The Road from Trinity: Reflections on the Atom Bomb
Photos by Naonori Kohira (Published in Japan by Shoga Kukan Press)
Chapter 3: Nagasaki
The ghosts of Trinity have a dark humor, and nowhere is it more evident than in Nagasaki. This is a town twice unlucky. Bombed as an afterthought when smoke obscured the Kokura primary, it cannot even claim Hiroshima’s distinction of being first to suffer atomic destruction. It is like being the second astronaut to walk on the moon. Everyone recalls Neal Armstrong, but ask who was second, and you will get blank stares. Nagasaki received a full measure of suffering, but remains “that other city” in the history of the atomic bomb.
Trinity’s ghosts toyed with Nagasaki’s fate from the very start. A faulty fuel pump and rain squalls near Tinian nearly canceled the flight of Bockscar, the B-29 scheduled to drop Fat Man. But after heated discussions and a change in flight plan, Bockscar and its deadly, delicate cargo lifted off into a horizon pierced by lightning. Captain Sweeney and his crew reached their rendezvous point near Japan on schedule, but the rendezvous quickly went amiss. The camera plane briefly appeared and then promptly disappeared in the clouds, and the instrument plane never showed up. After a tense, fuel-burning forty-five minutes, Bockscar flew on alone to its primary target, Kokura.
Tinian’s weathermen told Sweeney to expect clear skies, but he arrived to find Kokura hidden beneath a thick smoky haze that made targeting impossible. An earlier incendiary attack thus spared Kokura the fate that had befallen Hiroshima, but Nagasaki’s death warrant was written in the smoke that swirled below. Sweeney made three fuel-consuming passes over the city without finding an opening. With barely enough reserves to make a friendly airfield, Sweeney swung Bockscar on a southwards arc toward the secondary target, Nagasaki.
And still Nagasaki nearly evaded Genshi Bakudan, for the cloud-kami were rising around the city even as Sweeney and his crew circled vainly over Kokura. Bockscar arrived over Nagasaki only to find a thick white cloud-carpet below. Knowing that they would have to jettison the bomb before landing in any case, Sweeney’s weaponeer contemplated dropping it with a radar fix on Nagasaki. Then at the last moment, glimpsing a tiny bit of city through a cloud hole below, Bockscar’s bombardier took control and released Fat Man on its short journey to implosive oblivion.
Sitting on the hill above Sanno Shrine overlooking the hypocenter, I mentally traced Fat Man’s invisible trajectory. Intended for Nagasaki’s center, Fat Man missed its aiming point by over a mile. The third bomb of the atomic Trinity exploded in searing Pentecostal fire over the Catholic neighborhoods of Uragami. Warriors from a Christian nation had just nuked the largest cathedral in Asia. It is tempting to wonder if Nagasaki’s cloud-kami or Trinity¹s ironic ghosts had nudged the bombardier’s hand, for the geometry of the Uragami Valley also ensured that Suwa-jinja, Nagasaki’s largest Shinto shrine, was utterly untouched by the blast. Had Fat Man imploded over the intended AP, Suwa-jinja would have disappeared as just so much cedar tinder in the ensuing atomic firestorm.
In contrast to Hiroshima, Nagasaki’s most potent symbol of the blast is not a civic building but a religious structure, the one-legged Torii gate of Sanno Shrine. Half of it lies shattered in pieces beside the steep path it once framed, but the half farthest from the blast still stands in poised, gravity-defying balance, its lintel pointing toward the hypocenter like some giant’s granite finger. Climbing the slope, we arrived just as an elderly Hibakusha began to tell his story to a class of third-graders sitting on the steps in the Torii’s shadow. He had been a junior in high school, working in a plant building kamikaze submarines — coffinlike human torpedoes — when the bomb burst over his city.
The Hibakusha stood facing uphill, a small battery-powered PA system hung from his stooped shoulder. Behind him, the Torii was silhouetted against a curtain of blue sky and cloud. The waning day moon sailed high over its incomplete arch. What did he think of itinerant gaijin like me? Behind us, a second troupe of schoolchildren escorted by another Hibakusha waited their turn. I wondered about these rememberers, their numbers diminishing even more rapidly than the aging veterans of World War II. Who would tell their story for them when they were gone? Would anyone tell this story at all?
Listening to the Hibakusha, I realized that there is an intimacy to Nagasaki’s atomic tragedy that at moments is lacking in the sprawl of Hiroshima. Perhaps it is a matter of size. Nagasaki is a small town compared to Hiroshima. The narrowness of the Uragami valley contrasts sharply with the dense urban landscape surrounding Hiroshima’s Peace Park. Here small neighborhoods cling to hilly slopes, sandwiched between river and ridge.
Nowhere was this intimacy more immediate than outside the tiny home of Dr. Nagai, north of the rebuilt Uragami Cathedral. When others shrank from the horror of the injured, Dr. Nagai dedicated the last days of his atom-shortened life to serving the bomb’s victims. Touching the cool wood of an exterior wall, I sensed his selfless and untiring commitment in a way that was almost palpable. The Hibakusha carry on in the tradition of his dedication, and even after they pass on, it is clear that this sense of intimacy will linger; it is woven into the very fabric of Nagasaki.
