, much like a Monday-morning Quarterback does after watching the previous Sunday’s games….

Me and the Mighty A-6E Intruder loaded for a strike.  A conventional one....

Me and the Mighty A-6E Intruder loaded for a strike. A conventional one….

However, I have changed, quite significantly so, in my own personal feelings of the use of nuclear weapons. I flew Navy medium-sized, carrier-based attack bombers – the mighty all-weather A-6E Intruder – in the 1990s, and perhaps the most serious tasking we had was the carriage and employment of nuclear weapons. Back then, as an invincible 24-year old, I was actually excited about being on the tip of the United States’ nuclear-tipped spear. In fact, I was so gung-ho about our mission and (nuclear) warfare that I was actually disappointed in the size (yield) of the nuclear weapons we would carry.

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely.” ~ Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1984

“What? It’s not even a megaton yield?!?” I question rather rhetorically upon learning that the nukes we would carry and drop would be well below the magical one megaton rating of the larger ballistic missile warheads. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, in hindsight, it is.  Almost as silly as proclaiming that there can no be fighting in the war room!

The B-61 "Silver Bullet" Nuclear Bomb

The B-61 “Silver Bullet” Nuclear Bomb

B-61_componentsB-61_bombThe weapon I’m talking about is what we referred to as “the silver bullet.” For obvious reasons. The B61 nuclear bomb was one of the primary thermonuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile during the cold war, and remains in significant numbers even today. It is an “intermediate yield” strategic (think whole-city devastation) and tactical (think airfield or naval base annihilation) nuclear weapon, the difference being what we callously referred to as “dial-a-yield.”. In other words, the explosive potential of the bomb could be rather easily set by an amazingly simple rotating dial, varying the boom between 0.3 to 340 kilotons. For comparison, Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 16 kilotons, while Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of 21 kilotons.


In other words, the bombs I carried – the very ones I complained were not powerful enough – where about 20 times as powerful as the bombs utilized in WWII.

The B-61 turns out to be QUITE powerful....

The B-61 turns out to be QUITE powerful….

I admit I am ashamed of how I felt as a youngster. Looking back, with the clarity and objectivity I have now, including a healthy dose of combat and the experience of the black death and wanton destruction which war inevitably brings, there just isn’t enough reason – or more so, safeguards – to carry and employ such weapons of mass destruction so easily (read here).

It's Bonnie's birthday on this blog's posting day - have a happy and non-nuclear one!

It’s Bonnie’s birthday on this blog’s posting day – have a happy and non-nuclear one!

“In a world which had become a nuclear powder keg…it [is] a mistake–perhaps one of suicidal proportions–to believe there [is] a difference between good shooters and bad shooters. There [are] too many shaky hands holding the lighters near too many fuses.” ~ Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three

Some claim that the conventional bombing of Japan together with the sea blockade, the collapse of Germany (with its implications regarding redeployment of additional allied forces to the Pacific), and the Soviet Union’s surprise attack against the Japanese Army in Manchuria (China) would have brought Japan to surrender. With or without invasion of their homeland? That’s the million-dollar…and multi-million death question.

The War Operations Plan Response computer playing a game of thermonuclear war

The War Operations Plan Response computer playing a game of thermonuclear war

Whatever you may believe, however, I must agree with Emperor Hirohito’s characterization of the new nuclear age expressed in his plea to the people of Japan to embrace surrender in 1945:

Portrai“Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. 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. Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of [surrender].”


“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” ~ American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s recollection upon viewing the first atomic bomb test in 1945

No one deserves to be nuked, not even the vehemently violent and extremist Japanese minority of World War II. In the final analysis, there is a conclusion that cannot be avoided, regardless of your political point of view or religiosity: when the rich wage war, it is the poor that die. In other words, it’s always the innocent that suffer the most and the longest in war. War is, after all, an extension of political will when diplomacy has failed. And seldom, if ever, do the ends justify the means.

b61patchUnfortunately the dawn of the nuclear age occurred in 1945, and cannot be undone. In the poetic words of The Offspring, “the genie’s out of the bottle and we can’t put it back.” While the weapons of August 1945 have evolved and endured, and continue to threaten our very existence, I no longer embrace the use of such savage weapons of war. Thankfully, I no longer have to face becoming death, the destroyer of worlds.



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