Reader’s travel photos: Nagasaki

August 9, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Since today is the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, reader Joe Routon sent us some photos from the area. His captions are indented and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

My Trip to Nagasaki

My father, a Marine lieutenant during WWII, was one of the first Americans to enter Nagasaki after the bombing of the city. He and other Marines, who were stationed there to help maintain order, lived in the Mitsubishi factory for several weeks, unknowingly absorbing harmful radiation. Fortunately, he lived to the age of 83, unlike many of his fellow soldiers who succumbed to cancer, caused by exposure.

It had long been a goal of mine to visit Nagasaki, so my wife and I planned a trip of several weeks to Japan.

On our train ride to Nagasaki, we passed through Hiroshima, site of the first atomic blast, on August 6, 1945. Gazing through the window at the buildings and the people walking the streets, I tried to imagine that day.

Our visit to Japan so far had included Tokyo, Nikko, Takayama, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, and Kurashiki. We found the Japanese people to be unfailingly polite, helpful (one lady went out of her way for four blocks to guide us to our hotel), considerate of others, and welcoming to us American tourists.

Our day in Nagasaki began with a streetcar ride to Peace Park, at the epicenter of the atomic bombʼs explosion. We lingered for a few minutes at the wing-shaped fountain that was dedicated to the fatally wounded who begged for water.

Heading farther into the Park, we stopped to see statues and sculptures from all over the world that were donated to Nagasaki to memorialize the atomic bombing. We passed by the ruins of the concrete walls of a prison where 134 inmates had died instantly.

At the end of the Park is the Peace Statue: a seated man, 30 feet tall, with one hand pointing up in the direction from where the bomb had come and the other extending outward in a gesture of peace.

The statue, “Maiden of Peace,” was given to the Japanese people by China.

A few hundred yards away, the exact epicenter (the bomb exploded 1500 feet above) is marked with a black pillar placed in the center of concentric circles on the ground that signify the spreading waves of death. A black coffin in front of the pillar contains the nearly 150,000 names of all of the known victims of the fiery blast.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum pulls no punches. Its photographs and videos of the city before and after the explosion are mind-numbing. Inside, the lighting grows dim and a clock can be heard ticking away the seconds until 11:02, when it abruptly stops.

Displays show hand bones melded in the searing heat (7000 degrees F.) into a clump of melted glass, remnants of a personʼs skull inside a helmet, clothing exposed in the bombing, photographs of dead and dying victims, and video accounts by survivors.

Other exhibitions show damage caused by heat rays, by the force of the explosions, by fires, and by radiation. Viewing them is not a pleasant experience, but, like Auschwitz, it is something that should be seen by everyone.

Whether or not the bombing was justified, countless innocent lives, young and old, military and civilian, were lost; animal and plant life were destroyed. Visiting this museum is the closest you can come to comprehending the horrific magnitude of the death and destruction of atomic warfare.

I came to Nagasaki and got a glimpse of what my father experienced 63 years ago. By connecting with history, I connected with him.

31 thoughts on “Reader’s travel photos: Nagasaki

  1. When I lived in Japan (2002 – 2003) I made a point of visiting Hiroshima, including the A-Bomb Dome (the skeletal remains of the building over which the bomb exploded) and the museum. The image that will never leave my mind is the shallow bowl full of tiny fingernails that melted off a small boy’s hands, which his mother collected and saved. It’s staggering, the things we humans are capable of doing to each other.

  2. Thanks for sharing about your visit. I have been to Japan several times but never to either Hiroshima or Nagaski. I did live in Okinawa for 5 years and visited most of the WWII sites there. They also have a peace park in Okinawa. Listed on grave sites are all the people who died during that battle. Over 15,000 Americans, 100,000 civilians and roughly 100,000 Japanese. The Battle in Okinawa lasted from April 1st until June 22 I think. About 3 months. What happened in Okinawa was heavily considers and reviewed in the decision to drop the bombs on Japan.

  3. We found the Japanese people to be unfailingly polite, helpful…
    Exactly my experience when I visited Tokyo.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I have also visited Nagasaki and spent several hours at Peace Park and the museum. I was enlightened and extremely moved by all I saw and read. Everything presented was objective, touching and laid no blame – only hope for a war free future. As stated above we also found the the Japanese people to be unfailingly polite, most helpful, considerate and welcoming.

  5. We used to take the kids to the museum and memorial in Hiroshima every couple of years. It never lost the emotional impact for us.
    When the kids were older, I took them on a trip through the important sites in the US west related to the bombing, from prospecting for uranium in Utah and the labs at Los Alamos, to a visit to Trinity site, and lots of museums and sites in between.

  6. Great photos Joe.

    Whether or not the bombing was justified, countless innocent lives, young and old, military and civilian, were lost; animal and plant life were destroyed. Visiting this museum is the closest you can come to comprehending the horrific magnitude of the death and destruction of atomic warfare.

