In Nagasaki, Japan: Ground zero, then and now

This black pillar marks ground zero in Nagasaki, above which the second atomic bomb used against Japan in World War II exploded 71 years ago today. Concentric circles radiate out from the monument to illustrate how the blast reverberated.The colorful skeins of origami cranes symbolize hope.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Today, August 9, is the 71st anniversary of the detonation of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan. I traveled to Nagasaki in May 2014, visiting for five days and touring many sites connected to the catastrophic event. I also interviewed officials from several museums.

A young dark-haired boy is standing at attention. His untucked, soiled shirt, with three-quarter-length sleeves and front half-moon-shaped pocket, is slightly askew. It covers the top of his shorts, which end well above his knees. He is barefoot. His eyes stare straight ahead. He appears to be trying to keep his bottom lip from trembling.

Strapped to his back is a child, its eyes closed, upper body bent backward, with its head lolling to the older boy’s right.

Both are victims of the atomic bomb that was dropped from an American B-29 Superfortress on Aug. 9, 1945, in this city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Seventy-one years ago, this bomb, and the one that devastated Hiroshima three days earlier, helped bring about the end of World War II.

U.S. Marine Joe O’Donnell took this photo of a boy bringing his baby brother to a temporary crematorium in the weeks after the Nagasaki bombing. It’s part of the display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. (Please ignore the reflection of the lights and exit sign.)

The Japanese boy is about 10, according to the reminiscences of Joe O’Donnell (1922-2007), a U.S. Marine photographer during World War II. O’Donnell called this image “A Boy Standing at a Crematory in Nagasaki, 1945.”

Crematories, some being on-the-spot makeshift creations, were the destination of many of the bodies of the 30,000 to 40,000 people who died instantly, those who succumbed in the ensuing days to the initial effects of the blast or in the weeks and months later who died of the ravages of radiation sickness. Japanese officials put the number of dead over this period at about 74,000, with about 75,000 injured.

“The boy stood there next to the oven for about 10 minutes,” O’Donnell told interviewer Seiko Ueda, years after he shot the black-and-white image, as recounted on the plaque next to the photo. “The men in white masks walked over to him and gently began undoing the cords that were holding the baby. Then I first realized that the baby was already dead.

“The infant’s body made a hissing sound as it was placed in the fire,” O’Donnell said. “Then it lit up in brilliant flames like a deep red of the setting sun. The boy stood there erect and motionless with his innocent cheeks shinning scarlet.”

O’Donnell realized that the boy was biting his lower lip so hard that it had begun to bleed.

This quietly poignant photograph encapsulated Nagasaki’s shocking new reality: death, duty, dignity.

The image and many others, make up the collection of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which delivers part history lesson, part powerful anti-nuclear message. It is impossible to be unmoved by the relentless pictures of charred and twisted bodies, of scorched and demolished buildings and of a desolate landscape where moments earlier residents were going about their daily business.

On the ninth of every month, and on some special occasions, the Flame of Peace is lighted in Nagasaki. In 1983, the flame was brought from Mount Olympus in Greece, one of the very few instances that it has been used outside of the Olympics. The “torch” and the commemorative ceramic tiles on the wall behind it were erected in 1987.

The museum is but one of nearly 80 sites around Nagasaki, large and small, that in some way have a link to the events of Aug. 9 and thereafter. They range from the Flame of Peace taken from Mount Olympus in Greece and rekindled the ninth day of every month (and some special occasions) to cherry trees donated by the United States.

Nagasaki today, a bustling city with a population of about 430,000, according to its tourism bureau, is far more than its atomic bomb sights. It’s a major port, known for its shipyards — among the reasons it was targeted during the war — and a popular stop on cruise ship itineraries.

Many residents still make their livelihood fishing, as they have for generations. Sushi and sashimi don’t come much fresher or more reasonably priced. Subsidiaries of Sony and Canon both have facilities that make high-tech parts for digital cameras and other electronics.

Nagasaki, capital of Nagasaki Prefecture with a population of about 1.3 million, has a long history of contact with the West, even during the two centuries when nearly all of Japan was in a shogun-ordered, self-imposed cocoon.

The scale model of Dejima shows how accessibility to the fan-shaped island was controlled. The Japanese isolated Dutch and Portuguese traders before the country fully opened to the West.

The Portuguese and Spanish arrived first, in the 16th century, bringing traders and missionaries. The Dutch came later, though like the Portuguese, were forced into isolation on a man-made, fan-shaped island known as Dejima, itself a worthwhile destination for the modern tourist. The Dutch brought not just goods (sugar was among the largest imports), but mind-expanding ideas about science, medicine and education.

The arrival of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his small fleet at Edo Bay in 1853, signaled that Japan’s blinkers would soon be removed and the country would be awakening to the technological and political advances of the modern world.

On my fifth trip to Japan, I found, as always, everyone unfailingly polite, most citizens stylishly dressed (especially women in kimono) and curious enough about a solo Western traveler to strike up a conversation.

