Hiroshima: The Peace Only the World Can Give
By Albert Haase, O.F.M.
The world has never been the same since the first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 50 years ago this month. Earlier this year, an American Franciscan priest visited the city to reflect on that horrendous event. What he heard was a heartfelt message of peace.

Q U I C K S C A N

Fashionable, Modern City Today
Hiroshima'a History and Incomprehensible Horror
Significance of the Peace Memorial Park
'To Remember Hiroshima Is to Commit Oneself to Peace'

 

The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima
(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)


As I flew into Hiroshima’s airport, I couldn’t help but think of all the heart-wrenching suffering and countless deaths caused by the atomic bomb. Though the average tourist would have preferred to take Japan’s famed Bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, I chose the plane as a way of getting a pilot’s-eye view of things.

Such a vantage could give me a feel for the events marking this 50th anniversary year of “Little Boy’s” birth. That’s how the people who loaded the bomb into the Enola Gay, the B-29 named after the pilot’s mother in Iowa, ironically referred to it. (The Japanese would later call it the “Original Child Bomb.”) And yet this little child, who hastened the arrival of V-J Day and the end of World War II, paradoxically caused more death and destruction— annihilation would be the better word—than even my sometimes callous, proud American heart can bear to admit.

So politically sensitive is talk of the child’s birth and the devastation it caused that President Bill Clinton, when asked earlier this year, would not even dare apologize for it.

On this day in late April, when the beauty of Japan’s cherry blossom season was coming to a close, the sky was just as beautiful and clear as it was on August 6, 1945. And from the sky, Hiroshima looked just as smart, innocent and caught off guard as it must have been 50 years ago.

Fashionable, Modern City Today

Hiroshima, situated on southwestern Honshu Island, is a 400-year-old city sitting on six islands in the Ota River delta. Its citizens boast of the city's 2,000 bridges.

A thoroughly contemporary city, Hiroshima teems with children in school uniforms and fashionably dressed adults. Shopping arcades with imported goods from all over the world angle off its wide boulevards, and there is a large Sogo Department Store—Japan’s version of Neiman Marcus. Japan’s liveliest “night industries” of bars and restaurants are here. Its eye-catching architecture causes tourists and residents to take a second look, its mass transit system conducts pedestrians all over the city with utter convenience and, surprising to many Western tourists, music plays when a crosswalk light turns green for “WALK” to assist the sight-impaired.

This city truly captures the vibrancy of the Japanese economy. Moreover, it reflects what is best in the human condition. From the wounds of its past, its over one million residents have consciously chosen to renounce bitterness and anger and to proclaim a message of peace and the absurdity of nuclear weapons. It was Little Boy’s destructive behavior that has shaped this city’s gospel.

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Hiroshima’s History and Incomprehensible Horror

Hiroshima has always been a city important in the development of Japan. For its first 250 years, it was the principal castle town in the Chugoku-Shikoku region. In the 1860’s, it became the seat of government of the Hiroshima Prefecture. As it is today, it was then a city of schools and shopping dictricts, smartly dressed with its natural beauty of trees and mountains. lt soon developed a secondary function as a military center.

In the l920’s and 30’s, the industrialization that was shaping the Japanese econony reached Hiroshima, first with heavy industries and later with factories for military production. By the 1940’s, Hiroshima had a definite military presence that existed alongside the likes of the Ube Nitrogen Fertilizer Company, the Ube Soda Company, the Nippon Motor Oil Company, the Sumitoma Chemical Company and Sumitoma Aluminum Company, all of which provided a living for the city’s 350,000 residents. That is, until the Americans dropped Little Boy and everything was destroyed.

Ltttle Boy was a misnomer, for the first atomic bomb weighed 9,000 pounds, was 10 feet long and two feet-four inches in diameter, and packed the destructive power of 15 tons of TNT. When it exploded at 1,980 feet over Hiroshima, the created fireball reached a diameter the length of two football fields within the matter of 0.3 seconds, the same amount of time it takes for the flash of a camera to light up.

The estimated temperature in the center of the bomb was 100,000,000 degrees, while the surface temperature was about 500,000 degrees. At the very moment of explosion, an extremely high pressure of several hundred thousand hectopascals violently thrust the surrounding air outward and produced an incredible blast. Birds ignited in midair and flames rushed through the city. During the next several hours black rain fell, the result of atmospheric changes provoked by the bomb.

These incontrovertible facts can only begin to be grasped when you see what was left after this apocalyptic visitation. Or perhaps I should say, what was not left. Everything within a radius of one and a quarter miles from the hvpocenter was completely crushed, incinerated and destroyed. All in all, more than four square miles, about 60 percent of the city was gone. Seventy thousand people were killed instantly, 60,000 people were injured or missing, and over 170,000 people were left homeless.

