Greg Mitchell: The Inferior A-Bomb City

Roundup: Talking About History

Greg Mitchell, in Editor & Publisher (Aug. 8, 2004):

Hiroshima did not matter much this year, but then it rarely does, except in anniversary years ending in "0." Alas, this year marked merely the 59th anniversary of the first use of an atomic weapon over the center of a city, on Aug. 6, 1945. If Hiroshima barely made the press this year, Nagasaki didn't register at all, but that's nothing new. It is, as a sociologist in Nagasaki once told me, "the inferior A-bomb city."

Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, which was half-destroyed by an American bomb 59 years ago today. It remains the Second City and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one ever wrote a bestselling book called "Nagasaki," or made a film titled "Nagasaki, Mon Amour." Yet in some ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-bomb city. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.

A beautiful city dotted with palms built on a hill surrounding a deep harbor (it's the San Francisco of Japan, Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country's gateway to the West. The Portuguese and Dutch settled there in the 1500s, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country's Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders there, supplied the rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th century.

Glover's life served as a model for the story of "Madame Butterfly." In Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover's home overlooking the harbor, sings, "One fine day, we'll see a thread of smoke arising ..." If she could have looked north from Glover's mansion, now Nagasaki's top tourist attraction, on Aug. 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.

By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan's increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing (slightly fewer than the Allied prisoners of war who died that day). It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district. At 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945, "Fat Man" was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.

While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb's blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn't quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 45,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb's blast in Hiroshima. If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City....

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