I felt this same intimacy at Nagasaki’s hypocenter, a small woodsy park bounded by a tiny river in a ravine below the A-bomb museum. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki has preserved this spot as empty space, and a three-sided black granite monument completes the trinity of hypocenters. It is a place for quiet reflection, or at least it should be. Sitting there, I also sensed something quite different. Unlike the space around Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome, the spirits of Nagasaki’s atomic zone are not at peace. One senses an agitation to this place that grows as one approaches the hypocenter. The feeling here contrasts starkly with the comparative calm of Sanno Shrine. This silent green glen is also unquiet and restless.
My unease began when I first walked through Nagasaki’s Peace Park. Particularly after the intimacy of Dr. Nagai’s home, the scale and impersonality of the park seemed oddly out of place. Like Hiroshima’s enormous complex, Nagasaki’s park is more a statement against nuclear proliferation than a memorial to Nagasaki’s atomic dead. It is a diplomat’s garden, ornamented with monumental gifts of dubious beauty, many from regimes now fallen and nations that no longer exist. It speaks to statesmen, not citizens. I recalled the same pattern at Hiroshima, but there the individual and the state co-exist. Here, the individual has been lost in a myriad of political statements.
Stranger yet, it seems that Hiroshima was adopted by the Western Bloc, and Nagasaki by the East. How odd to think we once lived in a world so polarized that we invented two sides to the issue of saving mankind from its atomic self. Reading the plaques of a few of Nagasaki’s monuments, I shuddered at their blatant, political cynicism. As if it were not enough for Nagasaki to suffer nuclear destruction, both Nagasaki and Hiroshima also had to struggle to avoid becoming doctrinal hostages in a Cold War propaganda battle. I could sense unquiet ghosts whirling around the corroding sculptures.
Nagasaki’s museum finds a happier balance. Smaller, newer, and more artistically refined than Hiroshima’s, it presents a moving array of personal artifacts that speak eloquently of human tragedy. Even the mandatory diorama helps draw one into the perspective of those who perished in the blast. The words of the victims say more yet. Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki captures the dawning horror of radiation, observing “…concentric circles of death. Concentric circles of the Devil.” I recall the surprise expressed by the wizards of Los Alamos as they learned of this unexpected side-effect of their novel bomb. The scientists knew of the danger; several scientists had died from radiation poisoning even before the Trinity detonation, but all assumed that anyone exposed to lethal amounts of radiation would be killed instantly by the blast.
Oddly, it is the newest artifacts in the museum that seem most antiquated. These are the weapons models in the last exhibit hall, devoted to the dangers of super-power nuclear proliferation. Already, it is tempting to look back on those simpler times, when nukes were comparatively large and in the hands of only a few. The next explosion, if it comes, will be dispatched as a much smaller package, by someone other than an agent of a major power. The genie is out of the nuclear bottle, and it is anyone’s guess who will free him next.
Yet these nuclear relics spoke to me in an utterly unexpected way. Nagasaki is troubling precisely because it was not the first. Why did the U.S. Strategic Air Forces drop a second bomb? With one city in ashes and word of radiation disease leaking out, what compelled them to strike again, and so soon after Hiroshima? To keep Japan from “recovering its balance” as some strategists argued? To convince Japan that theUnited States had enough bombs to deliver on Truman¹s threat of “…a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”?
This argument is persuasive, but the real answer lies hidden in the terrible, glittering beauty of those deadly missiles. Those who possessed the bomb in turn became possessed by the weapons themselves. Truman did not issue a second order, for his first contemplated more to come. Fat Man was to be but the second bomb of a multitude, in fulfillment of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s order that “additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff…” The Strategic Air Forces was preparing Tinian to become an assembly line of mass death.
Nagasaki was doomed by the anger of war and the trigger-itch of technological curiosity. Little Boy was a simple device, so simple that the scientists knew it would perform over Hiroshima without a prior test. But the Fat Man bomb exploded over Nagasaki was vastly more complex and more delicate, so delicate that the wizards of Los Alamos felt compelled to test the design atop a tower in New Mexico first. Would the design now work as well in the field? Could one take an explosive-wrapped sphere of plutonium the size of a plum pit, drop it from a plane, and have it perform to deadly specification? Curious warriors wanted to know. And Nagasaki drew the short straw.
The ghosts of Trinity worked their mischief well. At Trinity, mankind lost its innocence. At Hiroshima, men momentarily surrendered control to the killing machines they created. And at Nagasaki, our very humanity was at stake as men teetered on the precipice of becoming little more than cogs in an inhuman megamachine. Mercifully, there was nothing more to drop. The wizards of Los Alamos had no more bombs to deliver. As the echoes of Fat Man’s blast slowly died into silence, mankind collectively retreated from the precipice. Japan surrendered. The bombers stood down. Other, larger bombs would explode, but an atomic bomb would never be dropped again in anger. We walked back to the hypocenter. A trio of dark crows wheeled over the granite memorial and disappeared toward Uragami Cathedral. I caught myself listening for the ghosts in the green whisper of the wind in the leaves above me. I heard nothing but silence. Here technological men committed mortal sin. It is a place where even the ghosts of Trinity fear to linger.