“I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
On the morning August 9, 1945, the American bomber Bockscar dropped a thousand pound bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man” over the city of Nagasaki. When the bomb was about 1,600 feet above ground it exploded and, “the entire city convulsed.” Windows shattered miles away from the epicenter. It’s estimated that some 74,000 died in the initial detonation. They may have been some of the lucky ones.
Those who survived the initial blast faced horrific injuries. The city roared with the moans and cries of the injured. Mothers screamed to their trapped children. People staggered around with missing limbs. Many, feeling they were dying of thirst, made their way to ponds and drowned. Others simply lied down and never got up again. One woman covered her eyes from the flash and then “lowered her hands to find that the skin of her face had melted into her palms. Thanks to a bureaucratic screw-up, the day after the bombing, the U.S. dropped leaflets over Nagasaki, warning people that a nuclear explosion could be coming.
Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War follows the fallout of the second and final time an atomic bomb was used as a weapon of war. She focuses most of her book on five survivors of the bombing-called hibakusha, in Japan. Most of them were teenagers when the bomb hit, including a factory worker, a student, and a mail-delivery boy. Through their eyes, we see the city’s devastation. Some of them walked through the ruins of Nagasaki to find their family. Another’s face was so badly burned he couldn’t see or even open his mouth to eat. His mother had to feed him using chopsticks.
As things in Nagasaki looked like they were improving, more problems started to surface. “Survivors” started to die of radiation sickness. Their hair would fall out, and their skin-covered in purple spots-would rot. Those who survived the sickness faced high chances of dying of cancer. Even as doctors started to figure this out, they were stymied by American censorship. The U.S. didn’t want the world to know the after-effects of the bombing, especially the Japanese. They banned films and pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They even confiscated valuable medical data.
Even if hibakusha managed to survive all those obstacles, they were still facing a lot. Many were so badly disfigured by the blast, they were hesitant to reveal themselves in public. Children thought they were monsters and cried. They struggled to find work because employers thought they were too weak, or that radiation poisoning was contagious. They also struggled to find anyone to marry because people were afraid of passing genetic disease to their children.
This was a really tough book to read. Southard doesn’t pull any punches in this book. She’s not interested in the flowery language that often pollutes books about war survivors. She’s only interested in telling us what happened, about the people who lost their lives in the blast, and about those who survived and speak out to this day about the heavy cost of nuclear war. There’s a saying that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Even if you’re someone who believes the decision to drop the bombs were necessary to end the war, and that doing so saved more lives than it lost, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War personalizes those whose lives were completely changed on that day in August, and forces us to think of the human impact.