    I can’t disagree with any of these sentiments. I look forward to visiting Japan some day and seeing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    My take on the atomic bomb use in WWII (and I’m not saying that you either you agree or disagree with these thoughts. Obviously, many disagree with these assessments):

    1) I think much more destruction would have been wreaked by a US/allied invasion of the Japanese home islands. I think many more would have died. See images of, for instance, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I have read detailed accounts of these assaults.

    If the incendiary leveling of almost all major Japanese cities (there were very few intact choices for targeting of the atomic bombs) did not induce surrender, why would anyone expect a few more weeks or months of the same to do the job? What did it take to induce German surrender?: Complete overrun of the home country and the destruction of its armies.

    How could the allies justify (politically or otherwise) sacrificing hundreds of thousands of additional allied soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and merchant marine sailors in a home islands invasion, in order to preserve between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki?

    2) I see no reason to believe the Japanese command were “about to surrender”. The Japanese military and its ruling junta showed no previous indication of willingness to surrender in any circumstances. (This was a significant cultural aspect of the conflict.) I think the atomic weapons, and the fact that there were clearly more than one of them, tipped the balance to surrender.

    3) I think the demonstration of the destructive power of nuclear weapons probably helped avoid an even more destructive use of nuclear weapons in later years. Imagine a hydrogen bomb detonation over any major world city in the 1950s or 1960s. We and the Soviets were all primed to use “tactical” nuclear weapons until at least the end of the 1980s.

    Stepping down off my soap box.

    I can highly recommend:

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
    Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser
    Midnight in Chernobyl, by Alan Higginbotham
    Strange Glow, The Story of Radiation, by Timothy J. Jorgensen
    The Perfect Weapon, by David Sanger

    1. Very good review. We should note that it was FDR who put forward the requirement “unconditional surrender”. The allies then agreed to his requirement in 1943 at Casablanca. Some would ask why would he want this? FDR was thinking of WWI and what came after. He did not want any repeat of that.

      1. Note that the surrender was not in fact “unconditional”. The Japanese had included the condition that the Emperor would not be punished.

        “FDR was thinking of WWI and what came after. He did not want any repeat of that.”

        The lesson learned after WWI was not the one you are suggesting but rather the opposite–that it really doesn’t pay to annihilate and destroy your enemy. That only fuels hatred and nationalism and the desire for revenge. See Hitler’s acceptance of France’s surrender in the same traincar where Germany was humilated in WWI. WWII ended in a much wiser and gentler fashion than WWI; that was the lesson to be learned from history. In Europe we had the Marshall Plan instead of economic annihilation; and we helped Japan rebuild as well. And we treated the emperor with respect.

        1. I fear that by focusing on your own favorites, such as the Russia declaration of war on Japan you somehow become fixated on a single item. The unconditional surrender agreed to by the allies was a fact. It was an FDR requirement made in 1943. His reasoning for this was because of the mess created after WWI. He also was aware of the English and French love of colonial assets and wished to prevent this. In other words FDR was learning from history, not ignoring it. Maybe you do not believe that WWI was primarily a prelude to WWII. Do you understand the term Total War? That would not be what WWI was. The Marshall plan had nothing to do with the fighting of WWII. It was simply a way to rebuild countries that had been beaten by total war. You win a war against the enemy by removing his will to fight. After that is done then you can consider what kind of rebuilding to do. By the way, at the end of WWII FDR was dead. So keeping the emperor was hardly his decision.

          1. “Unconditional surrender” means two different things in this discussion. For FDR (Randall), it means military defeat and occupation. In WWI (and for Lou), it means onerous unfair treatment of the defeated.

            FDR thought it was important not to have an early surrender to avoid a stab in the back myth: after WWI, right wing Germans thought that social democrats and left wing insurgents in the army had surrendered needlessly. FDR wanted to “show” the people of the defeated powers physically that they had really truly been militarily defeated. This certainly prolonged the war and added casualties, including Jewish casualties in the concentration camps (I assume without the Casablanca “unconditional surrender” doctrine, the support for a coup against Hitler in the German army and even among his coterie would have been greater.)
            “Unconditional surrender” in Casablanca is really another word for utter military defeat and occupation.

            The (de facto) unconditional surrender in WWI, leading to untenable and unfair conditions placed on the defeated major powers, were prominent among the factors that led to Hitler and WWII, and to the continuation of the WWI in Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Pasha decided to ignore the Ottoman government’s surrender because the dictated conditions seemed unacceptable to him.

            1. Please understand that my definition of unconditional surrender is not part of the discussion. It is FDR’s requirement going into WWII. I only give FDR’s reasoning for this goal of the war. All things in history. must be taken and understood for what they met at the time, not later and not by people such as us who came much later.

