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The Day The Sun Burst -- Nagasaki Remembered

08/09/2012 08:05 EDT | Updated 10/09/2012 05:12 EDT
KIMIMASA MAYAMA/EFE

On August 9, 1945, just before 11 a.m., a solitary American bomber is making its final approach on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. In the form of a plutonium 235 bomb called Fat Man, resembling a giant winged tumor, the B-29 is carrying death for some 100,000 Japanese.

At that same moment, my aunt Reggie is almost directly below the bomber. She is a Sacred Heart teaching nun from Montreal, imprisoned by the Japanese military when war broke out.

She is about to be engulfed in an event so filled with terror and grief that the full reality would long be suppressed by the American military.

That morning the primary target for the bombing mission was the Japanese city of Kokura. Finding a heavy cloud cover over Nagasaki, the B-29 turned away from Kokura, and as an angel of death, began the short flight to Nagasaki. It is Japan's most Catholic city. There is no war industry. It has never been bombed, so the coming casualties could not be attributed to anything but the atomic bomb. It is to be merely a demonstration of death, designed to scare the Soviet Union, America's new rival for world dominance.

Sister Regina knows none of this, but she does notice the guards have become apprehensive and much more polite. They have heard about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier. She has not. On this morning she is allowed to go gather grass for the camp cow.

Looking back, she realized the guards must have heard about the atomic bomb, which had been dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier. She has heard nothing.

What she is suddenly hearing is the approach, high up, of single bomber. In her letter dated September 12th, 1945, and smuggled home, Aunt Reggie writes: "I think the approach of a solitary plane deceived the Japanese...I looked up to see if it were visible, but quickly decided that it would be wiser to hurry back to the camp.

The bomber finds Nagasaki is also covered with clouds, but not for long.

It is 11.02 am. From only 1,500 feet, Fat Man is dropped dead center over Nagasaki. The bomber veers off. The crew looks down.

"I began to run. I had gone only a few steps when suddenly there was a fearful explosion and everything was golden yellow. It seemed as though the sun had burst and I was lost in its midst..."

At the flash point the temperature soars to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds reaching 1,000 kilometers an hour. Inside one square mile there is nothing but black ash and grey cinder.

She wrote that the city burned for days: "Two thirds of the population of Nagasaki are dead. The city itself is a mass of ruins. They are still burning the dead. The hospitals having been destroyed, the wounded are not being cared for."

Doctors, nurses and nursing sisters knew nothing of radiation poisoning, so her next line has resonance. "Some patients apparently recover, then suddenly die from hemorrhages."

All reporting from Nagasaki would be heavily censored for years. She managed to get that letter out through a Sacred Heart diplomatic pouch of sorts.

In the aftermath, a Japanese and American film crew rushed to Nagasaki. But the film they shot was suppressed for more than 40 years. When bits and pieces were finally aired, the impact on public policy that the nuclear attack should have triggered was diminished by the passage of time.

It proved the axiom that news delayed is as effective as news suppressed.

My aunt Reggie was never the same again. The imprint of that explosion was like the effect of a gigantic X-ray, left on her body and her mind for a lifetime. She never would leave the Japan she loved so deeply. But in the end it comes as no surprise to learn Aunt Reggie succumbed

to cancer. Her mind was also deeply affected. Her friends said, "she was never quite right" after

experiencing that cataclysm.

The American radical commentator Chris Hedges writes that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mass murder, an event as evil as the Holocaust. As in the bombing of Germany's big cities, almost all the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian, mostly old men, women and children.

The bombing was denounced by General Eisenhower and General MacArthur who said the war was won and the atomic bombs unnecessary. In the end, it was a political event. It was merely a demonstration of death.