Reflections from a Cold War Childhood

I have a memory from the fourth grade… one that is still so vivid that even now I can feel my pulse race and the fear rising. In this recollection, I am crouched with my back against a cold tile wall, my forehead against my knees which were pulled tightly to my chest, making it hard to breath. My hands are clasped, fingers interlaced across the back of my neck – to protect my spine from injury, I was told. I am very uncomfortable in the hallway of PS 19, my elementary school, as the teacher was checking our body positions and explaining that assuming this posture would protect us in case “the bomb” were to hit our city. Of course, this is a memory of a civil defense drill. At the time, I was quite afraid of “the bomb” but really had no idea what the phrase really meant. My understanding of weapons of war was built on early childhood television coverage of Vietnam melded with my grandfather’s stories of “the Great War.” Of course, I realized some time later that the “civil defense posture” may have protected me from some superficial injury should “the bomb” hit some distance away, but would do nothing at all in my defense if it did, as my teacher said, hit our city. But, it made some people feel like they were doing something… and scared a lot of children, I’m thinking.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the globe’s first experience of the nuclear age – the United States’ use of the atomic bomb on Japan, dropping it from the aircraft Enola Gay high above the city of Hiroshima. A second later, at 8:15 am, an age ended as the force of the nuclear blast engulfed the city, the infamous mushroom cloud beginning to rise where the plane had been.

“As the bomb exploded, we saw the entire city disappear,” said [Enola Gay] Commander Robert Lewis. “I wrote in my log: ‘My God, what have we done?”

Below, thousands of people were instantly carbonised in a blast that was thousands of times hotter than the sun’s surface; further from the epicentre, birds ignited in mid-flight, eyeballs popped and internal organs were sucked from bodies of victims.

By the end of the day an estimated 160,000 were dead or injured and the bomb’s “ghosts” walked the city – thousands of survivors who would die within days, often with the word “mizu” – water – on their lips. Many more subsequently died – and are still dying – from cancers. [full article here]

Voice of America reports on today’s remembrance ceremony at the site of the explosion:

Thousands of elderly survivors of the bombing, joined by Japanese and foreign dignitaries, bowed their heads at 8:15 a.m. – the exact moment of the attack – offering silent prayers for world peace and for the souls of those who died in the atomic detonation.
Cicadas buzzed amid wafting incense in the hot and humid air, as an additional 5,375 names were added to the Hiroshima Peace Park cenotaph, bringing the total number of those considered to have died as a result of exposure to the atomic blast to more than 242,000.

Those who addressed the crowd at the hypocenter of the atomic explosion, repeated their annual vow of no more Hiroshimas.

I live in a family justifiably proud of its military service. I grew up listening to my grandfather’s experiences in the Army serving in the “forgotten theater” – China-Burma-India – building gasoline pipeline that was crucial to defending China from aggressive Japanese attack. His opinions of people, nationalities, and life – as well as those of my mother, who was only 2 years old when he left, and grandmother’s – were dramatically impacted by his service. He was trained to fight an enemy – one that perpetrated unutterably cruel acts for their own cause – and, in the course of it, was conditioned to think they were evil, and they he. It was a war that changed its generation, and those to come.

But WWII isn’t the only reason I have that scary memory about “the bomb.” In fact, the Cold War was the more closely connected to my experience. The 1960s saw a dramatic increase in the nuclear threat-tension, and that touched the life of another member of my family – my father. Before I was even a twinkle in my daddy’s eye (as my grandfather used to say) my father was serving on the USS Stickell as an electricians mate. In 1962, at the order of President John F. Kennedy, the Stickell and other ships were ordered to form a blockade of Cuba to deter the Soviet Union, whose nuclear weapons were pointed at the US from the island nation only 90 miles from our southernmost coast. This event, is now known as the Cuban missile crisis. Watch an authentic newsreel here.

Both my father and grandfather went on to careers in service professions – my dad became a firefighter, my grandfather a state transportation engineer – after their military service. So, is it any surprise that I wed an Air Force officer who later became a cop? It sure surprised me!

As a young adult, I was strongly influenced by the negative effects of war, of the nuclear threat, and of the devestation I’d seen wrought by bombs less powerful than the one being remembered today. I’d watched Vietnam, in spite of my mother’s best efforts, in glimpses – something that influenced me heavily enough that both my major seminar papers in college related to what I’d seen and researched further. I had lots of, ahem, discussions with the guy who sat beside me in the “Anthropology of Conflict” course wearing an ROTC haircut and uniform. I wanted to know (and still do) what could justify dropping bombs on innocents for the actions of their government. We never got to the bottom of that discussion… I don’t think humanity ever will.

I think President Truman, who ordered the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, understood my inner conflict, though clearly in his own context:

Harry S. Truman, Diary, July 25, 1945
We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.

Anyway we “think” we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling – to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not w
omen and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful…

He was right in his hope (to save lives) and misgivings (the strength of the weapon, the vulnerability of innocents). Ultimately, the 9,000 lb bomb that fell on Hiroshima was far more devestating than anyone could have imagined, and the horrors and injury enough to ripple for generations, and I think Truman could not have anticipated the results of his order. An order, I pray, from the depths of my fourth grade heart, will never be given – by anyone – again.

No Responses to “Reflections from a Cold War Childhood”

  1. Derek
    August 6, 2005 at 8:12 pm #

    Good thoughts. I enjoyed reading that. Funny how times have changed now, huh, with the Americans and British rushing to save Russian sailors.

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