Monday, August 15, 2011

Atomic Bombs and Balloon Bombs

Sixty-six years ago today, on August 15, 1945, the long and bloody war with Japan finally came to an end. By a nationwide radio broadcast a little after noon (Japan Standard Time) on that day, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.
VJ Day and the end of World War II came when it did largely because of the U.S. dropping two atomic bombs: on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki three days later.
Although there were actually more causalities from the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, than from the bombing of Nagasaki, the instantaneous deaths and devastation caused by “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, the two atomic bombs, is truly mind-boggling.
Just this year I have learned about the balloon bombs made by the Japanese and sent by wind currents toward the United States, bombs strikingly different from atomic bombs.
You may have known about this before, but I was surprised to learn that in May 1945 a pregnant woman and five children on a church picnic were killed by one of the over 9,000 balloon bombs launched by Japan in 1944-45.
Elsye Mitchell (26) and the five Sunday School students (ages 11-14) from the church in Bly, Oregon, where Elsye’s husband, Archie, was the pastor were the only WWII causalities of U.S. citizens on American soil. (In 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Hawaii was not yet a part of the United States.)
Elsye and the children got out of the car in a park on Gearheart Mountain, while Archie drove on to find a parking spot. As they were looking for a good picnic spot, they saw a strange balloon lying on the ground. As the group approached the balloon, a bomb attached to it exploded and Elsye and all five children were killed.
Earlier this summer I read An Ocean Between Us (1994), a most interesting book about the relationship between Japan and a small area in the state of Washington. Evelyn Iritani, the author, is an American woman born to a Japanese-American father and a Japanese mother. In her book she relates four encounters between Japanese and people living in or around Port Angeles, Washington.
One of those stories is about Elyse (Winters) Mitchell, who was from Port Angeles.
Iritani also writes about Reiko Okada, a Japanese girl about the same age as the older children killed in the bomb explosion in Oregon. Reiko worked in a balloon bomb “factory” during the war. Iritani tells movingly about the Japanese people who through the years have expressed sorrow for the deaths caused by the balloon bomb.
There is now a Mitchell Monument erected near the spot of the Oregon tragedy, and several cherry trees have been planted around the monument as a symbol of peace.
Whether it is the deaths of tens of thousands caused by two atomic bombs or the death of just a few by a lone balloon bomb—or whether it is the deaths of people in Japan or Oregon in 1945 or in Afghanistan or Iraq in 2011—the loss of life, and especially of non-combatants, in war is tragic indeed.
Will we humans never learn to co-exist in peace?


  1. I think we might. In the end, whatever the geneticists come up with, violence as a way of coping with disagreements is a cultural habit.

  2. My grandfather was a logger in Bly at the time, and the 14 year old girl killed was a friend of my mother. This was not the only balloon launched (with the intention of indiscriminate killing of American civilians).

    Killing and war leaves bitterness, unforgiveness, and revenge. These are very hard to break, even among the peaceful religions. As one put it, "Thou shalt not get away with it" is our innate 11th commandment. Even "good" people can defend their atrocities including devout Buddhists and Christians. Even the best and most passive have their burrs to instigate problems (which is worse, this, or that?).

    The issue is not about balloon bombs, or atomic bombs, or firebombs, or land mines, or drones, or IEDs, or guns, or spears, or knives, or empty hands...
    it is about the human heart and our predisposition for evil.

    And yet I find people by and large seek to get along and co-exist most of the time - until pushed.

    PS - Happy Birthday! You make a difference in this world.

  3. Thank you for a piece of history that I'd never heard of.

    Considering how desperate Japan was by 1944 for resources to sustain its imperial war throughout Asia, this low-accuracy weapon--which terrorized West Coast civilians, but posed absolutely no threat to US military--strikes me as utterly hair-brained, except from the POV of the bomb-manufacturers. But I'm sure the 9,000 balloon bombs and several deaths served Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and William MacKenzie King--the three men who shook hands on the decision to drop the A-bombs--very nicely as they sold the A-boms' "necessity" to the public after the fact.

