I remember the fall of 1962 not because it was my second-grade year but because it was the year that we practiced air-raid drills in school by single-filing into the halls and sitting on the floor with our heads tucked between our knees and covered with our arms. I remember fearing the nun’s wrath if we talked more than fearing the supposed nuclear threat. It was the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in my naïveté, Sr. Ellen Elizabeth was far more threatening than the Soviets.
Today is the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Japan—into the city of Nagasaki—in America’s pursuit of an end to the Second World War. By the end of that year, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had killed more than 210,000 people. That is a fact that expresses an enormous and deadly naïveté, worse than my second-grade naïveté…it took two atomic bombs over a three-day period and another five days of political intrigue before Japan surrendered.
On the American side of the war, there were plans underway to continue to create and drop more atomic bombs until Japan surrendered. The American politicians and military wrestled its own intrigue, deciding how and where best to drop the next and the next and the next bombs. Without having witnessed the power, devastation, and death of either the first or second bombs, their planning and decision-making were as a naïve as my sitting on the hall floor with my head protected by my bony knees and skinny arms.
In preparing for publication of the WWII-era letters among my father and his family (including his father, a Philadelphia policeman; his sister, Mary; his brother, Bill, in the U.S. Army in the Philippines; and my father, Jack, a Marine on the battleship USS Texas), I’ve come across several dozen letters written after the atomic bombings of Japan. Enormously clear to me is their complete naïveté about their entry into the Nuclear Age…theirs was a correspondence about the “end of the war” and going home again.
Below are excerpts from three letters detailing their perceptions of and reactions to Japan’s surrender. My father mentions the atomic bomb as well as the “wonderful” advent of atomic power, but in the days of August 1945, he—and the world—was naïve of the enduring impact of world developments around him.
August 10, 1945
Nothing much on board [the USS Texas] is different, same old routine. The morale has zoomed a bit skyward in the past week due to the "Atomic Bomb" and also Russia's entry into the war. The crew are all expecting the war to end any day now, no kidding! I must admit I wouldn't be too surprised to hear it myself. Wouldn't it be wonderful? This atomic bomb is unbelievable isn't it? Looks very much like this atomic power will change our whole way of living, it may take the place of electricity and water power. Sounds like it might be a different U.S. we are going back to than the one we left. …
Lots of love to all,
August 15, 1945
Dear Dad & Mary,
Today is the day!- We received word over the radio that the Japs have thrown the towel in for good. There wasn't too much excitement today, but the other night when they said they were willing to accept — the boys (including me!) really went crazy. All the ships in the area were blowing their whistles, shooting up flares, raising h--- in general. This may be a dead part of the world, but I never saw anything like it. The sailors & marines danced, yelled and made noise with anything they could lay their hands on. Some guys were actually dumbfounded, just stood there, not believing their ears. It was like a thousand July 4's all rolled up into one.
I am honestly thankful to God that Bill & I came thru alive, there were times when I never thought I'd see the end, and I know Bill could say the same. But it's all over now, and although I may not be a civilian for some time, I feel 1000% better. Don't know when we'll be heading back, there's a big deal out here that has to be cleaned up. Whether or not the Texas will partake is something I couldn't say. …
Love to All,
8 PM Wed Aug 15th 1945
Well it sure feels good to realize that the war is really over. As you know it all started here last Fri morning when the Japs said they were willing to surrender providing their Emperor was left intact. Well every hour brought us new flashes. Everyone was on edge, some said we ought to do this, others said we ought to do that. Sat, Sun no definite word. Sunday nite at 934 PM News flash "Japan accepts." In a minute everyone was shouting, then about 5 minutes later another flash. "Last report an error." Can’t account how it got thru. Then Mon. wait, wait & wait, it seemed like the Japs were stalling for time. Then Tue morning while I was working 12 to 8 AM a little after 2 AM the radio announced that Japan had accepted the terms & surrendered. The white house had said that no official statement would be made until after 9 AM. We were given orders to stay on the job. At 12 noon still no confirmation of said surrender. So we were sent home and told to report back if the surrender was confirmed. Well at last! 7 PM last nite the announcement came that our government had rec'd the official surrender thru Geneva. Boy it started, whistles, horns, dishpans & what have you. Every auto horn in the city was blowing, kids formed parades of every description. So off I went to work, got there about 9 PM. Our station house is located in an Italian section & believe me the Italians were out 100%, singing, shouting & drinking, plenty of beer & wine. They say in town was terrific. Well anyway a good time was had by all! Governor Martin declared a two day holiday Wed & Thurs as did the government. But all taprooms here closed at 7 PM last nite until Fri morning. Tonight everything is quiet. Seems like a Sunday nite. Now everyone is counting the days till all the boys will be home. At a celebration last nite at 49th & Thompson, the Italians had beer & wine, singing & dancing, different ones asked me if I had anyone over in the So Pacific, so naturally I was showing the pictures of you & Bill. Well a few young girls swooned. …
Love from all,
The letters tell a story of a very different time and place, but I wonder how different…how constant is our naïveté…do we have that same lack of truly understanding, of being quick to see the surface of things without realizing—or trying to realize—the full, long-term impact? We live in times of institutionalized terrorism, a North Korean nuclear threat, political upheaval…I think I’ll enjoy my naïveté.