Dropping the Bomb (part 4)

War is strange, and its aftermath can be just as strange. In the case of those connected with the pivotal events of the war in the Pacific, we see a snapshot of this reality in the lives of four key players.

Minoru Genda, one of the planners of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was awarded the Legion of Merit by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The medal was bestowed in recognition of Genda’s work on a security treaty between Japan and the United States. Twenty-one years after helping to draw the U.S. into a war against Japan, Genda was honored by an American president. To the day of his death in 1989, Genda expressed no regrets about his role in the attack on Pearl Harbor except that the attack was not repeated.

Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the raid on Pearl Harbor, converted from Buddhism to Christianity after the war. The only code he had known was one that dictated revenge, and he could not understand the kindness and forgiveness that he saw displayed toward Japanese prisoners of war. This led him to investigate Christianity, and after reading the Bible he became not only a Christian but a missionary. His ministry was based in Seattle and he traveled throughout the United States proclaiming the gospel.

Perhaps strangest of all are the intertwined stories of Mochitsura Hashimoto and Charles McVay. McVay was captain of the Indianapolis, the American warship that had been sunk by a Japanese submarine commanded by Hashimoto (who had also participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor). In a bizarre twist, McVay was court-martialed for neglecting his duty and Hashimoto was summoned to the U.S. to testify against McVay. Imagine being an American naval officer who survived such an ordeal, only to be blamed for it and even have your government bring in the enemy commander who killed your crew and have him testify against you! About four and a half months after Hashtimoto destroyed McVay’s ship, he testified in the sailor’s trial in Washington, D.C. McVay was demoted and his career followed the path of his ill-fated cruiser. Hashimoto went on to become a seaborne merchant, often spending time in American ports. McVay, however, never recovered. Years later, after suffering the death of his wife and having endured years of hate mail from family members of his doomed crew, he put a pistol to his head and ended his life. In 2000, due in large part to a collaborated effort between Hashimoto and surviving members of the Indianapolis, McVay was officially exonerated by President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Japanese emperor Hirohito continued to reign for four and a half decades following Japan’s surrender. His son Akihito is Japan’s emperor today.

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Published in: on February 16, 2016 at 5:13 pm  Comments (1)  

Dropping the Bomb (Part 3)

The Japanese believed that the nuclear destruction wreaked in Hiroshima was a one-time event that could not be duplicated, so they persisted in their refusal to surrender. So three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki with similar results. This time the Japanese leaders went the other direction and thought the Americans’ ability to produce nuclear weapons was greater than it actually was. In reality, the supply of atomic bombs was very low and they could not be produced quickly. Believing otherwise, the Japanese emperor took to the airwaves and announced Japan’s surrender. His message was so convoluted that most of his Japanese hearers did not understand him to say they had surrendered—and in fact many even thought he was announcing they had won the war!

World War II—the war that showed how capably modern technology could slaughter human beings by the thousands—was now over.

Many credited the atomic bomb with ending the war, though 70 years later the debate continues about the ethics of that decision. The question remains: Was dropping the bomb on Japan the right choice?

I won’t dodge answering that question, but first I want to make sure we have a proper historical perspective. It’s so easy to impose our own opinions on people in the past without considering the very real dilemmas they faced. We don’t even have to do it consciously—it comes naturally.

This was brought to my attention a few days ago when I was talking about Hiroshima with a good friend of mine. He said, “It’s amazing how forgiving the Japanese people have been.” But to bring forgiveness into the equation of August 1945 is perhaps imposing our own contemporary view on events that took place in a time of war 70 years ago. (By the way, this guy is smarter than me and could run knowledge-of-history circles around me, so I’m not at all knocking him.) To speak of forgiveness here assumes that the actions of the Enola Gay are universally understood to have been in the wrong. However, that is not the case. The atomic bombings in Japan were not acts of terror—they were acts of war. I’m not sure that the Japanese think of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as wrongs that need to be forgiven any more than Americans think of the attack on Pearl Harbor or the slaughter of the crew of the Indianapolis as something that needs to be forgiven. War is a terrible thing, and its very essence is people doing terrible things to each other. Forgiveness is certainly a part of reconciliation, but I think it would be a mistake to isolate the bombings in Japan as something that somehow occurred beyond the scope of the atrocities of war.

