The grandson of a U.S. serviceman who flew on both planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 has devoted himself to a project almost unimaginable 70 years ago: spreading the stories of horror experienced by the hibakusha.
Freelance photographer Ari Beser, 27, has documented the voices of the survivors since 2011, when he first visited Japan on a research grant to write a book on his connections to both sides of the atomic bombings. Beser’s grandfather, Jacob, was an army lieutenant and radar specialist who became the only man in the world to fly on both of the B-29s carrying the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” atomic bombs.
The Baltimore native also had family connections to the niece of an atomic bomb survivor living in Japan. The survivor, a woman from Hiroshima, was friends with his grandfather on his mother’s side and underwent reconstructive surgeries on her keloid-scarred face in the U.S. after the war, and later lived in Baltimore through her marriage.
When he first came to Japan in 2011, Beser was planning to write about Jacob and the Japanese survivor. But the scope of his project expanded after he met the victim’s niece, who lives in the Kansai region, and was told to listen directly to the stories of other survivors “before it’s too late.”
Since then, Beser has been interviewing the survivors at length and deepening his understanding of — and friendship with — the hibakusha.
The fruits of his four-year labor are in “The Nuclear Family,” a book he self-published through Amazon.com in August.
In the 246-page book, Beser, currently based in Japan as a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow, introduces more than 10 survivors, with each given a chapter to tell their story.
Each tale is preceded by a brief introduction on how Beser met them. In a chapter titled “Keiko Ogura, Eight Years Old,” Beser details how Ogura, as a schoolgirl on the outskirts of Hiroshima, saw a sudden flash in the sky on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, followed by fires spreading all around her and a huge gust of wind that knocked her out.
Ogura’s story includes grim descriptions of what happened under the mushroom cloud, with victims passing by “like ghosts, bleeding all over, skin peeling off and hanging from the tips of their fingers,” according to the book.
Between the chapters devoted to the survivors’ testimonies is a detailed account of how his Jewish grandfather Jacob Beser, burning to fight the Nazis, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became part of the top-secret mission to test what insiders called the “gimmick” — the atomic bombs — against the Japanese.
Beser, a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said he never had a chance to speak about the war directly with Jacob, who passed away when he was only a toddler. But there was a lot of material to work with, as the older Beser gave tons of media interviews and public speeches after the war. Beser depicts his grandfather as a committed military engineer who never regretted what he did but believed war should never happen again.
It’s a perspective Beser himself appears to have acquired.
“There wasn’t like a right thing that happened in World War II,” Beser said during a recent interview in Tokyo. “Everyone was committing crimes. So I don’t think he appreciated the fact that people singled out the atomic bomb as the only, one wrong thing in WWII. I think all of it was wrong. I think he did, too. So he wouldn’t talk too much about the past feelings, but he was really concerned about the future.”
The Japanese survivors Beser approached were willing to share their stories, regardless of his personal background, he said, acknowledging that he has met only a fraction of the 200,000 survivors of the two nuclear bombs.
Now that he has completed the book, Beser said he felt happy fulfilling “a promise” he made to the survivors, to send a message of peace. But he said it was important for everybody in America and Japan — not just those who were directly involved in the war — to find a way to reconcile the tragic past and stem the tide of oblivion.
“For any American who wants to understand the history of atomic bombs, they (the survivors) would be happy to talk to you,” he said.
“I do feel that reconciliation doesn’t come just from people involved (but also) from everyday citizens,” he added. “I think it’s important, of course, that people involved and their family descendants are coming to hear their stories. That’s amazing that we are allowed to, because, 70 years ago, we couldn’t come here.”