Streetcars, with their clanging bells and squeaky brakes, might remind riders of San Francisco. The inexpensive and widely used transportation delivers passengers to their destinations with typical Japanese efficiency. Stores are efficiently neat and well-stocked, with goods attractively displayed. Bathrooms are spotless. Restaurants and entertainment venues are plentiful and widespread. In other words, if you didn’t know what happened here, you’d think this was just another prosperous, historical city.

On that fateful day 71 years ago, Nagasaki, nestled in a winding valley and surrounded by mountains on three sides and its natural port to the west, was the secondary target. In the early morning hours, Bockscar, a specially modified B-29 under the command of Maj. Charles Sweeney, 25, left Tinian — the same Pacific island in the Marianas that the Enola Gay departed from on Aug. 6 for its mission to Hiroshima. The intended target was Kokura, about 100 miles west of the now uranium-bombed Hiroshima.

Sweeney had flown his regular plane, the Great Artiste, with instrument and observational support for the Hiroshima mission, but switched with Capt. Fred Bock for the Nagasaki assignment. Sweeney took off with an uncooperative pump in the reserve fuel tank, which post-bombing forced the B-29 to land in Okinawa before it could return to Tinian.

En route, the plane was delayed waiting to rendezvous with a photo aircraft. It circled three times over Kokura, at the northern tip of Kyushu, but haze and smoke from a previous firebombing raid over Yawata, to the north, made it impossible to hone in on the target.

About 90 minutes behind schedule, the decision was made to head southwest to Nagasaki, population about 240,000, where Mitsubishi had armament factories and shipyards. Under orders to make a visual siting of its target, the B-29 encountered low clouds. At nearly the last minute, bombardier Capt. Kermit Beahan caught a break in the clouds, and “Fat Man” was detonated about 1,650 feet over the northern part of Nagasaki, missing the city center and its busiest streets.

“Fat Man” caused utter destruction at ground zero. It detonated at 11:02 a.m.

The fireball, radiating several million degrees of heat, morphed into a mushroom cloud that was estimated to have reached a height of 45,000 feet. The fires, blast wind and radiation wiped out an area of about 2.59 square miles and left an estimated 120,000 homeless. Of the dead, 70 percent were women, children and senior citizens.

Nagasaki-born artist Naoki Tominaga’s sculpture reminds the world that 70 percent of the victims were women, children and senior citizens. This piece is directly across from the ground zero black pillar.

Northeast of the hypocenter, the bomb obliterated the neighborhood around the red-brick Urakami Cathedral, home to the largest concentration of Catholics in Japan. Up to 10,000 of its parishioners (out of about 16,000 living in the area) are estimated to have died.

Urakami Cathedral, at one time the largest church in Asia, was completed in 1925. Its Romanesque-style replica was rebuilt on the site in 1959.

The geodesic dome of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum opened in April 1996, tied (a bit late) to the 50th anniversary of the bombing. It cost in excess of 6 billion Japanese yen to build and took two years and four months to complete. The glass-and-steel domed circular structure and its surrounding gardens occupy land not far from the hypocenter. Beyond, all the most-visited monuments, sculptures and architectural remains are concentrated in an easily walkable area where the bomb did the most damage.

Another view of the museum, which opened in 1996.

Officials say the museum is a vast improvement over the old six-story venue, which had limited exhibition space and shared quarters in a building that also played host to weddings, concerts and other gatherings.

“In making the new facility, we asked the architects to represent the international city of peace, of Nagasaki,” said Fumitada Hashi, deputy director of the museum, through interpreter Yayoi Minokawa. “The facility is a place to learn about the reality of atomic bombs, and about nuclear weapons, and a place for peace education.”

In its first year of operation, the museum drew more than 1.1 million visitors. In recent years, attendance has been on a largely roller-coaster decline, with 667,379 visitors in 2013, according to Hashi. He cites fewer people visiting Nagasaki and the economic downturn of the past several years for the drop in attendance. Since its opening, more than 14 million people have seen the displays, Hashi said.

An interior view, and “A String of a Thousand Cranes” by Dutch artist Manna Ori.

Visitors reach the main exhibit by descending a spiral ramp to the bottom floor. Draped along the wall is “A String of a Thousand Cranes,” donated by a Dutch paper folding artist, Manna Ori, in 2010. The white origami cranes, a symbol of peace and hope, were crafted from one continuous 495-foot-long piece of paper.

In three sections, the museum tells the story of the world’s second atomic bomb. About 900 items in its 19,000-artifact collection are on display, according to Takashi Matsuo, director of the A-Bomb Heritage Section of the museum. Some have been contributed by survivors, residents or survivors’ families. Information is presented in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

The first section is dominated by black-and-white photographs that show how the city looked before Aug. 9. It also contains artifacts such as a badly damaged wall clock from a house about a half-mile from ground zero, its hands stuck at 11:02 a.m. — the moment of the explosion.

A scientific explanation of the mechanics of “Fat Man” is posted next to the cut-away of the life-size replica.

