The Hiroshima POWs

The Legacy of the Hiroshima POWs and the Men who Remember Them

The carefully planned detonation of an atomic bomb above the city center of Hiroshima, and 3 days later another on the outskirts of Nagasaki, were the two most horrific moments in human history. The events were deliberate, and conducted in order to end a world-wide war through the terror of instantaneous destruction of enemy cities and any inhabitants whether child, woman, or man. For the victims, nothing, no truths about the reasoning and decision, intent, imperfect execution, or thought that it could have been worse softens the impact and horror of those moments. The staggering statistics of war casualties–––some of which are provided, below, represent destruction and suffering that nearly impossible to imagine. 

Millions of people died during World War II. Including 19 to 28 million deaths due to war-related famine and disease, some 50 million civilians succumbed to warfare. Total military dead, conscripts and volunteers, was 21 to 25 million, including 5 million prisoners of war (POWs).  One of every 300 US citizens died. One of every 22 Japanese died. One of every 4 Belorussians died.   

The 8-year-old boy, Shigeaki Mori, survived the intense "pika" flash of radiation and thermal blast of the horrific "Little Boy", the first atomic weapon used in warfare. He made it his life’s work to tell the story of the Americans who were killed along with many of his family, his friends, his neighbors––and many tens of thousands of others in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mostly women, children, the elderly, and soldiers. The survivors of this holocaust carry lifelong scars, predisposition to cancers and other ailments, and the affliction of social stigma. In Japan they are called the hibakusha, or “explosion-affected person”. It is not well known throughout the world that there are many surviving hibakusha still with us. Even fewer people are aware that American POWs, along with many thousands of civilian Japanese Americans, Koreans and other foreigners, were among those killed by the first deployed nuclear weapons. Some of these non-Japanese citizens were our direct family, or friends, or friends of friends. However, most of us lack any direct connection to these "forgotten people"  and they are distant, time-displaced, unfortunate strangers who are upsetting to think about. That's who the American POWs were to Shigeaki Mori, still he was compelled to devote much of his adult lifetime to discovering their story, and to finding and consoling American families and befriending former servicemen like Tom Cartwright. He continues to investigate the Allied Forces POWs killed in Nagasaki.

At age 21, Cartwright proudly fought for his country, commanded a crew of nine and lost his closest friends when he carried out a mission that even senior officers such as Admiral McCain questioned. Before befriending him, Mori knew Cartwright's pain. They both understood that, as President Obama stated in his historic speech of 27 May, 2016 at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima:

 "We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story–––one that describes a common humanity; One that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted...We see these stories in the hibakusha...the man who sought our families of Americans killed here, because he believed their loss was equal to his own...Those who died–––they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life, and not eliminating it." 

Millions returned home at the end of the war. It is my hope that their sacrifices and the wisdom relayed to us from the spoken and written words of the survivors becomes a heritage of shared values––values that will guide our statesmen and stateswomen and influence each of us to do our share to define a caring and meaningful humanity and a peaceful future for our descendants. Still, it will be hard work not serendipity that can liberate our destiny from "the logic of fear".