The Bells of Nagasaki

The Bells of Nagasaki, Takashi Nagai

I found this book in an antique store while on vacation in British Columbia, 2009.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only account of the atomic bomb attacks that was personally written by one of the survivors. The only other like volumn was written by an American who interviewed six of the survivors of Hiroshima. That book (Hiroshima by John Hersey) is also reviewed in another place in this web site. This is an exceptional book. It brought tears to my eyes. I have no illusions about nuclear weapons nor do I have any fear of them. I have studied what I can of their effects, their manufacture, their use and the science behind them and I have a pretty fair understanding of the subject. I have a collection of pictures related to the above ground tests and a single book that reproduces many of them in high quality color. I also have no regrets that they were used against Japan and I reject the notion, popular now, that their use was either immoral or unnecessary.

In summary, the book was written in 1946, completed exactly one year after the explosion in Nagasaki. Its publication was delayed by American censors for 5 more years. The book gets its name from the bells of the Cathedral of Nagasaki that were salvaged from the debris and restored to use. The author is a medical professional who was less than 1 mile from the epi-center of the explosion and whose background included an extensive education associated with nuclear physics. This makes the book all the more significant as he had access to what was known of atomic research at the time and this makes his account all the more relevant and significant. The facts that he was aware of were quite a revelation to me as they far exceeded my expectations.

The author tells the story of the hours before the explosion and the aftermath that he saw first hand. His account is both gripping and horrendous; the details of what he went thru and what he saw were terrible. These details are quite graphic at times and not for the faint-at-heart. Less than a dozen of his coworkers lived to tell the story while 809 of them died.

The person who wrote the introduction and did the translation, one William Johnson, is obviously one who has bought into the “war crimes” judgment of the use of the weapons and his introduction is flawed in many ways as a result. In addition, he makes a number of serious factual errors in his writing.

In one place he states that there were 2 additional bombs sitting in Tinian waiting to be used. This is false. There were no additional weapons built at the time. The use of the 2 that had been built was a calculated risk that they would be sufficient to persuade the Japanese to surrender. Had they not succeeded, and there were plenty of scientists who did not believe that they would even explode, there would have been a long wait for additional weapons.

He also repeats the delusional story that the Japanese were ready to surrender without the use of the bombs which is totally untrue. Those inside the Japanese military and government tell the opposite story.

In another place he reports that Dwight Eisenhower was opposed to their use against Japan. This is a totally false representation of Ike’s position. He was opposed to their use against civilian targets like Hiroshima and Nagasaki but thought they should be used exclusively against military targets. He had no hesitation related to their use so long as the target was military. This is made absolutely clear from the fact that Ike was prepared, as President, to use atomic weapons to support the French in Vietnam at the battle of Diembienfu and against the Chinese in Korea. The fact is that the Korean war ended so quickly after his election is directly due to the fact that Ike threatened to break the stalemate in Korea using atomic weapons if the truce talks did not quickly come to a successful resolution. He made the threat, the Chinese heard the threat, the Russians heard and believed the threat and the truce talks concluded in a hurry. Ike is my favorite President so misrepresenting his views give me serious heartburn…..

In the book itself, I was really surprised at the depth of knowledge that was current at the time about atomic research. Rather than a complete secret, the scientific world was quite aware that the research was going on and that it was quite reasonable to expect that an “atomic bomb” could be built. What came as such a surprise was that it was done so quickly by the Americans. The Japanese worked on it for a time but had to abandon the effort as too expensive to continue. But the author was familiar with the potential effects of radiation which came in quite useful after the attack.

The following pamphlet was dropped by the Americans…exactly as the author records:

To the People of Japan

Read carefully what is written in this leaflet. The United States has succeeded in inventing an explosive more powerful than anything that has existed until now. The atomic bomb now invented has a power equal to the bomb capacity of two thousand huge B-29’s. You must reflect seriously on this terrible fact. We swear that what we say here is the solumn truth.

We have already begun to use this weapon against the Japanese mainland. If you still have doubts, look at the destruction caused in Hiroshima by one single bomb.

