This month marks the 77th anniversary of the first atom bomb in history dropped on Hiroshima. On 6 August 1945, three American B-29 Superfortress bombers flew nearly 10km above the city. At precisely 8.15 that morning the bomb bays of one of them called the “Enola Gay” opened, and a Uranium 235 fission weapon code-named “Little Boy” was let loose.
It fell through the warm summer morning for about 43 seconds before exploding in a nuclear conflagration that created a gigantic fireball which emitted heat rays across the city of up to 4,000°C. Huge winds erupted from the centre of the blast, travelling at more than 400m per second, carrying fires that obliterated the largely wooden and paper houses and instantly turning thousands of people into ash or nothing more than a shadow on stone steps.
Tens of thousands more were burnt so badly their skin peeled off in sheets, hanging from their arms, as in their agony they plunged into the river or walked away from the blazing city to fall and die on the road.
An estimated 140,000 people were killed by that single explosion, which was followed three days later by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The effects of the radiation caused severe chronic illness and death for decades afterwards.
Humanity had created for itself a new terrifying destiny. This was an entirely new combination of human destructive powers that were wielded as vengeance for Pearl Harbour, a demonstration of American global power and a brutal reckoning for the Japanese’ own sins of war.
Notes from Hiroshima
Nearly 40 years ago, in the early northern spring of 1986, I visited Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Park in the centre of the city. I have never forgotten that visit, and this month I turned to my old notebooks to read again my impressions and the thoughts it left me with.
It is worth remembering something of my personal context around that time. I had been working as a young soundman for the BBC and other foreign news networks in and around our townships as the violence that would accompany the dying of apartheid grew and grew, shootings, necklacings, fires burning through the streets, the rage of mass funerals of the victims spilling out into our consciousness. Within the space of only a few months in late 1984 and the first half of 1985, violence had seared itself into my still deeply uncertain consciousness of the world.
I escaped to Japan to find some peace and to regain a sense of being young once more in a world of possibilities and energetic hope.
It is only as I write this story that I recall that the apartheid regime in 1986 had at least six nuclear warheads stored away, waiting for their own moment of vengeance and terror to be unleashed. That catastrophe never came, thank God, but the knowledge of their existence was deeply held in my mind as I travelled to Hiroshima.
I remember getting off the train at the main station and taking a bus to the park itself. What I found there was not easy to categorise. It was an ordinary, but beautiful, Japanese early spring day, with crystalline skies and plum blossoms still flowering, holding the turn of the season in the fragility of their fading petals – a time of waiting, before the cold of winter lifted completely, and the magnificent evanescence of the cherry blossoms still to come.
This is an edited version of what I wrote nearly 40 years ago as a 24-year-old just out of university:
“My first impression was a strange admixture of relief and disappointment. I was not visually assaulted by what I saw and hence my emotional reaction was one of ‘where’s it happening?’ The A-bomb dome is nothing more than a ruined building and conveys no special sense of catastrophe.
“Then one walks along the tree-lined paths in the park and there is no feeling of history or monumental human error. Off to one side a group of drunken Japanese businessmen play with a huge old temple bell hung in the gardens. First they bang it on the side to make it ring and then each one puts his head inside the bell to see how long he can stand the noise and vibrations. A rather childish display of male bravado which one would scorn at any shrine of human history from Notre Dame or the Voortrekker monument, and one which seems, to me, to be almost macabrely incongruous within the epicentre of the world’s first atomic bomb attack.
“The bright colours of the chains of peace cranes in contrast to the drab winter greys are an affirmation of life. The dynamic interplay of colour, twisting shapes and texture of the chains seems to me to represent not only the random joy of childhood experience but makes me think of the infinite possibilities of combination and recombination of the molecular chains of DNA.
“The view through the arch across the park beyond the eternal flame to the A-bomb dome is brilliantly done and says more than any words could as a memorial to those who died.
“The flame, the dome, the arch and the Japanese schoolchildren having their photograph taken in front of it incorporates all the elements of human consciousness: the past, the present, and the elusive mystery of the eternal. A transformation of physical symbol into human experience. A supremely ecumenical statement.
