History of the Atomic Bomb and Its Lesson:
Searching for True Dialogue Between Japan and the United States

Kinue Tokudome

* The original Japanese version was published in Monthly Ushio on August 5, 2013

Memories of War in Japan and the United States

The anniversary month of the end of the Pacific War is when people like me, who try to promote dialogue between the people of Japan and the US on the memory of the war, reflect on how we have been able to forge many post-war friendships and on how much still remains to be resolved. 

I had the honor of having my two-part series article on the dropping of the atomic bombs published by this magazine (Ushio) in its August and September 1999 issues. What I tried to convey through my article were the voices of a few Americans who had had some personal connections to the bombs. I wanted to see more honest dialogue on the history of the Pacific War between the people of our two countries as we shared common values and friendship.

Looking back on those years since the publication of my article, I feel that the record is mixed, resulting in some progress but also passiveness. With the hope that there won’t be a setback for real dialogue, I would like to revisit this topic.

In my article, I quoted Mr. Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Truman, who answered my question, “If invited, will you go to Hiroshima?” He replied, “Yes, there must be so many things that I can learn.” Last summer, after 13 years since the publication of that article, he finally visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The purpose of his visit was to listen to survivors of the atomic bombings to learn what happened to them, and pay respects to those who died. The person who wholeheartedly supported Mr. Daniel’s desire to learn what took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and invited him to Japan was Mr. Masahiro Sasaki. The story of his late sister, Sadako, who kept folding paper cranes until she died of leukemia as a result of her exposure to the atomic blast, is known all over the world. 
In an essay he wrote after coming back from Japan, Mr. Daniel described the doubt he felt when asked by a Japanese reporter if he came to Japan to apologize. He thought that the entire trip might have been a mistake. But he was encouraged by Mr. Sasaki who was waiting in Hiroshima.
Mr. Daniel wrote:

Apparently, he’d already heard because he reached out and hugged me. And in that instant, my worries all but vanished. Not everyone agreed with what we were doing and we would face more tough questions, but Masahiro reassured me unequivocally that we would do it together.

Mr. Sasaki, his son Yuji, and many Japanese people, including atomic bomb survivors, welcomed Mr. Daniel warmly. The only thing survivors asked was that he would tell their stories in the United States so that future generations will never again use nuclear weapons. Although believing that his grandfather made the right decision, Mr. Daniel is trying to answer that request by planning a project of keeping oral histories of survivors at the Truman Library in Missouri and by convening a symposium on the dropping of the atomic bomb. He himself is writing a book.                     
Mr. Daniel and Mr. Sasaki)     

For someone in his position, promoting a dialogue with atomic bomb survivors can be a sensitive undertaking. Yet he is determined to proceed, saying, “
No matter how anyone in my country feels about my grandfather's decision, I think we can all feel sorrow for the loss of life and empathy for those who survived.”

In my 1999 article, I introduced Mr. Lester Tenney, a former POW who had witnessed the Nagasaki mushroom cloud. During the war, approximately 12,000 American POWs (more than 30,000 Allied POWs) were held in many POW camps scattered all over Japan and made to work at coalmines, docks and factories owned by Japanese companies. Conditions these POWs endured were appalling with meager food and very little medical care. Physical abuse by camp guards and company employees was an everyday occurrence. As a result, 10 % of POWs perished in Japan, some even in the atomic bombings. Those who survived were to carry lifelong scars both in their bodies and minds.

I quoted Mr. Tenney in my article, “I want to share my experience with Japanese young people.”  He never meant that he wanted to tell them how awfully their country treated him. Instead, he knew how healing an experience it would be if he could speak to the people of Japan, the country once treated him brutally and deprived his dignity, as a friend.  Mr. Tenney has since visited Japan many times and enjoyed his interactions with many young people. His effort to let his fellow ex-POWs have similar experience in Japan eventually led to the Japanese-government-sponsored invitation program for former American POWs in 2010. Twenty former POWs have so far participated in this program, visiting their former camp sites and having exchanges with many Japanese people. They described their experience of visiting Japan as something that helped them overcome their painful past and find peace in their hearts. They also said that for the first time they could imagine what it must have been like for ordinary Japanese citizens during the war.

Mr. Don Versaw, who participated in the first invitation, had been forced to work at a coalmine in Futase, Fukuoka prefecture. After the liberation, he was evacuated by train to the port of Nagasaki from where he started his journey home. But the devastation he saw in Nagasaki was forever carved into his memory. Although he believes that the atomic bombs saved the lives of many people in both countries, including POWs, today he says, “I still cry real tears when I think of all children who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” In order for Japanese people to be able to share their feelings about the atomic bomb with Americans, it is important that they too learn about the feelings of those Americans who suffered gravely at the hands of the Japanese. The value of such dialogue is immeasurable.

