Friday, August 6, 2010

Hailing Hiroshima

I was staying over the weekend in Japan while on an extended business trip in the capital city and decided it was a golden opportunity to explore a different part of the country outside of Tokyo. Many in the office recommended Kyoto, an easy day trip by train just south of Osaka while others suggested Mt. Fuji if the weather was good. There was really only one choice for me, however, and that was Hiroshima.

Leaving out of Tokyo Haneda the domestic flight took about an hour and fifteen minutes, maybe as far as between Chicago and Omaha and in the same general southwesterly direction. Upon landing a shuttle bus took me downtown and dropped me off not far from my destination, the "Peace Memorial Park" at the heart of the city.
My first impression of the city was amazement as it was completely built up and clean, looking for all the world as if nothing spectacular had ever happened here in the first place. I truly did not know what to expect over 50 years after the attack, wondering if some parts of the city remained a smoldering ruin with people still digging out after all this time.
I found nothing of the kind but instead a large, vibrant metropolitan area of nearly three million people. I had heard, however, of news reports about cancer rates in the area that are still higher than the national average and wondered about the very air itself, looking up to the sky and walking in circles as if trying to see the top of a skyscraper deep in a canyon of steel and concrete. My insides didn't tingle and I heard no buzzing sound in the air as if a swarm of locusts had passed by. I felt fine and the sky was blue and beautiful.

I set off for the most famous bridge in the world that few can remember the name of, The Aioi Bridge, a unique, T-shaped bridge spanning the Ota River and linking both banks to an island in the center and immediately to the south. This was the aiming point for the "Little Boy" device that at 8:15AM would wipe out nearly 80,000 people quite literally in a flash. Of the many cruel ironies I was to discover this day, the bridge lay just to the south of the Genbaku baseball stadium, home field of the Hiroshima Carp (Goldfish).

The bridge today is wide with six lanes of traffic, pedestrian sidewalks and tracks for several tram lines. Not only did it mark the center of town but from the air it was easy to see by the spotter. Standing on this bridge it was equally easy to imagine a similar scene on August 6th, 1945, with people going about their daily business, doubtlessly aware of the stressful situation their country was in but equally unaware of what was flying towards them from the south at high altitude.

It all made sense to me right then and there. Standing on that bridge, I finally understood in living color the culmination of The "Pacific Island Hopping" campaign of the Second World War, starting with the Philippines, the Marianas, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa; it all came together in one long, bloody but logical sequence. As tragic as the atomic deployments were, this day in this city was the result of so much prior sacrifice.

The Philippines was a political move to appease MacArthur but also did much to cut off Japan's supply of oil and raw materials from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia and Borneo). The Marianas Islands, Guam, Tinian and Saipan, were taken to neutralize Japanese strength in the Mid-Pacific and also because they were within range of Japan for American long-range bombers. Iwo Jima was (and still is) considered a part of Tokyo, some 600 miles to the north and lay directly under the flight path from the Tinian Airfield which until secured was used by Japanese air defenses to pick off bombers heading to the home islands. Finally, the Battle of Okinawa proved to many American planners that invading Japan would cost far more lives on both sides than a couple of experimental nuclear warheads which might also serve to end the war a lot faster than a conventional ground assault.

So they hoped. A streetcar clanged merrily behind me as I looked up to the sky, searching for three B-29s flying high in formation above the city. They weren't there so I cast my gaze down to the island lying to the south of me about 100 meters away. To my left I saw the shell of a large building that survived the blast, still standing, the lattice-work support of its dome mimicking a skeleton exposed under flesh incinerated from the very bones.

I walked down the stem of the T-bridge to start my tour as an American. I was heading towards a completely new, universal and unimaginable reality.

Gotta go.

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