After Hiroshima

In an age of nuclear bluster, Salman Tarik Kureshi looks back on the two times that such weapons were used on Japan

After Hiroshima
Even before the world’s first nuclear strike on the 6th of August, 1945, the Japanese were already more or less defeated. And, after that almost phantasmagorical horror had destroyed the city of Hiroshima, it was clearly all over, except for the formal declaration of unconditional surrender by Emperor Hirohito. However, President Truman was eager for another demonstration of US firepower - especially as the Soviet Red Army, ostensibly an ally, had also entered Japan. It seems that Truman was intent on, not so much ending the World War, but starting up the Cold War.

In the moonless post-midnight darkness of the 9th of August, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber nicknamed Bockscar was readied for take-off from the American base on the island of Tinian in the North Pacific Ocean. It carried what resembled a gigantic metal egg, weighing over five tons and known as Fat Man – a plutonium bomb, of still greater force than the enriched Uranium bomb that had obliterated Hiroshima. The pit crew who assembled it had signed their names on the casing. On its nose, the bomb bore the stencilled acron JANCFU, which stood for “Joint Army-Navy-Civilian F—-k Up”.

Projected nuclear winter in Year 2, during the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia

Fat Man’s target was the ancient castle city of Kokura.

Bockscar, the strike plane, was delayed on the tarmac because of fuel-pump problems, finally taking off at 3:47 am. It beat its way through dark and stormy skies for six hours, coming over the small island of Yakushima, where it waited in the air for two accompanying B-29s, one of which never showed up. Arriving over Kokura at 10:45 in the morning, the crew found that the city was obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke. Ironically, the smoke possibly came from the American firebombing the day before of the adjacent city of Yawata. Anyhow, it saved the people of Kokura that day. After forty-five minutes, and with anti-aircraft fire headed their way, the crew flew on to another Japanese city: Nagasaki.

Let me, at this point, take my readers back a few days to the city of Hiroshima, just before its fateful bombing, to meet Engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The 29-year-old Yamaguchi had been there on a three-month-long official project, which was now ending, and he was anxious to get back to his hometown, where his wife Hisako and baby son Katsutoshi awaited him. This was supposed to be his last day at Hiroshima. At around 8:15 that morning, Yamaguchi was walking to Mitsubishi’s shipyard a final time, when he heard the drone of an aircraft. Looking skyward, he saw an American B-29 bomber approaching out of the morning sun. A small object connected to a parachute fell. Suddenly, the sky erupted in an immense blaze of light, which Yamaguchi later described as resembling the “the light of a huge magnesium flare.” He had just enough time to dive into a ditch before the ear-splitting boom rang out. The shock wave sucked Yamaguchi from the ground, spun him in the air like a tornado and sent him hurtling into a nearby potato patch.

The young engineer was surrounded by torrents of falling ash, and he could see a mushroom cloud of fire rising in the sky over Hiroshima. His face and forearms had been badly burned, and both his eardrums were ruptured. He wandered in a daze toward what remained of the Mitsubishi shipyard. There, he found two others who had survived the blast. After spending a restless night in an air raid shelter, the men awoke on the 7th of August and made their way toward a train station, which was somehow still operating. The journey took them through a nightmarish landscape of still-flickering fires, shattered buildings and charred and melted corpses lining the streets. The train, itself full of burned and bewildered passengers, took Yamaguchi on an overnight ride to his hometown Nagasaki.

Tsutomi Yamaguchi, who survived through two nuclear attacks on Japan - Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Yamaguchi arrived in Nagasaki early in the morning on the 8th of August and limped to the hospital. The doctor who treated him was a former school classmate, but the blackened burns on Yamaguchi’s hands and face were so severe that the man didn’t recognize him at first. Neither did his family. When he returned home afterwards, feverish and swaddled in bandages, his mother thought he was a ghost.

Despite being on the verge of collapse, Yamaguchi dragged himself out of bed on the morning of the 9th of August and reported for work at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki office. And that is where he was, describing his experience to his boss, when the landscape outside suddenly exploded with another incredible white flash. Yamaguchi dropped to the ground an instant before the shock wave shattered the office windows and sent broken glass and debris careening through the room. “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” he later told a newspaper.

The bomb that hit Nagasaki was even more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima but, as Yamaguchi would later learn, the city’s hilly landscape and a reinforced stairwell had combined to muffle the blast inside the office. His bandages were blown off, and he was hit by yet another surge of cancer-causing radiation. But he survived. And even survived the leukaemia and tumours that he would later suffer. Amazingly, Engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi had lived through, not one, but two nuclear explosions. Living to the advanced age of 93, he finally passed away in 2010.

Yamaguchi’s double survival was nothing short of a miracle. At the Nagasaki Museum, there is preserved a paving stone with the shadow of a man permanently baked into it. This person was vaporised in an instant. But, to the extent of that instant, he retarded the melting of the paving stone by the heat flash. His shadow therefore survives him. For all time.

In the 74 years since they were bombed, the Japanese never sought to join the nuclear club, even though they would before long become the world’s technology leaders and both rich enough and skilled enough to easily do so. However, an insane, and continually escalating, nuclear arms race was to ensue between the USA and the USSR, the latter eventually bankrupting itself into the greatest state collapse in history. These two so-called Superpowers would be joined by Britain, France, China, Israel, India, and, of course, Pakistan. These last two countries rank at numbers 157 and 172, respectively, in terms of per capita GDP.

In a paper just published, world experts have projected that there would be more than 125 million immediate deaths in the two countries in the event of a nuclear exchange. This will be followed by global mass starvation – starvation all over the world – after megatons of thick black soot block out sunlight for up to a decade afterwards. This could herald a new Ice Age and the certain destruction of human civilization as we know it today, and perhaps the extinction of human life altogether.

In the devastation that would follow, far from there being any Yamaguchis, whoever survives will fervently wish they had perished. Given these horrendous scenarios, it would scarcely seem a responsible act for a Prime Minister, or anyone else, to talk about engaging in a nuclear arrack or counter-attack - or to even remotely think about the possibility. But, of course, neither in Pakistan nor in India are either the civilian and military leaderships mature enough to miss a chance of sounding belligerently Macho.