|The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima
(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)
As I flew into Hiroshimas airport, I couldnt 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 Japans famed Bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, I chose
the plane as a way of getting a pilots-eye view of things.
Such a vantage could give me a feel for the events marking this 50th anniversary year
of Little Boys birth. Thats how the people who loaded the bomb
into the Enola Gay, the B-29 named after the pilots 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 wordthan even my sometimes callous, proud American heart can bear to admit.
So politically sensitive is talk of the childs birth and the devastation it caused
that President Bill Clinton, when asked earlier this year, would not even dare apologize
On this day in late April, when the beauty of Japans 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.
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 StoreJapans version
of Neiman Marcus. Japans 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 Boys destructive behavior that
has shaped this citys gospel.
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 1860s,
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 l920s and 30s, the industrialization that was shaping the Japanese
econony reached Hiroshima, first with heavy industries and later with factories for military
production. By the 1940s, 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 citys 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 theres 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 Hodgkins disease, myelofibrosis, lymphosarcoma, hardening of seminal
tubes, degeneration of blood vessels and eye cataracts.
of the Peace Memorial Park
As Brother Nirmal, the Indian superior of Mother Teresas brothers community
in Tokyo, and I left the bishops 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 embarrassmentor was it shame?that Im 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? Wouldnt this be considered
a war crime in todays world? What would I say if pressed to defend the decision to
drop the bomb? Would I be labeled a chickenhearted soul if I didnt or couldnt?
Though I wasnt 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
Institutions exhibition of the Enola Gay, the morality and justification of
Harry Trumans decision to drop the bomb, and the remarks of nuclear physicist Edward
One of the bombs developers, Teller had stated a month earlier in San Antonio that
there had been an unheeded suggestion which never reached Trumans 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 Pacificremember Pearl Harborand 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
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 generations 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 cant hide the factIm 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 Parks
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
Its hard to believe that this was once one of Hiroshimas 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 citys 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 memorialfrom
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-Bombspoke 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 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 childrens 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.
Remember Hiroshima Is to Commit Oneself
The only reference I managed to find about Americaand it was simply done in passing
to state the recordwas 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 Japans
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
museums 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 couldnt 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 Hiroshimas message of peace to American students. Perhaps aware of the sensitivity
of the issue or perhaps to be politically correctI really dont know whichWalt
Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, asked her not to discuss the justification of
the atomic bombings.
Yamaokas 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. Hiroshimas memorial is not about stirring
up some kind of collective guilt for a horrendous act of the past. It speaks of no self-pity
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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