Today we are so distant from the daily realities of living in a time of war. When food and other supplies are being rationed, families broken apart, and violent deaths occurring daily by the hundreds and thousands, people grow desperate to find a way to put an end to it. American leaders in 1945 saw only two ways to do that: invade Japan at the cost of a million American lives plus a multitude of Japanese lives, or drop the bomb. They chose the latter and the war ended without the necessity of an invasion. We can question this decision throughout all the coming generations, but we need to exercise caution in condemning those who found themselves stuck in a dilemma in which we will (hopefully) never find ourselves.

Having said that, no one will ever convince me that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing. The other day I was watching my six-year-old daughter playing with her dolls. The thought struck me: How many six-year-old girls were playing with their dolls in Hiroshima that morning when their bodies suddenly burst into flames? If the answer was one, it would be too many. But 75% of the Japanese people killed in Hiroshima were civilians; of those 60,000 deaths, how many thousands and thousands were children? Babies? Of course the adult lives, and the soldiers’ lives, matter too; but thinking of it in terms of the children forces us to face the horrible reality of what those bombs did.

But it ended the war, prevented the invasion, and in the end saved thousands of lives, right?

In college I took a Moral Philosophy class. We spent the whole semester trying to figure out how we could know what is right and what is wrong. We were not allowed to bring God into it, and that’s when I discovered for the first time that without a Creator, there really can be no such thing as objective ethics. Anyway, one Godless theory for trying to discern right from wrong is utilitarianism. This view argues that the right thing to do is whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and it is behind the argument for dropping the bomb. This idea sounds good for a split second, but you don’t have to think about it very long before you realize that it’s rife with problems. For one thing, with no other basis to go by, how do we even decide what is good? Another problem is that it lacks moral responsibility—there is no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. For example, if 10 men raped one woman and all 11 of them were taken to the edge of a cliff and told that either the rapists or the woman had to be shoved over the edge, the utilitarian view plainly holds that the 10 rapists are more to be considered than the one victim. By the way, for whatever it’s worth, utilitarian ethics is still prevalent in our society today.

And yet let’s humor the utilitarian ethicists and apply that approach to Hiroshima. Which would produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people: dropping the bomb or launching an invasion?

Our problem solving will be greatly helped when we learn to acknowledge that oftentimes there is a third way. Remember the computerized tests you took in high school where you had to color in the little bubble with a No. 2 pencil, and “C” was “None of the above”? Well, is it possible that when faced with nuclear warfare or a massive invasion with conventional warfare, if we’re seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people, perhaps the answer is “C”—none of the above? Could it be that we are so committed to forcefully eliminating the problems before us that we fail to consider other, better options? When faced with the choice of dropping an atomic bomb on thousands of people or putting a million military lives on the line, maybe the best conclusion is that neither is the best course of action.

So what could they have done differently? That’s the problem with war and also the lesson that we can learn from it. The horror of war is that our national leaders got to a place where they believed their only two choices were terribly violent, lethal options. But maybe we should not have even gotten to the place where we had to make the choice between an atomic bomb and an invasion.

One time I was speaking to a group of students at a SADD meeting. (This used to be Students Against Drunk Driving but now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions.) I asked them: What should you do if you’re alone in a car at night with a guy or girl and they want to do things you know you shouldn’t do? I was surprised that only one girl, after an awkward 10-second silence, raised her hand to answer. She said, “I wouldn’t be alone in a car at night with a guy in the first place.” Bingo. Seventy years ago we found ourselves in a dilemma where we were faced with making a choice between two hellish options. What if we had made better decisions before that point so that we never found ourselves there?

