Nagasaki 1945

The death of Gordon Honeycombe, the celebrated newsreader for ITN and TV-am who had parallel careers as a novelist and historian of crime, vividly reminded me of our collaboration in 1981 on a book Quartet published entitled Nagasaki by Tatsuichiro Akizuki.

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Honeycombe edited the book and wrote an introduction which tells the whole tragic story.

I reproduce it for the benefit of those who never had the chance to read the book when it came out, and which is now out of print.

Thirty-six years ago, on 9 August, an atomic bomb, the second ever to be used against humanity, exploded over Nagasaki. Many years later the only full-length eyewitness account of what happened that day and thereafter was written by a Japanese doctor working in a hospital in Nagasaki, Tatsuichiro Akizuki. A paperback edition of his story was published in Japan in 1967 and an English translation, by Keiichi Nagata, which took 10 years to make, was privately printed by him in Nagasaki in 1977. Mr Nagata had been a bomber pilot in the war and was a friend of Dr Akizuki; before the war they had both been students at Kyoto University. He dedicated his translation to the men with whom he had served and flown in the war, most of whom had died, to the A-bomb survivors, and to the cause of peace.  After the war he became a high-school teacher.

In 1980 I chanced to read Mr Nagata’s translation of Dr Akizuki’s story. It was a remarkable, moving document, telling me things I had never known or thought about that largely long-forgotten, cataclysmic event a generation ago. It seemed all the more potent and timely when the newspapers were calmly theorizing about the effects of H-bombs, neutron bombs, nuclear weapons of many kinds, and the need for fall-out shelters; when France was boasting of her nuclear strength; when computers in America had twice malfunctioned and put nuclear bombers on full alert; when it was said that South Africa, Iraq, India, Libya and Israel, in addition to China, Russia, America and Britain, all possessed nuclear weapons with multi-megaton warheads – a thousand times more destructive than an A-bomb. Deaths from nuclear attack were being calculated in millions, areas devastated in hundreds of square miles. It seemed such madness, the more so now that I had read Dr Akizuki’s account, now that I was aware of what suffering, pain and death a mere atomic bomb had caused, and now that I understood that they need never have been used, nor were they decisive factors in the surrender of Japan. It seemed only right that Dr Akizuki’s story should be presented to the English-speaking world.

In August 1945, Tatsuichiro Akizuki was 29, unmarried and working as a doctor in a small TB hospital which had been established in a Franciscan monastery situated on the northern edge of Nagasaki. Born in the city on 3 January, 1916, he had, after studying medicine at Kyoto University, returned in 1941 to Nagasaki, where he worked in the Radiology Department of Nagasaki Medical College. From there Dr Akizuki went to work in a TB clinic run by Dr Takahara in downtown Nagasaki, and in September 1944, on Dr Takahara’s recommendation, he became the resident doctor at Urakami First Hospital. The hospital had been set up in 1942 as an extension of Dr Takahara’s clinic and occupied most of the large three-storied building that had been founded in 1925 as a Catholic theological school for Japanese priests. It was taken over in 1931 by the Canadian branch of the Order of St Francis. By 1945 very few monks and seminarians or theological students remained in the long and roomy building on Motohara hill, and it functioned chiefly as a hospital for TB patients.

Before being assigned to the hospital, Dr Akizuki was called up for army service – all doctors under the age of fifty had to enlist. But, having recently been ill with pleurisy and being constitutionally rather weak, he was returned to civilian life after a month of military service.  Although one of his six sisters and his younger brother had suffered from TB, he never contracted the disease himself.

Nagasaki was, in August 1945, a large provincial sea-port (population 280,000), situated at the head of a long bay on the south-west coast of Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu. Surrounded by mountainous hills, divided in turn by fertile valleys, the city spread up two of the wider valleys from the harbour’s complex of shipyards, wharfs and port facilities, looking not unlike a smaller, unromantic and un-Americanized version of Hong Kong. The city’s main commercial and residential sector, crowded together, sprawled from the sea up the smaller valley; the longer valley was more industrialized, with large steel, engineering and armament factories and workshops dominating the workers’ simple homes.

When heavy American bombing of Japan began in 1944, some industries were dispersed and relocated in schools and in tunnels underground; air-raid shelters were dug out of the hillsides; and the poor, of whom there were many then, became even poorer. Some found a solace in religion, and many of these in the rites, prayers and beliefs of the Catholic Church. For, at that time, Nagasaki had the largest Christian community in Japan. This arose out of the city’s long and historic association with the western world; for it was through Nagasaki in the sixteenth century that European merchants and missionaries first entered Japan. But, at the start of the war – Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 – that association ended for nearly four years, and resident foreigners, including many Christians of all sects, were immured in concentration camps. An influx of another kind occurred when thousands of Koreans, uprooted from their conquered country, were shipped to Japan and set to work alongside local volunteers, mainly students, high-school pupils and old people, boosting war production. Every fit man was called up to fight. But, by August 1945, the Japanese dream of empire and the establishment of ‘The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ was, like Japan itself, in ruins.

Young doctor Akizuki, although often tired by hard work and the privations of wartime Nagasaki, where meat was unobtainable, fish seldom seen and even rice in short supply, was quite ignorant, so thorough were the censors, that Japan was on its knees, defenceless: its navy and air force all but annihilated, its merchant navy all but sunk or disabled, its people near starvation and millions homeless, and over 60 of its cities, like Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya, devastated by American fire-bomb attacks.

