Monday, May 3, 2010

The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back

Genre: History
Author:Charles Pellegrino
"Had Mary Shelly or Edgar Allen Poe been born in the mid-twentieth century, they never would have had to invent horror."
--Chapter One.

This is a book filled with horrific details---there is no getting around that. People with blackened bodies covered in grass stems moving along in lines like ants, walking about desperate for water and for someone to help them. Tens of thousands of people obliterated in such a fashion that only their shadows remain in a bright spot against a wall. Mothers who abandon their children because they seem beyond help. Doctors who watch patients literally rot from the inside and spit out tapeworms that only leave a body when the tissue they live on is dead.

Horror heaped upon horror--dozens of people who flee one atomic blast zone
go to Nagasaki and are victims of yet another bombing. Somehow some 120 people manage to survive both blasts. But though they may be alive for some years longer, they envy those who were vaporized. Some overcome this and decide they are alive to tell the story. But will a world cushioned from such shocks believe them or their sanitized history books?

Many people who read Stephen King, Clive Barker or other horror novelists might find some of this material familiar territory. But King and Barker's material is largely the work of vivid imaginations and situations that will resolve themselves in one form or another as fiction always does.

But this book is not so dispensable on the side of good vs. evil. There is something about the Atomic Bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 that break the boundaries of warfare with its tragic but expected casualties of armed personnel and civilian deaths. It is humankind gone to the very core of matter to create a weapon so lethal nothing can deter it. It is a fury of energy so deadly that it is not within the realm of human imagination unless one is a victim of it. This is the most interesting aspect of the book: those who tell their stories of personal survival and watching other people--innocent people whose crime was to be born under the Empire of the Rising Sun--die in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

In a century that perfected trench warfare, rocket bombs, poison gas, fire-bombing of cities by hundreds of planes, napalm, and mass murder on a mechanized scale no conqueror could have imagined before this time, the Atom Bomb makes all this seem a rehearsal somehow to some ending of all human endeavor, a hole we cannot dig out of and go on, a blade always at our throats.

This book contains a great deal of direct eyewitness accounts of the atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While some stories might be familiar to readers--such as the little girl Sadako Sasaki who survived the Hiroshima blast on August 6, 1945 as a two year old and ten years later constructed over a thousand "peace cranes" out of paper while slowly dying in a hospital. But most of the you-are-there accounts of the most horrific single man-made explosions in history were brand new to me, and I suspect to others who haven't focused on the fate of the survivors of this story.

Pellagrino is not interested in giving us an argument for or against the dropping of these bombs, perhaps because that is a topic that has been exhausted by sixty-four years of his predecessors. What he does in a very empathic fashion is simply tell the stories of those who lived on somehow to tell the story of what happened to the people who died in that unleashed destruction of the very matter of human, plant and animal life (called "Pika-Don" or "flash-bang" by the Japanese.)

This book has run into its share of controversy since it was published earlier this year. Two or three of Charles Pellagrino sources for the book have not been able to be collaborated as being part of the flight crew of "Bock's Car", the plane that dropped the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" on a suburb of Nagasaki at 11:00am on August 9, 1945. The explosion wiped out most of the city in a flash and later sickened and killed its victims with burns and radiation poisoning for years afterwards. Three days earlier the bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima.

For years afterward Japanese, American and British scientists went to these two cities to try and determine just what had been wrought. The Occupation Authorities in Japan (under General Douglas MacArthur) did their best to downplay or censor the true effects of how horrible the bombs were and how all types of people were still dying from the effects of what the earliest doctors called "Disease X." Pellegrino speculates that MacArthur himself didn't want to face the fact that the war was ended by means other than what he had been able to accomplish as a commander.

But word spread anyway.

Still, for whatever small errors, "Last Train from Hiroshima" is a worthwhile read: while perhaps not the best of story-telling on the subject, it brought the nightmares of radiation sickness to the fore of my dreams-capes and I cannot but think that Americans need to face these people's stories as surely as we embrace the tales told by Holocaust survivors or soldiers and airmen and Marines coming back from our modern killing grounds.

