The Road from Trinity: Reflections on the Atom Bomb
Photos by Naonori Kohira (Published in Japan by Shoga Kukan Press)
Chapter 4: Kokura
Kokura was the first city in Japan to be bombed, and as the “primary” for the Fat Man bomb, it very nearly was the last. But wind and water conspired to spare Kokura from the atomic fire that had already visited Hiroshima. A line of storms stretching from the Marianas to Japan separated the bomb-carrying Bockscar from its two B-29 escorts soon after take-off. Bockscar flew on alone and loitered over Yakoshima, vainly waiting for the escorts to catch up. In that lost hour, cloud and smoke settled in a sheltering blanket over Kokura. Bockscar arrived over the city only to find the aiming point utterly hidden in the haze. Bockscar’s commander made three fruitless runs over Kokura and then turned his B-29 south and west. Less than an hour later, at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, Fat Man ceased to exist — and along with it, several tens of thousands of Nagasaki’s citizens.
Kokura escaped its atomic fate, but the city that Fat Man once loitered over has vanished more completely than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. What LeMay’s bombers didn’t accomplish with conventional bombs before 1945 was finished by the forces of commerce and economic growth in the decades after the war. Gazing at Kokura’s skyline from Army Bridge, I realized that little more than the outline of the Murasaki River below would be recognizable to a time traveler from World War II.
Army Bridge was the portal connecting the city to the Kokura Arsenal, a sprawling Vulcan’s workshop for munitions, poison gas, even viruses. The arsenal was among Japan’s largest, and as legitimate a military target as one could find anywhere outside of an active battlefield. Bombs made here rained death not only upon American troops, but also on hapless civilians, from the Philippines to Nanjing. This bridge would have made a prominent aiming point for Fat Man, and, standing on its western buttress, I imagined Bockscar’s navigator straining to gain a glimpse of it through the clouds below. I also strained to find some evidence of the Arsenal among the business and apartment blocks before me, but the effort is futile for every last trace of the war manufactory is gone. Children now play where troops once drilled, and a quilt of light manufacturing plants covers the hidden rubble of bomb factories.
At first blush, this seems as suitable a monument to peace as Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome, an example of swords truly being beaten into plowshares. Army Bridge has been joined by a host of newer bridges stitching the once-military side of the Murasaki into the social and commercial fabric of Kokura. But there is something unsettling about Kokura’s transformation. The effacement is too complete, too systematic. A few years earlier, a handful of rememberers struggled to save a water tower from demolition. It was the last structure remaining from the vast arsenal complex, and these rememberers hoped to preserve it as a memory of Kokura’s past. They lost. The same city that labored to lovingly rebuild a medieval castle reduced to wartime rubble could not preserve a simple water tower. All that remains of Kokura Arsenal is an empty, weed-choked mound of earth. The “Kokura Bomb Museum,” a private exhibit of artifacts from the Arsenal, is maintained on a shoestring budget by a handful of activists. I visited this modest museum with friends who were raised in Kokura, and they were surprised by what they learned about the Arsenal and its role in the war.
Kokura is a city racing away from its dark place in the war, eager to efface evidence of the past and forget unwelcome memories. But Kokura is not alone. Too many of the War’s players suffer from an “atomic amnesia,” causing them to maximize memory of their own suffering while minimizing their role in delivering suffering to others. The most appalling example of atomic amnesia occurred at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1995. Curators at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum had worked for years with Japanese colleagues to prepare an exhibit that placed the bomb in a solid historical context. As planned, the exhibit provided a comprehensive telling of the factors on both sides of the Pacific that led to Hiroshima, and to the consequences of the bomb’s invention in the decades that followed.
