Book review: Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, by Susan Southard

The bomb that fell on Nagasaki killed tens of thousands and ushered in years of hell for those who were left behind. But readers can find hope in this grimly fascinating book about five suvivors.

The ruins of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb called ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on the southern Japanese city on August 9, 1945, killing about 74,000 people. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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On the morning of August 9, 1945, the 240,000 citizens of the beautiful southern Japanese port of Nagasaki began their day. The city had suffered extensively from bombs and fires in the course of the war, but even so, as much as possible, this was an ordinary day, with summer heat in the offing and cicadas whining in the city’s foliage.

All of that – every last vestige of normality – was about to end.

At 11.02 in the morning, the American bomber Bockscar, running low on fuel and finding its primary target, the city of Kokura, obscured by cloud cover and by the smoke of buildings bombed in a recent air raid on a nearby city, settled on its secondary target, Nagasaki. The Bockscar then dropped its payload, peeling steeply up and away to escape the blast its pilot knew was coming. For the second and last time in human history, an atomic bomb had been used as a weapon of war.

The bomb was nicknamed “Fat Man.” It was 10 feet 8 inches long, 5 feet in diameter and weighed 4,900 kilograms. At its heart was a small core of enriched plutonium-239 surrounded by 64 timed explosives whose detonation would provoke a nuclear fission reaction. When the bomb was just 1,650 feet above the athletic field roughly in the centre of the city, it exploded.

As Susan Southard writes in her grimly excellent new book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War: "The entire city convulsed."

The explosion’s flash was visible 16 kilometres away. Windows blew out as far as 18km away. An atomic cloud rose 4,000 feet over the city. The centre of the explosion reached temperatures hotter than the centre of the sun, and the shock wave ripping out in all directions travelled faster than the speed of sound. “The thermal heat of the bomb ignited a fireball with an internal temperature of over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Southard writes. “Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonised human and animal flesh and vaporised internal organs.

The mountains to the north, east and west of the Urakami Valley served to contain the extent of the damage somewhat, but about 74,000 people were killed either in the initial detonation and firestorm – their bodies hurled through the air like dry leaves, their heads and limbs and skin blown off – or in the blast’s aftermath of unprecedented radiation poisoning (greater levels, as Southard points out, than any set of humans had ever been exposed to before).

In an instant, a thriving city populated almost entirely with civilians had been reduced to a huge cauterised field of rubble through which tens of thousands of horrifically burnt victims now stumbled in complete confusion. The governor of the region, when he crossed the mountain and saw the damage, said: “It was ... it was just so horrible and pathetic that I couldn’t look.” In one of the story’s many Orwellian details, the United States-printed leaflets warning Nagasaki residents of the coming nuclear explosion had distribution delays, and weren’t dropped over the city until ­August 10.

To manage and humanise her terrifying story, Southard uses the standard survivor-story close-focus approach made famous by John Hersey in his 1946 New Yorker article and subsequent book Hiroshima. Southard does an excellent panoramic job of conveying the aftermath of Fat Man's devastation, but she concentrates on five hibakusha, five atomic-bomb-­affected people, mostly teenagers who were going about their routines when the heart of a star touched down in the centre of their city. There's Taniguchi Sumiteru, a 16-year-old mail-­delivery boy; Do-oh Mineko, a teenage worker in the Mitsubishi weapons factory; Nagano Etsuko, working in another Mitsubishi factory on the other side of the mountains from the Urakami Valley and her parents' home; Wada Koichi, a student worker at Nagasaki Streetcar Company; and a student named Yoshida Katsuji.

Anchoring her narrative on the experiences of these five survivors, Southard is able to convey the much larger story of a crushed and burning city, a place where “tiny, barefoot children squatted in the ruins and wandered through the debris and corpses, calling out for their mothers and fathers”.

At first, these survivors encountered a landscape so ruined as to be surreal (at one point in their wanderings during the immediate aftermath, for example, Nagano and her father come across a dead horse “standing on all fours, totally blackened, its head stretched upward”). Yoshida, whose face was so badly burnt that he could neither see nor open his mouth to eat, was patiently fed by his mother and recalled the experience decades later: “My mother used a chopstick to feed me. ‘Kuu, kuu,’ she said softly, encouraging me to eat.” One man had only just reached Nagasaki from Hiroshima, where his wife had been killed in the atom-bomb blast two days earlier; he’d come to deliver her ashes to her parents when he was caught in the Nagasaki explosion.

It’s a gruesome story, and Southard is right to point out that there’s a final touch of injustice in the fact that the Nagasaki strike is much less well known to the general public than is the Hiroshima strike that preceded it. Her five survivors have faced other injustices and stigma as well: employers often rejected hibakusha (literally meaning “explosion-affected people”) out of worry that their health would prove too fragile for work. Others were discriminated against because some people believed that radiation was contagious. Survivors would often do their best to hide their scars and, in the case of Do-oh (and doubtless many others), it proved a damning factor in a prospective marriage. “Hibaku shimashita” (“I experienced the bomb”) was sufficient to balk one possible suitor.

Things gradually improved. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, US occupation forces and thousands of volunteer medical and relief workers flooded into the city and its outskirts; ruins were bulldozed; medical centres were set up. And in the 1950s, Nagasaki’s economy surged thanks to its foreign trade and shipbuilding industry. Apartment towers and office buildings rose over what had been rubble and the lovely Nagasaki Peace Park was laid out just north of the bomb’s ground zero. “As Nagasaki emerged as a modern metropolis,” Southard writes, “tourists began to discover the city.”

Her story’s core group of survivors continued to speak to public gatherings and raise awareness of the horrors of nuclear war, solemnly telling their audiences that there must be no more Nagasakis. Especially effective are the scenes when the old survivors are addressing crowds of teenagers roughly the same ages as they were when catastrophe overtook their lives. As Southard surely hoped in choosing her narrative strategy, the grace and resilience of these survivors actually works to infuse the latter portions of her book with an air of the last thing readers might expect from a book of this kind: hope.

This book is available on Amazon.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.