12. Assessing the damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The surrender announcement, the end of the Emperor’s public silence, brought no immediate relief to those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yoshio Nishina had arrived in Hiroshima on the 8th, his trip delayed for a day by a faulty transport plane and the government’s evident lack of eagerness to learn what had happened. Nishina strongly suspected that the Americans had dropped an atomic bomb, and felt that, if he was right, he and the Riken scientists should take their own lives out of shame for having failed. His investigation, begun the next morning, quickly confirmed his suspicions. He located the hypocenter and picked through the ruins of the city, gathering soil and water sample for analysis back in Tokyo and discovering packets of exposed X-ray film at the former sites of hospitals and photo shops. He met military officials to discuss radiation illness; he could offer no other help. He left for Nagasaki on the 10th, then returned to the Riken just after the Emperor had made his radio announcement. He told his colleagues that, if the Americans could build an atomic bomb, so could they, and they should set to work with his cyclotron. Gone was any talk of suicide. But four months after he had visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nishina’s skin broke out in blotches, the result, he thought, of the probing he had done in radioactive areas. He would die of cancer in 1951.53

It took the Americans a month to send a team to see Hiroshima for themselves. Leslie Groves was interested in knowing more about what the bomb had wrought, and he was concerned about a swelling chorus of criticism of the bombings at home and abroad. He dispatched to Japan his deputy, General Thomas Farrell, along with nearly thirty officers and enlisted men, including a number of physicians. Separate groups were sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hiroshima team included Los Alamos scientists Philip Morrison and Robert Serber, and it looked altogether serious, equipped with Geiger counters and more sensitive electroscopes and moving briskly through the streets of the shattered city. Members of the team took photographs of the destruction. Morrison calculated, on the basis of shadows burned into concrete walls, that the bomb had exploded at its intended height. No one found lingering radioactivity, and a Japanese guide helpfully pointed out that lotuses in the moat surrounding army headquarters were growing once more. The teams rendezvoused in Tokyo, where Farrell called a news conference. The dying in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was largely over, he said. There was no radioactivity left on the ground; the height of the explosion had ensured that death would come only by blast or fire, as the Los Alamos scientists had predicted. When he was challenged by Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who had just returned from Hiroshima and had seen people dying quickly as their skin turned blue and blood streamed from their ears, Farrell waved dismissively. The patients were ‘victims of blast and burn, normal after any big explosion’. Burchett had succumbed to ‘Japanese propaganda’. (Groves himself would admit that some had perished from radiation poisoning, but remarked, scandalously, that this was ‘a very pleasant way to die’.)54

Emiko Nishii, a 16-year-old girl, came to the Communications Hospital and Dr Hachiya’s care on 28 August. She complained of‘general malaise, petechiae [bluish skin blotches], and inability to sleep’. Like many others, she had seemed healthy enough after surviving the bomb, apart from some dizziness and nausea, and after a week or so had returned to work, despite overall weakness and persistent diarrhea. On the 23rd, her hair began to fall out; four days later she developed more petechiae, severe abdominal pain, and ‘restlessness’. Her pulse weakened, her temperature rose to 1040, her breath grew labored. She died, ‘an agonized appearance on her face’, on the 29th.55

Wilfully or not, Farrell had been wrong about radioactivity. While it was true that blast and fire caused most of the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many who survived these, because they were protected or sufficiently distant from the hypocenter, later sickened and died from exposure to radiation. At the end of June 1946 the US Strategic Bombing Survey, chosen by the president on VJ Day to analyse the impact of bombing on Japan, issued a report titled ‘The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki’. Survey members had studied medical records and talked to medical personnel who had struggled to treat the injured in the weeks and months following the bombings. Contrary to Farrell’s claim, and contrary to the conclusion of Stafford Warren, one of Farrell’s team physicians who had later testified to the Senate Atomic Energy Committee that radiation was the cause of 7-8 percent of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the survey estimated that at least twice that many—15-20 percent—had died from radiation poisoning. With a longer perspective, the committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, formed at the request of the mayors of both cities, issued in 1979 a lengthy report that included statistically detailed information about the effects of radiation on those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the fateful days or immediately thereafter. The committee found that many who survived blast and fire were exposed to high doses of radiation. For example, an unprotected person 1,200 meters from the hypocenter got 95 rads of gamma rays and 59 rads of neutrons. This was a good deal more than enough to cause leukemia (100 rads in total was considered a dangerous dosage)—and, indeed, between 1965 and 1971 the mortality-by-leukemia rate of those so exposed was seven times greater than that for the rest of Japan. The mortality rate by leukemia for those arriving in Hiroshima within three days of the bombing was three times higher than the national average. Survivors also suffered high rates of thyroid, breast, lung, gastric, and colon cancer, blood disorders, and cataracts. Babies in utero whose mothers were exposed to radiation were in disproportion spontaneously aborted, stillborn, or born with microencephaly or severe retardation.56

The precise number of people who were killed by the atomic bombs will never be known. One is torn between thinking that it is vitally important to estimate as best one can, to try to account for all the people who lost their lives, and an uncomfortable sense that the ongoing dispute over numbers is somehow obscene. Let us, then, be brief. In August 1946, a year after the bombings, the Information Department of the Hiroshima City Office estimated that 118,661 civilians and approximately 20,000 military personnel had died to that point. Among the hurt were 30,524 rated as ‘seriously injured’ and another 48,606 ‘slightly injured’. Many of those in the first category presumably died subsequently from their injuries. In Nagasaki the toll seems to have been around 70,000 killed, virtually all of them non-combatants. It is perhaps worth recalling that some 90,000 were killed in the incendiary raids on Tokyo in the spring of 1945.57

Hiroshimans had counted themselves blessed that their city had for the most part been left alone. In the hours after the atomic bombing, they worried that the Americans had more terrible things in store for them: poison gas or a ‘cold bomb’ that would ‘freeze everything’, even a bomb that would release ‘rotten pigs’ that would destroy what remained of the ravaged ecosystem. Before surrender the Americans no doubt regarded such rumor-mongering as salutary; in its wake, and especially in the light of growing criticism of their having used the bomb, they sought to limit the spread outward from the bombed cities of both wild gossip and genuine pathology reports alike. The occupation authority, headed by the Supreme Commander for the Allies in the Pacific (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur, attempted to censor materials that concerned the bomb, though it did so with an inconsistency that will be familiar to students of bureaucracy everywhere. The writer Tamiki Hara, thwarted from publishing his Hiroshima memoir/story ‘Summer Flowers’ in one Japanese journal, merely chose publication in two others small enough to evade the censor’s gaze. When Yoko (Ota planned, in 1948, to publish her memoir ‘City of Corpses,’ she received a visit from an occupation intelligence officer who questioned her closely about the politics of her friends and her publisher. At the end of the interview, the officer told (Ota: ‘I want you to forget your memories of the atomic bomb. America won’t use the atomic bomb again, so I want you to forget the events in Hiroshima.’ That, (Ota replied, was desirable but impossible. A censored version of ‘City of Corpses’ appeared later that year. John Hersey’s Hiroshima, first published in the New Yorker in August 1946, did not appear in Japanese until 1949.58

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