We study history so we can learn from the past. But learning from the past doesn’t just mean that dropping atomic bombs on cities full of people is bad. It means digging deeper to find out how our leaders got to the place where they thought nuclear warfare and full-scale invasion were our only viable options. How do we keep from getting to that place again? Perhaps the answer to that question is the real lesson of Hiroshima.

Next time: the strange fates of the leaders behind the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Indianapolis.

Published in: on February 3, 2016 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dropping the Bomb (Part 2)

The crew of the Enola Gay had spent nearly a year preparing for this mission. It was so top-secret that most of them did not even know what they were training for until the plane approached Japan early in the morning on August 6. To show you how naïve I am about the machines of war, I’d always pictured the Enola Gay and its mission being like bombing flights as they’re portrayed in movies. On the big screen, a single pilot takes off from an aircraft carrier and flies a few minutes at top speed until he’s over his target. Then he looks at a computer screen on his dashboard, pushes a button, and the bombs casually drop from his aircraft like a bird pooping in midflight. It’s all very Luke Skywalkery.

In reality, the Enola Gay had a whole crew where each man had his job. The leader of the mission, Paul Tibbets, flew the plane. He’s the one who named the plane Enola Gay, after his mother. But the bomb itself was actually dropped by the bombardier, Tom Ferebee, whose sole job was to watch through his bombsight and release the bomb as they flew over the Aioi Bridge. And that only happened after flying for several hours to get from their island airfield to the Japanese mainland; after dropping the bomb, they had to turn around and make the long flight back.

The bomb itself, dubbed “Little Boy,” was itself a wonder of science. To prevent an accidental explosion, the active elements were kept apart from each other until the moment of detonation. These pieces were secretly shipped aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which—unbeknownst to nearly all of its crew—carried the tools of nuclear warfare aboard their ship as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and headed out into the Pacific. After delivering the bomb parts, on their return journey they were spotted by a Japanese submarine and attacked with six torpedoes. The ship sank in about 12 minutes, killing 900 American sailors. It is still the worst naval disaster in U.S. history. By the way, I just found out that a movie about the Indianapolis, starting Nicholas Cage, is set to be released this spring.

Since B-29s routinely crashed on takeoff, the decision was made to complete the assembling of Little Boy while the Enola Gay was airborne, thus eliminating the risk of a nuclear explosion on the base. Col. Tibbets drove the plane all the way to the end of the runway before lifting off literally at the last second, scaring his crew but giving his aircraft the best chance of getting airborne. The bomb they carried was so heavy, in fact, that after releasing it over Hiroshima, the sudden reduction in weight caused the plane to lurch 10 feet higher in the air.

A weather plane scouted the air over Hiroshima and reported that it was clear. The bomb’s assembly was completed and Tibbets flew over the unsuspecting city. Don’t get me wrong—this was a nation at war and they expected air raids. The city was virtually untouched by the Allied bombers. They had no way of knowing that they had been spared because they were targeted for a nuclear attack, and military scientists wanted an intact city for more accurate measurements of atomic destruction. Hiroshima had in fact had an air raid alarm less than an hour before the Enola Gay’s approach, but by 8:15 the city streets were again filled with people. Some of them spotted the approaching plane, but when an air raid came the skies were darkened by a legion of bombers. This was just one plane flying high overhead, probably just passing through. The only other planes nearby were an American weather plane and a plane that had observers to record scientific data.

Ferebee gained the bridge in his bombsight and released the atomic bomb, and Little Boy began its 43-second descent. That 43 seconds haunts me. It has to be one of the strangest 43 seconds in human history. The decision had already been made and gravity hurtled the bomb toward its target. There was no going back: at this point an atomic explosion was inevitable unless the bomb’s triggering mechanism misfired. And yet no one below could have even suspected what was about to happen to their city. Using conventional bombs, it would have taken 2,000 fully loaded bombers to equal the power of this one bomb—notice that’s not 2,000 bombs: it’s 2,000 airplanes loaded with bombs. But this was just one bomb dropped from a single plane. There was no way for any of Hiroshima’s residents to anticipate what would happen next. For 43 long seconds Little Boy plummeted toward the earth, in a way its own kind of kamikaze: it would utterly destroy itself in order to utterly destroy the city of Hiroshima.

