Sixty-three years ago on August 6, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The bombs, upon contact with the earth, appeared as brilliant flashes that incinerated living beings and urban life within seconds. Those who did not die immediately, suffered slow, excruciating death from exposure to high-levels of radiation. Present generations continue to suffer the affects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan more than six decades ago.
In May 1945, The Target Committee at Los Alamos led by Robert Oppenheimer, deliberated on which cities would receive the bombs. Hiroshima, Niigata, Yokohama, and the Japanese city of temples, Kyoto, were top contenders as they met the following requirements:
“(1) they are larger than three miles in diameter and are important targets in a large urban area (2) the blast would create effective damage, and (3) they are unlikely to be attacked by August 1945.”
In addition, the cities chosen needed to be new targets; the sixty-seven Japanese cities that had received intense firebombing were precluded from selection.
The decision to drop bombs on urban centers killed more than human beings. In the words of Hannah Arendt:
“In the case of an atomic bombing…a community does not merely receive an impact; the community itself is destroyed. Within 2 kilometers of the atomic bomb’s hypocenter all life and property were shattered, burned, and buried under ashes. The visible forms of the city where people once carried on their daily lives vanished without a trace. The destruction was sudden and thorough; there was virtually no chance to escape….Citizens who had lost no family members in the holocaust were as rare as stars at sunrise….
The atomic bomb had blasted and burned hospitals, schools, city offices, police stations, and every other kind of human organization….Family, relatives, neighbors, and friends relied on a broad range of interdependent organizations for everything from birth, marriage, and funerals to firefighting, productive work, and daily living. These traditional communities were completely demolished in an instant.”
In the days between bombs, American forces in the Marianas devised a leaflet to be dropped on Japanese cities. The leaflet used a combination of kanji and kana characters and was produced on a printing press previously used to publish a Japanese-language newspaper. On August 7, a team working on behalf of the U.S. War Department in generating psychological warfare, worked overtime producing the leaflets. Their plan was to drop 6 million of them over forty-seven cities with populations over 100,000. The following is a translated excerpt:
“ATTENTION JAPANESE PEOPLE
Before we use this bomb again and again to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, petition the Emperor now to end the war. Our President has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender; We urge that you accept those consequences and begin the work of building a new, better, and peace loving Japan.
Act at once or we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.
EVACUATE YOUR CITIES”
Two days to print and drop leaflets was not much time; even less so for the Japanese people to act upon circumstance in the many ways the leaflet suggested. A shortage of T-3 leaflet bombs also presented a snag in the delivery timeline. Nagasaki received its quota of leaflets on August 10.
Freshly printed paper falling from the sky was perhaps the only unscorched, unread gesture left in the aftermath of Fat Man’s shadow.
I have seen a replica of Fat Man in a museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico. More important, I have seen the affects of a replica of the atomic bomb on a multigenerational Japanese family assembled around it, holding hands. With heads bowed, the grandfather reached out his hand, the one that wasn’t connecting all the other hands, and extended it over the museum-quality velvet maroon rope, and on to the bulky body of Fat Man. As he laid his hand on the replica atomic bomb it sent a current of deep collective grief through each family member.
This moment was real. And so too, unfortunately and grotesquely so, were the lollipops for sale in the gift shop in the shape of Little Boy and Fat Man.
I had initially come to New Mexico to meet with a Navajo Code Talker. The Code Talkers used their native tongue to relay messages on ships and on the ground in the Pacific theater during World War II. They were needed to help clear the islands. The islands needed to be cleared so that the airplanes carrying the atomic bombs could load and refuel before reaching the main island of Japan. The record of translation by the Code Talkers from English to Navajo back to English remains at 100% accuracy.
While a majority of Code Talkers returned home to the four-states region of the Navajo Nation after the war had been declared over, two were sent to Japan to relay in code the affects of radiation on the Japanese people back to the scientific community without detection.
When I ask my friend about what he felt about being admonished as a child at the BIA boarding school for speaking Navajo and then later rewarded in war for using it to such successful ends, he said it had been resolved because, “Nobody has ever been able to steal the Navajo language.” “Why can’t it be stolen?,” I asked. “Because it comes from the heart, the mind, and the tongue, leaving no other record.” And because of this, he added, “only the speaker and the people closest to him can unlock its true meaning.”
Language, it could be said, is the premier urban center kept alive by the community of people using it. How far does it extend and by what means? In honor of my Navajo friend, and all other urban centers kept intact by decent, daily observances, I sign off with the following Navajo [Dine] prayer:
“We are the Dine. Our endurance lies in our beliefs, prayers, chants, language and wisdom. Holding these truths, we return to our homeland within our sacred mountains. Our strength endures everlasting.
(each line is said while turning toward each of the four directions)
In beauty we walk,
In beauty we walk,
In beauty we walk,
In beauty we walk”
Laray Polk lives in Dallas, Texas. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org