America confronts two realities as it marks the 50th anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
One is the reality of documents, some recently released from government vaults. Today’s historians read them and say the bombs didn’t need to be dropped.
The other is the reality of memories, carried for a half century from Pacific island foxholes or decks of troop ships. Yesterday’s soldiers remember and say the bombs saved their lives.
Stillman Webb, an Army sergeant on Okinawa 50 years ago, was “damned glad” when the United States hastened the war’s end with two atomic blasts.
“We were slated to go to Japan,” said Webb, of Nine Mile Falls. “One invasion’s enough for a lifetime, and we’d had four.”
Many historians argue the Japanese were ready to surrender in August 1945 and an invasion of the main islands was not necessary to end the war.
That’s a hard sell to veterans such as Jack Zappone of Spokane, in charge of an assault group preparing to invade the island of Kyushu when Hiroshima was bombed.
“We were getting ready to take a hell of a lot of casualties,” he said.
American troops were warned Japanese women and children would fight the invasion, with spears if necessary. A veteran of 12 landings, Zappone had no doubt that could happen. He saw the bodies of Japanese women on Okinawa who had cut their hair, donned men’s military uniforms and attacked U.S. troops with sharpened sticks.
“If anybody thinks they weren’t prepared for us, they’re fooling themselves,” said Harold Benson of Elk, an infantryman who became part of the occupying forces.
His unit searched homes and caves, finding enough hidden rifles and ammunition “to fill a building the size of the Coliseum.”
Veterans scoff at historians’ suggestion an invasion would not have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The military was so prepared for casualties that it had stockpiled 250,000 caskets in a warehouse, said Lawrence Johnston, a physicist who helped develop the bomb. The caskets and the bombs were both on the island of Tinian 50 years ago.
When the bombs were dropped, most soldiers and sailors had no idea what they were.
Harvey Fattig of Spokane was a chief petty officer on an amphibious landing ship loaded with Marines who were to be part of the invasion. Only one man aboard knew what splitting the atom meant, he recalled.
Soon, their ship passed Nagasaki, still smoking from the blast, and they realized.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated, flattened, obliterated, say troops who occupied the two cities in the coming months. Glass windows liquefied and pooled on the ground. Pedestrians were burned to shadows in the sidewalks. Cars melted in parking lots.
But Zappone, who was in Tokyo as well as Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, said that city was equally devastated from fire bombs.
It was a war full of tragedies, starting with Pearl Harbor, veterans say.
The anniversaries have the two realities confronting each other like opposing armies on a Pacific Island. When the Postal Service cancelled a stamp with a mushroom cloud, veterans complained. When the Smithsonian Institute neutered the Enola Gay exhibit, historians despaired.
Merging the two realities is difficult because both sides are so heavily vested in their piece of a big puzzle. Historians discount the veterans’ memories as biased or poorly informed.
Veterans see historians as revisionists trying to sully their sacrifice of 50 years ago. Only occasionally will they temper the feelings of 1945 with the experiences of the next 50 years.
Chuck Silver of Spokane was a coxswain on a Navy hospital who survived kamikaze attacks and viewed the wreckage of Hiroshima. He despised and distrusted the Japanese at the end of the war but later visits led him to respect the culture and make friends in Japan.
“My feelings have changed completely about the Japanese,” Silver said. “But I figure I’m here today because the bomb was dropped.”
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