    A collection of quotes related to the A-bombings compiled by a friend of mine, a member of the Allied Occupation Force who met and married a Hiroshima survivor and now a member of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms, includes these words attributed to US BRIGADIER GENERAL CARTER CLARK: "WHEN WE DIDN’T NEED TO DO IT, AND WE KNEW WE DIDN’T NEED TO DO IT, AND THEY (Japan's leaders) KNEW WE DIDN’T NEED TO DO IT, WE USED THEM (Japanese civilians) AS AN EXPERIMENT FOR TWO ATOMIC BOMBS.”

    All deaths in war are "tragic," to be sure, but A-bombs are not stray bullets and civilians are not military targets. This is why, rather than the passive, humanitarian term "tragic," I prefer to use terminology provided by international law ("illegal," "war crime," "crime against humanity") and multi-faith scriptures ("sinful," "wicked," "evil") to describe civilian deaths, especially when rationalized with truthy lies.

  4. General Sherman famously taught us all, "War is all hell." The alternate ending to the war in Japan would have been, if anything, more horrific. My father was on one of the warships preparing for the conventional invasion of the Japanese homeland, and as part of that preparation they were told to expect total casualties of about one million dead. Think of how the war in Germany ended, and map that onto the Japanese cities.

    World War I ended with the surrender of a fairly intact Germany. The myth followed that Germany was betrayed by its leaders. The allies did not want that to happen again, so they were only too happy when Germany did not surrender near the end of World War II. Now map that thinking onto Japan. No doubt, the allied leaders believed that Japan had to be defeated in such an overwhelming way that such a betrayal myth could not arise there, either.

    On a deeper level, we need to go back to World War I to truly put the whole twentieth century geo-political universe in perspective. A few months ago I attended a performance of a biting satire of World War I, fittingly performed at the World War I memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Laid bare was the incredible stupidity and cruelty with which the war was fought on all sides. Just after attending, I saw on the news that the last American veteran of World War I had just died. Reportedly a couple of British veterans live on. This got me to thinking about how close we really are to World War I. As a direct result of World War I, Communists took control of Russia, which, in turn, resulted in the Red China we still confront. As direct result of the equally stupid and cruel peace treaty that ended World War I, the Nazis came to power in Germany, and set the stage for World War II. We have not at all escaped the shadow of the horrors of World War I.

    Just as the Marshall plan was intentionally a different peace for World War II, so the atomic bomb was a different ending. Rather than second-guessing that ending, I think we would be far better served by trying to find ways to avoid World War III. For I do not think any of us would like the ending to that one.

  5. Message for Craig:

    "War is all hell" goes without saying, while "War is a racket" too often goes without being said.

    Just as the people of Japan were hoodwinked into the 15-Year War by a fake "terrorist" event at Mukden, and Americans were fooled into the Viet Nam War by the fabricated "Gulf of Tonkin Incident," Germans were deceived into WWII by the fake "Gleiwitz Incident." If deception of compatriots by those who profit from deceit/war (in wealth and/or power) does not constitute "betrayal," then Judas didn't betray Jesus, and the Cheney-Bush oilygarchs didn't betray Americans with their "Weapons of Mass Destruction" lie.

    Sometimes it's a good idea to second guess "truths" handed down from "authorities," especially when facts expose them as myth. (e.g. "Red China" is now as capitalist as most Western economies.) Otherwise we hand the last laugh to Adolf Hitler, who said, "How fortunate it is for leaders that the people they administer do not think."

  6. Reply for David:

    The convergent evolution of Walmart and Red China could be a topic all unto itself. The rackets that exploit the citizens of the world probably could be a whole list of topics. They range far beyond starting and stopping wars.

    Unfortunately, the world of politics is usually a roaring cauldron of ideological posturing. Careful philosophical discussion is rarely the mode of progress. What is amazing is that, somehow, the world seems to be making some progress.