Kokura, Nagasaki and the Luck of the Last 75 Years
Tad Daley / New York Daily News
“The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable, but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki.” —- Nuremberg Prosecutor and US Army General Telford Taylor
(August 9. 2020) — In the Fukuoka prefecture in southwestern Japan today sits a city named Kitakyushu. It was founded only in 1963, combining five smaller towns in the region. One of these was called Kokura. Kitakyushu is a lovely city, a modern city, with Kokura’s ancient castle at its heart. But it’s also a somewhat ordinary city, with nothing in particular to distinguish it from many other cities around the world.
Except for one episode, one unique distinction, which makes it different from every other city in the world. Because 75 years ago, on the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, for the American B-29 Superfortress called Bockscar — carrying the atomic bomb called Fat Man — Kokura was the target.
The mission was bedeviled by problems from the moment it took to the air. When Bockscar and another B-29 laden with instruments arrived off the Japanese coast to rendezvous with a third photographic plane, it wasn’t there. The two aircraft circled over the sea for 40 minutes waiting for it to show up. Behind schedule, Bockscar’s commander, US Army Air Forces Major Charles W. Sweeney, decided to proceed.
But when the twin B-29s arrived above Kokura, they found that it was shrouded in clouds, and haze, and the still-churning smoke from American firebombing raids on a nearby city the previous day. The twin Superforts made three long passes over the city, trying to confirm that it was indeed Kokura below. If the shroud had cleared for even a moment, that would have become the moment of Kokura’s doom. But it never did. So Sweeney decided to divert the mission to the designated secondary target, Nagasaki.
The atomic weaponeer, US Navy Commander Frederick Ashworth, decided that if it too was obscured, they would abort and ditch Fat Man off the coast of Okinawa. And when they arrived above Nagasaki, it too was covered in very much the same way.
But at 11:01 a.m., a brief break in the clouds allowed Bockscar’s bombardier, USAAF Captain Kermit Behan, to visually confirm the target. Sweeney gave the order. Behan released the bomb. And 47 seconds later, 513 meters above a tennis court, it went off.
Perhaps the most excruciating aspect of the atomic obliteration of Nagasaki is that one strains to find in it any purpose related to ending the Second World War (or even to impressing the Soviet Union). Most serious historians today conclude that even Hiroshima was completely unnecessary to move Imperial Japan to surrender. (So too did virtually all top American admirals and generals at the time.)
Japanese leaders indicated unambiguously by the summer of 1945 that they were quite ready to quit the struggle — if only the Allies would agree not to depose Emperor Hirohito and put him on trial. But the United States insisted on “unconditional surrender,” dropped two atom bombs on two cities filled with innocents . . . and then allowed Hirohito to remain on his throne after all!
But even if one insists that unveiling the terrible new bomb at Hiroshima convinced the Japanese war cabinet of the futility of the fight, what possible marginal value was added — toward either Tokyo or Moscow — by dropping a second bomb 72 hours later? If the United States could make one bomb that could destroy a city in a second, after all, it could obviously make a great many more.
The awful truth is that Nagasaki was a weapons test. Nothing more. The bomb named Little Boy detonated over Hiroshima was a simple uranium device. The Manhattan Project scientists were so confident it would work they didn’t even bother to test it. But Fat Man and “the gadget” tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16 were far more complicated plutonium devices.
In retrospect, the only rational purpose for Bockscar’s mission on Aug. 9 was to see if the plutonium bomb — which had gone off sitting on a tall metal tower — would also work dropped out of an airplane.
The price of the experiment? That was paid by thousands who died instantaneously, thousands more who perished slowly in agony down the road, and the dwindling numbers of hibakusha still with us. Perhaps this is why US Army Brigadier General and Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor said: “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable, but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki.”
In Japan today from time to time, people will employ the phrase “Kokura luck.” It suggests a circumstance where one escapes some vast misfortune without even knowing it had been headed one’s way. Kokura, it turns out, was delivered from its atomic destiny entirely by luck of the draw.