Here is a portion of an article from the Medford Mail Tribune (written by Paul Fattig) about a Hiroshima survivor and her efforts to join others to protest at the United Nations this weekend:


  1. I think you'll find it compelling Fred.

  2. This is one I wanted to read, but sadly, the publisher will no longer ship it due to issues regarding the author's sources. That some of the flight-crew could not be corroborated doesn't make them 'dishonest sources' (the words of the publisher) - and it certainly doesn't detract from the value of the book.

    Hiroshima is the reason my father became an atheist - he was one of the first handful of American military personnel who were allowed into the city after the bombing (around three months later) - I asked him when I was around eight or nine, "Why don't you believe in God?" - his reply, "Because I have seen Hiroshima", was something I didn't fully understand until many years later.

    The author, for whatever other errors of omission or commission he might have made, remains correct in the fact that the great horror authors of the 19th century would have never needed to invent the genre had they lived in 'more modern' times.

  3. Would you believe I had a conversation with a young fellow this weekend who's parents are professors at Ole Miss. He is a high school sophomore and fantasizes about enlisting in the navy in order to work on a nuclear sub. He flirts with the idea that he can join ROTC in order to get money for college, but 'quit' if he senses that the US will use their arsenal to launch a nuclear holocaust. His educational ambition is to become a physician's assistant, maybe join the marines to be trained as a medic--therefore non-combatant. I thought my adolescence during the cold war was fatalistic...

  4. The last time I checked the Amazon site for the book, there was news that the sources under question would be removed from the paperback version. I hope that edition comes out soon.

    Your father's direct experience of Hiroshima must have been not unlike seeing Dachau in Germany, only worse. If one didn't lose faith in God, you'd certainly lose faith in mankind. Or both.

  5. I wish him luck, but I doubt "quitting" the Marines is very feasible short of feigning insanity. It seems a shame someone has to join the service just to get a decent education, but that's what my father had to do.

    People who weren't fatalistic during the Cold War in my opinion weren't paying attention.

  6. It is symptomatic of the insanity of those who order and perpetrate such monstrous crimes against humanity that they think they can keep their crimes secret. The hope to keep us all in the dark and to sweep under the carpet the enormity and the horror of what they have done.

    Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 9/11 ....same old, same old and now NATO has all the symptoms of Disease Z.

    A great review Doug, thanks for posting it I will return when I have more time.

  7. Looked at from a purely human point of view, these bombings were atrocities, holocausts, and completely unjustifyable. Whilst in military terms they were tactically effective against a viscious Japanese regime that lacked it's own humanity, the ordinary people who were used as guinea pigs for the most apalling human experiment, were old people, women, children and babies. This makes the cowardice of the Persians at Thermoplyle wither by comparison.
    Before these bombings 90% of military casulties in conflicts were military personel. Since then, the figure has warped to a mere 10% today. The rest being non-combatants.
    Whatever the disgusting treatment of the POWs in Japan, it could never justify such barbarism by the Allies. It was our darkest hour.
    And would those thousands of American, British and other Allied troops who's lives were effectively saved by the bombings really feel that this was the way to wage war, no matter how cruel and viscious the Japanese army could be?

    Regardless of a perceived need to defend ourselves, war makes losers of us all.

  8. Very true, AA, sadly predictable as well. First a weapon so terrible is deployed that it forces a fanatical regime to surrender, then the "winners" try to pretend it wasn't as bad as all that.

    Then, when the cat is out of the bag, these "Masters of War" brand all people of conscience as cowards or dupes of foreign powers for trying to stop the next logical steps toward all-out nuclear warfare.

  9. Well stated Oakie. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the final horrors in the grab-bag of soulless inhumanity in the 20th Century.

    Couldn't an atomic bomb been demonstrated to the Japanese officials on some outlying and uninhabited Pacific island?

