Atomic bomb over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)
In the Time of The Bombs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
General Curtis E. LeMay of World War II bomber fame was widely heralded for his blunt and bombastic advice on how to bring the Japanese to their knees: “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age!” he would rasp between hearty puffs on the stogie that was his hallmark. Little did he know how prophetic his rhetoric would turn out. On August 6 and again on August 9, 1945, the United States unleashed for the first time in history the most deadly and virulent weapons in the history of warfare—two atomic bombs.
One of the fiercest though not deadliest wars of the 20th century came to an end after 45 months of struggle. I was a young Marine at the time, just 19, having enlisted at 17 in 1943. Hard to believe that seven decades have passed since VJ Day (Victory over Japan, August 14, 1945) and the end of hostilities for World War II. On August 6, President Truman had authorized dropping a 15 kiloton gun-type uranium atomic bomb equivalent to 30,000 pounds of TNT on Hiroshima and on August 9 he authorized dropping on Nagasaki a 21 kiloton implosion-type plutonium atomic bomb equivalent to 42,000 pounds of TNT.
We did not learn about the atomic bombs until some days after the bombings when we read the news in the Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published by the Armed Forces: the first bomb–“Little Boy” –was dropped on Hiroshima as an “air burst” on the morning of August 6 by the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber piloted by Paul Tibbets, Jr.; and a second bomb –”Fat Man”–was dropped on Nagasaki (another “air burst”) the morning of August 9 by a B-29 bomber piloted by Charles Sweeney from Tinian Air Base in the Mariana Islands.
August 6, 1945 was not a particularly portentous day. The battle for Iwo Jima in the winter of that year and the assault on Okinawa later that spring were still fresh in memory. The full force of President Truman’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan would not impact the American conscience until much later in the future. In August of 1945, however, Americans and, particularly, American troops in the Pacific, welcomed the news that armed conflict with Japan had come to an end with its unconditional surrender. That August American GI’s were poised in the Pacific awaiting orders for a massive assault on Japan, starting with the island of Kyushu in Operation Downfall to be led by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz.
General LeMay chewed on his stogie gratified that President Truman had heeded his advice about bombing the Japanese back to the Stone Age. A million men were massed for that operation in which President Truman and American military leaders expected more than 250,000 deaths and 500,000 maimed or wounded. By comparison, the battle for Iwo Jima cost 5,300 American lives and 16,000 wounded; the battle for Okinawa ended with 7,300 American dead and 32,000 wounded. The total loss of American lives during World War II was 405,000.
The bombs saved us from what would surely have been an “Armageddon” to vanquish Japan unconditionally. We had been spared the last campaign. The United States had been at war 44 months; and I had served for more than half that time. American GI’s with longer service in the Pacific were sent home for immediate discharge. The remainder of the American troops massed in the Pacific were split—half assigned to Japan as an army of occupation; the other half assigned to mainland China as an army of liberation. I went to China and dubbed consequently as a “China Marine,” coming home in 1946.
In China we were hardly an army of liberation even though we did liberate elements of the 4th Marines who had spent more than four years of Japanese captivity in Shanghai. On that rain-washed day when I disembarked from the USS Monrovia at Shanghai I did not know my journey to China would mark the beginning of my search for America. Later, I would realize that the roots of that search lay in China where I saw “the others” and saw myself in them. Though I had grown up in a segregated society I had never thought of myself as “the other.”
An early day harbinger of Battlestar Galactica, the rag-tag fleet of American ships trailing up the Yangtze River toward Shanghai was heralded with cheers of jubilation and gratitude by the Chinese. “Ding hao!” they shouted. “Ding hao! Good, good!” But that mood quickly soured when the hive of sampans crowded the spaces between the ships and the smiling Chinese who held out their hands for some token of our arrival, some token of American largesse.
The scene turned ugly when the Captain of the U.S.S. Monrovia ordered the fire hoses turned on the Chinese clambering up the sides of the ship trying to get on deck. The Chinese were eager to greet us, but that greeting was met with disdain by those Americans who saw the Chinese as nothing more than “gooks” and could not differentiate them from the Japanese.
The force of the water hoses sent the Chinese back into the mass of sampans, some of them falling into the water through the spaces between the flat dugouts. The scene became a melee when the sailors decided malevolently to aim their hoses at the Chinese on the sampans. The Chinese were bewildered. Why would a liberating force treat them that way? Chinese women screamed as their babies were flushed out of their hands by the force of the water from the fire hoses. What should have been a celebration became a chaos of confusion and grief. That was not our finest moment. Those images have remained with me ever since. Little wonder we lost China to Mao Tse Tung in 1948, forced to take our troops to Korea. I was gone by then. I left China in mid-1946 when I had accumulated enough points for rotation back to the states.
But the specter of that moment did not deter me from internalizing the experience of being in China, the land of Cathay, of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan. Washing against a land already ancient when the sailors of Colon flitted from fleck to fleck in the Americas looking for Cipango (Japan), the Yellow Sea was not yellow but emerald green in the time of my youth when all my dreams were green. Years later I would realize what a profound effect that experience in China at war’s end had on me. Once home, I hung up my uniform with its plastron of medals and went searching for the promise of America which awaited me in the groves of academe after undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, graduate studies at The University of Texas, and the Ph.D. in British Renaissance Studies at the University of New Mexico. After more than half a century as a university professor I’ve come to terms with my good fortune during World War II.
No American and, perhaps, none of the scientists who worked on the bombs had any idea of the biological and genetic devastation potent in their creations, though J. Robert Oppenheimer (father of the bomb) is reported to have said, “Now I am become death” when he heard the news. In the fall of 1945, however, the moral imperatives of life (and of war) seemed clear and simple. Good had triumphed over evil, no matter that the victory (like Pandora’s Box) had unleashed dark cosmic forces upon the earth.
Many of us had little comprehension of the awesome power of those bombs. Later we would understand that the world had entered the Atomic Age; and later we would also learn about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, New Mexico. But on that August day when we got the news about Japan surrendering unconditionally, we thanked God.
Of course, there’s regret for the havoc wreaked by the “bombs”–140,000 deaths at Hiroshima; and 70,000 deaths at Nagasaki. What human would not mourn the loss of such life? But there’s also regret for the lives lost at Pearl Harbor, the lives lost in a string of brutal and sadistic atrocities by Japanese military forces in their murderously inhumane march across Korea, Manchuria, China, Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and a host of islands that dot the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. We can only imagine the horrors of an Axis victory of World War II.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. Vet Vox: On War and Remembrance y otros recuerdos, E-book, Caravel Press, 2012 Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “By Dawn’s Early Light” in Texans Go to War, James W. Lee, editor, Denton: North Texas State University Press, 1991.
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca is Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy) at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, New Mexico.
Originally published in The Independent, Silver City Daily Press, August 13-19, 2015, Volume CXVI, Number 43.