NAGOYA – William Schull, a 94-year-old U.S. scholar who has spent decades studying the health effects of the U.S. atomic bombings, is a man conflicted who still longs to learn from the tragedies of World War II.
On the one hand, he believes the atomic bombings were an inevitable consequence to end a war Japan started with the U.S. with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But war itself, he said, is “the most brutal of human behavior.”
As an almost annual affair, Schull visited Japan last month to reunite with lifetime friends in Hiroshima, the first city to be the target of an atomic bomb.
“I’ve learned a lot through my association with the Japanese, and especially the ones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with whom I worked,” Schull said in a recent interview in Nagoya, where he stopped over on his way to Hiroshima for the reunion with his old friends.
Seventy-five years ago, as a young college student in Wisconsin, he was not even aware of the tension between the United States and Japan until the latter’s attack started war with his country.
The professor emeritus of the University of Texas said the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were “a hell of a way to stop a war, but it did stop it,” adding that at the time nobody had the courage to say they should quit the war and that too many people of power had their reputations to consider.
At the same time, he recognizes the tragedy of war and treasures the memories of various exchanges he has had with the Japanese since his first visit to Japan in 1949 as a member of a controversial U.S. commission set up to carry out a long-term study on the health of hibakusha.
“I’m no longer active in research, but I come to see them because they still are, in a sense, teachers. They are the ones who helped me learn a level of sensitivity, a level of care. … I’ve never come back to atone, or to apologize. I come back to learn,” he said.
During wartime, Schull was probably no different from many other Americans in that he considered Japanese people “enemies.” That feeling intensified when he saw brutality up close.
Passing through the arenas of bloody fighting in the Pacific islands as a member of a medical battalion in the U.S. Army’s 37th Infantry Division, Schull said he also witnessed American prisoners of war in the Philippines “literally being starved to death” due to the brutal behavior of Japanese troops.
“Some of these fellows, who probably when they were healthy weighed 160, 170 pounds (73 to 77 kg), were weighing 60. They were really nothing but a bag of bones with some skin on them. Most of them had diarrhea and malaria. It was a sorry sight,” he recalled.
When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, Schull was in the Philippine main island of Luzon and “had no idea” of the consequences. The only thing he knew was that “it looked as though that was going to shorten the war” and it actually allowed him to return to Wisconsin by Christmas Eve that year.
About four years later, Schull, having received a doctorate in genetics, was in Japan to serve on the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and was surprised at how accommodating people were when encountering him.
“I would have thought they would have been mad at all of us, but they weren’t. People were helpful, I never saw any display of anger,” Schull said.
Still, there were some awkward moments when Japanese veterans begging on the street would withdraw their cups as Schull approached to give money.
“They clearly didn’t want me to give them anything. . . . But there was no names, or anything else, they weren’t shouting — it was just pride,” Schull said, adding that he understood the veterans’ behavior and would probably have done the same if the shoe were on the other foot.
While the kindness and honesty displayed by Japanese people in daily life was something Schull was impressed by, his workplace — the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and its successor organization, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation — has helped him build a relationship lasting a lifetime, he said.
In Japan, the commission is often associated with a negative image that atomic bomb survivors were treated like “guinea pigs,” since the facility was purely for scientific research and study, not for providing medical care.
Schull, however, offers a different perspective to the activities by the commission and the foundation. He argues that their studies were “unique” not only because of their scientific findings but also because they were conducted through a “very good” relationship between U.S. and Japanese physicians and other workers.
“It was a marvelous demonstration of the capabilities of two quite different people,” Schull said, while expressing appreciation to the hibakusha.
“They’re making a significant contribution, maybe not necessarily willingly, to the betterment of health for people all over the world,” he said, arguing that the current general knowledge of the dangers and benefits of radiation come more from their studies “than any other source of information we have.”
The atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to have killed around 210,000 people by the end of 1945 and left many survivors suffering from health problems. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.
Looking to the future, Schull said he thinks “love and forgiveness” will be key to preventing wars and expressed hope that the memories of Hiroshima will stop countries from using nuclear weapons.
“I remember when I first came to Japan. . . . There was a big sign that said ‘No more Hiroshimas.’ And I think there was a sentiment in all of us, ‘No more Hiroshimas.’ If we just honestly set our minds to that it would work,” he said.