              1. I just tried to make FDR’s reasoning that you had tried to explain a little clearer. I did not mean to imply anything about you.

            2. Ruth, thanks for elaborating on this point. I agree with everything you said. I would like to emphasize one other point. The Japanese did put a condition on their surrender (continuance of the emperor and non-punishment of him), and the Allies agreed.

    2. Randall and I had a discussion about this in the first post of today. I won’t go through the whole thing again, but I think your points #1 and #2 are, at the very least, oversimplified. The Russian declaration of war on Japan was at least as important as the bombs in bringing Japan to surrender.

      “If the incendiary leveling of almost all major Japanese cities (there were very few intact choices for targeting of the atomic bombs) did not induce surrender, why would anyone expect a few more weeks or months of the same to do the job?”

      This is an argument AGAINST thinking that the bomb was the main factor in causing the Japanese to surrender. Why woiuld you expect a few more leveled cities would change things? The conventional Tokyo bombing killed more people and did more damage than either of the atomic bombings, and it did not cause them to surrender.

      When the Russians terminated their non-aggression pact with Japan and declared war, the Japanese were faced with a two-front war, with Russia sure to invade immediately and in virtually unlimited numbers, because of the ease of logistics.This was a powerful reason to surrender. It is the only reason that Emperor Hirohito gave to his soldiers. (Hirohito did mention the bomb as a reason to surrender when he earlier addressed the general populace).

      I do agree with your #3, though I suspect that the demonstration was aimed more at Stalin than at the Japanese.

      Areally good, objective introduction to the theories regarding the causes of Japanese surrender is this:

    3. I pretty much agree with your comments.
      I grew up in Richland, Washington where the workers who made the plutonium lived. My father was an engineer there. He died young from cancer, possible related to his work during the war. I had 2 uncles who had fought their way across the pacific and would have been part of the invasion force who were glad for the bombs.

  7. In 2002 I was invited to Hiroshima to give a lecture on my anthropological research in Thailand. My wife and I took a tour of the Peace Center with a young female Japanese anthropologist who grew up in Hiroshima and her parents went through the bombing. We were reading the signs in the exhibits that were in different languages including Japanese and English. One of the signs said in English “We Japanese do not blame Americans for the A-bomb dropped on our city of Hiroshima. Our military had led us into this horrific war and we blame them.” I asked the Japanese anthropologist if the sign said the same thing in English and she said it was the same statement. I thought that this was an interesting statement. Ray Scupin

  8. As a younger man in the 90s I lived in Tokyo for some years and once had the opportunity to visit Nagasaki. I went to the bomb museum there and while I haven’t been to the camps in Poland, I imagine they leave a similar psychic echo on one’s consciousness and view of the world. The museum was terrifying and very sad.

  9. Great photos , great story, Joe. Knowing your father, I am sure he was just the kind of ambassador the U.S. was looking for to send into Japan after the war, a peaceful man, enamored with music, and eager to help that country get back on its feet. I’m so glad he avoided the sequela of radiation and lived a long and important life. Your pictures and your connection to such an eyewitness to history are awesome!

  10. Here is a recent recording from the NPR show Fresh Air that describes how a journalist exposed details of the U.S. military cover up following the bombings. I learned quite a few new things in this brief episode.
    One detail is that the military really had little idea of the extent of damage that would be caused, and no clear idea about the existence of radiation following the blasts.

    1. Yes the horror of the radiation wasn’t really understood. Think if they had nuked Tokyo which was the target they had considered.

      1. At minimum, the boys at Los Alamos knew perfectly well how much radioactivity would be released. The radioactive release of the Trinity test must have been disclosed in reports to Gen. Grove and others in the Manhattan Project, and I’d expect the leadership of the bomber command were also briefed.

        So were the higher command in the occupation in the dark? Hardly likely, and the post-war tests with soldiers in trenches a couple of miles from a-tests suggest they fully expected future battlefields would be atomic, and so actively sought radioactive exposure to troops. I’d expect the occupying GIs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were handy guinea pigs for the US Army.

  11. Production and “improvement” of nuclear weapons continues in many countries in the world. Your beautiful photos and touching narrative should remind us that the danger is still with us, even tho climate change has taken over the headlines. Many thanks.

    1. And even by accident as the Cold War shows with mainly the US and Russia as the nuclear powers, human paranoia, and machine error just how close we came to accidental nuclear annihilation.

  12. Joe, thank you for narrative and photos, and I sincerely want to thank everyone for making me think and reconsider my position in the thread. Not an easy topic.

  13. This shouldn’t be framed as either/or IMHO, i.e. use of two bombs or none. The morality of the Hiroshima bomb is questionable (a “demo” bomb detonated 5 miles out to sea off Tokyo was discussed and shot down, apparently, on the grounds that it may not have exploded), but dropping a second bomb three days after the first (with communications down and no time to evaluate it) was completely immoral.

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