Seven decades ago, a U.S. atomic bomb fueled with Hanford plutonium was dropped on Nagasaki. The story of the devastation doesn’t yet have a place in a new national park taking shape in Central Washington.
NAGASAKI, Japan — On the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, Sanae Ikeda was anything but the obedient son.
His mother told him to stay home with his sisters and brothers while she went to a farmer’s house for food. But the 12-year-old sneaked out, headed to a hillside road, and when he saw his mother, he pleaded to tag along.
The half-hour walk saved their lives. When the atomic bomb detonated above Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m., mother and child were more than a mile from the epicenter.
Ikeda recalls the rumble of the plane, a brilliant flash of light, then a shock wave that knocked him out. When he came to, smoke blocked out the sky, which later would glow red.
“Everything was burning.”
Within days, his five siblings were dead, including his youngest brother, Saburo, born the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Today, Ikeda is 84, one of the thousands of Nagasaki “hibakusha” — survivors of the atomic bomb that gained its awesome power from plutonium produced at a reactor at the secret Hanford site outside Richland, Wash.
Their collective tales are a chapter still untold in Richland’s saga of wartime patriotism, sacrifice and scientific achievement that unfolded in the sagebrush lands east of the Cascades. More than seven decades later, there is a push to make room for the hibakusha stories at a new national park taking shape at Hanford and bomb-development sites in Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Most Read Local Stories
- The Northern Lights could be visible from across Washington state; here’s how and when to see them
- Seattle sees nation's biggest drop in solo car commuters as transit, walking surge | FYI Guy
- 'Why are we exporting billions of dollars around the state?' The coming showdown over Seattle's money | Danny Westneat
- Black Diamond man accused of using chloroform and acetone to knock out teenage stepdaughter
- Public bathrooms for homeless people: Seattle might borrow this city's approach
National Park Service officials want exhibits to explore not only the high-stakes push to produce the bombs — dropped Aug. 6, 1945, on Hiroshima and three days later on Nagasaki — but the human costs and historical debate over the decision to unleash them.
A document released this year outlines basic themes for Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which in Hanford offers tours of a shuttered reactor and other sites. But it’s expected to take years to develop exhibits with artifacts and oral histories. Funds are tight, with sites in three states this year sharing a $680,000 budget.
Aside from money, this park also will take the political will to follow through with an ambitious agenda that includes exploring the darker side of the bomb.
Many U.S. historians say the two atomic bombs that killed more than 200,000 people were decisive blows that ended World War II and avoided a bloody U.S. ground invasion that would have taken even more Japanese and American lives. This is the mainstream narrative in America. For some who worked at Hanford, it is heresy to suggest anything to the contrary.
“Peace! Our Bomb Clinched It!” declared Richland’s Aug. 14, 1945, edition of The Villager announcing Japan’s surrender and the war’s end.
Other historians, who delved into Russian and Japanese archives, write a more nuanced account of the war’s end. Some assert that a Soviet invasion of Japanese territory, under way as the bomb went off above Nagasaki, played an important, if not decisive role in the Japanese surrender.
“From the very beginning, we made a commitment that this would be a complete story, not only of the (bombs’) development but also their deployment,” said Jonathan Jarvis, who served as Park Service director until January this year. “There were some who thought that this was going to be a glorification of nuclear weapons. We wanted to … disabuse anybody of thinking that was our intent.”
The Park Service prides itself as the nation’s storyteller, and increasingly has taken on uncomfortable history, such as the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, detailed at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California.
Putting the full history of the atomic bomb in a public display is a challenge of a different order.
For U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who backed the 2014 legislation that created Manhattan Project National Historical Park, this is history her own family lived through. Her father grew up in Kennewick, playing basketball with the children of those uprooted from Hanford to make way for the project. The Washington Democrat says the park should offer all perspectives, including the sacrifice of local families and the “devastating effects to cities halfway around the world.”
But former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican who championed the park in Congress, says the legislative intent was to focus on the pioneering achievements, not the bombs’ effect on Japan.
“Of course there are consequences to war, but the emphasis ought to be on the American ingenuity that developed the bomb,” Hastings said.
The experience of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum reflects the controversy that can erupt in attempting to tell a fuller story.
In the 1990s, museum staff faced a barrage of criticism as they tried to couple an exhibit of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, with a look at the on-the-ground toll.
Even the U.S. Senate weighed in, unanimously passing a resolution that denounced a proposed script as “revisionist and offensive to many World War II veterans.” The museum director resigned and the aircraft was put on exhibit without an accompanying look at what happened in Japan.
“I came to the conclusion that it would be really difficult to do an honest job of telling the whole story,” said Tom Crouch, curator for the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit.
Park Service efforts to tell the story also have drawn concerns from Japan.
There, many people have struggled to come to terms with Japanese military acts of aggression that led to war in the Asia-Pacific and a crushing defeat. A book by a Japanese hotel-chain owner, distributed this year for free in guest rooms, questions the veracity of the Rape of Nanking, a 1937 onslaught of rape and murder by Japanese soldiers in China.
