In early August, members of the Witherspoon Society, a “progressive” religious advocacy group affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, attended the “Ghost Ranch Week of Peace” in rural New Mexico. Ghost Ranch participants generally are anti-war and anti-military, support the Palestinians and oppose Israelis, advocate homosexual marriage, and are long on progressive politics and short on theological orthodoxy. Anticipating the 62nd anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a number of the attendees, including some from the Witherspoon Society, descended on nearby Los Alamos to commiserate over the use of atomic bombs to end history’s bloodiest war.
According to Witherspooner Doug King, they “donned sackcloth (old burlap bags) as a sign of penitence, and walked quietly along the city’s main streets, until we spread out and each sat down on the ground where we spent 45 minutes simply being silent and prayerful.” A blessing from an Indian shaman, who smudged them with sage smoke; a symbolic dot over the “i” in their spiritual experience.
I, too, note each August 6, the day the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and August 9, when Bock’s Car unloaded a second on Nagasaki. It means my birthday, August 17, is close and it reminds me of events leading up to my birth.
In early August 1945, my father was in St. Petersburg, Florida, home on leave from the U.S. Merchant Marine. He had survived nearly four years of the “Battle of the Atlantic” running supplies to Allied forces in Europe. Dad had orders to report to California in September where he would skipper a ship in the planned November invasion of Japan. Estimated American casualties reached 500,000 killed and wounded; a figure that would have doubled all American losses in the entire war. Additionally, Stalin promised to declare war on Japan by August 15, meaning the Red Army would be invading Japan to establish a Soviet zone of occupation. Faced with these realities, President Harry Truman opted to use the atomic bomb.
In August 1945, my mother was eight months pregnant. Late on August 15, with word of Japan’s surrender, the city of St. Petersburg called for a street dance the next night to celebrate “Victory Japan Day.” My grandfather, my dad and his eight-month pregnant wife went downtown to celebrate. Dad and grandpa danced both with mom and Ole Grand Dad bourbon that happy night. The men folk got blitzed. Mom went into labor.
In those days, child birth was handled differently—maybe even better. None of what I was “blessed” with thirty years later: “Breath honey! Breath” answered by the woman I love cursing thru her pain to swear, “You’ll never touch me again!” All this presaged the arrival of something that looked like spilled lasagna. In the old days, expectant mothers were anesthetized while fathers holed up in a waiting room where, presumably on that mid-August night—they smoked and drank celebrating both peace and fatherhood. At just after midnight on August 17, I arrived. When the doctor asked the name for his first born, dad, who presumably had gotten yet further into Ole Grand Dad, came back with “Victory Japan Tilford.”
Had the name stuck, I would have called myself “V.J.” and been glad we weren’t at war with Denmark. The doctor, however, noting my father’s condition, withheld “Victory Japan” from my birth certificate until mom came around. When she did, mom nixed the name in favor of making me a junior to my one-day-to-be-Presbyterian minister father.
History’s first atomic strikes claimed 85,000 lives at Hiroshima and another 35,000 at Nagasaki. (Fire bombing raids accounted for the loss of far more Japanese lives.) Additionally, the figure of 300,000 Japanese killed by American air raids would have paled beside the estimated 1 to 2 million who likely would have perished with an invasion. Japan planned to use waves of suicide bombers, in the air, on and under the sea and on land, against the Allied invaders. One post-war plan called for turning Japan into an agricultural country and another advocated sterilization of all Japanese males. In the afterglow of two irradiated cities, however, it seemed Japan had suffered enough.
The atomic bombing of Japan saved untold millions of lives. The advent of nuclear weapons sharply reduced the butcher’s bill that accumulated among the world’s industrialized countries between 1914 and 1945. Nuclear weapons eliminated the possibility of war between countries with the industrial capacity to support massive armies in Industrial Age Warfare. The bomb made war between the major powers potentially too costly. Accordingly, the second half of the twentieth century was far less bloody than the first. We have nuclear weapons—and their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to thank for that.