This bomb was totally unlike any other bomb in many ways—not just in its power. This was not a bomb that would crash into the ground and explode on impact. If you’ve seen photos of Hiroshima after the bomb, you may have noticed that there is no crater in the ground. Usually bombing raids left behind craters in the earth filled with rubble and bodies. But the ground in post-bomb Hiroshima is flat. That’s because the detonation of the U-235 weapon was unique.

The bomb was equipped with radar that sent signals to the ground; these signals bounced back to tell the bomb how far it was from the surface. When it was roughly one-third of a mile from the ground, the radar sensor alerted a firing mechanism inside Little Boy. It was like a gun being fired inside the housing of the bomb. One of the elements transported by the ill-fated Indianapolis fired down a shaft toward the other one. When they collided at exactly 8:15 a.m., nuclear destruction was unleashed on a city of about 240,000 people.

What happened next was not an event of gunpowder and smoke. Instead it was like the sun itself, for a brief moment, appeared right there in the city. There was a bright flash of light, of such intensity that it blinded people for miles around. Then unimaginable heat seared the city—the heat from the initial blast was actually hotter than the surface of the sun. Miles away, victims were instantly sunburned. A firestorm instantly enveloped the city. And then came two rounds of shockwaves: the force of the detonation was so powerful that it sent out shockwaves like the clichéd stone tossed in a pond. These ringed waves consisted of air that had been compressed so forcefully by the blast that it was actually visible. The waves traveled faster than the speed of sound and crumbled the city for miles in every direction. After the Enola Gay had dropped the bomb, it made an abrupt U-turn to fly back the way it came. It was several miles away when the shockwaves came, but they were so massive and powerful that they smacked the plane as if a giant had landed a quick succession of two uppercuts on the belly of the plane.

All of this happened in mere seconds. Before anyone was even aware that a monstrous bomb had fallen on the city, 80,000 people were dead or mortally wounded. No one knows exactly how many people died because many of them were instantly vaporized. Others turned completely to carbon in a fraction of a second. As more people continued to burn to death and suffocate under the rubble, the city which had enjoyed a clear morning sky just moments before fell under a blanket of darkness from the infamous mushroom cloud. A shocked throng stumbled around, not sure where to go since hell on earth seemed to stretch out in every direction around them. Many went down to the river seeking relief; many of them died there. When rescue boats arrived to help survivors, they were severely hampered because the river was clogged with dead bodies. Then it began to rain. The scorched survivors thirstily lapped up the rain before they realized it was black. They were drinking radiation, and within days it would result in many more deaths.

The Enola Gay arrived back at the airfield to a great celebration. They were convinced they had just ended the Second World War.

Next time: Nagasaki and ethical considerations. Also, I decided to add a fourth part which will look at some bizarre developments that came about in later years.

Published in: on February 3, 2016 at 12:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Dropping the Bomb (Part 1)

Inside the Dulles site of the National Air and Space Museum sits a B-29 bomber that is over 70 years old. The silvery metallic Enola Gay catches my eye whenever I visit the museum. The history of this World War II airplane intrigues me, even while the horror of its famous mission repels me. After my last stop at the museum, I realized how limited my knowledge was of the Enola Gay and decided to learn more about it.

While I watched and read several documentaries and articles about Enola Gay and Hiroshima, the most fascinating and informative source—by far—that I consulted was the book Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. The book sank its hooks into me in such a way that I have not been able to get it out of my mind. So I figured it might help me process these thoughts if I write them out and share them with you. I’m not trying to make an argument and have no coherent theme, but merely would like to share some thoughts, observations, and historical information. (To keep this from being too long to read at once, I’ll break it up into three parts.)