    One of the frightening facts in this book is that one of two Japanese Army leaders wanted to keep fighting after the bomb was dropped. If the emperor had been as big a nut as some of his staff, the Allies would still have had to invade the main islands and hundreds of thousands more would have lost their lives.

    No one wins in war, that's true. It only brings out the worst impulses in humans, mostly men, to destroy and maim.

  10. Yes, or how about taking out the Japanese fleet with a smaller A-bomb as a poetic revenge for Pearl Harbor? It would still have been a profoundly impressive and terrifying weapon and would have demonstrated the US army's military superiority, which was the whole point.

    I think the "Honour of the Samurai" mentality of some of the Japanese military meant a fight to the death was a real option, but what a narrow and self-indulgent viewpoint that now seems in relation to the two bombings and potential further A-bombings by the Allies.

    Honour at the expense of the innocent is not honour.

    Yes, war becomes one big racist circus.

    I'm just glad that we are more sceptical about going into conflicts these days.

  11. The atomic bombing of Japan was completely unecessary and was simply an act of psychopathic vengence by the United States with no military pupose whatsoever.

    The Japanese navy was all sunk, the airforce non-existent, the cities reduced to rubble by massive fire bombing and the Japanese government were suing for peace at the time of the attacks.

    Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born scientist who played a major role in the development of the atomic bomb, argued against its use. "Japan was essentially defeated," he said, and "it would be wrong to attack its cities with atomic bombs as if atomic bombs were simply another military weapon." In a 1960 magazine article, Szilard wrote: "If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them."

  12. Really?

    Ever faithful to his Zionist agenda Barack Obama explicitly threatened Iran with the possibility of nuclear attack by the US (or its Israeli surrogate) less than one month ago.

    In readjusting U.S. policy on when to launch a nuclear strike, President Barack Obama has repudiated the use of nukes against non-nuclear states with the exception of Iran, which he termed an “outlier” along with North Korea.
    However, since North Korea already possesses at least a limited nuclear arsenal, Obama’s exception singles out Iran as the only non-nuclear-weapons state that faces a threatened nuclear attack from the United States.

    I would suggest that the current US administration has learned nothing from the war crimes of the past and represents a greater threat to world peace now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

  13. I meant that the public are more sceptical. The British public may have intially bought the propaganda about Iraq, but they soon wised up when British and US troops started dying, and also when civilians started dying in droves.
    Any military action against Iran will be widely condemmed in the UK, possibly even by the war-loving scum press like the Sun/News of The World.
    We are simply not prepared to accept that British or American politicians are telling the truth anymore.
    Of course there were always reasons to doubt their words if we looked deeply enough, or knew enough. But the better part of the British media and the vast majority of British citizens have made a key-change in the way that they view Middle-Eastern-based policies in the US and UK.
    I'd like to think that there have been similar changes in the USA.

    Obama, like any US President is largely a figure-head who will toe the line in the same way as his predecessors. I expect no substantial change in US foreign policy under his leadership.

    The possible "pre-emptive" nuclear strike on Iran would, of course, be an outrage, and I would presume as illegal as the invasion of Iraq. If it happens I'll be burning US and UK flags outside Whitehall with many other British citizens as we would again have our countries run by people who betray our best interests for the sake of big business and, as you mention, Israel. Two unworthy causes in my view.

  14. I disagree about the military purpose. Japan was an incredibly hard nut to crack and Allied soldier's lives were being spent at an alarming rate. The terrain of Japan made it excellent to defend, especially when you had a highly motivated and well-drilled Japanese army who were seemingly prepared to fight to the death.
    The psychological pressure brought upon the Japanese leadership by the horrors at Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the subsequent cessation of hostilities genuinely reduced the potential Allied losses. But, at too great a cost in my view.
    There had to be better alternatives.

  15. The stark fact is that the Japanese leaders, both military and civilian, including the Emperor, were willing to surrender in May of 1945 if the Emperor could remain in place and not be subjected to a war crimes trial after the war. This fact became known to President Truman as early as May of 1945.

