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My life-changing visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park

Hiroshima, Japan, days after the devastating blast of the the A-bomb.

The flight ground crew with Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets. The plane would deliver the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war.

Last updated 3 November 2014, 4:02 AM…

Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombed

On August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM, after 44 months of increasingly brutal fighting in the Pacific, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber loaded with a devastating new weapon, appeared in the sky over Hiroshima, Japan. Minutes later, that new weapon—a bomb that released its enormous destructive energy by splitting uranium atoms to create a chain reaction—detonated in the sky, killing some 70,000 Japanese civilians instantly and leveling the city.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb over the city of Nagasaki, with similarly devastating results. The following week, Japan’s emperor addressed his country over the radio to announce the decision to surrender. World War II had finally come to its dramatic conclusion.

My personal interest in the atomic bombings

In 1997 my Project Friendship Russian exchange student Timur Chirikov was a senior at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland. Timur brought home a homework assignment. He had been asked to write a term paper on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like most Americans, I had never really given much thought to the subject. I agreed to help Timur with this project. We began to pour through all kinds of information we found on the internet or in print at our local library. Timur had to first decide a “pro” or “con” position regarding the US use of atomic weapons to end the war with Japan. After looking through hundreds of pages of information, he decided he would write against the use of the atomic weapons. The clincher in that decision seemed to be the Oppenheimer Target Committee report that had been declassified by the US Department of Defense.

The Enola Gay crew photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The photos on the right show the city of Hiroshima before and after the blast.

Several Japanese cities had been listed by the Target Committee as potential bomb sites. Perhaps it was the wording of the committee’s suggestion that Kyoto would make a good target. Although Kyoto, an urban industrial city of one million inhabitants, was never bombed, it had been classified by the committee as an “AA Target.” Committee members reasoned, “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” (“Gadget” was the code word for the atomic bomb.)

Timur and I read those words in disbelief. What? More educated, intelligent people can better appreciate being incinerated by an atomic bomb? Hiroshima was the last major Japanese city left untouched. It was the political and economic heart of the Chugoku Region and possessed  vital military base. The population at the time was in excess of 350,000. Hiroshima would be “number one” on the Target Committee’s report.

The ongoing controversy

The decision to employ atomic weapons against Japan remains a contentious chapter in American history. Even before President Harry S. Truman finalized his decision to use the bombs, members of Truman’s inner circle grappled with the specifics of the decision to drop the new weapon. Their concerns revolved around a cluster of related issues: whether the use of the technology was necessary to defeat an already crippled Japan; whether a similar outcome could be effected without using the bomb against civilian targets; whether the detonation of a second bomb days after the first, before Japan had time to formulate its response, was justified; and what effect the demonstration of the bomb’s devastating power would have on postwar diplomacy, particularly on America’s uneasy wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.

The ongoing struggle to present the history of the atomic bombings in a balanced and accurate manner is an interesting story in its own right, and one that has occasionally generated an enormous amount of public debate. In 1995, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned a display around the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the first bomb, for its museum on the National Mall. That exhibit would place the invention of atomic weapons and the decision to use them against civilian targets in the context of World War II and the Cold War, provoking broader questions about the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear arms in general.

The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in August 1945. The two bombings were the first and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

The design for the exhibit quickly triggered an avalanche of controversy. Critics charged that it offered a too-sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese enemy, and that its focus on the children and elderly victims of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki encouraged visitors to question the necessity and morality of the weapons. As originally written, those critics alleged, the exhibit forwarded an anti-American interpretation of events surrounding the atomic weapons’ use.

That such a message was to appear in a national museum amplified the frustrations of critics (especially veterans’ groups), who believed that the exhibit should not lead museum goers to question the decision to drop the bomb or to portray the Pacific war in morally neutral terms.

In place of the original exhibit, veterans’ organizations offered a replacement exhibit with a very different message. Their proposed exhibit portrayed the development of the atomic weapons as a triumph of American technical ingenuity, and the use of both bombs as an act that saved lives—the lives of American soldiers who would otherwise have had to invade the Japanese home islands, and the lives of thousands of Japanese who would, it was assumed, have fought and died with fanatic determination opposing such an invasion.

