I’ve never been to Japan, never set foot there, but Dad went. Thus Japan has touched me in ways obvious and ways hard to explain. The obvious is easy. I drive a Honda HRV. I take digital photographs with a Canon T5i Rebel. Japan Victor Company built my flatscreen. Sony manufactured my home sound system. My Vortex binoculars came from Japan. I talk on Panasonic telephones. I own so many Japanese products, I might as well move into a rice-paper house ringed by bamboo, take off my shoes, put on a kimono, grab some chopsticks, and live off Japan’s four major food groups: fish and rice, rice and fish, fish and fish, and rice and rice.
The rest is less straightforward and weightier. My Japanese musings took over me the day I heard about Chrysler’s bankruptcy. For me, Chrysler sits at the intersection of two key memories, memories of a boyhood discovery and a 1956 Plymouth, turquoise and white, with delicate fins. It’s the first car I remember Dad buying, not that long after World War II. Dad pretty much bought Chrysler cars all his life.
We who buy Japanese cars didn’t help Chrysler’s cause, but don’t blame us. Japanese cars last. They’ve come to embody the phoenix-like rise of a country leveled by war, demolished by us in a way like no other, but brought back by us as well. From a nuclear funeral pyre, Japan rose to give us dependable cars, radios, TVs, telephones, and more. Japan, the vanquished enemy, conquered as no country has ever been conquered, came roaring back.
The other memory goes way back as well. Rambling through closets as a boy I discovered a Japanese rifle with bayonet and silk flags, relics of Dad’s time in Japan. Unfolding the flags, a rising sun with rays burst off the alabaster silk as if afire. Japan—Land of the Rising Sun. The Imperial Japanese Navy flew those flags as did the Japanese Army. In battle, those flags were among the last sights many warriors on both sides saw. To me, they were playthings. I made parachutes of those silk flags, tying a rock to them, hurling them up, and watching them drift lazily back to Georgia soil.
The rifle remains but somewhere in my boyhood those flags disappeared. What a loss. I’d love to have one framed with an inscription. “Liberated and brought to the United States by Sergeant John M. Poland Jr.” With Japan’s surrender August 14, 1945, Allied Occupation Forces banned the Rising Sun flags. Maybe that’s how Dad came by them. Confiscated.
The Story Begins … Dad journeyed to Japan on a troop carrier in Operation Downfall, the Allied plan to invade Japan. Along the way the atom bomb brought Japan to its knees, and some 200,000 servicemen, would-be invaders, occupied Japan instead.
Hiroshima is often on my mind. Dad served in U.S. Army Ordnance and spent time in Hiroshima not long after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy.”
There in the land of geishas and samurai, he might as well have been walking on the surface of the sun. He was at most, 19 or 20. The things he must have seen as he tread Hiroshima’s toxic soil. There was no way he could avoid horrors. Skinless people. Men with stripes burnt onto their skin. They were wearing striped shirts when the brilliant flash hit them, the nuclear burst that stenciled dress patterns onto women’s bodies. Dad never talked about things like that, but they happened. That and worse.
He returned to Georgia with evidence of his Hiroshima days: the flags and horrific photos. The photos, taken from a low, wide perspective, reveal block after block of charred rubble with I-beams drooping like melted candles. The next time you drive past a field of corn chopped close to the ground, imagine it burnt too. That’s what Hiroshima looked like, a charred, leveled cornfield.
At ground zero the heat reached millions of degrees. Some victims left shadows etched into rock … vaporized … perhaps that’s why censors placed rectangles black as midnight on some of Dad’s photos. No need to generate sympathy for the enemy. By the end of 1945, radiation and injuries, burns in many cases, raised the total to 140,000 dead.
Even as a kid, those photos told me Hell itself had been unleashed on Hiroshima. It didn’t come as a surprise. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, held onto a post to steady himself as the seconds for the initial test ticked down … “3, 2, 1!” A brilliant burst of light and a deep growling roar. Apocalyptic words escaped Oppenheimer’s lips: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” … words from the “Song of God,” a Sanskrit Hindu scripture.
Now and then in pensive moods, waiting for a traffic light to change, I think about the Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas around me. These cars plunged a dagger into Chrysler’s heart, nearly killing off my Dad’s favored brand. I know that many of those cars are now made in the United States. I know, too, that many are not. I wonder about the Japanese autoworkers who built them and what life was like for their parents. Surely some had okasans (moms) and otousans (dads) who experienced atomic warfare like no others.
The bombs saved lives in the long run, they say, and I believe that. Still, the hidden choice facing some U.S. soldiers was to die in an invasion or die down the road from radiation’s long-term effects. They had no choice, really, and the long run continues to lose value as it reaches out and kills people still.
A flash of light, fire, and wind blast, and fire again, a towering mushroom cloud, black rain, people with their arm skin and fingernails sliding onto the ground, silhouettes of people burned into granite. How did the survivors pick up and carry on? After loved ones simply vanished without a trace. How?
For the U.S. servicemen, it must have been Hell and Heaven intertwined. The end of war at last, but a headful of horrors to go home with. Burdened U.S. servicemen performed their duty, crossed the Pacific again, and returned home to begin life anew. Memories of Hiroshima had to haunt them. How could it not. Appreciating life like few of us ever will, these veterans, these Atomic Veterans, came home to do good. Many started families. Many bought American cars. Some bought two-tone Plymouths.
Some returned with keepsakes of where they had been, flags, photographs, and things they didn’t talk about. Touched by Hiroshima, some returned with things they didn’t know they had or would have, like throat cancer.
It took “Little Boy” 57 seconds to fall over Hiroshima, and for some American soldiers like my father, the damage took 57 years to reveal itself. Damage that made dying American GIs victims, too, of World War II … the long run turned upside down.
I don’t recall dad saying he hated the Japanese. Not once. But he never had much to say about his days in Hiroshima. The years rolled by … During the ’70s, he sold Hodaka motorcycles and dirt bikes. He always owned Chryslers and Plymouths, but near the end of his life he bought a Mazda pickup, a company that got its start in Hiroshima. Dad had come full circle.