    After the bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9 of 1945, and their surrender soon thereafter, the Japanese were allowed to keep their Emperor on the throne and he was not subjected to any war crimes trial.

  16. According to Pellagrino's book, Japan's War Minister, Korechika Anami, "refused to accept that the atomic bomb existed or that it could signal defeat (this was after the bombs had been dropped--my addition). "He knew of and kept secret to the end, a plot to hold the Emperor under military isolation if he spoke of surrender."

    Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, under the advice of Japanese phyicists, "warned the Emperor that there was no defense against nuclear weaponry and that the Emperor must consider surrender. The Emperor agreed. War Minister Anami did."

    The divisions at the very top of the Tokyo government points up the friction between zealous honor and pragmatic capitulation. My personal opinion is that the bombs should have been demonstrated, not deployed directly over the amin islands of Japan.

    Ironically, there was another bomb that didn't fall on Japan that probably played a key role in the terible conseguences of Hiroshiima and Nagasaki. That was the convention briefcase bomb that injured but failed to kill Adolph Hitler on July,20, 1944, at his headquarters in East Prussia. Had this bomb, set by Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, killed Hitler ,as it did several others in the map room at "Wolf's Lair", the war could have been ended in a short period afterwards.

    Perragrino proposes that a surrender of Germany would have brought hundreds of thousands of European based American and Western Allied troops to the Pacific War, putting the timeline of the invasion of Japan up to early 1945, months before the atomic bombs would have ready.

    One can only ponder the ramifications of this alternative history.

  17. I gather many historians would agree with you there, AA. There was a British historian in th 1970's who suggested Truman dropped the bombs as a way to impress Stalin. I add that this book does not explore the subject directly but rather the effect of the bombs and the efforts to stave off their further use in wartime.

    Truman's position afterwards was that he dropped th bomb to save the lives of American military personnel from an attack on the Japanese mainland. As a former artillery captain on the Western Front in 1918, I can imagine the memories of trench warfare and its effects of soldiers would have played upon his mind at this point. Why it was necessary to deploy the first atomic bomb on Japan rather than at a relatively safe distance site of the Japanese mainland. Any other course, as Oakie suggests, was at too high a cost.

    Robert MacNamara, who had his own share of just infamy as architect of the Vietnam War, was in 1945 an Army Air Force strategic bombing planner under that famed bomber-happy General Curtis LeMay.

    MacNamara conceded in Errol Morris documentary "The Fog of War" that the conventional bombing of Japan was likely enough to constitute a war crime. The thing is, of course, only winners get to stage war crimes.

  18. I think, AA, you'll find this clip from a BBC documentary aligns with your correct view of the situation vis a vi Truman and the concerns about the Emperor. But it also suggests a miscalulation on the part of Japan's Prime Minister.

    It would seem to me that only specific protection of the Emperor (as the only condition of otherwise total surrender) should have been directly proclaimed by Truman.

  19. I think he was quite right Heidi.

  20. Ironic Doug (you know what I mean)...
    I shall come back and look more at this as it`s rather later here to say the least. This looks like a very interesting read. Sad that it had to be done. And many have there slants on different measures that could have been done yet it brought it too an end. War is war. It`s not pretty.

  21. Anihalation is never an answere initiative

  22. It is fascinating how one incident can make such a huge difference to the history of the world. Hitler could have been killed by a stray bullit in WWI and no-one would have paid any attention to the loss of the little corporal.

    In the film "The Singer or the Song" the question is posed, is it the religion that made the man good, or is it the man that makes the religion seem better than it might?
    I think that a similar question can be asked about Hitler. Was it the man who made the times, or the times that would inevitably produce a Hitler somewhere along the line? One man can have a massive effect as Mohammed and Jesus showed. On the other hand there always has to be a top piranha in the hierachy of rotting lake.

  23. The 20th Century certainly had its share of top piranhas, Oakie. Whole philosophies of history have placed bets of course on how much individuals, the economics of scarcity, or political and religious awakenings effect the outcome of the present. Your thoughts being to mind a book review I saw from a 1997 work called 'Making History" by Stephen Fry, which I haven't read yet but has an intriguing premise: people travel back in time and prevent Hitler from ever existing!

