I’ve never been to Japan, never set foot there, but Japan has touched me in ways obvious and ways hard to explain. The obvious is easy. I drive a Honda. I take digital photographs with a Fuji S3000. Japan Victor Company built my flatscreen. Sony manufactured my home sound system. My Vortex binoculars came from Japan. I talk on Panasonic telephones.
I own so many Japanese products, I might as well move into a rice-paper house ringed by bamboo, take off my shoes, put on a kimono, grab chopsticks, and live off Japan’s four food groups: fish and rice, rice and fish, fish and fish, and rice and rice. I should play that 1980’s one-hit wonder by The Vapors, “Turning Japanese,” (I really think so) nonstop.
The rest is less straightforward and weightier. My Japanese musings took over me the day I heard about Chrysler’s bankruptcy. For me, Chrysler sits at the intersection of two key memories, memories of a boyhood discovery and a 1956 Plymouth, turquoise and white, with large, yet delicate, fins. It’s the first car I remember Dad buying, not that long after World War II. Dad bought Chrysler cars all his life.
We who buy Japanese cars drove a few nails in Chrysler’s coffin, but don’t blame us. Japanese cars last, and they embody the phoenix-like rise of a country leveled by war, demolished by us in a way like no other, but brought back by us as well.
From a nuclear funeral pyre, Japan rose to give us dependable cars, radios, TVs, telephones, and more. Japan, the vanquished enemy, conquered as no country has ever been conquered, came roaring back.
The other memory goes way back, back to the dawning of awareness. Rambling through closets as a boy I discovered silk flags, relics of Dad’s time in Japan. Unfolding them, a rising sun with spectacular rays burst off the alabaster silk as if afire. Japan—Land of the Rising Sun. Even though I was a boy, something about these standards felt different.
The Imperial Japanese Navy flew those flags. So did the Japanese Army. Those flags, a brilliant sun bursting off them—were the last sights many warriors on both sides saw. I made parachutes of those silk flags, tying a rock to them, hurling them up, and watching them drift lazily back to Georgia soil, incandescent with Southern light.
Somewhere in my boyhood those flags disappeared. What a loss. I’d love to have one framed with an inscription. “Liberated and brought to the United States by Master Sergeant John M. Poland Jr.” With Japan’s surrender August 14, 1945, Allied Occupation Forces banned the Rising Sun flags. Maybe that’s how Dad came by them. Confiscated by the victors.
Dad journeyed to Japan on a troop carrier in Operation Downfall, the Allied plan to invade Japan. After steaming out of Seattle, somewhere along the way, two atom bombs brought Japan to its knees, and some 200,000 servicemen, would-be invaders, my father among them, occupied Japan instead. There was no combat, but there was a price to pay.
And so, my thoughts drift to Hiroshima a lot these days. My father served in U.S. Army Ordnance and he spent time in Yokohama but he also went to Hiroshima just after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy.” And he went to Nagasaki.
There in the land of geishas and samurai, he might as well have been walking on the surface of the sun. He was at most, 19 or 20. The things he must have seen as he tread Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s toxic soil. There was no way he could avoid horrors. Skinless people. Men with stripes burnt onto their skin. They were wearing striped shirts when the brilliant flash hit them, the nuclear burst that stenciled dress patterns onto women’s bodies. Dad never talked about things like that, but he saw them. That and worse.
He returned to Georgia with evidence of his Hiroshima days: the flags and photos and much later something malignant. The photos, taken from a low but wide perspective, reveal block after block of charred rubble with I-beams drooping like melted candles. Somewhere amid the nuclear detritus lay human remnants. Total destruction.
The next time you drive past a field of corn chopped close to the ground, imagine it burnt to a cinder. That’s what Hiroshima looked like, a charred, leveled cornfield, where nothing, not even one ant, survived.
At ground zero the heat reached millions of degrees. Some victims left shadows etched into rock … vaporized … perhaps that’s why censors placed rectangles black as midnight on some of Dad’s photos. No need to generate sympathy for the enemy. By the end of 1945, radiation and injuries, burns in many cases, raised the total dead to 140,000.
