North Coast Journal

Ethics - August 1995

by Wally Graves

When Little Boy fell from heaven

JULY 1945: We are only termites
on a planet and maybe when we bore
too deeply into the planet there'll be
a reckoning - who knows?

- President Harry Truman's diary while pondering whether to drop the atomic bomb.

Last December just before Christmas the U.S. Postal Service announced plans for a stamp commemorating the bomb which fell on Hiroshima 50 years ago, come this August 6.

A flurry of North Coast correspondence followed in the letters to the editor column of the Times-Standard.

June Thompson of Bayside said we've been living too long under the myth that the A-bomb shortened World War II. James A. Smith added that Americans should apologize to Japan.

This brought a reminder from Bob Nelson of Hydesville that Japan started the war at Pearl Harbor, a notion seconded by Lyle A. Whitledge of Arcata, to which veteran Richard Carpenter of McKinleyville added that he knew the bomb stopped the war. He was there.

Jessica Bittner of Bayside questioned the depth of Nelson's Christianity, but John D. MacEvoy of Eureka, who, like Nelson, was there, said, "Thank God for the atomic bomb!" to which Rick Paul Springer of Arcata argued it's time America admitted we could have won the war without the bomb.

Ruth Mills of Arcata wanted to know whether Jessica Bittner herself was a Christian, and Ray Olsen of Eureka said if anyone should apologize, it should be the Japanese to the American dead at Pearl Harbor. Victor Anthony of Crescent City and Herbert Wall of Eureka concurred.

Thompson - who started it all - confessed she never condoned Pearl Harbor, but is haunted by America unleashing radiation.

"Little Boy" with its Uranium-235 fell from the heavens to Hiroshima followed three days later by the plutonium "Fat Man" on Nagasaki.

When the bombs fell I was sweating out my days aboard a small Navy ship in the Philippines, preparing our invasion of Japan. On Aug. 8, my young bride in the U.S. wrote:

I suppose you have heard the great news about the atomic bomb. Great news. It makes me quite ill and terrified. It is the most horrible thing I have ever heard - such wholesale destruction - all humans and animals in the area - and even potential death in the air days after the bomb has dropped. They call it the greatest scientific invention of all ages. Maybe smashing the atom is fine - but making a bomb of it is not progress. It is horrible and disgusting and I am sick of the world and its science. If it scares the Japanese into surrendering I am of course thankful. If it dazes them or makes them all the more determined to resist their enemy who can do such horrible things I think perhaps the end of the world is in sight.

On the same day I wrote from the Philippines:

What a wonderful dawn! Got up at 6:30 and walked to the focsle and sat on the winch and watched the sun rise. Blue hills took shape, turning to green. Corn fields and high terraces. Smoke fires on the beach. Roosters, a baby cries, a soft ripple of water. Gulls overhead.

What a contrast to last night. Still don't know much about the Atomic Bomb, but it sounds as though a new age has arrived. We were in the wardroom last night. I was tinkering with the radio. First came Tokyo, strange, languid music. Japanese talk. Then a Dutch station from New Guinea, then the hard-to-understand Australian station. Then Radio Shanghai, and more strange and lovely music.

Then we caught the United States in the midst of a brittle news report and we heard:

"The new bomb has the explosive power of the TNT carried by 2,000 superforts."

I thought I misunderstood. He must have meant 20, or 200. But he said 2,000. "The Secretary of War says the new explosive power overwhelms the imagination."

The station faded, we heard "Atomic Bomb," and it sounded something like the Orson Welles Invasion From Mars Program years ago. We shook our heads at the sorry and desolate news.

Then the United States signed off as they do very impressively, long and drawn out, " the Yewnited....States....of Amereekah....." and we react by saying, "Look, we know we're ten thousand miles from home, but don't rub it in."

I switched the dial, and heard "Hong Kong Calling." A Japanese commentator spoke of the New East Asia Sphere ruled by the Japanese, beginning with Sumatra and Java.

Then he went on, "A small force of Superforts appeared over Shikoku this forenoon. They dropped bombs for an hour and a half, starting at 9:30 a.m., and ending at 11. It appears they dropped a new type bomb. Authorities are investigating."

I pictured a Japanese committee picking their way over a huge pit, "investigating" an atomic bomb that has the force of 6,000 tons of TNT.

We talked a little about the war's end, but most of all about the horror of an Atomic Bomb. I look at your picture on the wall, and I see a thin watch on your left wrist, lovely face, soft sweater and cool slacks. You're holding Cousin Judy and I see compassion in your eyes.

And then I see as vividly as if it were on the wall, a picture of you lying prostrate on the sand. The building behind you is lying smashed, just as you are lying.

