On this date in 1945, the United States Army dropped an ordnance of unprecedented destructive power on the bustling Japanese city of Hiroshima. The atomic bomb's inventors had seen what unleashing pure energy could do in a New Mexico test explosion. Less than a month later, the rest of the world would see it, too.
The United States of America remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons in war, and on the 75th anniversary of that grim event, the debate continues over whether it was justified. It certainly achieved its aim: to end World War II without a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. But at what moral cost?
Five years ago, I explored that question from the viewpoints of several individuals whose lives were upended by the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
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Was it necessary in August 1945 to level two Japanese cities occupied almost solely by civilians to get the Empire of Japan to finally surrender? Or, as some critics say, did it constitute an unnecessary atrocity committed against an all-but-defeated foe?
It should be noted that Japan did not surrender immediately after Hiroshima's obliteration. That came only after Nagasaki was destroyed by a second bomb three days later. In the ensuing years, thousands of books, magazine articles, and personal testimonials have explored the military and moral dimensions of this decision, which ultimately was made by an American president, Harry Truman.
The accounts that seem the most compelling to me are those that reveal the human bonds between Japan and the United States -- connections that existed before, during, and after the war -- and which were so strong that even the destructive release of pure energy could not terminate them.
Here are three such stories:
Leslie Nakashima. He was born in 1902 in Kauai, meaning that he was an American citizen. Like Barack Obama, Nakashima grew up in Hawaii and took an Anglicized name as a kid. His Japanese name was Satoru Nakashima, which became Leslie Nakashima in his byline after he began working as a newspaper reporter. Friends in both countries simply called him Les.
His family moved back to Japan, and Nakashima followed them in 1934. He got married and landed a job on the copy desk for an English-language newspaper. He was working in the United Press (later UPI) Tokyo bureau when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and was stuck there, like many Americans of Japanese descent, for the remainder of the war. It was known in the United States, and around the world, that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, but until Japan surrendered the details of the destruction were not known. Les Nakashima entered what was left of Hiroshima on Aug. 22, 1945, 16 days after the bombing. He had a reason to go there: He was looking for his mother. Miraculously, he found her. He also filed the first news accounts to a Western audience from the city.
"Alighting from the train I found that Hiroshima Station, which was one of the largest in western Japan, had gone out of existence," he wrote. "The only thing left was the concrete platforms. Fragmentary parts of the walls of the brick building that constituted the old section of the station also told of the severity of the destruction caused by the atomic bomb.
"Getting out into the open I was dumbfounded with the destruction before me. The center of the city immediately to the south and west of the station had been razed to the ground and there was a sweeping view to the foot of the mountains to the southeast and north of the city. In other words, what had been a city of 300,000 population had vanished."
Les Nakashima kept a reporter's composure when describing how he found his mother alive.
"She said she was weeding grass in a relative's vegetable field about two miles to the southeast of the city on the morning of August 6, when she saw the flash. She immediately threw herself face down on the ground. She said she heard a terrific explosion and, getting up, she saw columns of white smoke rising from all parts of the city high into the sky. She said she then started running to her home as fast as she could because she didn't know what was coming next."
Les Nakashima resumed his work at the UP Tokyo bureau after the war. He was not allowed to return to the United States and remained in Japan until his death in 1990 at age 88. He had gravitated toward sports reporting, with one exception: He would always file a story on the anniversary of Hiroshima.
On the 40th anniversary he ended his piece from the city this way:
"Their appeal is simple and sincere: Abolish nuclear weapons. Their slogan reflects that sentiment: ‘No more Hiroshimas.'"
Clifton Truman Daniel. President Truman noted after the fact that the United States had repaid Japan "with interest." This was a common sentiment in the United States, and not just because of Pearl Harbor, as any reader of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" will understand.
Harry Truman's oldest grandson was not yet born when World War II ended, but Clifton Daniel has felt the pull of Hiroshima's history nonetheless. I spoke to him a few years ago about his experiences at reconciling the past with the future. Clifton Daniel is an uncommonly thoughtful man, who shows us what life can bring us if our minds are open.
Clifton's has an open heart was well, which eight years ago this summer resulted in having a Hiroshima survivor sing him "Happy Birthday" on his cellphone. The crooner was Shigeko Sasamori, and as Clifton has explained, he never expected to meet a Hiroshima survivor, let alone be serenaded by one.
His journey to that point began 21 years ago when one of his sons, then in the fifth grade, brought home from school a copy of a book, "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes." It's the true story of a Japanese girl sickened by radiation fallout from the Hiroshima bomb. Following Japanese tradition, she folded 1,000 origami paper cranes in an attempt to have her wish -- to live -- fulfilled.
She died 10 years after the bomb fell on her city, but one of those cranes found its way across the sea, after a fashion. The upshot, in Daniel's recounting, was a pilgrimage by him to the rebuilt city his grandfather had all but destroyed.
Koko Tanimoto Kondo and Capt. Robert Lewis. Koko Tanimoto was 8 months old when the bomb fell, so she doesn't "remember" it, but memory is a tricky concept. She grew up hearing how hearing how her father, an American-educated Christian pastor, watched his church collapse in the explosion, burying Koko and her mother, but only temporarily, under the rubble. And how he ferried victims, many of them burned horribly, in a rowboat across the river to a Red Cross hospital.
Koko (now Koko Kondo) became familiar to American audiences the year after the bombing because of her cameo in John Hersey's best-selling book "Hiroshima." Ten years after the bombing, Americans saw her for the first time when her father flew to California to appear on an early reality television show, "This Is Your Life."
The producers thought it would make good television to surprise the Rev. Tanimoto with, well, a blast from the past -- in the person of Capt. Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. Young Koko was shocked. She said she'd always fanaticized about how she would "kick, bite or punch those bad guys" if she was ever given the chance.
But tears had welled in the retired airman's eyes when the host asked him how he felt about dropping the atomic bomb. Instead of anger, this 10-year-old girl felt empathy. She walked over to Lewis and touched his hand.
"That was the moment I changed," she told a group of young artists from Japan and the U.S. in 2015. "I said to myself, ‘God, please forgive me for hating this guy. If I hate, I should hate the war."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.