“Walking down the path to the museum, one feels thrown back into the banality of existence. Children play with pigeons and people stroll on the lawns, oblivious to the special meaning of the horrors that are enshrined around them.
“Outside the museum is a strangely incongruous sight. A group of Japanese teenagers dressed in 50s style: jeans, leather jackets and weirdly pointed shoes, dancing to old 50s tunes – ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and so on. One boy is wearing a leather jacket with ‘At the Hop’ embroidered over an American flag. Another’s jacket is decorated with ‘Elvis’ and ‘Teddy Boys’. They have obviously rehearsed their act and one wonders why they chose to do it here, at the very entrance to the museum that catalogues the horror that Americans perpetrated here and with the A-bomb dome in the background.
“Inside the museum the horrors will unfold, but yet one learns that most of the houses were made of wood and that some people close to the epicentre survived. One has to keep reminding oneself that it was a single bomb that caused this devastation and that it was tiny in comparison to today’s behemoths.
“At first, one feels slightly uncertain. It was horrific, but there were limits. Within the context of today’s heated discussions of overkill factors and nuclear winter, it seems almost disillusioning to actually perceive that there were limits to the power of the Hiroshima bomb. And yet, this also makes the horror more tangible by demystifying it.
“Slowly this feeling grows, and one begins to be conscious of even daring to talk in the face of what really happened, amidst the evidence of this destruction, surrounded by Japanese people. ‘What do the people around you really think?’ ‘What do they really feel?’ ‘What about the hunch-backed old lady shuffling past the pictures of burning children?’ ‘And the school children, staring at a molten mass of porcelain rice bowls and human bone?’
“Gandhi’s words fill your mind. ‘The Japanese have lost their lives; we shall see whether the Americans have lost their souls.’ [Now, in 2022, I can find no evidence that Gandhi actually said this, but I have left it in as a reminder of what was going on in my mind that day.]
“Finally, one walks out into the lobby, on the right-hand side are pictures of famous people who have visited the museum. The Pope, Jimmy Carter and, in a horrible coincidence, Olaf Palme.
“Outside, the rock and rollers have been joined by a group of break dancers. Inside, I remember something I read in the visitors’ book written by an Egyptian: ‘And they love them still, by God!’”
Nearly 40 years later this is a reminder of the extraordinary Japanese spirit and their ability to reshape the future after what happened at Hiroshima. One can never truly say enough about Hiroshima and what it means for humanity, and, at the same time, one might sometimes want to say nothing at all in the face of that immense suffering.
Today, though, it is worth remembering what the Peace Park and museum ultimately show: that the deeply shocking horror of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was, in fact, limited. Today, what happened to the city has become an appalling measurement of the darkest technical and moral extremes of human depravity. Frequently today, people talk of each one of the 13,000 nuclear bombs that exist in the world today as being as large as four or six or eight – or hundreds, or even thousands, greater than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Putin’s path of destruction, threat of a nuclear war and power of sanctions unpacked”
And almost daily now there is talk of Russia using “tactical” nuclear weapons should Vladimir Putin feel he is losing the war in Ukraine, or should he somehow decide to show the world the terrible vastness of his destructive power.
For the first time in decades, the risk of a nuclear holocaust has become threateningly real again.
There are eight powerful countries that control the vast global arsenal of nuclear bombs, and more, like Iran and North Korea, are working as fast as they can to attain them.
Should even a single nuclear bomb be launched, the chain of consequences is not hard to imagine – the end of civilisation, the annihilation of our planet. These are phrases so immutable in their truth now that even to utter them sounds like speaking in clichés.
Paradoxically, the meaning of Hiroshima lies in the fact that recovery, and some kind of healing, were possible after its holocaust. The Peace Park is no cliché. It speaks at the same time both gently, and shockingly, of the multiplicity of human memory and experience; but its very peacefulness is a horrifying reminder that there are now no more limits to the destruction we can wreak.
Should nuclear war break out there will never be another peace park for a 24-year-old to wander through and try to come to terms with the cruelty of the world as it is.
There will be no more multiplicity of human experience.
There will. DM