Hiroshima Survivors


At my first law firm I worked with a charming Irishman, Tom Ryan.  Dead now sixteen years, during World War II he was a staff officer with the Eighth Air Force in Europe.  At the conclusion of the struggle on that continent he was slated to participate in the invasion of Japan.  He referred to himself as a Hiroshima survivor.  The late Paul Fussell, literary critic, I heartily recommend his The Great War and Modern Memory, served as an infantry Lieutenant in the fighting in France and Germany during  World War II.  He too was tagged to take part in the invasion of Japan. A political liberal after the War, in 1981 he wrote an essay entitled Thank God for the Atomic Bomb  in which he spoke for Hiroshima survivors like him:


When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things.

When the Enola Gay dropped its package, “There were cheers,” says John Toland, “over the intercom; it meant the end of the war.” Down on the ground the reaction of Sledge’s marine buddies when they heard the news was more solemn and complicated. They heard about the end of the war with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief.

We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. . . . Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.

These troops who cried and cheered with relief or who sat stunned by the weight of their experience are very different from the high-minded, guilt-ridden GIs we’re told about by J. Glenn Gray in his sensitive book The Warriors. During the war in Europe Gray was an interrogator in the Army Counterintelligence Corps, and in that capacity he experienced the war at Division level. There’s no denying that Gray’s outlook on everything was admirably noble, elevated, and responsible. After the war he became a much-admired professor of philosophy at Colorado College and an esteemed editor of Heidegger. But The Warriors, his meditation on the moral and psychological dimensions of modern soldiering, gives every sign of error occasioned by remoteness from experience. Division headquarters is miles—miles—behind the line where soldiers experience terror and madness and relieve those pressures by crazy brutality and sadism.

Indeed, unless they actually encountered the enemy during the war, most “soldiers” have very little idea what “combat” was like. As William Manchester says,

“All who wore uniforms are called veterans, but more than 90 percent of them are as uninformed about the killing zones as those on the home front.”

Manchester’s fellow marine E. B. Sledge thoughtfully and responsibly invokes the terms drastically and totally to underline the differences in experience between front and rear, and not even the far rear, but the close rear. “Our code of conduct toward the enemy,” he notes, “differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP.” (He’s describing gold-tooth extraction from still-living Japanese.) Again he writes:

“We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines . . . ,”

even, he would insist, to men as intelligent and sensitive as Glenn Gray, who missed seeing with his own eyes Sledge’s marine friends sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery sh-t into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing.

“We didn’t talk about such things,” says Sledge. “They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans…. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.”

And Sledge has added a comment on such experience and the insulation provided by even a short distance: “Often people just behind our rifle companies couldn’t understand what we knew.” Glenn Gray was not in a rifle company, or even just behind one. “When the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came,” he asks us to believe, “many an American soldier felt shocked and ashamed.” Shocked, OK, but why ashamed? Because we’d destroyed civilians? We’d been doing that for years, in raids on Hamburg and Berlin and Cologne and Frankfurt and Mannheim and Dresden, and Tokyo, and besides, the two A-bombs wiped out 10,000 Japanese troops, not often thought of now, John Hersey’s kindly physicians and Jesuit priests being more touching.

If around division headquarters some of the people Gray talked to felt ashamed, down in the rifle companies no one did, despite Gray’s assertions. “The combat soldier,” he says, knew better than did Americans at home what those bombs meant in suffering and injustice. The man of conscience realized intuitively that the vast majority of Japanese in both cities were no more, if no less, guilty of the war than were his own parents, sisters, or brothers. I find this canting nonsense. The purpose of the bombs was not to “punish” people but to stop the war.

To intensify the shame Gray insists we feel, he seems willing to fiddle the facts. The Hiroshima bomb, he says, was dropped “without any warning.” But actually, two days before, 720,000 leaflets were dropped on the city urging everyone to get out and indicating that the place was going to be (as the Potsdam Declaration had promised) obliterated. Of course few left.

Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgaden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers.

If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.  All this is not to deny that like the Russian Revolution, the atom-bombing of Japan was a vast historical tragedy, and every passing year magnifies the dilemma into which it has lodged the contemporary world.

As with the Russian Revolution, there are two sides—that’s why it’s a tragedy instead of a disaster—and unless we are, like Bruce Page, simple-mindedly unimaginative and cruel, we will be painfully aware of both sides at once.