Heat front the explosion caused burns on people as far away as two miles from the hvpocenter, while people within a half-mile radius of the hvpocenter were inflicted with lethal doses of radiation, causing many to die within a few days. In the months following the dropping of the bomb, the physical effects of the radiation on the living included diarrhea, hair loss and bleeding gums. And even 30 years after the fact, the effects of Little Boy were still killing Hiroshima citizens at a rate of about 90 a year.

And there’s even more: Leukemia kills bomb survivors at a rate four times greater than the Japanese national average; thyroid cancer is very common; and there is a higher incidence of Hodgkin’s disease, myelofibrosis, lymphosarcoma, hardening of seminal tubes, degeneration of blood vessels and eye cataracts.

Significance of the Peace Memorial Park

As Brother Nirmal, the Indian superior of Mother Teresa’s brothers’ community in Tokyo, and I left the bishop’s residence where we were staying and started walking down Peace Boulevard toward the Peace MemoriaI Park, I felt for the first time in my life an uneasy sense of embarrassment—or was it shame?—that I’m an American. Even though it was a completely different world 50 years ago, how could my own government justify such a vicious and heartless act of violence? Wouldn’t this be considered a war crime in today’s world? What would I say if pressed to defend the decision to drop the bomb? Would I be labeled a chickenhearted soul if I didn’t or couldn’t?

Though I wasn’t born until nine and a half years after the dropping of the bomb, I still felt the anxiety and remorse of a prodigal son returning and wondering what my reception would be like. Coincidentally, that very morning in the Japanese English-language newspaper, there was an article about the debate raging in America over the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition of the Enola Gay, the morality and justification of Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, and the remarks of nuclear physicist Edward Teller.

One of the bomb’s developers, Teller had stated a month earlier in San Antonio that there had been an unheeded suggestion which never reached Truman’s ears to drop the bomb over Tokyo Bay away from cities as a demonstration of the sheer power of the war-born weapon. His words were still jabbing my heart and picking away at my conscience: “The chances are good that, had we demonstrated it in a way that millions would have seen and not one would have been hurt, that would have made peace.

Some patriotic voice inside of me, however, perhaps that of my father who had fought in the Pacific, was quick to respond that war was not a time for adolescent posturing but about making tough, cold, adult decisions. After all, the Japanese had started the war in the Pacific—remember Pearl Harbor—and their own hands were bloodied with atrocities such as the Bataan death march. The bomb was dropped to end the casualties on both sides and to avoid a costly invasion of the Japanese islands which would have dragged the war on.

But even with this loyal, rationalization for the American decision, which ignores the Christian principle that the end does not justify the means, I was still totally unnerved that more innocent Japanese civilians were killed in a single instant than all the American soldiers killed in my generation’s Vietnam War.

When we were about a block away from the park, I turned to Brother Nirmal and sheepishly asked, “What are we going to say if someone asks us our nationality?”

“Well, my skin can’t hide the fact—I’m an Indianl”

My polite companion was obviously right.

Neither of us could disguise our origins. I was reluctant to let him overhear my interior discussion about my dilemma.

Our approach into the park led us straight into the most famous of the Peace Park’s memorials, the Industrial Exhibition Hall, sometimes referred to as the A-Bomb Dome. Because Little Boy had parachuted and exploded right overhead, this dome-shaped building received blast pressure equally from all sides and thus was not leveled, It still stands, shattered, even slightly melted, but not totally destroyed

It’s hard to believe that this was once one of Hiroshima’s tallest buildings. It is now clearly overshadowed, even dwarfed, by the modern high-rise office buildings in the background. With the bare-bones iron ribs of its lofty dome, it has become a key symbol of the Peace Memorial Park. A plaque in front of it reminds the visitor that it stands, not as a testimony against anyone, but as a visible sign of the city’s wish for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the realization of lasting world peace.

I was still a little nervous about my U.S. passport but felt somewhat relieved and even a little encouraged to continue my walk through the park.

The Peace Memorial Park, opened in May of 1955, is beautiful, tree-filled and even prayerful with some 19 monuments and memorials to peace and to those who suffered as a result of the atomic bomb. It was absolutely impossible for me to believe that 50 years ago all of this was totally leveled. On this particular day it was filled with noisy, uniformed grammar school kids and awkward high school students who had come to complete a class assignment on the significance of each of the memorials.

What struck me was that at each of the memorials my nervous eyes found no reference to the fact that my own country had orphaned Little Boy over here. Rather, each memorial—from the Peace Fountain to the Monument of Prayer, the Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm to the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound and even the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-Bomb—spoke of peace and the utter insanity of nuclear weapons.