Dialogue Distorted

I also interviewed for my article the late Admiral (Commander during WWII) Frederick Ashworth, who had participated in the Manhattan project and who was on board "Bockscar," the B-29 that dropped the Nagasaki bomb. After thoroughly explaining about his experience during the mission, he asked that the Japanese people put themselves back into the 1945 environment and understand that President Truman had to use the bomb if using it had any chance to end the war.

Admiral Ashworth sent me emails from time to time until his passing in 2005, always encouraging my effort to promote dialogue between former American POWs of the Japanese and today’s Japanese population. The most memorable exchange between the Admiral and me, however, was about an article which appeared during the same time my article did. On August 1, 1999, a major Japanese daily newspaper published an article entitled, “The Atomic Bomb Dropped as It Could Not Be Brought Back: Commander of the Nagasaki Bombing Mission Testified: Many Mistakes Led to Wasting Fuel, Rader Used in Defiance of Order.”  It was based on an interview with Admiral Ashworth, which must have taken place after my interview as he told me that ours was the very first that he granted to a Japanese person. I was immediately disturbed by the content of this article.

Quoting the words of the assistant co-pilot of Bockscar, “The target point might not have been visible,” the article stated that the Nagasaki bomb was dropped in violation of the order to drop it visually. Although the order was indeed a visual bombing, the very reason Commander Ashworth was on board was for him to make the final judgment should decision be required in the event that were deviations from the original plan. What happened was exactly that kind of situation--only one run could be made as the fuel was running out-- and Commander Ashworth decided to use radar to approach Nagasaki. He did so with the authority given to him and it should not be called “defiance.” It turned out that the bombardier spotted the target through a hole in the clouds and dropped the bomb visually. That was the official record and Admiral Ashworth must have explained so to the reporter who interviewed him. But the article was constructed in such a way to make readers conclude that the Admiral agreed or at least did not deny that the bomb was dropped in defiance of the order.

I translated this article and sent it to the Admiral. He responded that he too was very upset as some acquaintance of his had already alerted him about this article. He wrote a letter of protest to the newspaper, but no correction or sequel article was published. Eventually the Admiral wrote to the newspaper that he would not want to have anything to do with them from then on. He then wrote to me, “The only thing the Japanese people want to hear from me is that the dropping of the atomic bomb was wrong and that I regret it, isn’t it?”  I sensed that he had given up on having meaningful dialogue with the Japanese people.

Admiral Ashworth once wrote to me: 

I believe that anything that I know about the subject on the bombings is in the public domain and I have no property right to any of it. I purposely permitted the Naval Institute to release my oral history to anyone who requested it for research purposes.

It was unfortunate that genuine dialogue between Japan and the US which Admiral Ashworth might have made possible was distorted.

Perception Gap on the War

It was also through Admiral Ashworth that I heard about the place called Wendover. It was in this remote town in Utah that the 509th Composite Group went through rigorous training for the atomic bomb missions under Colonel Paul Tibbets. In May of 1945, some 200 officers and 1,500 soldiers of the 509th Group moved to Tinian, the island from which the bombing missions would take off.

The 509th Group has been having its reunion for many years and I recently had the opportunity to speak to two former members. Mr. Norris Jernigan, who belonged to the intelligence division, shared these words with me. 

I personally am glad the bombs were dropped which brought that horrible war to an end and saved probably thousands of lives on both sides by averting an invasion of the Island of Japan.  I am also glad the people of Japan and U. S. have put the war behind them and have become great friends and I hope it stays that way.  We can't change history and once the war was ended it was time to put the war behind us, restore our respect for each other, and together mourn all of the lives lost due that war.

Mr. Russell Gackenbach, who participated in both the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki missions, shared with me the details of an episode that took place during the unveiling ceremony of the 509th Memorial in Wendover in 1990.

The inscription of the memorial honored the 509th Group, United States Army and Navy, scientists who created the atomic bomb and all Allied soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the European and the Pacific theaters. And the loss of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were especially recognized.

As the Memorial recognized the Japanese victims, a Japanese guest was invited and his speech was included in the program for the ceremony. But this guest stated in his keynote address during the banquet held the evening before the ceremony, “In the face of the economic boycott from the United States such as oil embargo, Japan started a war of self-defense. She was ready to surrender by the first week of August 1945. The atomic bombings were not necessary.”  Hearing this, some former members of the 509th Group stood up and walked out the room. More than 400 people, including an US Senator, were expected to attend the next day’s unveiling ceremony and the organizer of the event, fearing another walk-out, had no choice but to remove this Japanese guest’s speech from the program.