Even as a kid, those photos told me Hell itself had been unleashed on Hiroshima. It didn’t come as a surprise those in the know. Awaiting the bomb’s first test, Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, held onto a post to steady himself as the seconds ticked down … “3, 2, 1, Now!” A brilliant burst of light and a deep growling roar shook the earth, staggering Oppenheimer. Apocalyptic thoughts burst free: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” … words from the “Song of God,” a treasured Sanskrit Hindu scripture. Worlds destroyed sixty-four years ago.
“I am become death, yes.” My father developed an illness—which proved terrible beyond description—that first showed itself in a common way. Choking, he gets up from the table and goes outside unable to swallow. He chokes on tea even. In time, he fears eating. He loses weight. Month by month it worsens.
In April 2002, doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston diagnosed Dad with esophageal cancer. In July 2002, they removed Dad’s tumor, esophagus, and larynx in a lengthy operation—12 hours—that resulted in a stoma and stomach resection so he could eat on his own, though he really never did. We maintained a vigil in a seventh floor waiting room with our minister and friends while the surgical team waged all-out war on Dad’s cancer.
In the many days during Dad’s never-realized recovery, we took slow walks with him to the tenth floor visitor’s room. We’d creep down the long corridor, dragging the IV unit behind him. We’d stand before huge windows and look out over the city with its beautiful white steeples and green live oaks. To the left we could see the Ashley, to the right the Cooper, and sometimes we could pick out pelicans soaring near the bridges, bridges no longer in existence.
In the months to come, despite surgery and radiation, Dad’s cancer returned. He had another operation at MUSC and this time we crossed our fingers and prayed with all our strength. Again, the cancer returned. Dad elected to undergo chemotherapy but it took a terrible toll on him and near the end he made a choice: no more chemo no matter what.
As the disease progressed and he watched his body waste away, Dad took his suffering in stride. Each day he would pray “Thank you God for my family and thank you for another day of life.”
Dad passed away from esophageal cancer on November 15, 2003, at 6:57 in the soft evening. Soon, he will have been gone six years.
Now and then in pensive moods, waiting for a traffic light to change, I think about the Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas around me. These cars plunged a dagger into Chrysler’s heart, killing off my Dad’s favored brand. I know that many of those cars are now made in the United States. I know, too, that many are not. I wonder about the Japanese autoworkers who built them and what life was like for their parents. Surely many had okasans and otousans who experienced atomic warfare like no one else ever has.
The bombs, they said, saved lives in the long run. Still, the hidden choice facing some U.S. soldiers was to die in an invasion or die down the road from radiation’s long-term effects. That’s what Dad faced as a troop carrier out of Seattle fought through 30-foot swells, water cresting over the prow. Men seasick and sick in other, more fatal ways. They had no choice, really, and the long run continues to lose value as it reaches out and kills people still.
For the Japanese, I try to absorb the annihilation. A flash of light, fire and wind blast and fire again, a towering mushroom cloud, black rain, people with their arm skin and fingernails sliding onto the ground, silhouettes of people burned into granite. How did the survivors pick up and carry on with their world changed forever. After so many loved ones simply vanished into the air without a trace. How? I can only hope they found shelter in complete insanity.
For U.S. servicemen, it must have been Hell and Heaven intertwined. The end of war at last, but a headful of horrors to carry the rest of their life. Burdened with this weight, U.S. servicemen performed their duty, crossed the Pacific again, and returned home to begin life anew. Memories of Hiroshima had to haunt them. How could it not. Appreciating life like few of us ever will, these veterans, these Atomic Veterans, came home to do good. Many started families. Many bought American cars. Some bought two-tone Plymouths.
Some returned with keepsakes of where they had been, flags, photographs, and things they didn’t talk about. Touched by Hiroshima, some returned with things they didn’t know they had.
It took “Little Boy” 57 seconds to fall over Hiroshima, and for some American soldiers like my father, the damage took 57 years to reveal itself. Damage that made dying American GIs victims, too, of World War II … the long run turned upside down.
The Japanese committed atrocities but I don’t recall dad ever saying he hated the Japanese. Not once. He never saw combat, but he saw Hiroshima. And he saw Nagasaki. He always owned Chrysler products, but near the end of his life, he bought a pickup made by Mazda, a company that got its start in Hiroshima. In a way, he had come full circle.