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The Day Time Stood Still

Another entry from the “Way Back Machine,” written and published in August  of 2003, shortly after a searing trip to Hiroshima.

At approximately 2:00 a.m., local time, on August 6, 1945 a B-29 Superfortress took off from Tinian headed for Japan. The plane was named after the mother of the pilot, one Paul Tibbets, Jr. The plane was called the Enola Gay.

Almost exactly 13 hours later, the plane landed back at Tinian where the crew was greeted by General Tooey Spaatz, a large contingent of military big wigs, and a group of wildly cheering enlisted men. Then and there, Tibbets was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was now a hero, his name forever written in the history books. The other crew members were decorated with Air Medals, their names largely forgotten.

In between, at 8:16, Tibbets and crew dropped something called Little Boy over Hiroshima, an important transportation hub and a previously un-bombed city. Just a few minutes before, the Japanese had detected the approach of two B-29s. Local radio stations broadcast the warning, but depending on what version of the story you believe, the warning was either ignored, or the all clear signal was broadcast at 8:14.

By 8:16, many people who were previously sheltered were already opening windows and doors and heading outside. Others were already at work tearing down wooden buildings around key government installations to act as firebreaks to prevent the kind of destruction that had been visited on Tokyo and other Japanese cities by napalm-dropping B-29s. Children were heading to school. Adults were off to work. Others were still cooking what small bit of rationed rice they still had for breakfast. Accurate death tolls weren’t possible, but most historians agree that 140,000 people died as a result of the attack.

Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon used in warfare. It weighed about 9,000 lbs. and had an explosive force equal to about 20,000 tons of TNT (some records say 15,000 tons). Small by modern standards, it detonated at just over 500 meters above ground, the so called “hypocenter.”

The July 24, 1995 issue of Newsweek reports that . . .

“A bright light filled the plane,” wrote Col. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb. “We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The city was hidden by that awful cloud…boiling up, mushrooming.” For a moment, no one spoke. Then everyone was talking. “Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!” exclaimed the co-pilot, Robert Lewis, pounding on Tibbets’s shoulder. Lewis said he could taste atomic fission; it tasted like lead. Then he turned away to write in his journal. “My God,” he asked himself, “what have we done?” (Special Report, “Hiroshima: August 6, 1945”)

Miraculously, the building immediately under the hypocenter was not incinerated. After much debate, the building’s remains were stabilized and left in place as a reminder of the terror of that day. It’s now called the Atomic Bomb Dome (for obvious reasons if you look at pictures of the building). Almost everything else for 2 kilometers in every direction evaporated.

At the hypocenter, the ambient temperature instantly jumped to approximately 7,000 degrees F. By way of reference, the kind of steel that is typically used in modern construction melts at 2800 degrees F.

An eighth of a mile from the hypocenter a man sat on the stairs of a bank, waiting for the doors to open. He was vaporized where he sat. The surface of the stone stairway he was sitting on was bleached nearly white by the immense heat. The place where he sat just a moment before was made completely empty but for his outline, a shadow left behind because his body absorbed the heat. Today, you can see those same steps and that man’s shadow in the Peace Museum nearby.

Ceramic roof tiles on buildings up to 1/3 mile away melted. Building stones that used to be gray were now white—the ones that weren’t pulverized into dust. One and a quarter miles away, the clothes people were wearing burst into flames.

The heat wasn’t really the worst of it. The real damage was done by the unworldly winds generated by the explosion. The wind velocity at the hypocenter was 980 mph. By comparison, a Class 5 hurricane, at 156 mph will obliterate everything in its path. The pressure has been calculated at 8,600 pounds per square foot.

One third of a mile from the hypocenter, the wind velocity had dropped to 620 mph. Almost nothing was left standing within this range but for a couple of concrete buildings. A mile out, the 190 mph wind was enough to destroy brick buildings. Most buildings were made of wood.

The detonation generated Alpha, Beta, Gamma and neutron rays. Alpha and Beta rays were absorbed by the air and did not reach the ground. Gamma and neutron rays did, and assuming the heat or air pressure didn’t kill you, the radiation did.

Within 1/16 mile radius from the hypocenter, death generally came within a couple of hours. If you were within a half mile radius that day, you were probably dead within 30 days.

All in all, it was a bad day in a bad decade.

The Dog Days of August

I’ve never thought much about August one way or another. Just another month leading to the beginning of school. Last days of summer. Last chance at a summer holiday (at least in the hemisphere I live in). And I certainly never thought about August 6.

It turns out that August 6, 1945 acted as a sort of bookend to what was arguably the worst three decades in modern history. Almost exactly 31 years before, on August 3, 1914, the German Army invaded Belgium (on August 6, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia), launching a war that killed upwards of 16 million civilians and combatants and left another 19.5 million wounded, decimated Victorian optimism, introduced a level of barbarity to warfare that was only to get worse, and set the stage for all the misery that was to follow.