So have you. Spend a resplendent quarantine summer afternoon with a recent book like Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, William Perry’s and Tom Collina’s The Button or Martin Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon. You will immediately apprehend just how close our human race has come, just how many times, to meeting our own atomic Grim Reaper. And you will grasp, too, just how many scenarios — miscommunication, misperception, miscalculation, computer accident, computer hacking, terrorism, an unhinged president — could lead directly to an atom bomb going off in New York City next year, or next month, or next week.
Since 1945, every living thing has been spared its nuclear fate also by luck, also by roll of the dice, also by the most capricious whim of the gods. In this sense, we might say that the tale of Kokura, on that single day, can be taken as allegory for every other city in the world, on every single day since.
How long until our Kokura luck runs out?
Ted Daley, author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, is director of policy analysis at Citizens for Global Solutions. Tad Daley, JD, PhD, www.apocalypsenever.org, @TheTadDaley
The US Should Apologize for the Atomic Bombings — and Denuclearize
Seventy-five years after the atomic bombings, we’re still engaging in a false narrative that attempts to justify the unjustifiable
(August 14, 2020) — Seventy-five years ago, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on a second Japanese city, Nagasaki.
Experts estimate that more than 200,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were injured or exposed and survived. Generations later, families continue to reckon with the devastating toll of those bombings. To this day, no other nation on earth has engaged in such an action.
The United States owes Hiroshima and Nagasaki an apology for committing atrocities against their citizens, but an apology is not enough. It’s a symbolic gesture, empty without a commitment to concrete action to ensure that such atrocities never occur again.
The United States owes the rest of the world a solemn promise to act to prevent the use of nuclear weapons and to engage in tangible steps toward their elimination.
As the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in an act of war, it’s past time for the United States to commit to never engage in a nuclear first strike, to take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to engage in good faith in multilateral negotiations to reduce and eliminate our nuclear arsenal.
Instead, 75 years after the atomic bombings, we’ve withdrawn from most international treaties that reduce or limit the potential for nuclear war and we’re now considering re-engaging in live nuclear testing for the first time in decades.
I won’t relitigate the decision to drop atomic weapons on two civilian populations. Even some of the scientists who were responsible for the successful creation and testing of such weapons pleaded with decision makers not to use them in combat. In the United States, we’re still engaging in a false narrative that attempts to justify the unjustifiable.
It’s critical that we recognize the human cost of the atomic bombings. As Hiroshima bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow has said, “Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us ensure that their deaths were not in vain.”
Survivors of those atomic bombings, known as hibakusha, have been sharing their firsthand experiences for decades in an effort to ensure that those atrocities are never repeated. Most hibakusha who are still alive to continue to tell their stories today were children when the bombings occurred.
Their stories are heart-wrenching. The Hibakusha Appeal calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons explains, “With corpses charred black, bodies with their skins peeled off and with lines of people tottering in silence, a hell on earth emerged. Those who narrowly survived soon collapsed one after another. For more than 70 years since then we have struggled to live on, afflicted by the delayed effects and by anxiety about the possible effects of radiation on our children and grandchildren. Never again do we want such tragedies to be repeated.”
They’re not alone. Even President Ronald Reagan said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Like most people in the United States, I wasn’t taught the full history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school, nor was I shown the full human cost of those atrocities through photographs or stories. As a person in her late 20s, I’m two generations removed from a past that threatens all our futures and from a nuclear legacy that my generation will inherit.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren’t alone; most Americans don’t know generations of fellow Americans are continuing to pay the price of a toxic legacy unleashed by nuclear weapons. From Downwinders affected by nuclear testing to atomic cleanup veterans to Marshall Islanders to uranium workers, people across our country are also survivors of the fallout from the use of nuclear weapons. They have also joined in the call to put an end to the threat of nuclear war.
We can’t change the past, but we can demand a better future. Nuclear weapons make us less, not more, safe. They pose one of the gravest threats to human health and survival.
Seventy-five years later, it’s past time for the United States to apologize and to commit to work toward a better, safer, healthier future free from the threat of nuclear war.
It’s past time to eliminate nuclear weapons, for good.
Olivia Alperstein is the media manager at the Institute for Policy Studies. Previously, she was the communications manager for Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization that works toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus. Originally published by Inside Sources.
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