Dear President Trump, 72 years ago this week the world did in fact see "the fire and fury" you spoke of today. My Dad was there.
It was an autumn day in 1981 when I first learned about atomic bombs. We were studying the events of World War II in my sixth-grade class and our teacher told us about the scientists who had harnessed the power of a small atom and created a devastating device that brought an end to a long war. Our textbooks showed pictures of the bomb’s wrath—shadows of vaporized people on sidewalks, twisted steel skeletons of demolished buildings, the vast emptiness of two cities known as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That night during dinner, Dad asked about my day at school. I told him about the atom and the scientists. I told him about the bombs and their use on Japan. I knew Dad had been in the war, even in the Pacific, but that was all I knew. After dinner he disappeared into the attic and returned with a dozen black and white photographs.
“Take these with you to school tomorrow and show your teacher,” he said.
The photographs were similar to those I had seen in class—barren, scorched landscapes, buildings with blown-out windows, streets lined with charred telephone poles and tangled wires. Dad pointed to one of the photographs and explained how the hypocenter of the bomb left an area so flat, the Army Air Corps could land their airplanes there. For this reason the American forces dubbed the hypocenter “Atomic Field”—not because it was full of radiation, but because airplanes could land there. Dad told me that no one really knew about radiation back then—at least not the men at Atomic Field.
The next day I took the photographs to school and that night the telephone rang. My teacher wanted Dad to speak to the students, but Dad politely refused. At the moment I didn’t know why he didn't want to speak to the class, but a few days later I covertly went to the attic and opened his military trunks—and that was something that he had told my sister and I never to do. Inside the metal boxes were some of the most disturbing and gruesome images I have ever seen and to this day I regret my curiosity. It was then I knew Dad had witnessed things he didn't want to remember or talk about.
Years later, while on a religious retreat to The Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky, Dad saw a work-of-art made by a resident nun, Sister Jeanne Deuber. Her sculpture was a nearly life-size crucifix that was encircled by fire. The body and flames were made of paper-mache and mounted on a wooden cross. From afar the body appeared to be covered in burns but when closer, one could see images of atomic bomb victims—mostly women and children—laminated on the body’s skin. The name of the piece was “Once” and it was Sister Deuber’s hand-made memorial to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Dad saw it, the proverbial fire under his ass was lit and he became inspired. He returned home and opened his Marine Corps trunks.
In the months that followed, Dad sorted through his photographs and selected certain 4 x 5 inch negatives to enlarge into poster-size prints. He decided not to use the more gruesome images because he felt the victims had already been exploited from his photographing them while on their deathbeds.
"Once was enough," Dad said.
Sumiteru Taniguchi shortly after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
In 1995, during the 50th anniversary of the atom bombs being dropped, Dad’s exhibit toured extensively throughout Japan. The elderly brought their sons and daughters to see the photographs and those siblings brought their children—some only five or six years old. Many of the photographs in the exhibit were of innocent children—known as "A-bomb orphans" because no surviving parents could be found in the aftermath of the explosions. Thanks to the atomic bombs, there were an estimated five thousand orphaned children.
The exhibit didn’t always receive a welcomed reception in the United States though. Fellow veterans often voiced their dismay at Dad’s sympathy and compassion toward the Japanese and they would cite events such as Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March. They would say things like “Japan started the war, we just finished it.” When confronted with these statements, Dad simply replied with, “How many women and children died in the Bataan Death March? How many women and children died at Pearl Harbor?” The answer to both of these questions is "very few, if any".
Dad knew he may not be able to change the hardened views of older people, but he took solace in showing the younger generations what it was like in post atomic Japan—and how things could be again, but worse.
Years passed, and in August of 2007, so did Dad. He died on the ninth of August—on the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. I'm glad he finally opened the trunks. I'm glad he created the exhibit, took it to Japan, and that he was finally able to see some smiling faces while there because Dad often said he never saw a smiling face while in Japan in 1945.
In the summer of 2008 my stepmother donated thirty of Dad’s photographs to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. On behalf of my family, I travelled to Nagasaki and attended the opening ceremony of the exhibit. I met many people during my visit including Mayor Taue of Nagasaki, Tetsuo O’Hara, the original publisher of my father’s book, and more importantly I met Mr. Sumiteru Taniguchi, an A-bomb survivor who was a young boy laying in a hospital bed—with his body covered in burns—when he was photographed by my father.
With A-bomb survivors. Sumiteru Taniguchi on right.
Of course while I was in Japan the topic we all talked about was world peace and nuclear abolition, and how it’s our only hope for the future. I was also reminded that the Japanese do not expect an apology or sympathy from the United States, but only wish for the abolition of all nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction. They would also like the world to remember that the atomic bomb was indeed maliciously used... twice.
I've realized that my Dad’s photographs are my inherited legacy and should I live long enough, it's my birthright to return to Japan in 2045—on the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped. I'll be seventy-six years old then, and about the same age as Dad was when he first returned to Japan with his exhibit. I don't know what the future holds, although I should be honored and proud and privileged to promote peace through my father's photographs.
Instead though, I have to confess I don’t subscribe to the concept of world peace and a planet without weapons of mass destruction. It’s a pipe dream, and although it’s a very nice one to think about, it’ll never happen. The only guarantee is that the past is prologue and history has proven we learn very little from our mistakes. All things considered, I don’t think I’d be able to discuss my father’s photographs—especially to young children—without saying, "look, this is probably going to happen again, and during your lifetime, and you'll have no idea when or where, and no amount of sunscreen slathered on your skin will save you."
I often think about my trip to Japan and wonder, as the son of an American war photographer who claimed sympathy toward the “enemy” while trying to promote world peace, was I wrong to tell the Japanese everything they wanted to hear? I certainly couldn't tell them how I really felt—how the world is a cruel, cold-hearted place—but it's a world where we can still manage to get by.
A part of me is ashamed of myself and disappointed in knowing that my convictions will probably never be swayed. I hope I’m proven wrong, but unfortunately the odds are in my favor.