Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lest we forget

Sixty-three years ago today, August 6, 1945, a U.S. airplane named Enola Gay flew over the city of Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped an atomic bomb, wiping out a major portion of the city and killing thousands upon thousands of human beings in an instant; many thousands more died as a result of the resulting radiation. This act, the first of its kind in the history of the world, hastened the end of World War II, but it seems to be yesterday’s news. I neither read nor heard a single word about it on this year's anniversary.

Three days later another U.S. airplane named Bockscar did the same thing to the city of Nagasaki, hastening the end of World War II even more. Japan promptly surrendered and the long war was over; the papers were signed in the presence of General Douglas MacArthur aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. Germany had surrendered several months earlier.

I mention these events only because they should never be forgotten. Millions of Americans who weren’t born until a decade after the Viet Nam war ended are now preparing to cast their votes for a new president. World War II must seem like ancient history to them, the way World War I seemed to me to have happened around the time the Egyptians were building the pyramids.

My dad was born in 1906, the youngest of five brothers. Two of his older brothers served in the military during World War I. By the time America entered World War II, my dad was almost 36 and probably didn't have to go. But he enlisted in the Navy, leaving his job at the Dearborn Brass Works in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a bunk at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, and eventually was assigned to duty on a Patrol Craft Escort vessel as a machinist’s mate. He had wanted to go into the submarine service, but he was too old. His shipmates, many of whom were half his age, called him “Pop.” He was even older than the captain of the ship, and he was 39 when he was discharged after the war ended. He talked about being in the Navy every single day of his life until his death in 1967. It was a big deal to him. Sometimes he would have nightmares in which bodies floated to the surface of the ocean after depth charges were dropped to destroy enemy submarines. Sometimes he would wake up screaming.

Out of a population of 131,000,000 at the time , America suffered 400,000 deaths in World War II. Other countries suffered much worse. Yugoslavia, with a population of 15,000,000 in 1939, lost over 1,000,000 of its people. Poland, with a population of 39,000,000 in 1939, lost over 5,600,000 of its people, 3,000,000 of them in the Holocaust. Worldwide, World War II was humanity’s deadliest war with over 72,000,000 lives lost. These astounding figures are in a Wikipedia article entitled “World War II Casualties” that includes a table showing country-by-country losses broken down by military, civilian, holocaust, and “other.” The article also contains a detailed description of individual battles. It doesn’t mention my father.

Not to minimize our current troubles, but World War II makes Iraq look like some minor backwater skirmish.

I'll try to post about a more pleasant subject next time.

[Update: In the comments section, Ruth C. states that the Soviet Union had horrific losses too, and she is certainly right. The sad table in the Wikipedia article I mentioned indicates that out of a Soviet Union population of 168,500,000 there were more than 23,000,000 deaths, or 13.7 per cent of the Soviet population. China probably had nearly as many; its figure of 20,000,000 deaths is an estimate. But the country with the highest rate of death in World War II, stated as a percentage of its total population, with 16.7 per cent, was Poland. (By contrast, and to put it in perspective, the U.S. deaths in World War II were about one-third of one per cent of its population.) As Ruth says, may we never see another global war again.]


  1. The Soviet Union had horrific losses too.

    May we never see another global war again.

  2. It doesn't surprise me that Bush/Cheney who have never been to war would enter one so cavalierly. It shocks me that McCain would be right there pushing for more, given what he has gone through. And the sad thing, is that from all recorded history we know, war has yet to end war. Perhaps it's time to look at other solutions. The toll has been indeed horrific over the written history of man.

  3. Thank you for this reminder of events, that, yes, should never ever be forgotten.

    I can't recall that I've ever before heard the name of plane which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki......Bockscar. I know the bomb was instrumental in ending the war, but I've always wondered how Harry Truman felt afterwards about that decision, considering the horrendous outcome for so many civilians.

  4. I was informed recently of an interesting side note on this although I have not seen confirmation. I was told that Japanese citizens who were close to the blast but who survived it and went on to lead full and - one hopes - normal lives, had amongst their population a much smaller than average rate of death from cancers.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for commenting.

    Ruth, I incorporated your comment into an update int he main post.

    afeather, it's not a Republican thing. Woodrow Wilson (World War I), FDR (World War II), Truman (Korea), and Kennedy/Johnson (Viet Nam) were all Democrats. General William Tecumseh Sherman said it best: war is hell.

    Jeannelle, I knew about the Enola Gay but I had to look up the name of the other plane (true confessions time). It was piloted by a man named Bock, hence the pun on Boxcar.

    and yellow swordfish, welcome to this side of the pond! You are the first British -- sorry, I mean English -- commenter on this blog. I found yours by following Ruth Hull Chatlein's award to your wife's blog and then to yours. Congratulations to you both.

    Your comment borders on the mind-boggling.

    Do you Brits (Engs?)really say "Pip, pip" and "Cheerio" or is that just in old movies?