The second section tells the story of the immediate aftermath. It features a full-size replica of the plutonium 239 bomb “Fat Man,” so nicknamed because of its wide girth. One side is cut away to reveal the interior, and a graphic explains how the bomb — equal to the explosive force of 21 kilotons of TNT — worked.

“When schoolchildren send letters of appreciation, they often mention the ‘Fat Man’ model,” Matsuo said. “They often comment that it’s much bigger than they thought.”

Other relics include tattered clothing, melted glass bottles, leaflets dropped by American bombers, a 14-year-old schoolgirl’s oval lunch box (the rice inside is charred), and a tribute to Dr. Takashi Nagai, an assistant professor at Nagasaki Medical College, who was injured while at the college hospital. Despite his condition (and having been diagnosed with leukemia before the bombing), he selflessly administer to others and later undertook studies about bomb-related diseases. He died in 1951.

Post-WWII nuclear weapons and the modern age are the focus of the third part of the exhibit. If visitors haven’t gotten the anti-nuclear message before now, this section really drives it home.

Matsuo said that on his artifact wish list is the acquisition of more photographs, particularly those taken by “the U.S. Army right after the bomb.” In fact, he said in 2013 he dispatched a co-worker to the U.S. National Archives in Maryland to have a look at its collection.

At night, the basin shines with fiber-optic lights at Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims to commemorate those who died.

Directly across from the museum is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which opened in July 2003. Outside is a 29-meter-diameter water-filled basin, with 70,000 fiber-optic lights that are illuminated until 8 p.m. May to August, symbolizing close to the number of people who died, said Yuko Tahata, vice director of Peace Memorial Hall.

Six water basins and one waterfall are incorporated into the multilevel venue, “because in the blast, victims died begging for water,” Tahata said through interpreter Nagiko Yokoyama.

The library houses testimonies from 36,203 survivors assembled into two multivolume sets of books. Visitors can also use computers to see pictures and video of some of the victims giving their eye-witness accounts.

At the far end of Remembrance Hall is a towering glass case with 163 volumes containing the names of every victim of the atomic bomb. One volume is blank, paying tribute to those who could not be identified because they were vaporized at ground zero.

In the lower level, in a rectangular room elegant in its simplicity, is Remembrance Hall. At the end of two parallel rows of six towering, square glass pillars stands a glass case in which reside 163 volumes on 27 shelves. They contain the name of every victim of the atomic bomb, numbering 162,095 (12 are from Hiroshima, the rest from Nagasaki), as of Aug. 9, 2013. One volume is blank, Tahata said, honoring the unknown victims, people who could not be identified because they were vaporized at the hypocenter.

“They feel sad at the Atomic Bomb Museum,” Tahata said. “They come here, they can calm their mind and pray.”

More than 1 million people have visited the hall since its opening, she said.

The tops of the glass pillars jut out of the basin two floors above at ground level. They point in the direction of the hypocenter, a mere 825 feet away.

The hypocenter’s exact spot is marked by a square black monolith, fronted by a polished, coffin-like black structure. On the left-hand panel is the number 162,083, the total of Nagasaki’s loss as of mid 2014. At the base of this sits an origami-crane-draped rectangular black box. Microfilm containing the name of every victim is also stored here. Concentric circles emanate out from the pillar, indicating how the force of the blast spread in waves.

To the far right of the pillar are relocated ruins from the former Urakami Cathedral.

Artist Seibo Kitamura said of his Peace Statue: “This statue was created as a signpost in the struggle for global harmony. … it conveys the profundity of knowledge and the beauty of health and virility.” Every year on Aug. 9, the ceremony marking the bombing, is held in the shadow of the statue in Peace Park.

The annual commemoration ceremony was held this morning in the shadow of the Peace Statue, a nearly 32-foot tall sculpture unveiled Aug. 8, 1955. The massive sculpture, by Japanese artist Seibo Kitamura, among the city’s most recognizable, is a symbol of hope and a prayer for lasting peace.

The seated figure points upward with the index finger of his right hand, indicating from where the horror fell, and a further warning of the nuclear threat. The other arm, outstretched to the side with its palm facing down, is meant to symbolize peace. The massive figure’s eyes look down, suggesting the appropriateness of a prayer in memory of those who died.

As in previous years, the program included the addition of the names of victims who have died in the past year (an average of 3,000, said Akinori Ogawa, who works for the city of Nagasaki), the release of doves of peace, songs performed by schoolchildren, and at precisely 11:02 a.m., a minute of silent prayer.

According to Nagasaki city government figures, the death toll as of today stands at 172,230.

Officials at the Atomic Bomb Museum don’t know the name of the young boy in O’Donnell’s photo, of if he survived to adulthood and beyond. The photograph was featured in a compilation of O’Donnell’s work, “Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine’s Photographs from Ground Zero,” released in the United States in 2005 and in Japan (under a different title) 10 years earlier.

Additional references: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, 7-8 Hirano-machi, Nagasaki,

Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, 7-8 Hirano-machi;


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