HIROSHIMA – When the grandson of U.S. President Harry Truman, who ordered the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a descendent of the only serviceman to fly on both bombing runs came face to face with some of the survivors, it was a moment of truth.
Clifton Truman Daniel, the oldest grandson of Truman, who authorized the world’s first atomic bombings in August 1945, and Ari Beser, a grandson of Jacob Beser, who was onboard both the Enola Gay and Bockscar B-29 bombers used in the attacks, were visiting Japan to commemorate the 67th anniversary of tragedies.
During their stay, Daniel, 55, and Beser, 24, met with various A-bomb survivors to hear firsthand accounts of their horrific ordeals following the Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, bombings.
Last Sunday, Daniel and Beser sat face to face with two hibakusha from Hiroshima, Hiroyuki Goto and his wife, Chizue, in a small meeting room. The atmosphere, however, was far from hostile and each side sought to understand the other’s perspectives through open and compassionate dialogue.
“I am grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet you. It means so much to me,” Goto told the two Americans. “If we all continue to make efforts to connect with people all over the world, I believe we will be able to achieve peace. By surviving the tragedies of the past, we can realize a truly peaceful world.”
Goto was 17 when the “Little Boy” A-bomb detonated about 600 meters above Hiroshima. Almost 140,000 people either perished outright in the blast, whose force was reportedly equivalent to around 15 kilotons of TNT, or from radiation-related diseases over the following weeks and months.
To allow Daniel and Beser a glimpse of the scenes he witnessed on Aug. 6 and over the following weeks, Goto showed them some of his oil paintings depicting the utter devastation in the city.
He recounted seeing corpses stacked in large piles and survivors experiencing seizures among the ruins. Stunned locals kept begging him for water, Goto said, and when he passed a cistern usually used to fight fires, he saw children who had died with their heads in the tank in a desperate search for water.
“All I could do was to put my hands together and pray. I could only tell (the children) that I was sorry for being unable to help them,” Goto remembered.
Chizue Goto described how their child, who turned 57 a day before Hiroshima held its annual memorial ceremony Monday, was born in 1955 with disabilities attributed to radiation exposure.
Still, her husband said he does not harbor animosity toward the United States, although he will never forget the hardships he was forced to endure as a result of the attack.
“I don’t think my emotions went as far as hatred, but I do feel I had to go through a very difficult time. However, I believe (the A-bombings were) a fate that Japan could not avoid” under the circumstances, he said.
Daniel, who lives in Chicago, and Baltimore resident Beser just sat and listened in silence as the Gotos narrated their experiences. At the end, they thanked them repeatedly and Goto presented them with copies of eight oil paintings as a gift.
“Each survivor’s story is different in that they all describe a different horror, but they all hold the same weight in my mind and are all equally important,” Beser told The Japan Times this week. “Goto-san’s pictures helped him describe the indescribable and provided a visual to his words.
“His ‘genki’ spirit (helped) me to not be as upset by the horrors (of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and to make sure I could understand them well enough to convey to others.”
This was the second time Beser has attended the annual memorial ceremonies in the two cities, and he also worked as a volunteer in the Tohoku region following last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake.
Even so, he said he still feared a hostile reaction from some hibakusha.
“I did not come here to (dredge) up the past and cast blame. Everyone is guilty in war. We are guilty of aggression that no one is proud of,” Beser said. “The point is to learn from past decisions so we don’t repeat” them.
Beser never had an opportunity to talk directly about the A-bombings with his grandfather — who died in 1992 when he was around 4 years old — but learned about his opinions and experiences through watching videos and reading his interview articles and memoirs about the bombings as well as hearing tales handed down by his grandmother to his father and her other three children.
“I would not say I am ashamed of him because I am not. (But) I don’t think I could take part in such a mission . . . it takes a strong person to reconcile such decisions,” he said. “He didn’t have to take part; he had the chance to back out. (But) he was told he was part of a mission that would end the war.”
Daniel, meanwhile, was making his first visit to Japan.
Reporters were keen to learn whether he thought his grandfather’s decision was justified, but Daniel expressed conflicting emotions and said he is not in a position to judge the atomic attacks.
“That is always the hard question. . . . You ask me to sit in judgement on a man I loved and respected, and about a decision that was made at a time of war,” Daniel told a news conference after the Hiroshima ceremony. “While I’m always open to hearing people’s opinions on that, whether his decisions were right or wrong — I can’t make that judgement.”
Daniel and Beser visited the country at the invitation of the Sadako Legacy nonprofit organization. The peace advocacy group is named after A-bomb victim Sadako Sasaki, who died at age 12 of radiation-induced leukemia linked to the Hiroshima bombing and who to this day remains a symbol of the innocent victims of war.
Both men stressed that their goal was to spread the stories of hibakusha more widely to ensure nuclear arms are never used again.
Truman “was horrified by the destruction (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) . . . but I think he worked very hard for the rest of his presidency to make sure nuclear weapons were not used (again) in wartime,” Daniel said.
“And I think this is one extension of that. I’m here in Japan, two generations down the line, and it’s my responsibility to do all I can to make sure that we don’t use nuclear weapons again.”