‘The revised exhibit removed the questioning tone of the original, replacing it with more certainty: the use of the bombs, it argued, was both necessary and justified.

Varying accounts of US history books

Because the use of the atomic weapons evokes such passionate responses from Americans—from those who believe that the use of the bombs was wholly justified to those who believe that their use was criminal, and the many people who fall somewhere in between—it is a particularly difficult topic for textbooks to discuss. In order to avoid a potentially treacherous debate, textbooks have often adopted a set of compromises that describe the end of the war but avoid or omit some of the most difficult parts of the conversation. A 1947 history textbook, produced just two years after the bombings did just this, sidestepping the controversy by presenting the story at a distance and refraining from interpretation or discussion of civilian casualties: “The United States unveiled its newest weapon, demonstrating twice—first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki—that a good-sized city could almost be erased from the map in one blinding flash. Confronted by this combination of forces, Japan surrendered August 14.”

The skeletal remains of the

“If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives…life for life, the odds were that [the atomic bomb] would cost less.” Later textbooks made other compromises. The 2005 textbook A History of the United States adopts a familiar tone, arguing that President Truman based his decision to drop the bomb mainly on a complex calculus of the cost in human lives if the war were to continue: “Should the United States use the atomic bomb? No one knew how long Japan would hold out.” That uncertainty forced American planners to assume the worst: “If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives.

The atomic bomb, President Truman knew, might kill many thousands of innocent Japanese. But life for life, the odds were that it would cost less.” A 2006 textbook, The Americans, suggests that the decision to drop the bomb occurred largely outside moral concerns: “Should the Allies use the bomb to bring an end to the war? Truman did not hesitate. On July 25, 1945, he ordered the military to make final plans for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.”

The paragraph on the decision concludes with a compelling quote from the President himself: “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt it should be used.” Other recent textbooks have labored to present this often-contentious topic in a more nuanced manner. The 2007 textbook American Anthem describes the decision-making process as an involved one, observing “Truman formed a group to advise him about using the bomb. This group debated where the bomb should be used and whether the Japanese should be warned. After carefully considering all the options, Truman decided to drop the bomb on a Japanese city. There would be no warning.”

The carefully written passage does not suggest that the question of whether to use the bomb against civilian targets was part of the debate; it describes the inquiry as focused on where to drop the bomb and whether a warning would precede its use. More recent textbooks often offer viewpoints from other perspectives—including Japanese civilians, who suffered the legacy of atomic fallout for decades after the original explosion—from a morally neutral stance, inviting (or directly asking) readers to make their own judgments.

Besides offering a description of Truman’s decision-making process, the American Anthem textbook includes a passage of equivalent length that describes the destruction on the ground, anchored by a quote from a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb. It also features a “Counterpoints” section that contrasts a quote from Secretary of War Henry Stimson supporting the bomb’s use with one from Leo Szilard, an atomic physicist, characterizing the use of the bombs against Japan as “one of the greatest blunders of history.”

The mother tree (1st Generation) is now planted in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

What the documents reveal

Over the years, particularly during the 1990s, much information related the atomic bombing of the two Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been declassified, but still a discussion that focuses primarily on the need to employ the bomb in order to save lives—the lives of Japanese civilians as well as those of American soldiers—is incomplete. In fact, as the documentary record shows, there was a good deal of debate over the use of atomic weapons during the summer of 1945.

Much of the debate, however, focused on other complex issues–not the lives that would be saved or lost by bringing the war to an immediate end. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe and one of the architects of the successful campaign against Germany, was one of the dissenters. After the war, Eisenhower recalled his position in 1945, asserting that “Japan was defeated and… dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

Eisenhower’s objection was, in part, a moral one; as he noted, “I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.’”

Eisenhower recalled that his objection was not at all well received by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. In Eisenhower’s own words, Stimson was “deeply perturbed by my attitude, almost angrily refuting the reasons I gave for my quick conclusions.” (In a separate document, Stimson himself concurred with Eisenhower’s conclusion that there was little active American attempt to respond to Japan’s peace feelers to prevent the use of the atomic weapons: “No effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.”)