In the intervening years, a global flu pandemic killed another 20 to 40 million people. The great depression plunged the industrial world into a psychic tailspin that pushed the US closer to the edge of political collapse than anyone wants to think. Stalin took the reins from Lenin and in the course of consolidating his power, caused countless millions more to be exterminated.

In East Asia, Japan (a country then displaying many of the religious, anti-liberal, and extra-political dynamics we see in Saudi Arabia today, just to pick an example) emerged four square as a power to be reckoned with, most notably with its staggering triumph in The Russo-Japanese War, and then later with its string of vicious adventures in China, Korea, and finally over Pearl Harbor.

In Germany, yet another in a long string of anti-liberals—this one a narcissistic, racist, pathological, failed painter—came to power. Within four years, Hitler had re-energized Germany, invaded various neighboring countries, and launched a second world war. Four more years and a staggering 52 million military and civilian deaths later (all war theaters, more than half of them from the USSR), and he was dead. Think about that for a minute. Eight years is two terms for an American President. Eight years to go from nothing, to global cataclysmic war, to nothing.

The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally brought the cursed decades to a blessed end, while they simultaneously launched us collectively into a new era of cold and not so cold war that officially ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The genie was out of the bottle. What had we done?

I Saw the Dome

Like many people my age, I grew up in the shadow of THE BOMB, not really knowing what it was or what it meant, but dutifully mustering into the halls of my grade school when the siren sounded, there to sit with hands grasped around knees and head tucked forward to better survive the hammer blows of Russian rockets that might someday find their way to Rochester, New York. If I knew then what I know now, I would have opted to go outside to have one last look before everything disappeared.

My interest in things military reached a low ebb in the mid to late 1970s, what with my low draft number and the doings “way down yonder in Vietnam” to quote Country Joe MacDonald. Later, in the 1990’s, I began to read bits and pieces, and then voraciously about The Boer War, the great Dreadnaught arms race leading up to The Great War, and onward through World War II. I can’t offer any particular reason why all this became so interesting, but it did.

Then, a few years ago, while in Belgium, I rented a car and headed to the Western Front, near Ypres, a place where the British (and Canadians) and Germans punctuated years of misery and death in the trenches with epic orgasms of slaughter. In a place called Sanctuary Woods, a section of the trench line is still very much intact, complete with bomb craters and shattered trees.

Nearby I walked in a British cemetery called Tyne Cot. If you’ve not been to a military cemetery, it’s a sobering experience – particularly if it’s close by the scene of the killing (unlike Arlington for example).  I found myself staring at a gravestone marked for some young Tommie who was killed on October 3, 1917, a day I tend to remember fondly as my birthday. As it happens, all of the men buried in Tyne Cot were killed in the first two weeks of October, more or less exactly 83 years ago to the day that I was standing there.

As intense as that day was—and you can still feel the ghosts—it was a trifling in comparison to standing next to the ruined remains of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall, now called the A-Bomb Dome. It is exactly there, 2000 feet up that Little Boy went off.

My wife, son, and I had gone to Japan earlier this year to visit our daughter (sister) who is now living and working in Osaka. We had gone to Hiroshima for the purpose of visiting a holy island off the coast called Miyajima (literally Shrine Island), also called Itsukushima. Described as “one of the three most beautiful places in Japan”, the Island is indeed that. We passed an idyllic afternoon, night, and morning there, viewing the Torii gate, several astoundingly lovely temples, and the view from the top of the island courtesy of a cableway and a good hike.

The visit to Peace Park—the land surrounding the hypocenter and visually and physically anchored on one end by the A-Bomb Dome and the other by a museum to the event—was almost an afterthought . . . an afterthought I’d strongly recommend to anyone, but most especially anyone thinking that having access to a nuclear device might be a useful way to further his or her cause.

I’d seen pictures of what was left of Hiroshima after Little Boy’s visit—and the pictures are awesome—but standing there a few yards from one of the few things that survived that day is indescribable.

I cried. I don’t know how you don’t cry.

I mentioned ghosts. I don’t particularly believe in that sort of thing, but they’re there. All you have to do is close your eyes and you can feel them . . . the souls of 140,000 people who didn’t expect to die that day and in that way. I’ve never felt anything like it. Even now, it makes me shiver just to recall the moment.

In every direction you see a fully recovered city. Peace Park is a lovely and contemplative place with trees, flowers, grass, and monuments—quite like any other urban park you may have visited, except that this one has risen out of the ashes of nuclear devastation. Out past the trees lies a modern and bustling city, none of which existed after 8:16 on August 6, 1945. You look at the people walking by. Anyone who looks older than 70 or so creates an instant question: “I wonder if he was here that day”?