At the large, deep-sounding Peace Bell, where each visitor is invited to strike the bell for peace, I struck it three times, much to the chagrin of Brother Nirmal and the delight of some gawking Japanese teenagers: once for Hiroshima, once for Nagasaki and once for the world.

The A-Bomb Cenotaph, dedicated to all the victims of August 6, 1945, with its eternal Flame of Peace, reads succinctly with its promise: “Let all the souls here rest in peace. For we shall not repeat the evil.”

One of the most touching memorials is the one dedicated to Sadako Sasaki. She was two years old at the time of the dropping of the bomb. in February 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized in the Red Cross facility. Wishing for the return of good health and despite her physical pain, she began folding paper cranes with paper used for her medicine or any other kind of paper she could find. She believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes she would recover. Though in actuality she folded 1,300 paper cranes, she passed away after struggling with the disease for eight months.

Now, as a memorial to her, Japanese children from all over the country continue to fold paper cranes and lay them at her memorial. On this particular day, there were literally tens of thousands of paper cranes draped around her memorial. Their vast number reminded me once again that children’s hearts are naturally compassionate and innocent and right where all of ours should be.

There is a Chinese parasol tree in the park which really is a symbol of Hiroshima 50 years after the fatal day. The tree stood slightly less than a mile away from the hypocenter. The part of its trunk on the hypocenter side, still clearly visible, was scooped and hollowed out by the heat rays and blast from the explosion. Like the city of Hiroshima, however, this partially destroyed tree miraculously continues to grow. As a matter of fact on this April day it was budding.

‘To Remember Hiroshima Is to Commit Oneself
to Peace’

The only reference I managed to find about America—and it was simply done in passing to state the record—was in the two large wings of the Peace Memorial Museum. The three floors of the East Wing relate the history of the awful day in a very tasteful and delicate way. The actual film clip of the American B-29 dropping the bomb is shown. There are displays of the relics left behind, like wristwatches stopped at 8:15 a.m., torn and partially burned clothing of those fleeing the city, and shadowy images “photographed” into concrete and wood, the result of released radiation.

This wing ends with the reality of the nuclear age, the path to peace and Japan’s 1968 decision not to produce nuclear weapons, not to possess nuclear weapons and not to allow their entry into Japan.

The West Wing is devoted to the dangers of radiation and its long-term illnesses. All the displays point to just one reality: what the world could have been spared had nuclear weapons not been invented. And those entering this entire museum complex are greeted with the words of John Paul II from his visit on February 25, 1981, which really sum up the museum’s intent: “War is the work of man. War is destruction of human life. War is death. To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.”

Toward the exit of the West Wing, there are videotaped messages of some of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic blast. I couldn’t help but think of 65-year-old Michiko Yamaoka who was 15 years old on that August day and was standing a half mile away from the hvpocenter. She was badly disfigured by burns and subsequently discriminated against as a result of being a hibakusha. She was currently on tour in the New England states bringing Hiroshima’s message of peace to American students. Perhaps aware of the sensitivity of the issue or perhaps to be politically correct—I really don’t know which—Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, asked her not to discuss the justification of the atomic bombings.

Yamaoka’s reply came right out of her lived experience: “I am not a scholar or a politician. I have no intention of being drawn into a political debate about whether dropping the bomb was a justifiable act. I only know what I suffered personally, and that is what I will speak about. The children I speak to must know never to repeat the horrors of the past. They are responsible for building the future. As a hibakusha, it is my duty to inform them.”

As Brother Nirmal and I left the Peace Memorial Park, all of my anxiety, embarrassment and hesitations about being an American had disappeared. Even that patriotic interior voice had been moved, to silence and reflection. Hiroshima’s memorial is not about stirring up some kind of collective guilt for a horrendous act of the past. It speaks of no self-pity or self-righteousness.

Rather, it witnesses to a vision as old as Genesis when God made Adam and Eve the stewards of creation. It stands as a vivid reminder that we have been left with an awesome responsibility for our incredible achievements and scientific technology. War is a deliberate decision which flows from the human heart and the human heart can he converted with the childlike qualities of mutual respect, compassion and trust.

I felt like a man who had been welcomed back with open arms with only one word of advice, and that was lovingly given, from a heart mortally wounded: “Peace.” It really is the only gift the world can give itself.


Albert Haase, O.F.M., has preached parish missions across the United States, Africa and Asia. He holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from Fordham University. He is the author of Swimming in the Sun: Discovering the Lord's Prayer With Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton, and his audiocassette series Toward Freedom and Joy: Living in God's Presence (both from St. Anthony Messenger Press).


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