    The only trouble is that someone else comes along and takes his place, doing a better job than that monster did in ruining Western Civilization.

    In real linear life, though, who ultimately can say how much the leader or the events bring victory or defeat, founding a new religion or maintaining an old one? it is fascinating though. Napoleon thought he would have been nothing without the French Revolution, at least in one rare moment of modesty. But its clear one person in the right place at the right time can shape the destiny of a nation--the United States without Lincoln or General Grant I believe would be a very different place, today. (Actually, two separate places.)

  24. Yes, the Final Solution, for instance, was not actually Hitler's idea. He merely demanded a solution to the "Jewish Problem", but it was his subordinants who came up with the method behind the Holocaust.

    Stephen Fry has a partially Jewish lineage and lost family, I think in Austwitz. So his broaching of the Hitler subject must hold a certain amount of personal emotional gravitas for him. I hadn't heard of his book, but I might seek it out as it sounds very interesting.

    It certainly was a time where evil men rose to great prominence. Hitler, Stalin and Musselini were monsters, but so were many of those standing directly next or behind them.

    Napoleon's personal courage and tactical genius had a profound influence on his army, but I doubt he had that much effect upon France itself as the Revolution was a mammoth next to his mouse. Indeed, a "mere Corsican" was never going to be universally loved on his way up the French ladder.
    I believe he was eventually killed by the spors of arsenic that floated into the air of his rooms from the blue wallpaper in the damp winter.

  25. Quite true Oakie. Hither's bunch were a real mixed bag--some intellectuals like Albert Speer and Goebbels, some flat-out nutjobs like Rudolph Hess (although he certinally knew how to make an entrance, via parachute over Scotland) and some real borderline moron like Julius Striecher, the editor who ran a viscous anti-semitic newspaper, "Der Stumer", and later was a local party big shot. .

    The Allies gave I.Q, tests to the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials and Striecher's was down in the two digit range. Some journalists thought that Speer's demeanor and intellect saved hm from the gallows.

    The Revolution in France does seem to have a long-term efect on the world that Napoleon, for all his military glory, did not inspire. I remember there was a book in the 1980's saying that Bonaparte was deliberately poisoned, but the arsenic in the wallpaper sounds more plausible as he was not likely to catch the mail boat off of St. Helena while a "guest" of His Majesty's Government.

    Another ironic bit: when Napoleon's body was returned to France, there were more soldiers at his ceremonial internment then he had on hand at Waterloo.

  26. Oh that is ironic for poor Boney! But he was well respected by the army. Loved even.

    I heard the theory about his deliberate poisoning, but I think it unlikely. Arsenic was used as a pick-me-up, face-powder and all manner of things (As well as a poison, obviously). It was the plastic of it's day. It was used in the production of wallpaper as it delivered a unique, and presumably attractive, blue colour.
    Napoleon would get very ill in the winter, when the walls were damp and recover in the spring as he walked in the garden and the open air. If it was a deliberate attempt to kill the former emperor it was a laborious and drawn out one. Though he certainly suffered.
    It would be interesting to know if anyone else ever suffered in a similar way elsewhere. If not then that would lend credence to the deliberate poisoning hypothesis. Perhaps extra arsenic was used for Bonaparte!
    Personally I still fancy that it was an accidental death.

    One wonders what would have become of some of the little nothings that rose to prominance under Fascism had they lived in a more stable society. I'm sure that we have the very same ilk as neighbours and associates in our modern day worlds, just waiting for an easy-option chance of becoming part of a new elite.
    Indeed, I think that some such fellows shall be standing in the British General Election today.

  27. LOL! Yes, Oakie, we need look no further then the ballot stations of our respective countries count election time to find the would be Von Rippentrops and Count Cianos who would inhabit, say, the Foreign Ministry of an English-speaking fascist state.