To observe that from the viewpoint of the war’s victims-to-be the bomb seemed precisely the right thing to drop is to purchase no immunity from horror. To experience both sides, one might study the book Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which presents a number of amateur drawings and watercolors of the Hiroshima scene made by middle-aged and elderly survivors for a peace exhibition in 1975. In addition to the almost unbearable pictures, the book offers brief moments of memoir not for the weak-stomached:

While taking my severely wounded wife out to the river bank . . ., I was horrified indeed at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing that I could do for him. I wonder what became of him. Even today I vividly remember the sight. I was simply miserable.

These childlike drawings and paintings are of skin hanging down, breasts torn off, people bleeding and burning, dying mothers nursing dead babies. A bloody woman holds a bloody child in the ruins of a house, and the artist remembers her calling, “Please help this child! Someone, please help this child. Please help! Someone, please.”

As Samuel Johnson said of the smothering of Desdemona, the innocent in another tragedy, “It is not to be endured.” Nor, it should be noticed, is an infantryman’s account of having his arm blown off in the Arno Valley in Italy in 1944:

I wanted to die and die fast. I wanted to forget this miserable world. I cursed the war, I cursed the people who were responsible for it, I cursed God for putting me here … to suffer for something I never did or knew anything about. (A good place to interrupt and remember Glenn Gray’s noble but hopelessly one-sided remarks about “injustice,” as well as “suffering.”) “For this was hell,” the soldier goes on, and I never imagined anything or anyone could suffer so bitterly I screamed and cursed. Why? What had I done to deserve this? But no answer came. I yelled for medics, because subconsciously I wanted to live. I tried to apply my right hand over my bleeding stump, but I didn’t have the strength to hold it. I looked to the left of me and saw the bloody mess that was once my left arm; its fingers and palm were turned upward, like a flower looking to the sun for its strength.

The future scholar-critic who writes The History of Canting in the Twentieth Century will find much to study and interpret in the utterances of those who dilate on the special wickedness of the A-bomb-droppers. He will realize that such utterance can perform for the speaker a valuable double function. First, it can display the fineness of his moral weave. And second, by implication it can also inform the audience that during the war he was not socially so unfortunate as to find himself down there with the ground forces, where he might have had to compromise the purity and clarity of his moral system by the experience of weighing his own life against someone else’s. Down there, which is where the other people were, is the place where coarse self-interest is the rule. When the young soldier with the wild eyes comes at you, firing, do you shoot him in the foot, hoping he’ll be hurt badly enough to drop or mis-aim the gun with which he’s going to kill you, or do you shoot him in the chest (or, if you’re a prime shot, in the head) and make certain that you and not he will be the survivor of that mortal moment?

Go here to read the rest.


More to explorer


  1. Silly me, I thought this was a post about these people:


    A taste:

    So many had, in an instant, lost those dearest to them. Eiko Taoka, then 21-years-old, was carrying her 1-year-old infant son in her arms aboard a streetcar. He didn’t survive the day. “I think fragments of glass had pierced his head,” she recounts. “His face was a mess because of the blood flowing from his head. But he looked at my face and smiled. His smile has remained glued in my memory.”

  2. Yep, and Mr. Fussell noted those other Hiroshima survivors Jeff, just as you ignored his group of Hiroshima survivors, which is about par for critics of Truman. Silly you indeed.

  3. From earlier in the same article:

    “Another bright enlisted man, this one an experienced marine destined for the assault on Honshu, adds his testimony. Former Pfc. E. B. Sledge, author of the splendid memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, noticed at the time that the fighting grew “more vicious the closer we got to Japan,” with the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa worse than what had gone before. He points out that

    what we had experienced [my [i.e. Fussell’s] emphasis] in fighting the Japs (pardon the expression) on Peleliu and Okinawa caused us to formulate some very definite opinions that the invasion . . . would be a ghastly bloodletting. It would shock the American public and the world. [Every Japanese] soldier, civilian, woman, and child
    would fight to the death with whatever weapons they had, ride, grenade, or bamboo spear.

    “The Japanese pre-invasion patriotic song, “One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor,” says Sledge, “meant just that.” Universal national kamikaze was the point. One kamikaze pilot, discouraged by his unit’s failure to impede the
    Americans very much despite the bizarre casualties it caused, wrote before diving his plane onto an American ship “I see the war situation becoming more desperate. All Japanese must become soldiers and die for the Emperor.”
    Sledge’s First Marine Division was to land close to the Yokosuka Naval Base, “one of the most heavily defended sectors of the island.” The marines were told, he recalls, that

    due to the strong beach defenses, caves, tunnels, and numerous Jap suicide torpedo boats and manned mines, few Marines in the first five assault waves would get ashore alive—my company was scheduled to be in the first and second waves. The veterans in the outfit felt we had already run out of luck anyway…. We viewed the invasion with complete resignation that we would be killed—either on the beach or inland.