There is no life to you.

A bomb has just struck, and the concussion has collapsed your lung and burst your heart, but your skin is still whole.

I see an investigating committee, and their heads shake solemnly and blankly as they step over those bodies who are no longer human, but have no external wounds.

What has caused it?

Some strange gas? Some strange power that fell from another world? And the horror wells before me, and I see myself in a uniform with gold stripes. I have bars across my left breast. I am pointing them out. "This is the Philippine Ribbon, and these stars on the Asiatic one stand for Iwo Jima (40,000 dead) and Okinawa (60,000 dead), and then this other one, this stands for the last big invasion."

Or was there a final invasion? How did it end? My uniform is the same smart uniform that the fliers over Tokyo wear, and the same uniform as those people in America who developed the new bomb, and the same uniform as everyone, the farmers and grocers and steel men and wood men wear, the same uniform, distinguishing me as a member of a Great Material Culture which has not only shown man, but has shown God as well.

Next day:

I apologize for the above. What a terrible way to start a letter! But the Atomic Bomb has been preying on my mind all day, it's so intriguing in a completely evil way. I can't let it alone. I still don't know much about it except it can knock a man down at six miles, and a plane has to fly 40,000 feet to keep from being consumed with its lethal weapon. The opinions on board are varied, but all think it's pretty terrible. I hear the Japanese have declared it inhuman, and its use inhuman. Great God, what has been going on the past four years if it isn't inhuman? Are we to draw the line beween the bomb and a rifle bullet between the eyes, or a dead body snuffed out by concussion? The first Marine killed on Iwo suffered an inhuman act, and he suffered it at the very instant that he was taking part in a most inhuman invasion, two forces bent on death and destruction.

Aug. 11, from the U.S:

Oh, my darling, my darling. The end of the war! Now I know you will come home to me. By the time you get this the surrender will probably have been signed. I always knew the war would end - everyone talked about after the war - after the war, a thousand years. The unbelievable is happening. Our life will begin.

Aug. 11, from the Philippines:

Last night's poker game was just breaking up. Over the Intercom we heard, "Word has just been received Japan is willing to accept Potsdam surrender terms, provided they may keep their Emperor." I couldn't sleep. I had to get up at 2:30 to get underway this morning but I still couldn't sleep. Stayed up till about midnight, didn't get to sleep till one, and when they woke me at 2:30 I was wide awake. Came off watch at 4:30, couldn't sleep till five, and got up at eight and I'm still not tired. Everyone is listening for the news, and grinning at one another.

There's some swing music on the radio, and for the first time in two years it sounds happy instead of silly. It's Australia, talking sort of rawther English about things like tea, and not even mentioning the surrender.

Aug. 13, from the U.S:

The Japanese are stalling. I'm afraid that if they try any tricks this time they will be sealing their doom and alienating even further the sympathies of the world. I am so thankful in the realization that there will probably not be another invasion. With the atomic bomb we could destroy the Japanese islands in a couple of months - which doesn't make me feel anything but sick. I pray with all my heart the Japanese will surrender and keep the U.S. from being barbaric and using the horrible bomb again.

Aug. 15, from the Philippines:

Saw my first cockfight. There was a crowd of screaming natives surging across the street and then surging back again. I peeked in and there were two bright roosters fighting. One of the roosters was pecking under the other's wing, and was backing him up. Then they edged over by a building and each handler grabbed his bird, moved out to the center of the street. A toothless old Chinaman had the aggressive bird. He gurgled at the bird. Then he spit tobacco under each wing and on his tail, and the rooster went at it again. He pinned the other bird on the next try and the Chinaman picked him up and fondled him.


One hour later:

Every ship in the harbor has been shouting dot-dot-dot-dash, dot-dot-dot-dash (V for Victory!) The word just came that Japan has surrendered unconditionally. The Army just came by, horns blowing. Loud siren across the river. They've been firing flares, with parachutes on them, much to the screaming delight of the native kids.

And only fifteen minutes before we heard the announcement from Radio Tokyo: "Japan has developed a weapon comparable to the atomic bomb. Think what havoc it will wreak among the enemy ships." Poor and pathetic, lying to the last, trying to fool someone, but there's no one to fool now. God, how I want to come home and be with you!


Within weeks our ship invaded Japan peacefully.

Forty years later I revisited the country for half a year with friends.

At the Hiroshima museum that commemorates the disaster, the eyes of the old Japanese men flashed me a hate that never died.

I was of a race, and an age, that identified me as the unforgiven enemy.


Wally Graves taught for many years in California State Universities and has resided in Humboldt County since 1979.


Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal:

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner