"Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Me" by Gary Presleyby Llalan • 08.09.2011
Today marks the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki in World War II. Gary Presley, author of The Wind (Issue 26), writes of his memories and impressions of the war as an “army brat” whose father served in the war.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Me
What stands in my memory is a tower. The tower marked the point over which The Bomb exploded. If you are of a generation touched by World War II, you invariably use those words whether you speak of Hiroshima or Nagasaki: The Bomb.
I can tell you I was five or six or seven years old. I don’t remember exactly, but we visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima sometime in the late 1940s when the cities were still mostly rubble. I know it was before 1950, because in 1950 our family lived in an rickety apartment converted from an army hospital ward at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I know that because my brother was born in 1950.
Here is a thing that confuses me further, these sixty years on, years overlaid by television and film documentaries, by books and magazines: I do not know whether the tower was in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. We visited both, my family did, and there are pictures stored away in my father’s 35mm slide collection of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and of the idyllic untouched Japan of rice paddies, shrines, and Mount Fuji. My father was stationed in Japan those years, assigned as a general’s aide-de-camp, and my mother and I had sailed on an old troop ship to join him there. Because the general lived alone during that period, and perhaps because our family reminded him of better days, we three often traveled with him on casual trips.
I remember the atomic ruins as well, rolling away from our little group in waves of rubble perhaps three feet tall, streets and alleys clear, debris piled along side. The scraps of memory from long ago conjure up shards of concrete and metal, and a few twisted and broken trees dotting an otherwise flat, featureless landscape. I remember a wrecked building, which I later learned was the remnants of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, and the wreck’s domed roof, or at least what was left of it. And other buildings – a hospital? – with shadows lingering on the walls, shadows created by the fission flash of Little Boy or Fat Man.
How does a child contemplate death? No one close in my life then had died, no grandparent, no aunt, nor uncle or cousin killed in the war. How can a child comprehend thousands dead? I was told The Bomb had been dropped to end the war, and I believed. The Bomb was real then, even if I could not walk down the ruined street and understand all that had lived and thrived there before, all that had been good, and evil.
An army lives to impose the will of a state, by force, That I know now. Then I was an army brat, and with my toy soldiers and model airplanes and my little collection of colorful infantry and armored division insignia my father helped me collect. I fantasized I was part of the army. My father had taken refuge in the army during the Depression, had done well, attended OCS, and decided to remain a soldier after the war.
The army was my home, familiar in its sameness even in the exotic places it had taken me. Our family marched to its rhythms, and my father dressed each morning in his uniform and became a soldier, and I saw the uniform and was proud, but, at heart, at five or six years old, I was oblivious to its grand design and the means by which it sought to achieve it.
It is sixty years now, and whatever I see through the mist of memory, I cannot remember the voice of anyone in the general’s party gloating over the destruction we found at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even later, as my father was transferred from one fort to another, I remember talk of The Bomb only as salvation.
That, and perhaps also that a hard-edged comprehension that the covenant with our own dead had been fulfilled.
The machinations of history were beyond me then, a little boy clinging to his mother’s hand. It was years before I could recognize the message of victory and its price. I know now that many of the men I saw every day, the soldiers wearing the Combat Infantryman badge, the Purple Heart, and decorations for valor, had faced down the Panzers on the frozen fields of the Bulge or fought, riddled with dengue, beriberi, and malaria, to beat and burn the Emperor’s warriors off dozens of Pacific jungle islands.
During the war, my father served in the Philippines, on Okinawa, and then his division went to Seoul to take the surrender of Imperial Army units there. My father’s division would have been one among many sent to invade the main Japanese islands had The Bomb not be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In most human beings there is a place in the heart, I think, where we celebrate the triumph of blood.
It is the same hot, hard unreasoning same place where lived the primitive man who struck out with club or rock or teeth to save what is his. And in that dark recess of my soul, I believe the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are no different from the dead in the firestorms of Dresden, Hamburg, or Tokyo. Or the dead in Nanking. Or Manila.
I remain an army brat, even now all these years later. I will always and forever dismiss the caveats and doubts and moralizing from those who had no power then, in that desperate hour, to choose who would live and who would die. No one who quibbles today, who speaks of moral choices, was alive then to take up a rifle and lead a company of infantry ashore on Kyushu.
The Bomb dropped. My father survived. My brother lives.