One facet of the book that fascinated me was its publication date. The book came out in 1977, which places it closer to the events it describes than to the present day. Not only were most of the central figures interviewed for the book, but they were actually alive when it was printed and may have even read it. So even though it describes history that was written three decades after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the book was more current events than ancient history. It would be like a book written today that tells the story of something that happened in 1984. ‘Eight-four seems more like it falls into the category of memories rather than history; so was this book upon its release.

Before doing this research, I had always thought of WWII as mostly a fight against Hitler and the Nazis. Sure, I knew about Mussolini and Italy, and about Japan and the attack at Pearl Harbor, but I’d considered them more like the supporting cast. Once the war ended in Europe, it seemed to me like it had to inevitably fizzle out in Japan. I’d thought of Japan as not being a real threat and wondered why they had even continued to fight. I learned two things that shed light on this situation: First, the war was far from over after Germany and Italy capitulated; the war with Japan continued to cause thousands of casualties. Second, the historical Japanese mindset made surrender nearly impossible for them.

That second reality was a major reason that Japan held on. It goes back to the ancient samurai mentality of death before surrender. This was not just some macho rah-rah malarkey like it is in Hollywood movies, but was actually a serious matter of honor. We’ve all heard of the kamikaze pilots that crashed their planes into their enemies’ vessels, but that approach was not limited to only suicide fliers. In fact it was a great honor to die while killing the enemy, and the entire nation was expected to adopt this mindset. I was disturbed to learn that the kamikazes had their underwater counterparts in human torpedoes. These were torpedoes that were like miniature submarines—aquatic missiles with their self-destructing navigators on board. These kaiten, like kamikazes, were zealous soldiers eager to die while killing their enemies. There were even suicide boats and suicide divers—also known as human mines. Rather than being some lunatic fringe, these groups were a common part of the Japanese military in the last couple years of the war.

The determination to die before surrendering was exacerbated further by two factors. One was Japanese emperor worship, and the other was the information blackout that the Japanese government imposed on the public. The emperor was believed to be divine, and the Japanese believed that if they surrendered, they would be required to forsake their emperor. This was one of the greatest sticking points in their discussions about ending the war: dismantling the power of the emperor was considered absolutely nonnegotiable. Secondly, as hard as it is to believe looking back from our vantage point, even after the surrender of Germany and Italy, the Japanese population believed they were winning the war. The public was deceived by their leaders—who knew otherwise—that victory was certain to be theirs if they simply refused to give up. When Tokyo was devastated by bombings, the severity of the destruction was hidden from those outside the city in an effort to keep morale high. Even the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hidden from public knowledge.

Back to Japan being a real threat even post-Europe: Because of their refusal to surrender and their determination to die in battle, the war in Japan continued to claim lives—on both sides—by the thousands. In fact this is why it was argued that the United States should use the atomic bomb. In an effort to force the war to an end, it seemed that a full-scale invasion of Japan was inevitable. At a time when the trauma and tragedy of the Normandy beaches were still raw, American forces faced the prospect of losing a million more soldiers in the invasion of Japan. A million. I cannot begin to comprehend such carnage. In the rooms where men with the power to make these decisions debated the next course of action, it seemed there were two choices: drop atomic bombs on Japan, killing untold thousands of Japanese, or launch an invasion which would result in the deaths of a million Americans and still kill untold thousands of Japanese.

Japan’s leaders were warned that they must surrender or face such destruction as history had never seen. They were also told they could keep their emperor. Unfortunately, this communication was interpreted by their leaders as a sign that the United States was weakening and could no longer continue to fight. They dug their heels in deeper and prepared for the expected American invasion.

So the crew of the Enola Gay was given their order: Weather permitting, on the morning of August 6, 1945, they were to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Japan.

Next time: Enola Gay’s bomb: what it was and what it did.

Published in: on February 2, 2016 at 12:40 am  Comments (2)