The year after the Japanese surrender, the U.S. government released its own Strategic Bombing Survey (SBS), an effort to assess the effectiveness of dropping bombs on civilian populations, including the fire bombs used in Europe and the Pacific, and the atomic weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its findings suggested that the bombs had been largely unneeded, and that Japan’s surrender was all but guaranteed even without the threat of invasion. “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts,” the SBS concluded, “and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that . . . Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Sam is privileged to rink the Peace Bell in Hiroshima's Peace Park.

Though firm in its assertions, the SBS received widespread criticism from many quarters for drawing conclusions considered “far beyond the available evidence.” But, the Strategic Bombing Survey’s conclusions highlight another important factor in the decision to employ the bombs against Japan: the message such a display would send to Josef Stalin.

Uneasy allies in the war against Germany, Russian forces had joined the war in Japan in August 1945. Contemporary observers noted that the demonstration of the deadly new weapon’s considerable might had the additional effect of warning Stalin that the U.S. would exercise considerable power in the postwar period. Furthermore, dropping two bombs only days apart had the added benefit of convincing the Russians that the U.S. possessed a formidable supply of the new weapons; when in fact, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was entirely depleted after the two attacks on Japan.

A survey of primary sources from the summer of 1945 and the months afterward reveals a variety of opinions, arguments, and justifications regarding the use of atomic weapons. Embracing the variety of opinions while also presenting a narrative that depicts the decision and its effects from multiple perspectives is a near-impossible task. Given how controversial the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has proved to be, the compromises 21st-century textbooks have undergone appear understandable if not entirely necessary.

The death toll

The real mortality of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan will never be known. The destruction and overwhelming chaos that followed made orderly counting impossible. It is likely that the estimates of men, women and children who died in Hiroshima (140,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are far too conservative. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, in Hiroshima an estimated 70,000 people were killed instantly. The heat from the bomb was so intense that some people were simply vaporized in the explosion. Some who survived the initial blast threw themselves in the Ota River seeking relief from their burns. There thousands drowned. Within the next four months another 70,000 would die from the effects of radiation and sustained blast injuries. Still, thousands more suffered from the long-term effects of prolonged radiation sickness.

Masayuki, a first-year student at the Hiroshima Junior High School. Masayuki Ueda was one of more than 6,000 students who died.

Hiroshima today

Little remains of the effects of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima except for artifacts in the city’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park and the skeletal remains of the  Atomic Bomb Dome. The city has been rebuilt. Nearly 70 years has passed since the atomic bombings and the end of war with Japan. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park now seeks to preserve survivor experiences and has as its major objective the ending of all war and promoting world peace. My hotel was but a block away, so I was able to visit the Peace Museum often during my stay.

One of the exhibits that was very moving was that about three junior high school students whose lives were ended by the blast. More than 8,400 Japanese first and second-year students from the Hiroshima Municpal Junior High School had been assigned to demolishing old buildings as a means of  creating firebreaks should the city face saturation bombing from Allied planes.

More than 6,000 of these children died when atomic blast took place in the sky above them. The exhibit showed clothing from three of the students who died. There was the cap belonging to first-year student Eiichi Tsuda. There was the uniform belonging to second-year student Hajime Fukuoka, and there were gaiters (a covering worn over the shoes and lower pants legs) belonging to first-year student Masayuki Ueda.

The museum exhibits powerfully communicate the need for world peace and an end to war.

Outside the museum I found myself surrounded by many smiling Japanese junior high school students. Their ages and faces appeared the same as the young students I had seen featured in the exhibit. Easily recognizing me as an American, they began to encircle me. Not knowing what to say, I asked if they spoke English. They excitedly reached out to shake my hand, saying almost in unison, “Hello, mister. How are you?” I shook their hands and greeted them.

After speaking briefly with these children, I met a very dear lady, Akemi Yagi, a peace volunteer guide who would spend several hours walking with me through the Peace Park. Akemi was born in Hiroshima in 1948, three years after the a-bomb was dropped. Her parents were “A-bomb survivors.” “I don’t have vivid memories, but I can still hear my mother saying that everyone is so poor. She would say often that the people of Hiroshima lost everything: houses, clothes, food.”

Akemi tells me she has dedicated her life to ending war and nuclear proliferation. She was truly inspiring.

