Saturday, August 18, 2018

Day One Before Hiroshima and After by Peter Wyden

Rating: WARTY!

If you love Tom Clancy, then you may well like this: it's full of tedious detail. The book was two-thirds rather boring and one third distressing. I took a long time reading it because I was constantly interrupting it to read library books which unlike my own book, had a return date on them. The most recent time I got back to it, I realized how boring it was with a host of unnecessary detail about people.

You can tell it was written by a journalist: always going for the so-called 'human interest' angle, boring the pants off the reader rather than telling the story. Do we really care what kind of a side-arm a general carries or what kind of a drink a scientist likes? I don't, so I skimmed a lot of the middle third. The last third, about the dropping of the bombs and the aftermath, I read thoroughly, but this book could have been less than half its length and told a better story. I feel bad for the trees which gave their lives for this ungainly tome.

Did the book offer anything no other book has offered? Nope. Unless you count the oodles of extraneous personal details. For those interested in the real human interest - what it was like for those how were bombed, it doesn't actually get to that until it's almost over. The descriptions of what happened are horrible to read, but should be required reading. Nagasaki, the almost forgotten bomb victim, is mentioned, but it gets nowhere near the coverage Hiroshima does.

Nagasaki wasn't even a target to begin with. The beautiful Japanese city of Kyoto was a primary target, but was cancelled for religious reasons, and Nagasaki added. In the end, it came down to Kokura and Nagasaki and the weather decided on the latter. They didn't bomb Tokyo because it had been so badly damaged by conventional bombing that it was considered redundant to go after it again.

The military-science complex was interested in how a plutonium bomb would stack up against the uranium bomb they'd just dropped, so this was as much of a consideration as anything else. As it happened, the damage was far less at Nagasaki despite the bomb being more powerful, because there were not the raging fires that Hiroshima had suffered, and the terrain confined the bomb's effects to a limited area which consisted of many waterways.

Conversely, Hiroshima burned fiercely, and the book describes depressingly how hot it was because of the fires, and how people were desperately thirsty. They were also short of food to the extent they would eat dead irradiated fish floating in the river which wasn't wise, but there was very little food to be had. The fact that the bomb had been exploded well above ground (around two thousand feet) meant that the ground was not irradiated to a significant degree, which in turn meant that the city was habitable afterwards, and after the winter was over, plants grew, whereas it would not have been endurable had the bomb exploded significantly lower than it did.

The Hiroshima bomb killed an estimated 80,000 outright. They were the lucky ones. Another 40,000 died subsequently from burns and radiation poisoning. The grand total included an estimated 20,000 Korean slave laborers along with other non-Japanese in lesser numbers. Many survived and lived long lives. These were known as the Hibakusha and included a Navajo who was imprisoned in Nagasaki who was apparently protected by the concrete walls of his cell.

It turns out that there were some 165 people who survived both bombs. The book mentions this group of about nine guys who were in the military and were sent from Nagasaki to Hiroshima to do some work. After the bombing at Hiroshima, they returned to Nagasaki in time for the bombing there. Talk about bad luck, but they survived both bombings! That's pretty impressive, being nuked twice and living! The first of these double-survivors to be recognized was, according to Wikipedia:

Tsutomu Yamaguchi [who] was confirmed to be 3 kilometers from ground zero in Hiroshima on a business trip when the bomb was detonated. He was seriously burned on his left side and spent the night in Hiroshima. He got back to his home city of Nagasaki on August 8, a day before the bomb in Nagasaki was dropped, and he was exposed to residual radiation while searching for his relatives. He was the first officially recognized survivor of both bombings. Tsutomu Yamaguchi died at the age of 93 on January 4, 2010, of stomach cancer.

There were some lucky escapes, too: people who had been disturbingly close to the epicenter, but who happened to have been behind concrete walls or in basements when the bomb detonated. There was a school teacher who was about six hundred yards from the epicenter who survived it because she was in a concrete basement of the school where she taught, She'd gone in early that morning otherwise she would have been killed on the way in as many of her colleagues were.

The thing most people there didn't get about the bomb was that the shockwave traveled faster than sound, so that hit them before the sound of the bomb did, which is why, I guess, many people said they never heard a bomb go off. That's pretty bizarre in itself. The guys in the airplane that dropped the bomb were turning and flying away before it went off because it had a delay of about 45 seconds before it detonated. They felt a double shockwave because after the initial one of the bomb going off, they felt the rebound of the wave that hit the ground and bounced back to them. That's pretty weird to think of, too.

Americans were in denial about the effects of radiation poisoning, but the Japanese doctors, most of whom had no idea what this was, were seeing people die from it daily. It was a long time before many people realized exactly what the bomb had been, and even longer before Americans realized what they had really done. But the bomb ended the war; at least it came a sudden conclusion after Nagasaki bomb.

Was it worth those civilian lives to save allied soldier's lives? Those were the lives they thought it would cost the allies in an invasion of Japan, but was an invasion of Japan necessary? Was it necessary to take every single island one by one on the way to Japan? Would a fleet of warships showing up off Japan's coast have triggered a surrender without the bomb? Would a test of the bomb off the coast of Japan have ended the war without erasing two Japanese cities? These are questions this book doesn't address. Perhaps they never can be addressed.

I cannot commend this book unless you really, really, and I mean really enjoy reading excruciating detail. There are better sources for this material.