Meanwhile, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have emerged as hubs of activism in the global movement against nuclear weapons.
Their mayors were alarmed by the concept of a U.S. national park created around the weapons that wiped out much of their cities. That prompted Jarvis — in interviews with Japanese reporters in June 2015 — to offer assurances that the story of the destruction would be told.
In November 2015, the mayors sent a letter to a scholars forum on the park.
They wrote that exhibits at Manhattan Project National Historical Park must reveal the inhumanity of the nuclear weapons, and offered to contribute A-bomb artifacts and photos.
And they delivered a warning: The exhibits should not “strengthen the long-standing perception of the atomic bombings as justifiable acts,” or “celebrate the development of nuclear weapons as a symbol of national power.”
Kris Kirby discovered that letter in the files as she began her job last fall as superintendent of the new park.
She keeps it in a prominent spot on her desk.
“This is a very important piece of the story,” she said.
“Please learn the reality”
Nagasaki and Richland share a powerful symbol — the mushroom cloud — but vastly different views of the bomb.
In Richland, the cloud marks the dramatic conclusion of a wartime mission fraught with concerns that the Nazis might get the weapon first, and with the huge task of scaling up laboratory experiments to build the B Reactor, the first to generate weapons-grade plutonium.
The Hanford area, which the government took over in 1943, is now the most polluted nuclear site in North America.
Plutonium production has long since ceased, replaced by a multibillion-dollar cleanup. But the cloud lives on, painted on the gymnasium floor of Richland High School, home of the Bombers.
In Nagasaki, the mushroom cloud marks the beginning of an apocalypse.
A museum stands near the epicenter, and as you make your way to the exhibition halls, a video plays endless loops of the explosion.
A plaque ushers visitors deeper inside: “Please learn the reality of what happened beneath that cloud. Please do not forget. Please tell others.”
The cloud was produced by a bomb, more than 10 feet long, known as Fat Man, assembled with a softball-sized chunk of Hanford plutonium.
The initial target was Kokura, a city that had one of Japan’s largest arsenals.
Haze and smoke obscured the view, and the bombardier was under orders to make a visual sighting, according to historian Alex Wellerstein.
So the U.S. Army Air Forces crew flew to Nagasaki, the secondary target on the southern island of Kyushu and a site of a major shipyard.
The bombardier spied a brief hole in the clouds north of the aiming point by the harbor. He dropped the bomb in an area that included industry, a tuberculosis clinic, hospitals, schools and a cathedral that reflected the city’s heritage of Christian missionaries.
This was the hellish blast zone Ikeda and his mother traversed as they made their way home from their walk that morning.
Fire, rubble and radiation
Ikeda remembers a group of grievously wounded people, their clothes in tatters, lying in a potato field and calling out in faint voices.
Down the road, he and his mother came upon a girl crying in front of an air-raid shelter carved into a hillside.
They stepped inside and found the source of her anguish: Her little brother, about 5 and his back black with burns, was crying out for water. They had none, so Ikeda’s mother offered the boy her breast, and sent her son on alone to check on their home.
The Ikeda family lived in a two-story house that — less than 900 yards from the epicenter — had been reduced to rubble. Ikeda found his two brothers and two of his sisters lying on sleeping mats made of woven rice straw. They told him Suzuko, their 6-year-old sister, was missing. Nearby, among the dead and dying, he found her charred corpse.
Most of the hospitals were destroyed, so surviving structures became makeshift wards. Reiko Hada, then 9, spent a week tending to the wounded in a damaged school. She used chopsticks to extract glass shards out of a boy’s back, and, with her mother, burned bodies in an empty swimming pool.
After a week of caring for the dying, “I think I lost my emotion,” Hada said.
In the days after the blast, Ikeda cared for his surviving siblings. They suffered from diarrhea and radiation sickness, and died one by one.
Ikeda had flown kites with Saburo, the youngest, and remembers carrying him about on his back. On Aug. 15, he became his undertaker, tasked by his parents with burning the 4-year-old’s body.
“After the cremation, I cried and cried and cried,” Ikeda said.
Several weeks later, then-Major Charles Sweeney, pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb, joined his crew in a visit to the Nagasaki blast zone.
Sweeney thought the suffering was “born” of Japan’s militaristic culture and the warlords who offered up their own people. “Standing amid the rubble, I felt a sadness that so many had died on both sides,” he wrote in a memoir. “But I felt no remorse or guilt … We were relieved it was over, for us, and for them.”
More than 73,000 of Nagasaki’s 240,000 wartime population died that year from bomb-related causes, according to Japanese estimates.
In the decades that followed, Japanese medical researchers tracked waves of leukemia and other cancers, with the risk factor highest among survivors closest to the epicenter, where radiation was most intense.
Survivors also suffered social stigmas.
Many girls were considered poor marriage prospects due to the risks of bearing children with birth defects.
“Sometimes that happened,” says Yamasaki Chizayo. “My second child was disabled, a boy, and he passed away when he was only 4 years old.”