But the public never saw the planned exhibit because two American veterans associations, the American Legion and the Air Force Association, lobbied Congress to force the withdrawal and suppression of the portions the veterans considered controversial. They argued that Japanese war atrocities and the prospect of American deaths in the coming invasion of Japan more than justified the nuclear destruction, and anything less than a celebration of the bomb’s utter rightness amounted to dangerous historical revisionism. The consequence was a scaled-down and amnesia-riddled muddle that focused on the ingenuity of the bomb’s construction, the perfidy of the Japanese military, and the bomb’s role in saving American lives by foregoing an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Walking through the exhibit, I was struck by the utter absence of any treatment of the human cost of the bomb in Japan — and its consequences for the trajectory of human history.
In retrospect, the veterans’ objections are hardly surprising. After all, the oldest of them were in the military when U.S. occupation forces imposed a seven- year ban on photographs and news media coverage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb damage. Their nuclear amnesia had begun to set in the moment the first bomb was dropped, and only hardened over time. In opposing the Smithsonian exhibit, they demonstrated that they could not find it in their hearts to face the sight of a bomb-ruined lunchbox, or distinguish between civilian victims and legitimate combatants. Worse, the veterans were determined that their children would never see the same images for fear that they might draw a conclusion at odds from that fed to them by their parents.
This same amnesia has crept into every corner of the bomb’s history. There is no museum, no place that tells even a portion of the story without distorting omissions. Hiroshima’s museum puts a human face on atomic suffering, but it is silent on the role of the Japanese military in drawing the atomic wrath of the United States to Japan’s shores. In Los Alamos, the Bradbury Science Museum covers the bomb’s development and science in painstaking detail. All but hidden amidst the technology is a small exhibit of photos from Hiroshima assembled by a local group of activists. Next to it, there is a small exhibit of photos of Japanese war atrocities assembled by outraged American veterans. Hardly an invitation to reflection by the casual visitor fortunate enough to see the images.
But even incomplete stories add up to surprising mosaics. The perspective portrayed in the Yasukuni Yushukan — Japan’s memorial to its fallen warriors — is as one-sided as anything the American Legion might offer, yet I was as moved by its display of the personal effects of the war dead as I was by the artifacts of the Hibakusha in the Hiroshima Museum. The knowing and pointless sacrifice of young lives broke my heart. I suspect that the intended message was one glorifying “giri-ninjo,” that quintessentially bushido sense of duty and obligation to others no matter the cost to oneself. I left with a more fundamental understanding: in a war of this scale, the helpless victims included youths clutching guns, as much as mothers holding children. Thinking back to the images in the tiny Kokura Bomb Museum, I realized that the victims also included the civilians forced to work in the munitions plants, not to mention the atomic workers exposed without their knowledge to nuclear toxins in Hanford and Oak Ridge.
Fifty years after the bomb was dropped, those who fought and those who suffered are still locked in a struggle. But now it is a struggle for posterity and memory, as each side tries to convince history of the rightness of their version of events. This is a terrible mistake, for history will be its own judge, and information suppressed by one generation will be rediscovered in time by another. The misguided patriotism of the American Legion wrecked an exhibit but concealed nothing from the future. And the Kokura Arsenal is merely concealed for the moment. Eventually, its dark secrets and their attendant sorrows will be revealed for others to judge.
A fiftieth anniversary has special importance because it comes at a moment when the history made by a generation is relinquished to all generations that follow. The historic property of one generation becomes the property of all humankind. Yet with this history also come unpaid debts, the unmade apologies which, if ignored, will return to haunt generations to come until they are discharged. The rightness of fading causes has nothing to do with this obligation, but apology comes hard to warriors: American veterans are as reluctant to apologize to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as their Japanese counterparts are unwilling to apologize to the victims in Nanjing. Similarly, burying the Kokura Arsenal will not erase its memory from history, but merely preserve it to haunt some future generation. If Kokura does not face its own past, it may end up one day wishing that Fat Man had found its way through the clouds fifty years ago, an unexpected Tenyu, a gift from the gods that in one fearful moment accomplished what frail human memory could not.