Mr. Gackenbach wrote to me, “I think each nation should honor their own dead and each nation can send representatives to attend the others’ ceremony.” But then, I cannot help but remember Mr. Daniel’s words, “Out of respect for the survivors and their countrymen, I would not defend the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He never lost sight of the purpose of his visit to Japan—to learn about the experience of atomic bomb victims. It was so unfortunate that the opportunity for dialogue offered by the American side on the occasion of the dedication of the Memorial for the 509th Group was lost in this way. 

In 2010, the book The Last Train from Hiroshima was withdrawn from the market by its publisher when it was revealed that the person who was quoted extensively in the book as one of the participants in the atomic bomb mission was not a member of the mission after all, not even a member of the 509th Group.  Doubts were first raised by veterans of the 509th Group who issued a press release that listed the problems in the book. One of the people who signed the press release was Mr. Clay Perkins, with whom I had become friends through the introduction by Admiral Ashworth. Mr. Perkins let me read the press release and I learned that there were many more problems in the book in addition to the phony crew member of the atomic bomb mission. For example, there was this passage in the book:

In private moments, friends reported that Tibbets was occasionally horrified by what he had seen over Hiroshima.

But former 509th Group’s members, including a lifelong close friend of Tibbets, denied any possibility that Tibbets expressed such thoughts.  It seems that there are also people in the US, like the Japanese newspaper that wrote about Admiral Ashworth, who want to have the participants of the atomic bomb missions to make this kind of statement.

Recently, a book arguing that the atomic bombs were used to deter the Soviet Union, and that their use was not really necessary was published in Japan only a several months after its original edition had been published in the US. This kind of argument may sound like music to Japanese people’s ears. But the majority of American people believe that President Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs in order to end the war as quickly as possible and that dropping them was necessary. Many points raised by those who argue that the atomic bombs were unnecessary are not accepted in the main stream academic community either. It can be painful for the Japanese people to accept this fact, but no true dialogue can start until they face this reality.  

We should be sensitive to the feelings of the atomic bomb victims.  But when the Japanese people are only listening to the argument that the atomic bombs were not necessary, are they really helping the victims tell their stories to a wider audience in the US?  Rather, isn’t it creating a perception gap regarding the history of the atomic bomb and the Pacific War between Japanese people and American people?

Unfortunately, there is another example to show that such a gap is being created. Unbroken, a best-selling book for the past two and a half years in the US, is the story of Louis Zamperini, a Berlin Olympic runner who became a POW of the Japanese during WWII. The author Laura Hillenbrand masterfully tells his experience of being brutalized by the Japanese, being tormented by the memory after the war, and finally forgiving everything after he became a Christian. More than 3.2 million copies have been sold and its translation rights have been sold to 26 languages. But a Japanese edition has not been published. The movie adaptation of this book will be produced with Angelina Jolie directing, and there are very few Americans who think the story is “anti-Japan.” Yet, this book was introduced in the Japanese media as “a book to incite anti-Japan sentiment.”

Given the recent controversial comments by Prime Minister Abe on “aggression” (He stated during the Diet session in April, “The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community. Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from”), it is not in Japan’s interest to have this kind of gap further widened. It will also make it difficult for President Obama to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sharing History Through True Dialogue

The Pulitzer prize winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb is considered to be the definitive book on the history of the atomic bomb, equally praised by historians, scientists and book critics. The Author, Richard Rhodes, has continued to publish books on the development of nuclear weapons and its impact on the arms race, and has spoken on this issue on many occasions for the past 25 years. In The Twilight of the Bombs published in 2010, he explored possible paths towards a world without nuclear weapons.

Mr. Rhodes also serves on the board of directors of the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), which seeks to preserve the places relating to the Manhattan Project and the legacy of the development of the atomic bomb. Receiving financial support from the National Science Foundation, AHF is now planning a national touring exhibition on the history of the development and influence of nuclear weapons since their invention during World War II. Mr. Rhodes is leading the preparatory work with a goal of completing it in 2017.
  (Author and Mr. Rhodes in 2002)

The plan for the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in 1995 was cancelled as veteran’s organizations, many media outlets and the US Congress strongly opposed to it after learning that the proposed script explained, “For most Japanese it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” They also thought that the planned exhibit over-focused on victims of the atomic bombs.

Mr. Rhodes, hoping to accomplish what the Smithsonian Museum could not, sent this message to me.  

History is always provisional, since no historian at any given time has all the facts. For that very reason, it's misleading to promote a single view of the meaning of historical events.

Mr. Rhodes is planning to invite Japanese historians to join this project to add the Japanese perspectives. 

It is hoped that many people will support the kind of dialogue Mr. Daniel is trying to promote and that the day will come when the Japanese people and the American people can learn the history of the atomic bomb and its lesson together through the kind of project Mr. Rhodes is planning.