  4. These words of His Holiness Ven. Pope Pius XII, our wartime Pope, are sobering and worthy of reflection. They were made as part of a talk given to the Word Medical Congress on Sept. 30, 1954:
    “Is modern «all out warfare», especially[atomic, biological, chemical] warfare, permissible as a matter of principle? There can be no doubt, particularly in view of the untold horror and suffering induced by modern warfare, that to launch such war other than on just grounds (that is to say, without it being imposed upon one by an obvious, extremely serious, and otherwise unavoidable violation of justice) would be an «offense» worthy of the most severe national and international sanctions. One cannot even in principle ask whether atomic, chemical, and bacteriological warfare is lawful other than when it is deemed absolutely necessary as a means of self-defence under the conditions previously stipulated. Even then, however, every possible effort must be made to avert it through international agreements or to place upon its use such distinct and rigid limitations as will guarantee that its effects will be confined to the strict demands of defence. Moreover, should the use of this method entail such an extension of the existing evil as would render man wholly incapable of controlling it, its use should be rejected as immoral. In such an instance it would no longer be a question of «defence» against injustice, and of the necessary «safeguarding» of legitimate possessions, but of the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action. Under no circumstances is this to be permitted.”

    Ven. Pius XII was far better acquainted than we are, 70 years after the fact, of the insane, diabolical war conduct of the Axis powers, but also aware of the threat to humanity that Nuclear Weaponry presented to our world. I don’t interpret his words as a condemnation of past decision making but as a warning to mankind of what awaits us if we fail to turn to God.

  5. I read about a lot of sufferring in this post. That is why I went aboard a submarine. Death by implosion from torpedo impact would be quick. I am a coward. I could not do what those soldiers did or endure what those victims had to endure. War is hell if not worse than hell. Terrible as the atomic bombs were, they had to be used. Thank God during the Cold War those weapons aboard my submarine did not have to be used.

  6. Chris, now, come on, what did Pius XII know? He was just a librul, Amurica-bashing rad trad or a reader of the National Schismatic Reporter, dontcha know. Take your pick.

    He obviously did not understand the nuances that the bombs were necessary because without wiping out defenseless civilians in a thoroughly beaten country, American soldiers would had to have died in a pointless invasion, there were no other possible recourses than land invasion, and terrorizing the Japs into surrender by showing our willingness to obliterate civilian population centers was totally moral. To the extent some pope or Catechism or Catholic moral principle gets in the way, why, it must give way to the “practicality” of the situation. The ethics of the act, in short, are derived from the situation, kinda like situational ethics. Got it?

  7. chris c.-
    Thank you for that; I now know better why none of the “it was immoral” folks have quoted the Pope at the time on the subject; I’d thought they’d avoided him because of the Soviet smear on his reputation.
    That he did not give the statement they would want– he didn’t say it was impermissible.
    That’s a scaled up version of deadly force considerations, matching the amount of damage involved.

  8. I dunno. We didn’t need to fight WWIII. My guess one reason was both super-powers’ nucular arsenals and the doctrine of “mutually-assured destruction” which seems to have been one reason. Thank God the US didn’t (as the left-wing geniuses wanted and Obama is doing today) surrender and unilaterally disarm.

  9. Tom D-
    I don’t know how common it is, but I suspect that it’s a kind of “reading what you wish to read” thing; some folks, when they favor don’t do this and see an authority saying be careful, take it to be an order of don’t do this. I’ve run into it more in bio-ethics, with the major example that comes to mind being a guy who took an official work that said Snowflake babies divided our experts, we can’t make an official finding because one side says save babies and the other says be careful lest it legitimize the horror that resulted in them as meaning thou may not have Snowflake babies.
    So, he reads a Pope saying “it’s not OK in all situations” and understands “it’s not OK.”

  10. It’s kind of like those folks who respond to someone asking “how late to Mass can you be and fulfill your obligation” with rants about how you should NEVER be less than five minutes early, etc.
    Fails to answer the question and quite possibly does actual spiritual harm to others, especially as they actively prevent those with a well supported answer from answering, and are preventing people of good will from Communion when they SHOULD be receiving.

  11. Foxfier, I think Tom was trying to be sarcastic in some way, but the point of the sarcasm was really obscure. The meaning of Pope Pius XII’s statement is plain and clear. If Tom were trying to state that we were not interpreting it correctly then he did it in a really bizarre manner. I really could not get the point of it. I have the feeling he was just upset and banged out whatever his emotions led him to.

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