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Tomgram: Susan Southard, Under the Mushroom Cloud -- Nagasaki after Nuclear War

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"Note for TomDispatch Readers: TD has a special offer for you on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the atomic age. Susan Southard's Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War is being published this week. It's a hair-raising, breathtaking look at what the experience of nuclear war was really like through the eyes of five survivors of the Nagasaki bomb, all teenagers. Of it, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian John Dower writes: "Susan Southard does for Nagasaki what John Hersey did for Hiroshima , and more. She takes us beneath the mushroom cloud with harrowing, damning, eloquent intimacy -- and then through ensuing decades of individual and civic recovery right up to the present day. Nagasaki is scrupulous, passionate, and compassionate history at its very best." Today, TomDispatch offers a selection from the book. For a $100 contribution to this site, you can get a signed, personalized copy of it. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom

The nuclear age. Doesn't that phrase seem like ancient history? With the twin anniversaries of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming around again, this is its 70th birthday. Just a year younger than me, it was my age-mate, my companion all those years I was growing up. Those unshakeable fears, the "unthinkable," turned out to be eminently translatable into the world of dreams. I still vividly recall my own world-ending nightmares from my teen years and I know I'm not alone. Thoughts of nuclear destruction were then part and parcel of our lives. Once, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it felt as if we might not even make it out of this lifetime.

The byproducts of that moment -- raging dinosaurs, world-ending death rays, giant ants, and destroyed planets -- ran rampant in pop culture, the classic stuff of B-movies. In those years, when the U.S. and the USSR were each building their arsenals to unimaginable heights and planning for something like world's end, all of us were, in a sense, "on the beach." Who didn't read Neville Shute's classic novel (or see the movie) and think about that vast cloud of fallout from the ultimate apocalyptic battle of the Cold War heading south or experience what curtains might mean, even in Australia? Who didn't read the burgeoning post-apocalyptic mutant pulp fiction of that era even as, with A Canticle for Leibowitz, it became "literature"?

And doesn't all of that, the fearful and the eerily fun-filled, seem the product of another time, long gone and half-forgotten? And yet here's the eeriest thing of all: on this very day, nine countries with nuclear arsenals of varying sizes still possess, according to the latest estimates, a total of more than 15,000 such weapons, enough, that is, to obliterate countless Earths. And as it happens, 93% of those weapons are in the hands of either the United States or Russia, both of which are proudly and openly "modernizing" their nuclear stocks -- in the case of the U.S. at a planned cost of a trillion dollars over the next three decades. Consider that a reminder that, in August 2045 on the 100th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the former Cold War rivals still have every intention of being nuclear powers.

Most unnerving of all, the planners in those countries simply refuse to acknowledge the most basic nuclear facts -- or at least they are utterly unmoved by them and by the thought of the eradication of humanity. It evidently matters little that if those "modest" nuclear powers, India (a mere 110 nuclear weapons) and Pakistan (a mere 120 of them), were to release just part of their arsenals in a South Asian nuclear exchange, the planet would enter "nuclear winter" and humanity would be decimated.

So, on a 70th anniversary in which the madness shows no sign of ending, it's good to turn to Susan Southard's monumental new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, which offers a riveting, if chilling plunge into nuclear realities. Among other things, it reminds us that, unbelievably enough, humanity's nuclear fate was never just prospective, never just a matter of thoughts, or plans, or dreams, or fantasies. Nuclear destruction of an almost unimaginable sort was the initial reality of the atomic age, with such weaponry actually used on two utterly defenseless cities. Thanks to the kindness of the editors of Viking, TomDispatch today takes you directly beneath the mushroom cloud in an excerpt from Southard's book that follows five teenage nuclear survivors of the Nagasaki bomb through the very first moments of what has become an unending nuclear age. Tom

Entering the Nuclear Age, Body by Body
The Nagasaki Experience
By Susan Southard

[This essay has been adapted from chapters 1 and 2 of Susan Southard's new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, with the kind permission of Viking.]

Korean and Chinese workers, prisoners of war, and mobilized adults and students had returned to their work sites; some dug or repaired shelters, others piled sandbags against the windows of City Hall for protection against machine-gun fire. In the Mitsubishi sports field, bamboo spear drills in preparation for an invasion had just concluded. Classes had resumed at Nagasaki Medical College. Streetcars meandered through the city.

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Hundreds of people injured in the air raids just over a week earlier continued to be treated in Nagasaki's hospitals, and at the tuberculosis hospital in the northern Urakami Valley, staff members served a late breakfast to their patients. One doctor, trained in German, thought to himself, Im Westen nichts neues (All quiet on the western front). In the concrete-lined shelter near Suwa Shrine that served as the Nagasaki Prefecture Air Defense Headquarters, Governor Nagano had just begun his meeting with Nagasaki police leaders about an evacuation plan. The sun was hot, and the high-pitched, rhythmic song of cicadas vibrated throughout the city.

Six miles above, the two B-29s approached Nagasaki. Major Sweeney and his crew could hardly believe what they saw: Nagasaki, too, was invisible beneath high clouds. This presented a serious problem. Sweeney's orders were to drop the bomb only after visual sighting of the aiming point -- the center of the old city, east of Nagasaki Harbor. Now, however, a visual sighting would likely require numerous passes over the city, which was no longer possible due to fuel loss: Not only had a fuel transfer pump failed before takeoff, rendering six hundred gallons of fuel inaccessible, but more fuel than expected had been consumed waiting at the rendezvous point and while circling over Kokura.

Bockscar now had only enough fuel to pass over Nagasaki once and still make it back for an emergency landing at the American air base on Okinawa. Further, Sweeney and his weaponeer, Navy commander Fred Ashworth, knew that not using the bomb on Japan might require dumping it into the sea to prevent a nuclear explosion upon landing. Against orders, they made the split-second decision to drop the bomb by radar.

Air raid alarms did not sound in the city -- presumably because Nagasaki's air raid defense personnel did not observe the planes in time or did not recognize the immediate threat of only two planes flying at such a high altitude. When antiaircraft soldiers on Mount Kompira finally spotted the planes, they jumped into trenches to aim their weapons but didn't have time to fire; even if they had, their guns could not have reached the U.S. planes.

Several minutes earlier, some citizens had heard a brief radio announcement that two B-29s had been seen flying west over Shimabara Peninsula. When they heard the planes approaching, or saw them glistening high in the sky, they called out to warn others and threw themselves into air raid shelters, onto the ground, or beneath beds and desks inside houses, schools, and workplaces. A doctor just about to perform a pneumothorax procedure heard the distant sound of planes, pulled the needle out of his patient, and dived for cover. Most of Nagasaki's residents, however, had no warning.

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By this time, the crews on both planes were wearing protective welders' glasses so dark that they could barely see their own hands. Captain Kermit Beahan, Bockscar's bombardier, activated the tone signal that opened the bomb bay doors and indicated 30 seconds until release. Five seconds later, he noticed a hole in the clouds and made a visual identification of Nagasaki.

"I've got it! I've got it!" he yelled. He released the bomb. The instrument plane simultaneously discharged three parachutes, each attached to metal canisters containing cylindrical radiosondes to measure blast pressure and relay data back to the aircraft. Ten thousand pounds lighter, Bockscar lurched upward, the bomb bay doors closed, and Sweeney turned the plane an intense 155 degrees to the left to get away from the impending blast.

"Hey, Look! Something's Falling!"

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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