Before this bomb destroys all the military installations that are prolonging this useless war, we hope that you will petition the emperor to stop the war.

The President of the United States has already given you an outline of thirteen conditions for an honorable surrender. We advise you to accept these conditions and to begin rebuilding a new and better peace-loving Japan. You must immediately take measures to bring to an end all armed resistance.

If you do not do this, we are determined to use this bomb and other excellent weapons to bring this war to a swift, irresistible conclusion.

“We were members of a research group with a great interest in nuclear physics and totally devoted to this branch of science–and ironically we found ourselves had become victims of the atom bomb which was the very core of the theory we were studying.”

For those who maintain that the Japanese were preparing to surrender without the use of atomic weapons, there is an account of the actual events and the resistance put up by the military to the surrender and even the broadcast of the surrender by the Emperor. This is in total and exact agreement with the facts related by those inside the government and military. The fact that these events are related by a Japanese who himself opposed surrender makes the evidence that much more compelling. To me, this makes any delusions related to potential surrender completely irrational.

The authors descriptions of the effects of radiation are both chilling and astonishing in their depth and accuracy. His records were done with the mind of a true scientist who is observing terrible suffering but retains his professional bearing. Again, not for the faint-of-heart.

From the Wikipedia:

Takashi Nagai came from a family of doctors. His father, Noboru Nagai, was trained in Western medicine; his paternal grandfather, Fumitaka Nagai, was a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine.He became interested in Christianity while attending the Nagasaki Medical University and boarding with the Moriyama family, who for seven generations had been the hereditary leaders of a group of Kakure Kirishitans in Urakami. After graduation, Nagai was inducted into military service for the Manchukou campaign, during which their daughter, Midori Moriyama, sent him a care package containing a Catholic catechism. He converted to Catholicism and married Midori in 1934.

Nagai had begun his pioneering work in radiology in 1932 and resumed it after returning to Nagasaki. At the time, safety standards were poorly understood, leading to a high casualty rate from radiation exposure among practitioners of the field. During the summer of 1945, a few months before the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, he was diagnosed with leukemia and a life expectancy of two to three years.

At the time of the atomic bombing on August 9th, 1945, Dr. Nagai was working in the radiology department of Nagasaki University hospital. He received a serious injury that severed his right temporal artery, but joined the rest of the surviving medical staff in dedicating themselves to treating the atomic bomb victims, and later wrote a 100-page medical report about his observations.

His wife, who had sent their two children to stay with her mother in the countryside but remained in Nagasaki to support her husband’s work, was found in a pile of ashes, her rosary nearby, in the ruins of their house. Nagai collapsed from radiation sickness on September 8, 1945, and remained at the point of death for a month. Afterward, he built a small hut from the pieces of his old house, and continued to live there with his two children, his mother-in-law, and two other relatives.

In the following years, Nagai resumed teaching and also began to write a number of books. The first of these, The Bells of Nagasaki, was completed by the first anniversary of the bombing; although he failed to find a publisher at first, eventually it became a best-seller and the basis for a top box-office movie in Japan.

A slightly larger six-tatami hut was built for him in 1947 by a carpenter related to the Moriyama family. When the local Society of Saint Vincent de Paul offered to build him another house, he asked them to slightly enlarge the existing hut to accommodate his brother and his brother’s family, and to build a simple two-tatami teahouse-like structure for himself. He styled the smaller hut as a hermitage, naming it Nyoko-dō after Jesus’ words “Love your neighbor as yourself”, and spent his remaining years in prayer and contemplation there.

By the time of his death in 1951, he had left behind a voluminous output of essays, memoirs, drawings and calligraphy on various themes including God, war, death, medicine, and orphanhood. These enjoyed a large readership during the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) as spiritual chronicles of the atomic bomb experience.

Nagai’s books have been translated into numerous languages, including Chinese, Korean, French, and German. There are only two of his works currently available in English: We of Nagasaki, a compilation of atomic-bomb victim testimonies edited by Nagai, and The Bells of Nagasaki (trans. William Johnston).

I have collected what pictures I can find of the aftermath at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki but I do not care to include them here.

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