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The Bombing of Nagasaki, August 9 1945 The Untold Story

56 years ago this week, on August 9th, 1945, the second of the only 2 atomic bombs ever used as instruments of aggressive war (and against essentially defenseless civilian populations, at that) was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan by an all-Christian bomb crew. The well-trained American soldiers were only "doing their job"and they did it well.

It had been 3 days since the first bomb, a uranium bomb, had decimated Hiroshima, with chaos and confusion in Tokyo, where the fascist military government and the Emperor had been

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searching for months for a way to honorably end the war. (The only obstacle to surrender had been the United States' insistence on unconditional surrender, which meant that the Emperor Hirohito, whom the Japanese regarded as a deity, would be removed from his figurehead position in Japan, an intolerable demand for the Japanese.)

The Russian army was advancing across Manchuria with the stated aim of entering the war against Japan on August 8, so there were extra incentives to end the war quickly. The US did not want to divide any spoils or share power after Japan was defeated.

The US bomber command had for months spared Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kokura from the conventional bombing that had leveled and burned 60+ other major Japanese cities during the first half of 1945. One of the reasons for targeting relatively undamaged cities was scientific: to see what would happen to intact buildings--and their living creatures--when atomic weapons were exploded over them.


Early in the morning of August 9, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress called Bock's Car, took off from Tinian Island, with the prayers and blessings of its Lutheran and Catholic chaplains, and headed for Kokura, the primary target (its plutonium bomb was code-named "Fat Man", after Winston Churchill). The only field test of a nuclear weapon, blasphemously named "Trinity", had occurred just three weeks earlier, on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The molten lavarock that resulted, still found at the site today, is called trinitite.

With instructions to only drop the bomb on visual sighting, Bock's Car arrived at Kokura, which was clouded-over. So, after circling three times, looking for a break in the clouds, and using up a tremendous amount of valuable fuel in the process, it headed for its secondary target, Nagasaki.

Nagasaki is famous in the history of Japanese Christianity. Not only was it the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary's Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan. It was the city where the legendary Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, established a mission church in 1549, a Christian community which thrived and multiplied for several generations until, in the early 1600s, it became the target of brutal Japanese Imperial persecutions. Within 50 years of the planting of Xaviar's mission church, it was a capital crime to be a Christian. The Japanese Christians who refused to recant their beliefs suffered ostracism, horrific torture and even crucifixions similar to the Roman persecutions in the first three centuries of Christianity. After the reign of terror was over, it appeared to all observers that Christianity had been stamped out.

However, 250 years later, in the 1850s, after the coercive gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Perry forced open an offshore island for American trade purposes, it was discovered that there were still thousands of baptized Christians in Nagasaki, living their faith in a catacomb existence, completely unknown to the governmentwhich immediately started another purge. But because of international pressure, the persecutions were soon stopped, and Nagasaki Christianity came up from the underground. And by 1917, with no help from the government, the Japanese Christian community had organized and, after decades of work, built the massive St. Mary's Cathedral, in the Urakami River Valley district.

Now it turned out, in the mystery of good and evil, that St. Mary's Cathedral was one of the landmarks that the Bock's Car bombardier had been briefed on, and, looking through his bomb site over Nagasaki that day, he identified the cathedral, ordered the drop, and, at 11:02 am, Nagasaki Christianity was carbonized, then vaporized, in a scorching, radioactive fireball. And so the persecuted, vibrant, faithful center of Japanese Christianity became ground zero, and what Japanese Imperialism couldn't do in 200 years of persecution, American Christians did in 9 seconds; the entire worshipping community of Nagasaki was wiped out.

The above true (and unwelcome) story should stimulate discussion among those who claim to be disciples of Jesus. The Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group (the 1500 man Army Air Force group whose only job was delivering the atomic bombs) was Father George Zabelka, who several decades later saw his grave theological error in religiously legitimating the mass slaughter that is modern war. He finally recognized that the enemies of a nation were not the enemies of God, but rather children of God whom God loved, and whom the followers of Jesus should also love. Fr. Zabelka's conversion led him to devote the remaining decades of his life speaking out against violence in any form, especially the violence of militarism. The Lutheran chaplain, William Downey, in his counseling of soldiers who were troubled by the immorality of "the bomb", later denounced all killing, whether by a single bullet or by a weapon of mass destruction.

In Daniel Hallock's important book, "Hell, Healing and Resistance" the author talks about a 1997 Buddhist retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh that attempted to deal with the hellish post-war existence of combat-traumatized Vietnam War veterans. Hallock commented, "clearly, Buddhism offers something that cannot be found in institutional Christianity. But then why should veterans embrace a religion that has blessed the wars that ruined their souls? It is no wonder they turn to a gentle Buddhist monk to hear what are, in large part, the truths of Christ."

As a lifelong Christian, that comment stung me, but it was the sting of a sobering truth. And as a physician who deals with psychologically traumatized patients all too often, I know that it is violence, in its myriad of forms, that bruises the human psyche and soul, and that that trauma is deadly and highly contagious and spreads through the families and progeny of trauma victims.

One of the most difficult "mental illnesses" to treat is combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In its most severe form it is virtually incurable. It is also a well-known fact that whereas most Vietnam War recruits came from churches where they actively practiced their faith, if they came home significantly traumatized by the war, the percentage returning to the faith community approached zero.

This is a serious spiritual problem for any church that, either actively or by its silence on issues of militarism, glorifies war or fails to thoroughly inform its youth about what Jesus and the earliest form of Christianity taught about conscientious objection to war and killing: that both were forbidden to the followers of Jesus.

If a worshipping community fails to at least fully inform its confirmands about the gruesome realities of the war zone before they are forced to register for potential conscription into the military, it invites the condemnation that Jesus warned about in Matthew 18:5-6: "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

The purpose of this essay is to stimulate open and honest discussion (at least among the followers of Jesus) about the ethics of killing by government, not from the perspective of national security ethics, not from the perspective of military ethics (an oxymoron, according to most critical thinkers), not from the perspective of (the pre-Christian) eye-for-an-eye retaliation, but from the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount, the core ethical teachings of the founder.

Out of that discussion, if any are willing to engage in it, should come answers to those horrible realities that seem to immobilize decent Bible-believing Christians everywhere: Why are some of us willing to commit (or support or pay for others to commit) homicidal violence against other fellow children of a loving, merciful, forgiving God, the God whom Jesus clearly calls us to imitate? And what can we do, starting now, to prevent the next war, the next epidemic of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the next Mylai massacre, the next Auschwitz, the next Dresden, the next El Mozote, the next Rwanda, the next Jonestown, the next black church bombing, the next Columbine, the next execution of an innocent death row inmate or the next Nagasaki?

© August 9, 2001, Gary G. Kohls, MD, 1306 E.8th St., Duluth, MN 55805, for
Every Church A Peace Church http://www.ecapc.org