Revisiting the Bombing of Nagasaki, 78 Years Later

Image of man in ruin.

The Nagasaki Prefecture Report on the bombing characterized Nagasaki as “like a graveyard with not a tombstone standing.” Image by Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr.

August 9 marks the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. The nuclear fuel for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was produced at Hanford, in eastern Washington state, which is now the most toxic site in the Western Hemisphere, and the most expensive clean-up in world history. Today the site is laced with billions of gallons of chemical sewage and 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste. The following is an excerpt from Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, which investigates the Cold War’s toxic legacy and the looming nuclear dangers of the Hanford project.

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The United States’ decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan was not without precedent. In the winter of 1945, the United States firebombed both Dresden, Germany, killing forty-five thousand people, and Tokyo, Japan, killing more than three hundred thousand people. Some believe these estimates to be low. “I was on the island of Guam … in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death one hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children,” recalled Robert McNamara, who later served as secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In all, the United States firebombed sixty-seven Japanese cities over the course of that bloody year. While not all—particularly US secretary of war Henry Stimson—enjoyed the targeting of civilians, no complaints were officially raised within the US government about the firebombing’s legal or ethical implications. Most officials believed these horrible bombings would help bring the war to an end, forcing the Japanese and Germans to surrender.

Nonetheless, with UK approval, President Truman ordered a nuclear bomb to be dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, less than one month after the test run at Trinity. The United States alerted Japanese citizens, dropping leaflets that warned their towns would “fall to ashes.” The bombing inflicted catastrophic damage. Temperatures on the ground topped 4,000°C. Birds dropped from the sky. Radioactive rain poured down on the city. The uranium bomb nicknamed “Little Boy,” which exploded over Hiroshima destroyed 70 percent of the entire city. Nearly all of the city’s medical staff were killed, and ultimately a staggering 140,000 deaths were recorded in the months and years that followed.

The United States argued that Hiroshima and its military headquarters were legitimate targets, and conveyed little concern about the previous decision to firebomb tens of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Professor Alex Wallerstein argues that before the bombing Truman was unaware that Hiroshima was an actual city, and not simply a military outpost. In fact, Wallerstein notes, Truman was more intent on avoiding massive innocent casualties and was simply taking the lead from Stimson, albeit a misinformed one. “Truman’s confusion on this issue,” writes Wallerstein, “came out of his discussions with Secretary of War Henry Stimson about the relative merits of Kyoto versus Hiroshima as a target: Stimson emphasized the civilian nature of Kyoto and paired it against the military-status of Hiroshima, and Truman read more into the contrast than was actually true.”

“The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form, these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development,” President Harry Truman read in a statement following the bombing of Hiroshima. “It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”

The United States wasn’t done yet. In the early morning hours of August 9, a B-29 named Box Car, outfitted with the plutonium bomb nicknamed Fat Man, took off from Tinian Airfield in the Mariana Islands, over 1,400 miles southeast of Nagasaki. Box Car was commanded by Major Charles W. Sweeney. The original target of the second bombing was not initially Nagasaki but a military cache located in Kokura. Weather, however, was not cooperating over Kokura. A haze obscured the plane’s target and anti-aircraft fire proved frustrating, so Major Sweeney changed course and headed to the secondary target, of Nagasaki. Jacob Beser, an aircraft crewman, later recalled that they abandoned Kokura and headed to Nagasaki because “there was no sense dragging the bomb home or dropping it in the ocean.”

As the plane neared Nagasaki, the visibility was equally as bad as over Kokura, but through a brief break in the clouds, Captain Kermit K. Beahan was able to spot the city’s stadium. The plane circled back, and at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki. The bomb caused an explosion 40 percent larger than the Little Boy bombing of Hiroshima. The bomb’s plutonium fuel was produced at Hanford.

“I have no regrets. I think we did right, and we couldn’t have done it differently. Yeah, I know it has been suggested the second bomb, Nagasaki, was not necessary,” said project physicist Leona Marshall Libby later, defending the bombing. “The guys who cry on shoulders. When you are in a war, to the death, I don’t think you stand around and ask, ‘Is it right?’”

The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unlike anything the world had ever experienced. More than two hundred thousand people died in the fiery blasts and from acute radiation poisoning in the hours and days following the explosions. Bodies were vaporized, structures melted from extreme heat, and the radiation pulsated spherically from the bombs’ hypocenters. Unlike the Trinity test in New Mexico, where the warhead exploded on the ground, both of the bombs dropped on Japan were detonated six hundred meters in the air above the cities. If there was any good news for the Japanese, this would be it. Had the bomb exploded on the ground the results would have been even more horrific.

For survivors of the bombings, most of whom have now passed on, cancer rates remained astronomically higher than in populations unexposed to the same amount of radiation. According to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, the risk of leukemia, or blood cancer, was 46 percent higher among bombing victims. For people in utero at the time, risk of physical impairment, such as small head size or mental disability, was even more significant.

Studies of the survivors later revealed what scientists had suspected even before the 1945 blasts—that radiation can mutate DNA and in turn cause different forms of cancer, blood cancer in particular. Among Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, the rate of leukemia rose sharply in the 1950s. Their damaged cells were more susceptible to developing cancers. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a joint US and Japanese research effort that evolved from the 1946 Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, has revealed startling findings in its lifespan study of ninety-four thousand bomb survivors, which followed their lives from 1958 to 1998. The more radiation a person received, the greater was their risk of developing cancer.32 In fact, according to the RERF study, the relationship between radiation levels and cancer likelihood was linear. As radiation levels doubled, incidents of cancer doubled. Leukemia, however, proved to be exponentially correlated: as higher levels of radiation doubled, the risk of leukemia quadrupled. Had the bombs exploded closer to the ground, scientists believe that higher radiation levels would have led to more cancers, and ultimately, more deaths.

“I was three years old at the time of the [Nagasaki] bombing. I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness,” reflected bombing victim Yasujiro Tanaka.

I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told. When my uncle finally found me and pulled my tiny three-year-old body out from under the debris, I was unconscious. My face was misshapen. He was certain that I was dead. Tankfully, I survived. But since that day, mysterious scabs began to form all over my body. I lost hearing in my left ear, probably due to the air blast. More than a decade after the bombing, my mother began to notice glass shards growing out of her skin—debris from the day of the bombing, presumably. My younger sister suffers from chronic muscle cramps to this day, on top of kidney issues that has her on dialysis three times a week. “What did I do to the Americans?” she would often say, “Why did they do this to me?”

A number of historians, including the late Howard Zinn, argue the nuclear bombing of Japan was not only criminal, it was unnecessary:

The principal justification for obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it “saved lives” because otherwise a planned US invasion of Japan would have been necessary, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Truman at one point used the figure “a half million lives,” and Churchill “a million lives,” but these were figures pulled out of the air to calm troubled consciences; even official projections for the number of casualties in an invasion did not go beyond 46,000. In fact, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not forestall an invasion of Japan because no invasion was necessary. The Japanese were on the verge of surrender, and American military leaders knew that. General Eisenhower, briefed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson on the imminent use of the bomb, told him that “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.