I suggested to Akemi that no warning had been given to the people of Hiroshima before the atomic bomb was dropped. Her response was very gracious. “Neither did we Japanese give any warning to the Americans before attacking Pearl Harbor,” she says. “War is evil. We must stop war. We must forgive the past. We must work for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Akemi points out that today’s nuclear weapons are thousands of times more powerful than that single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  “And there are thousands of them,” she says. “That’s why nuclear disarmament is so important. The world must eliminate these weapons.” Akemi is right. A history of nuclear arms race is portrayed in atimeline prepared by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) indicates today’s wide proliferation of these destructive weapons of war could destroy the world a thousand times over within just a few minutes. Even a relatively small regional nuclear war could trigger an international “nuclear winter.” It would cause droughts for more than a decade, researchers say.

Eisenhower right–Akemi too!

Eisenhower

I am convinced Akemi has it right, and so did General Eisenhower. What the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor was evil and wrong. But I am also persuaded from my research, that I now fully agree with Eisenhower–that what America did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also wrong.

It was in Eisenhower’s words “unnecessary.” And as he predicted, America had also become known as the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in time of war.

Eisenhower would later serve two terms as president of the United States. At the end of his eight years as president, three days before he left office, Eisenhower addressed the American people in a televised appeal–a warning that would  become known as “Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation.” In that message President Eisenhower cautioned American citizens about the evil of an uncontrolled military industrial complex and the potentially strong influence of their lobbyists in the halls of the US Congress:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

I asked Akemi about the lingering effects of radiation from the a-bomb. I was surprised to learn that just about all of the radiation from the Hiroshima bombing disappeared within a couple of months. She says the Japanese government certified anyone who was within two kilometers of the hypocenter during the two weeks following the bombing as an “A-bomb survivor.”

“The A-bomb exploded not on the ground but in the air,” she explained. Most of the radiation from the explosion had been dispersed and decayed in the mushroom cloud that went far into the atmosphere. Akemi also points out that a very powerful typhoon named Makurazaki hit Hiroshima, just six weeks after the blast, causing major flooding in the city. “It washed just about all of the remaining traces of radiation out to sea.”

Now Akemi tells me something I never knew. In addition to the more than 140,000 Japanese who died immediately or during the following four months, there were at least 12 American POWs who died on that fateful day. We stare into a computer screen in the research library. She points to the names of the 12 Americans that are listed there. I quickly write down the names: Raymond Porter, Ralph Neal, Joseph Dubisnky, Durden Looper, Buford Ellison, Charles Baumgartner,John Hantschel, James Ryan, Hugh Atkinson, Norman Brisette, John Long and Julius Molnar. I learn that the death of these American POWs was not acknowledged by the United States until the late 1970s. The Japanese have now added the names of the twelve soldiers to their official tally of those killed in the bombing, and the photos of these POWs are now mounted in the Peace Memorial Museum photo gallery.

During a war memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of
During a 1947 memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of “A-bomb orphans” on Ninoshima Island gathered to honor their parents and friends who had died.

Hiroshima’s A-bomb orphans

Speaking with great conviction, Akemi shares the story of Hiroshima’s “A-bomb orphans.”

“There were thousands of them,” she says. These were children 8 to 11 years old who had been evacuated to the countryside for wartime safety.  Though their parents had met a horrific death, they had been spared, but at what cost? Their lives had been horribly changed by the tragedy of war!

Children are always the most innocent victims of war. In the 21st century, millions every year are traumatized by the events of war. “After the war these orphaned children of Hiroshima were sheltered on Ninoshima Island, some were pushed onto the streets for various reasons,” Akemi says. “Anyway, they had to live on their own by shining shoes on the street or taking any other jobs available.” Teary-eyed, Akemi admits, “Some of the orphans starved to death. Others joined street gangs or prostituted themselves to survive.”

Shouzou’s story

Akemi mentions one particular orphan. She explains that a young boy named Shouzou Kawamoto had lost six members of his family. He was working in a field with other evacuated children outside Hiroshima when he saw that flash of light from the bomb and then the mushroom cloud rising high in the sky. Akemi says he found out the next day that both his parents, two of his sisters and a brother were dead. At the age of 11 Shouzou had become an a-bomb orphan. Just a half year later his lone-surviving sister died of radiation-related acute leukemia. It was shortly after the death of this sister that Shouzou found work in a soy sauce factory.  Akemi says, “Shouzou tried so hard.” “When he became 23 years old, he fell in love with a girl. He proposed to her, but her parents were against their marriage, because they worried about the effects of radiation.”