Today, Chizayo lives in a home for the aged, a structure with graceful courtyards and sunlit rooms. There, residents giggle like schoolchildren as they assemble for an awards ceremony after a volleyball competition for the disabled.
The residence was built by a Catholic order that — at the time of the bombing — operated a girls’ school close to the epicenter.
The school lost 214 students and many teachers.
Some of the nuns and students escaped the carnage that day because they had been sent to a mountain to gather pine resin for fuel. After the war, the Catholic order built the home that now shelters some 300 survivors.
They call it “Hill of Grace.”
Use your cursor or finger to change the view of this 360-degree view of the B Reactor. (Kjell Redal / The Seattle Times)
For visitors to Hanford’s B Reactor, Nagasaki’s fate, so far, remains unexplored territory.
Tours are conducted by the U.S. Energy Department, which began them back in 2009 and has continued to organize them since the park’s creation.
Visitors arrive at a modest building on the edge of Richland. There, a video details the wartime development of the 586-square-mile Hanford site selected by the Army Corps of Engineers for its access to Columbia River water, abundant hydroelectricity and remote location.
The video concludes with the mushroom cloud and an announcer declaring the B Reactor “one of the marvels of the 20th century” and a “testament to the human spirit.”
Visitors then ride a bus to the historic B Reactor, where former Hanford workers, acting as docents, detail the construction, tense startup and early operations that yielded the first plutonium. Nagasaki is not part of their narrative.
Some in Hanford say it’s time for a broader view.
John Fox, a former Richland mayor who spent 41 years as a Hanford engineer, expected to get drafted in the fall of 1945, in time for the planned ground invasion of Japan that he might not have survived.
Instead, the war ended, and he credits the bomb.
So Fox finished college, found a job at Hanford and bought a beautiful property by the Columbia River where he and his wife still reside.
In retirement, Fox, 89, serves as president of the B Reactor Museum Association, a local group that pushed to preserve the structure. He wants visitors to the park to understand the end result of the plutonium produced at Hanford.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary to do so because people, today, hardly remember the history,” Fox said. “I don’t think you have to make a Holocaust museum-type affair out of it.”
For Shirley Olinger, a nuclear engineer who worked at Hanford for 11 years, having the park include perspectives from Japan would help to tell her own family’s story. Her parents — mother from the Nagasaki area and father a U.S. Navy officer — met during the postwar occupation.
Olinger’s son and daughter visited Nagasaki in 2007, but largely grew up in Richland while she helped to oversee management of the tank farms that store 56 million gallons of waste left over from plutonium processing.
“My kids, they are very compassionate of both sides,” Olinger said. “They don’t judge what happened. They weren’t there.”
Others want to be sure the park explains radiation’s effects — in Nagasaki and for those who worked or lived near Hanford.
“The true human toll of nuclear-weapons production includes these people,” said Trisha Pritikin, who spent her childhood in Richland while her parents worked at Hanford.
Pritikin’s father died of thyroid cancer, considered under a federal compensation law to be linked to work at Hanford. Her mother died of melanoma, but her radiation exposure wasn’t deemed significant enough to merit payment as a work-related illness.
Pritikin herself had her thyroid removed and suffers from a disease of the parathyroid.
She was an early litigant in a massive lawsuit — settled in 2016 — against the federal government for illnesses they alleged were caused by Hanford pollution that included releases of radioactive iodine.
The plight of “downwinders” was noted at the scholars forum convened two years ago by Park Service officials, and may be included in the park’s exhibits.
“We have been pushing and pushing,” Pritikin said.
Will full story be told?
Will the Park Service eventually be able to tell the whole story of the atomic bomb?
Portraying the consequences of an atomic bomb strike is an important piece of history as a new American president contends with a nuclear-armed North Korean dictator testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But it is unclear how much support the Park Service can muster in the Trump administration.
President Obama, in a 2016 visit to Hiroshima, declared “the memory of the morning of August 6, 1945, must never fade.”
During a 2016 campaign rally — then-candidate Donald Trump called that visit “pathetic,” then said, “That’s fine, just as long as he doesn’t apologize.”
Funding also is likely to continue to be scarce.
Park Service officials have yet to hire an employee at Hanford. When hiring can begin remains unclear, as the Trump administration has proposed cutting more than 1,200 agency positions nationwide.
Amid the uncertainty, others are moving forward to include the Japanese experience.
In New Mexico, the recently renovated Los Alamos History Museum, funded with a mix of private and county dollars, now includes a “reflections space” with artifacts from Japan and quotes from survivors.
In Nagasaki, the hibakusha continue to speak out. Ikeda gives talks at schools and at the bomb museum, where he rolls up a sleeve to show the keloid scars that linger as a reminder of that day.
Their tales also have passed on to the next generation. Ikeda’s daughter, Naoko, is a peace activist and storyteller.
Next March, a Nagasaki delegation, including a survivor, will make a trip to the Richland area.
Says Ikeda, “My story has to be heard by the American people living in such a place.”