Half a million civilians had already been killed, over 100,000 dying on one March night in 1945, when 179 B29 Superfortresses each carrying about seven tons of incendiary bombs, attacked Tokyo. Fifteen square miles of the city were burnt to the ground. In fact, more Japanese civilians were killed by American bombers in one year than died in Germany (593,000) in three years as a result of British and American bombing. The total of civilian deaths in Britain through bombing was 60,000. In the United States it was less than 100.

Nagasaki was bombed once or twice and strafed; this happened for the first time in April 1945. Being, in effect, the Mitsubishi company town (shipyards, steelworks and armaments), it was a legitimate military target. But although there were air-raid warnings every day, the B29s flew blamelessly over to other targets, like the large air base at Omura 20 miles away (whence suicide planes took off on their fatal missions) and the naval base at Sasebo. Nagasaki was left alone, and its citizens blessed their good fortune, blissfully unaware as they became increasingly careless about air-raid precautions that, as early as May, Nagasaki had already been selected as one of the five cities (the others were Hiroshima, Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata) deemed suitable by the Americans as targets for the Atomic bomb. They were suitable because they combined military installations with ‘houses and other buildings susceptible to damage’.

President Truman decided as early as June 1945 in favour of dropping the bomb on Japan, if necessary. Few American leaders were consulted, it seems, and few, it seems, approved – although among the Allied leaders Churchill did. Neither Generals Eisenhower, Marshall and MacArthur nor Admirals King and Leahy thought it necessary to use ‘this barbaric weapon’ – ‘that awful thing’. But as A. J. P. Taylor says: ‘Once the bombs were there they had to be used.’ Besides, someone had to account for the two billion dollars spent on making them.

No atomic bomb had, however, been tested by the time the war in Europe ended at midnight on 8 May. But, two months later, in New Mexico on 16 July, a plutonium-based atomic bomb was successfully detonated at Alamogordo. Those who were there were stunned at the sight; some rejoiced. ‘Now I am become death,’ murmured J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘the destroyer of worlds.’ Churchill, at the Potsdam Conference, was handed a cryptic message: ‘Babies satisfactorily born.’ Three days earlier, the Japanese Foreign Office had officially notified the Russians, thought to be neutral mediators, that the Japanese were ‘desirous of the peace’. Of this the Americans were already well aware, having intercepted and deciphered coded messages between Tokyo and Moscow. But the Western Allies continued to insist on unconditional surrender, which was spiritually and morally unacceptable by Japan, while the two other atomic bombs that had been created – only three were ever made – were transported in pieces to Tinian, an island in the Marianas, south of Saipan, and there assembled.

By then, President Truman and his chief advisors were as bent on using the atomic bomb – avowedly to hasten Japan’s surrender and to save bloodshed – as Stalin was on declaring war on Japan to gain as many territorial and political advantages in the Far East as the Russians had already won in Europe. This the other Allies were determined to prevent.  There was some temporizing. But an explicit warning to the Japanese and a suggested demonstration of the A-bomb’s power – by exploding one over Tokyo Bay – were dismissed. For it was thought that neither idea would have the shock-effect produced by the actual devastation of a city. Besides, how embarrassing it would be if the parachute or the intricate mechanisms detonating the bomb failed. Some scientists were also curious to know what effects the bomb would actually have on people. The Potsdam Declaration of 26 July, outlining the stark terms of unconditional surrender but with no reference to the future status of Emperor Hirohito and threatening ‘prompt and utter destruction’ unless Japan obeyed, was studied at the Japanese cabinet on 27 July. They decided, while peace negotiations were pursued via Moscow, to ‘withhold comment’, a phrase that was misinterpreted by the West, where the Allies were told the declaration was not worthy of comment. Truman ordered the A-bomb missions to proceed.

At 8.15 am on Monday, 6 August, a B29 called Enola Gay, piloted by USAF Colonel Paul Tibbets, aged 29 – the bombardier was Major Tom Ferebee – dropped a uranium bomb called ‘Little Boy’ over the city of Hiroshima (population around 300,000). The bomb was accurately dropped over the centre of the city and successfully detonated 560 metres above the ground, the equivalent of 13 kilotons of TNT exploding in the sky.

In the Atlantic, President Truman was speeding back to America on board the cruiser Augusta. When he heard the news he exclaimed: ‘This is the greatest thing in history!’

Gordon Honeycombe and I hit it off well and became rather good friends. My memory of him is that of a man who cared passionately for his fellow human beings and, in 1993, became a permanent Australian resident. He was seduced by the Australian philosophy that ‘tomorrow’s another day’ and led a relaxed life, which he confessed couldn’t be better.

2 responses to “Nagasaki 1945

  1. I didn’t know about this book — I think it deserves to be republished.

    GH was also a talented author. I’m trying to track down a copy of his fourth and final novel, Beach. / credentials can be used.


  2. Malcolm Erskine

    On the other side of the debate…. from April to June 1945 circa 250,000 casualties, mainly civilian, were suffered in the battle of Okinawa. If the Japanese Imperial army’s tactic of using the peasantry as a human shield had continued in defence of a mainland invasion then the loss of life through ‘conventional warfare’ could have run to millions. Dropping the Bomb changed everything. It forced the Japanese surrender, broke a tyrannical regime and saved untold suffering and loss of life. The consequent seventy-year impasse between nuclear powers hasn’t led to an age of peace but has mitigated against the excesses of twentieth-century-style World War. God bless Truman for cutting the Gordian knot!