Akemi Yagi and Shouzou Kawamoto share their stories with visitors in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Both have dedicated their lives to promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.

“A-bomb survivors faced a lot of discrimination,” Akemi adds, “especially when they tried job hunting or getting married.” Shouzou felt hopeless to escape the difficulties of life in Hiroshima.

Wanting to leave those horrible memories of the war behind, Shouzou resolved to leave the city. Having only 640 yen in his pocket, he took the train as far as he could to nearby Okayama. There, Shouzou, heard his mother’s voice saying to him, “Never give up! Never give up, Shouzou!”

He saw a help-wanted ad on the door of a neighborhood noodle shop. He walked inside and was hired.” Many years later, when Shouzou was 50 years old, he started a very successful business making lunch boxes. Akemi tells me he never married.

Decades had passed with little contact with his former acquaintances in Hiroshima. One day he received an unexpected phone call. He was invited to join other classmates at a school reunion. After years of healing from the traumatic scars of war, Shouzou now felt a great longing to be reunited with his classmates. He found understanding, sympathy and hope from those who had also experienced the atomic bombing. Ten years later, now 70 years old, Shouzou would close his lunch box business in Okayama and return to live Hiroshima.

Today, like Akemi, Shouzou is a peace volunteer guide, sharing his story with the many visitors who come to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. They are proof that one need not be controlled by the horrid events of the past, but one can use those experiences to help others to build a better future for all mankind. Shouzou says, “No one else should ever suffer as we did.”

Sam with paper cranes mailed by school children from around the world in remembrance of Sadako and to promote world peace.

Sadako and the paper cranes

While continuing our walk through the Peace Memioral Park I notice brightly colored paper cranes hanging nearby. Akemi begins to tell me the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who made origami cranes.

Sadako was two years old when she was exposed to the radiation of the A-bomb. She had no apparent injuries at the time. She grew into a strong, healthy, beautiful girl. However, nine years later, in the fall of 1954, shortly after entering the sixth grade of Nabori Cho Elementary School, Sadako suddenly developed signs of an illness.

By February of the following year she was diagnosed with leukemia and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. Believing that folding paper cranes would help her recover, Sadako kept folding and folding, but on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease, she passed away.

Sadako’s death triggered a campaign to build a monument where people could pray for world peace. It also offers the world’s children a peaceful response to remember the children killed by the atomic bomb. The Children’s Peace Monument in the middle of the park was built with funds donated from all over Japan. Later, this Sadako’s story spread around the world, and now, approximately 10 million cranes are presented each year to the Children’s Peace Monument.

Sending paper cranes

Anyone may bring paper cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument near the center of the Peace Memorial Park. However, if you are unable to come to the park, the City of Hiroshima will be happy to present your cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument on your behalf. In addition, the name of your school or your children’s names and messages for peace will be entered into the Paper Crane Database. In this way, your desire for peace will be recorded for posterity. For this purpose, please complete theregistration form and return it to the Children’s Peace Memorial along with your paper cranes to:

Peace Promotion Division The City of Hiroshima 1-5 Nakajima-cho Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0811 Japan

A video that changed my life

Following our visit to the Children’s Peace Memorial, Akemi takes me into the Ground Zero Museum and Research Library. There we enter a theater. She says what I am about to see is very important. As the documentary film Children of Hiroshima begins to play I am immediately moved to tears as child after child describes life during and after the atom bomb fell.

I now ask you, for the cause of world peace and ending war, for the sake of future generations, please, please watch this short 15-minute film which I have posted below.

Children of Hiroshima is based on the eyewitness accounts of Japanese children who were present when the atomic blast occurred. Share this video with your family and friends, and get involved, like Akemi and Shouzou, in campaigning for world peace.

Sources: US Strategic Bombing Survey, UPI, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, The Nation, US Department of Defense, wikipedia.org, atomicbombmuseum.org, National Geographic Magazine, youtube.com, Children of Hiroshima, teachinghistory.com, A History of the United States, The Americans, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, United States Archives, Stars & Stripes, livescience.com, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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