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Nuclear reaction

This weekend groups will gather in Tavistock Square to mark the US atomic bomb attacks on Japan. Meanwhile, a new book provides a fresh overview of the event

03 August, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Jeremy Corbyn at a previous Hiroshima day event

AT 11am on August 9, 1945, Taniguchi Sumiteru was cycling through the Japanese coastal city of Nagasaki, delivering letters. He was 16 years old and working as a postman.

High above him flew a USAF bomber.

Its doors opened and a five-tonne plutonium bomb was dropped. It exploded a mile away from Taniguchi, but its extraordinary power was such that he was thrown through the air, his back on fire, as his home city was enveloped with white-hot death.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place three days apart in August, 1945, are marked every year with remembrance ceremonies around the globe. This weekend the Peace Pledge Union, the Quakers, CND and other activists will gather in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, to mark the dark day the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, killing at least 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many more in the years that followed.

And as the debate continues in the UK today whether we should be considering spending north of £200billion on upgrading the Trident missile system, a new book that tells the story of Taniguchi Sumiteru and other survivors has been published by Bloomsbury-based Souvenir Press.

The book came about after the author, Susan Southard, worked as an interpreter for a talk in Washington by Taniguchi.

“Many critically acclaimed books have addressed the United States’ decision to use the bomb, but few have featured the eyewitnesses accounts of atomic bomb survivors,” writes Southard, a historian and founder of Essential Theatre, an activist-based theatre group.

“As single weapons, the atomic bombs used against Japan were unmatched in their explosive force, intense heat and ability to cause instantaneous mass death.

“Radiation doses larger than any human had ever received penetrated the bodies of people and animals, causing cellular changes that lead to death, disease and life-altering medical conditions.”

Southard’s work starts by giving the reader a comprehensive overview of Nagasaki’s civic history and what life was like there during the war.

The bombing of Nagasaki taken by Charles Levy from a B-29 Superfortress used in the attack

We hear from people who were teenagers in the city, too young to yet be conscripted but expected nevertheless to do their “bit” for the national struggle. Many were the survivors who have had to carry the legacy of the attack with them for ever.

And then Southard finds and interviews those who were there on that fateful day – and miraculously lived.

“The large majority of hibakusha [as the survivors are known – atomic bomb affected people] do not speak about their atomic bomb experiences, even within their own families,” she says.

“Their memories are too excruciating and traditional Japanese culture – particularly for those born in the early 20th century – does not promote public disclosure of personal, family or societal struggles.”

And Southard adds that the few she has spoken to have been required to relive the “…horrors of their childhoods and young adulthoods”.

“On behalf of those who died before their voices could be heard, these hibakusha devoted much of their adult lives to eliminating ignorance about the realities of nuclear war and petitioning nuclear nations to reduce or eliminate their weapons stock piles. They are trying, at all costs, to prevent worse nuclear horrors from taking place in the future.”

How the Allies in the Second World War came to terms with the use of the atomic bomb is covered, too.

“Most Americans, relieved that the war was over, easily accepted the government’s simplified message that the bombings ended the war and saved a quarter, half or even a million American lives. With wartime propaganda in both nations depicting the enemy as sub-human and with American fury over Pearl Harbor, Japan’s mistreatment and killing of PoWs, and its slaughter of civilians across Asia, a common response to the atomic bombings was that ‘the Japanese deserved what they got’.”

Southard says these factors have limited how we consider the impact of the bombings and therefore our understanding of the true impact of using Atomic bombs on a civilian population.

Southard interviews Taniguchi and 12 others. On top of this, the book draws on the testimonies of those who rushed to help survivors in the aftermath, the people who tried to help Nagasaki rebuild and then manage the effect for years afterwards.

It makes for devastating reading.

But what is perhaps most telling is how the book runs from 1945 to the present day, allowing the fallout of the attack to be properly understood over the period of time.

And when silence falls over Tavistock Square at noon on Sunday, the message of Taniguchi and other hibakushas must be heard, remembered and acted on to make sure no one else ever experiences what they did in August 1945.

Nagasaki – Life After Nuclear War. By Susan Southard, Souvenir Press, £15
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sunday August 6, noon, Tavistock Square, WC1

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