Seventy years ago today, at 8:16 AM local time, August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan immediately killing 80,000 people. Many of the details of that day are well known. For instance the plane that released the bomb was an American B-29 bomber. It was called the Enola Gay, named in honour of the mother of the pilot, Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets. The name given to the bomb itself was “Little Boy.” These are facts oft repeated and remembered, carrying narrative weight assisting us with our memory and giving meaning to the events. There are other details to that day as well, that the bombs original target was the Aioi Bridge over the Ota River but because of a crosswind it was instead detonated 1,900 feet above the Shima Surgical Clinic, a hospital. The blast of the bomb was equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT. The medical staff and patients there, about 80 persons, died instantly.
As said above, the bomb killed 80,000 people immediately. Over the next few days, 35,000 more died from injuries including radiation poisoning, and over 60,000 more died in a year’s time, totaling over 175,000 souls.
Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
My maternal grandmother, Hisae Ihara, was 14 years old at that time, and lived well outside of Hiroshima City in the countryside. Because of fires consuming the surrounding landscape, her family took their meager possessions and went to a nearby river for safety.
It is often attributed to Joseph Stalin, “When one person dies, it’s a tragedy, but when a million people die, it’s a statistic.” He may not have said that, but in any event, there is sad truth to it. Death is difficult enough to comprehend of itself, on its own, even though it affects us all. What grasps me most on this anniversary day of this tragic event—because regardless of reasons, ending the war, or possible lives saved because of its use, the atomic bombing was a tragedy as is war generally—is that 80,000 people could exist one moment and the next, be gone. Eighty thousand is not a million, but still, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of that many souls killed in an instant. It’s easier to comprehend as a statistic.
It is necessary to not make them a statistic.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, John Hersey, attempted to do just that as he told the stories of six survivors in a piece that ran in The New Yorker a year after the bombing of Hiroshima. Originally meant to run in installments the magazine instead printed the story in its entirety dedicating the entire August 31, 1946 issue of the magazine to Hersey’s piece. Following the regular The Talk of the Town section it read:
“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.”
(Incidentally, the most recent issue of The New Yorker, 69 years later, includes a two-page advertisement from the Japan National Tourism Organization.)
Nuclear war and its affects are unfathomable. I highly recommend this blog for further consideration of nuclear war and Christian faith.
Furthermore, I commend to you in your remembrance today of this sad anniversary to grieve.
The work of ministry often brings us to confront death and dying. Sadly, my own ministry has too often involved these aspects of life. Two weeks ago I wrote my regular contribution to The Twelve in the midst of celebrating the life and looking forward to the resurrection of one of my dear congregants. He is someone who has impacted me significantly and I’ve written with him in mind on at least two occasions here and here. He will be missed. I relate this here now because I found I experienced something in a way I never have before and it is has remained with me.
It is the custom of Reformed Church funerals to commence with a closed casket. Sometimes that happens. In my current setting, seldom is it closed. Rather after the commendation, those gathered are given an opportunity for one final viewing and then the casket is closed before all proceeding to the committal graveside or otherwise. This particular funeral took place within a funeral home in the regular way. I officiated most of it from a podium and prior to the commendation I approach the deceased, observe my own final viewing farewell, would then turn and commence with the prayer:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant.
Acknowledge, we pray,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
This time however, I found during my own final viewing, I reached out and touched his shoulder, as if needing to physical bid him farewell myself. I do not recall having ever done that, reaching out. Yet this time, this congregant, and to be fair this friend, in my own grief I reached out.
We need to reach out in grief.
There is much to grieve.
I began this post by saying “the first atomic bomb,” but in truth it was the second. The first was a test bomb detonated in the New Mexican desert and named “Trinity.” When J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory was asked why he named that bomb Trinity, he went to the poetry of John Donne.
I did suggest it, but not on that ground… Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation:
“As West and East
In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.”
The entire poem follows:
Hymne to GOD my GOD, in my sicknesse
by John Donne
SINCE I am comming to that Holy roome,
Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy Musique; As I come
I tune the Instrument here at the dore,
And what I must doe then, thinke here before.
Whilst my Physitians by their love are growne
Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne
That this is my South-west discoverie
Per fretum febris, by these streights to die,
I joy, that in these straits, I see my West;
For, though theire currants yeeld returne to none,
What shall my West hurt me? As West and East
In all flatt Maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.
Is the Pacifique Sea my home? Or are
The Easterne riches? Is Ierusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltare,
All streights, and none but streights, are wayes to them,
Whether where Iaphet dwelt, or Cham, or Sem.
We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place;
Looke Lord, and finde both Adams met in me;
As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adams blood my soule embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d receive mee Lord,
By these his thornes give me his other Crowne;
And as to others soules I preach’d thy word,
Be this my Text, my Sermon to mine owne,
Therfore that he may raise the Lord throws down.