So it’s 75 years after VJ Day and a few days after the anniversaries of the Atomic Bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the early 1960s I became aware, in my early teens, of the fact that atomic weapons had been used to end the Japanese war. And also that, fifteen years, on countries, including Britain, had stockpiles of weapons far deadlier than those used against Japan. I joined the “Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament” (CND) and proudly wore their badge. I still support CND – how could anyone not?
One day in 1960 I returned from boarding school at the end of term wearing my CND badge on my blazer. My father went purple. “Don’t you know that without those Atomic bombs I wouldn’t be here,and nor would you” he said rather dramatically. When he explained I saw that he was almost certainly right.
From the capture of Singapore in February 1942 to his release in August 1945 my father was a Far East Prisoner of War on the Thai/Burma railway. He and other officers had built a radio receiver (Dad kept the earphone in a shoe) and via this they kept in touch with the war. They knew that the war in Europe was over and that Hitler was dead. They also knew that the Americans were making progress, at high cost, in defeating the Japanese.
To beat the Japanese a task force for invasion at least as large as D Day would be necessary. The Japanese defence of their islands was strong and their culture denied the possibility of surrender. A long hard battle was ahead, or so it seemed. The worry for the POWs was that they would be seen as an inconvenience. A few men were needed to repair the Railway which was under constant Allied attack. But Dad and his fellow prisoners were more burden than asset. Their concern that the Japanese would at some point dispose of them was a legitimate one.
For the Americans the prospect of a long drawn out conventional war, including invasion, was unappealing. Tens of thousands would be lost on both sides as had happened after D Day in Europe. The Japanese Government and Armed Forces were at least as fanatical as the Nazis had been. A game changer was needed.
For over five years scientists had been working on the “Manhattan Project” in the US the goal of which was to produce an Atomic Bomb. The first test was successful in July and the decision was taken to use the weapons against Japanese cities, first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. The rationale was to end the war quickly and to avoid the military and civilian casualties that a conventional war would have involved. Incidentally it was hoped that a very swift end to the war would see the immediate release of allied prisoners and slave labourers from the camps.
A digression. A couple of years ago I visited a German friend in Hamburg and he took me to the top of the St Nicholas Church from which there is a fine view of the modern city. Historic Hamburg had been destroyed by allied bombing in 1943. Over fifty thousand civilians had been killed. In 1945 bombing of a similar intensity had killed 25,000 in Dresden.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Japanese War. My father and tens of thousands other FEPOWs were liberated shortly afterwards. It’s difficult to calculate how many deaths the atomic bombs caused – perhaps twice as many as Hamburg and Dresden combined. But this is not about the head counts – Allied lives saved by not having to fight a land war to defeat Japan. Or saved because, like my father, they were liberated from imprisonment rather than being butchered as they might well have been.
When as a child I began to realise the chilling truth that I almost certainly only existed at all because a hundred thousand or more Japanese had been killed by two atomic bombs it reinforced by opposition to nuclear weapons and confirmed my support for CND. I’m conscious of the huge paradox here !
Some years ago now I visited Hiroshima – it is a respectful record of man’s inhumanity to man. But then so is Coventry cathedral and so are the war graves along the Thai/Burma Railway. I have visited Japan quite frequently and made a few good Japanese friends. Some knew of my father’s suffering and I knew of the suffering of innocent people in Hiroshima. We didn’t need to talk about it.
For me VJ Day is more a commemoration than a celebration. Amen.