    Interesting facts about Napoleon in exile. I hadn't got that far into historical analysis of his state of health.

    The army must have loved that guy Boney to give him another shot to defeat the umpteenth coalition of armies arrayed against him.

  28. What I can't understand is why, after seeing the terrible devastation of the first bomb they still went on to wipe out Nagasaki. The experts reckon although Hiroshima didn't bring the Japanese to a surrender, it wouldn't have been long after when they'd throw the towel in, because they thought the bomb was so awful it could end the world.

    I should imagine the book would make harrowing reading.

    Thank you for the review, doug.

  29. It is a harrowing read Cassandra--a lot of personal stories I was unaware about. And all the more because it was a real set of events of course.

    I'm not convinced of any good rationale for the second bombing at Nagasaki. The Japanese Emperor and his main government had had only had three days to absorb the news from Hiroshima--up to 100,000 dead and the flattening of an entire city in a split second!

    Carefully-worded messages were dropped in metal cannisters warning civilian and military leaders that the Americans had dozens of bombs poised to wipe out populations up and down the main islands. (In fact, the only two that were available were dropped.) I think the atroucious army and Marine casualty rates of the invasion of Okinowa Island and Iwo Jima prodded Truman to act all too hastily. Half of the deaths in combat in the Pacific War came at this last few months of the war. Still, three days was insuffcient time.

  30. I simply couldn't judge the powers that be on the first bomb. I would have needed to be in their shoes and be fighting for the best solution. We all know one man alone isn't responsible for this action, although one man will shoulder the blame and horror of what happened. Whenever people think of the way this awful bomb was used, they will connect it purely to the one man in power at that time. That is so wrong.

    However, the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, was done after seeing the devastation of the first. Yet again, these people knew what was going on behind the scenes and spies would have been working to see our leaders were well informed. What they learnt at the time may have provided, that very pressure to use the second bomb. As you say Truman may have been panicked by the death toll. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. You are dammed if you do, dammed if you don't. I hope this type of bomb will never be used again, times are different and we fight a dirty terrorist war, so who knows. Let us hope we can all find a way to understand each other and respect everyone's culture. That is the only way forward.

    Was it Lawrence of Arabia who said to understand the Arab, we must come to know and respect his ways? I think that is true of all races if we are to ever have a world without war.

    I guess this book will make us all feel the guilt. How can we not show a tearful face to that kind of suffering. The journey from page one to the end, must be likened to John Bunyan's journey. So much suffering, so much learning.

    Thank you, doug.


  31. I think what you say is very fair minded, Cassandra. Harry Truman had only been Vice-President under Franklin Roosevelt for three months when the latter died. "The Manhattan Project" as the atomic bomb program cenrered at Los Alamos was called, was so secret that Truman didn't even know of its existence until he became President.

    Truman was left with two bad ethical choices--use a horrible bomb he hadn't known about, much less called into being, or ignore this fantastic bomb as too devastating to use and go ahead with the naval and air invasion of Honshu and other Japanese Home Islands. The result would have taken hundreds of thousands of American, British, Canadian and other Western Allies.

    It was also likely that the Soviet Army would have declared war on Japan as it tottered into starvation and chaos and taken the major northern island of Hokkaido. This is why I think a demonstration of the bomb might have been a third alternative. But, as you say, that's easier to say when you're blogging 65 years on and not at The Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin, with the weight of half the world on your shoulders.

    (And of course Clement Attlee came on during that conference to replace Churchill as PM after the General Election---much to the total shock of Stalin and Molotov according to one of Truman's biographers.)

    No one can go back and change history. There are no new options now except to repeat what was said by rational people during the Cold War: that a nuclear war cannot be won and cannot be fought. We have no other options. I wish we could put ALL world leaders and these terrorists into a space ship so they all could see this planet without its borders and its legions of fighters and, in the long-term, petty differences.

    "The Pilgrim's Progress" reference is correct I think. The less we learn from the past, and the less empathy we have for our common human kind, the more suffering there is. Empathy is the only way out.