I tried. I couldn’t shake it. Everything I looked at was occupying space that one minute was there, and the next wasn’t. Behind the forms still lies the sudden nothing.

Lessons, But For Whom?

A few years ago, I went to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. The Enola Gay was on display in a special room. Well, most of it was as the restoration wasn’t complete. That was a pretty intense experience as well. And now I had connected the dots. Saw the plane. Stood where Little Boy detonated. What have we done?

The decision to “drop the bomb” is one of the more hotly debated topics of the past fifty years. Hotly in the sense that the people who are interested in the topic tend to be pretty polarized about what we thought we were doing and why, not in the sense that anyone gives it much thought these days. That’s too bad. More people should.

Less than twenty years later, the US and USSR stood at the edge of thermonuclear war because a deluded Nikita Khrushchev had decided that blustering about shielding the fledgling Castro regime with the Soviet nuclear umbrella wasn’t nearly enough. If you read the literature surrounding the “thirteen days” in October, you know how close we came to a shooting war, and how cavalierly Castro talked about using tactical nuclear weapons to repel the anticipated Yankee invasions. Madness. And Castro arguably had something to loose. And what of people like bin Laden?

The oddity of the cold war is that the US and the USSR tacitly entered into a true devil’s deal: We would both build immense stockpiles of devastating weapons—with all the attendant overhead of making, storing, and ultimately disposing off the incredibly lethal substances and byproducts associated with missiles and nuclear warheads—that we would never use (though our respective general staffs sure liked to talk the talk).

Nuclear weapons had made soldiers essentially obsolete. But because of their super-lethality, we would never use them thus putting us back into the soldiering game that THE BOMB was supposed to get us out of (that, after all, was the overriding motivation for using Little Boy and Fat Boy over Japan).

Today, we find ourselves in an even stranger dynamic. We’ve moved from an era where governments anticipated using nuclear devices against people, to an era where people apparently fervently desire to use nuclear devices against governments. The first nuclear device to be used in war since 1945 will most likely not be one launched by a government, but by some disaffected nihilists in order to score theological debating points. What have we done?

On the subject of “should we or shouldn’t we have dropped the bomb,” it seems like the question that shouldn’t be asked yet alone answered. In comparison to the sweep of brutality that characterized both the European and Asian wars, 140,000 dead wasn’t all that much. Just to highlight two data points, in 1937, the Japanese killed over 250,000 Chinese, many of them civilians in the battle for Shanghai. During the infamous rape of Nanking, drunken Japanese soldiers tortured, brutalized, maimed, looted, and ultimately killed something like 300,000 civilians. It went on unabated for nearly six weeks. And these were just warm-up acts.

And it’s not like the U.S. government was immune to the wanton targeting of civilian populations. Prior to Hiroshima, General Curtis LeMay had been sending bombers night after night on low level, napalm carpet bombing runs over densely populated urban centers. The resulting firestorms were deadly and devastating, but manifestly unsuccessful in impressing the emperor or his revanchist generals that the game was over. Or more precisely, the pounding from above did nothing but further the resolve of the crazed few that national suicide was preferable to ignominious defeat in what they regarded to the end, beyond, and even until this day as a holy and righteous war (again, note the similarities to the thinking motivating the cave dwelling jihadists of the present day).

So bomb we did until the emperor, the only man capable of affecting surrender, brought the East Asian war to a conclusion.

And yet, there is something especially appalling about how it all ended. I happen to be in the camp with people who feel that the war needed to end, and it needed to end before we committed a million troops to an inch by inch bloodletting slog from one end of Japan to the other that might have never ended.

The people who claim that the bombing was racially motivated or that the Japanese were within moments of capitulating just don’t have their facts right. Before shock and awe was popularized by the Bush Two presidency, Harry Truman and company made it happen, and a million GIs went home to start families and go about the process of building normal lives as a result.

So intellectually, I can justify the bomb. Given the situation, I believe it was the right decision. But what a horrible situation to be in, debating the most humane way to stop the slaughter before we added another couple of hundred thousand, or million, or maybe many millions more to the tens of millions who had already died.

Emotionally, unleashing the nuclear age is beyond the pale. Perhaps the genie was bound to come out of the bottle anyway. Still, I found standing there in Hiroshima in the shadow of our collective inhumanity to be draining and devastating. What have we done?

In the Peace Museum there are two different watches that are frozen forever at 8:16. The time when time stood still. There should never be another monument to another event of this ignominy and devastation. I’m a hopeful guy. Not necessarily optimistic, but hopeful. Here’s hoping that I’m not wrong.