rscn4338At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, seventy-seven years ago, ‘Little Boy’ the first atomic bomb ever dropped in a war, exploded 1800 feet (1500 meters) above the city of Hiroshima, population 300,000, killing thousands of people below instantly, 70,000 within a month, and something over 100,000 within a year.

On August 9, the second atomic bomb, ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on Nagasaki, population 263,000. Though this one was three times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima, and it did more damage at ‘ground zero’, the equivalent deaths at Nagasaki were lower – 39,000 and 80,000, for some very interesting reasons.

The numbers quoted here, I should say, vary according to the source. The internet abounds with articles on the bombings of these two cities. The best source I’ve seen was a massive abridged report completed by the Japanese government, which I found in the library and took extensive notes from. Sadly, I can no longer find them.

Forty years ago I read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, published in 1946, a straightforward, compelling account of six survivors before and after the bomb, a book I’ve never forgotten. Over the past month I’ve been listening to the Tantor Media audio version, read well by Arthur Morey, of John Pellegrino’s 2010 book, The Last Train from Hiroshima.

Pellegrino follows more of the survivors, including some of the 30 remarkable people (some say there were more) who survived both bombings. Because I’ve only got an audio copy of the book, my spelling of most names is likely wrong, for which I apologize. Amid the haunting horrors and unforgettable people that Pellegrino describes, there is,

  • Tsutomo Yamaguchi, an engineer, who, at the first flash of light at Hiroshima, because of naval training for normal bomb explosions, took a series of actions as he threw himself to the ground that saved his life and prevented incapacitating injuries.
  • Gain, a 7 year-old boy standing before a low wall, bending over to pick up a coin, which caused him to receive only a searing blow to the back of his head, while every one around him was killed immediately. But he soon lost consciousness and collapsed. Thrown onto a pile of bodies about to be cremated, a soldier notices he is breathing and pulls him off. The two become close friends and walked together in search of a hospital. But as Gain regains strength, his soldier friend weakens, apparently from radiation sickness, which Gain will also suffer from. In sight of a hospital, the soldier collapses – Gain desperately drags him to the hospital where a doctor says, “What did you bring me a dead man for?”
  • A teen-age girl carrying bodies and putting them on piles to be burned, the blackened skin of the bodies coming off as she holds them, reflects on how only a few days before she would have been alarmed by a cut to her finger.
  • A young man searching through the ruins of his house in Hiroshima, hoping to find his just married wife, but finds instead her totally charred body from which he removes her bones, puts them in a basket, and sets out to take them to her parents in still untouched Nagasaki.
  • Another man walks through the burning city followed by a dying horse that has attached itself to him – a memory that will come back to him for years.
  • The testimony of a Japanese physicist to government leaders just after Hiroshima, also working on the development of an atomic bomb, and despite the alleged secrecy of the ‘Manhattan Project’ in the USA, tells them that he knew enough about the American progress to say that the most they could possible have at this stage was one more bomb – he was exactly right.
  • Dr Ngai in a Nagasaki hospital treats patients from Hiroshima despite the fact that he has cancer and has been given only 6 months to live. But when the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, destroying his hospital, his cancer goes into remission, apparently due to the radiation he received.
  • Gain finally arriving home, wearing a fireman’s helmet to disguise his hair falling out, finds his mother and baby sister still alive, but his younger brother dead. His mother tells him of the uncanny moments before the bomb exploded when they watched thousands of ants marching out of the garden and into the house.
  • Two year-old Sadako would always remember the intense light that came through the windows of her house before the explosion. She was a survivor who became a runner, winning many competitions in school. But in October of 1955, age 12, after a long hospitalization, she died of leukemia.
  • The tense meeting where emperor Hirohito announced to his generals that he now sided with his foreign minister, that it was time to surrender, and how some of the generals then began plotting a coup to remover Hirohito and keep the war going.
  • The interesting possibility that Russia’s declaration of war on August 9 and subsequent invasion of the northern territories occupied by Japan had much to do with the surrender – because Russia might occupy a large portion of Japan by the time the fighting was over.
  • In the description of the explosions, Pellegrino describes the fascinating complexity of a uranium derived explosion, and how it was perceived – some people far enough away not to be immediately blinded saw the flash as yellow, some as blue, some saw rainbow colors.
  • Pilot Charles Sweeney flying his B-29 bomber with ‘Fat Man’ trying to reach the first target Kokura, only half the size of Nagasaki but with large munition factories and a more military presence, is driven off again and again by increasingly accurate anti-aircraft fire, until finally, afraid of running out of fuel to get back to his airfield, he reluctantly heads for his secondary target, Nagasaki
  • Dr Ngai, now dying of leukemia a year later, deliberately living in a small house he has built near ground zero in Hiroshima, studying the emerging plants and animals that were now thriving around him, delivers eloquent comments on the past and the future, effectively bringing his chapters to a close.

I was tempted to make this list three times as long, for there is so much in this book that you don’t want to forget, along with, I suppose, much that you would like to forget. But if I had my way, it would be required reading in our high schools.

To those who would say that we should not subject young people to the horrors of this story, I say “What about the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

There was some controversy about the facts here, mainly with respect to the US planes, pilots, etc, because of which the 2010 book was withdrawn temporarily, then republished in 2015 as To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima, with a few items removed. My audio book from the Toronto library appears to be the 2010 version. It is interesting that any history dealing with an unpleasant part of our past always seems to generate resistance

As to why Nagasaki fared better than Hiroshima, and why in each city some people survived and some didn’t, the answers to this are multiple, and crucial – for there are now thousands of nuclear warheads more powerful than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that have been lying in wait for decades. In another post I’m going to deal with this as best I can shortly, for it’s about time we began thinking about the unthinkable.

4 thoughts on “Rescuing History | The Last Train from Hiroshima

  1. My personal attitude to the use of weapons of mass destruction is that it is a crime against humanity. Coincidentally that’s also the position of the New Zealand government.

    Back in the 1970s I met a delegation from Hiroshima when they visited the city of Whanganui where the wife and I lived, to plant a tree in the Quaker peace Garden. The wife, being Japanese had been sought out to by the Quaker settlement to assist with translation. Several members of the delegation were survivors of the atomic bomb including one who liked he was an albino but his colouration was the result of the radiation. Their stories were horrific and distressing to listen to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must have been very moving. I think it’s essential that their stories be kept alive if we aren’t to repeat the event, possibly on a huge scale.

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  2. I am looking forward to next year’s release of the movie ‘Oppenheimer.’ It will be interesting to see what it says about the ethics of dropping the A-bombs. I stand with my father who was a soldier in WW2 and felt the bombs potentially saved his life.

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    1. Even some Japanese felt the bombs saved lives. Prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese military elite appear to have had full control and seemed determined to fight the war ‘to the last man’. The great success of the Japanese since WW II may be partially due to the demotion of the military.

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