Thursday, August 9, 2007


Hiroshima had been destroyed, and in a unique and spectacular manner. A single B-29 had flown over Hiroshima, and had dropped a single bomb. No one had ever thought a single plane could cause so much damage. Destruction on that scale required huge numbers of aircraft, like the many hundreds of B-29s that had dropped their bombs on Tokyo in April.

And yet, preparations continued for the expected invasion of the home islands by the United States. Military units were being moved to Japan’s southern Kyushu Island, and civilians there were being given weapons and training. (Japanese military planners could read military realities as well as their American counterparts, and had correctly identified where the Americans would invade.) Hiroshima had been destroyed, but nothing had changed. And so a second atomic bomb mission occurred, and Nagasaki was destroyed by a plutonium bomb (like the one tested in the Trinity Test in New Mexico) when there was too much haze and smoke over Kokura for the bombardier to identify his aimpoint.

General Leslie Groves, head of the U.S. Army’s Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bombs, had predicted it would take two bombs to get the Japanese to surrender — one to stun them and a second to demonstrate the first wasn’t a fluke or a one-of-a-kind. But, as is often the case, there’s more to the story than that.

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki
August 9, 1945

Japanese physicists were involved in nuclear studies in the 1930s, just as European and American physicists were. By 1940, the Japanese had determined that they had access to more than enough uranium in Korea and Burma to make an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb project was started in April 1941, but it determined by late 1944 that it could not produce a bomb in time to affect the war.

The knowledge they built up during their atomic project was put to use in August of 1945. The story is told that physicists sampled the debris after the Hiroshima bombing, and reported that the city had been destroyed by an atomic bomb built of uranium. To the Japanese authorities, that meant it was probably one-of-a-kind because they knew uranium was so difficult to enrich sufficiently that “they can’t possibly have another.” They sampled debris again after the Nagasaki bombing, and reported that a plutonium bomb had been used. This was a shock to the authorities, because it meant to them that the U.S. could have a nearly unlimited number of such bombs, depending on a production rate they had no way to know. (The next plutonium bomb was already on its way to the B-29 base on Tinian Island; the planners had reportedly targeted Tokyo for this bomb.) Suddenly the choice the Japanese authorities faced was very stark, indeed — surrender or incineration.

The traditional view has been that these two bombings shortened the war, thereby saving the lives of large numbers of American soldiers and Japanese soldiers and civilians. Several historians have been trying to change this view in recent years, but it seems there’s a bit of schizophrenia in their views. On the one hand, they (some) assert that Japan was seeking to surrender, and the American government knew this and dropped the atomic bombs anyway. On the other hand, they (some) say the bombings made no difference, noting that the Japanese military was insisting on a “defense to the death” even after both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both positions have facts behind them. There were elements in the Japanese government that wanted to negotiate a peace, and the army did want to keep fighting to the bitter end. What the bombings did, however, was make it possible for the emperor to step in and direct a decision without provoking a coup. (Even so, an abortive rebellion and attempted coup did occur.) That is why both Japanese and American authorities agree with the conclusion of Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson: “This deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”

The bombs had other effects, too, of course. Those effects could not have been known to the U.S. military authorities in any detail as there had been no outsiders into either Hiroshima or Nagasaki and those effects had not been evident in the Trinity Test. But this was a new type of weapon, and General Douglas MacArthur and his staff apparently didn’t want information on any possible new effects made public, at least until they knew what they were dealing with. And so they made broad areas of Japan, including these cities, off-limits for some time after the Japanese surrender. (There may have been other motives than those suggested here — either instead of or in addition to these motives. The motives identified here, I think, put the best face possible on MacArthur’s actions.)

In spite of the ban, war reporter George Weller got to Nagasaki a few days after the formal surrender, four weeks after the city was bombed. He got there by impersonating a colonel and forcing his way onto Japanese trains with pure brashness. He and the sergeant who accompanied him were the first Westerners to reach the city. Weller wrote late into each night and filed his dispatches through the normal channels. Those channels went through MacArthur’s office and its censors, which made sure the dispatches never reached their destination — until now. Weller’s son found his father’s original carbon copies, long thought to have been lost, after his father’s death. Anthony Weller, the son, turned them into a book released at the end of 2006: First Into Nagasaki.

To read Weller’s book is to be transported back into the immediate post-war period in Japan. Through Weller’s eyes, we see the damage done to Nagasaki and the frustration of the doctors trying to deal with “Disease X”. As one review puts it, however,

The aftereffects of the atomic bomb aren’t the only story that Weller finds in Nagasaki. After a few days in the city, he heads to the nearby prisoner-of-war camps, where he has what can only be called the incredible experience of informing his fellow Americans, who did not know the war had ended, of the two atomic bombs, the Japanese surrender and the impending arrival of American occupation troops.
And this is a full month after the Nagasaki bombing. He describes, too, how prisoners in some of the camps he visited near Omuta, outside Nagasaki, actually saw the mushroom clouds of both atomic bombs. Among the men at these camps were veterans of the Bataan Death March and veterans of the Burma railway construction (the “River Kwai”) prisoner camps.

Weller wrote dispatches about the conditions in the Prisoner of War camps during the war, many primarily composed of quotations from one POW after another — each identified by name, rank (usually), unit, and home town. These dispatches are historically important. Far too little has been written of the Japanese camps and what happened in them. In fact, it is not clear that we have a complete list of those interned in the camps, even yet, or even a complete list of the camps themselves. Anthony Weller calls the lack of attention to the Japanese POW camps "one of the great omissions in World War II memory."

One thing I found shocking in Weller’s account is that no one from the West had been to many of the Prisoner of War camps a full month after the atomic bombings, more than three weeks after the Japanese surrender (V-J Day, August 14th), and well over a week after the formal signing of the surrender documents on the battleship Missouri on September 2nd. This is tempered somewhat by recognizing that everything happened more slowly sixty years ago than today. And, too, the Japanese were less than cooperative in providing complete information on the prisoner camps they operated and the men held in them — in part because those records were not priorities in the Japanese system. Recall that, even at this late date, we may not have a complete list of the Japanese prisoner camps, much less of those held in them. Indeed the camp in Tokyo, that my uncle is identified (on one list, along with more than two thousand others) as having been liberated from, does not appear on most lists of POW camps.

Still, camps like those near Nagasaki were apparently well-known. So why had no one from the U.S. Army gone to them for so long? And when did they reach others of Japan’s 200 or so POW camps? The answers to these questions are not known to me, though they may be known to others.

Today is the anniversary of the Bock’s Car flight to Kokura and Nagasaki, the anniversary of the day World War II — in the Pacific Theater — really began to end.

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