60 Years After A-Bomb, Old Foes Meet Over a Deep Divide

The Enola Gay lands in Tinian after dropping an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945,  that killed thousands.
The Enola Gay lands in Tinian after dropping an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, that killed thousands. (Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 7, 2005

TINIAN, Northern Mariana Islands, Aug. 6 -- Sixty years ago today, the world went black for Keijiro Matsushima, then a 16-year-old Hiroshima schoolboy. He vividly recalled an airplane he now knows was the Enola Gay shimmering in the sky like a "flying Popsicle" before the great flash from the atomic bomb vaporized tens of thousands and left a ghostly parade of "the half-living covered in ash and burns" to die in the months ahead.

Since those days, Matsushima said he has felt a "deep if troubled" connection to this Pacific island, about the size of Manhattan, that housed the runways and staging area for the U.S. atomic strikes. The same can be said for Michael Kuryla, 79. He is among the few remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis, sunk on July 30, 1945, by a Japanese submarine after delivering parts of the bomb to Tinian. Kuryla spent five days adrift before being rescued, watching scores of his fellow crewmen drown while others were devoured by sharks.

On opposite sides of the fateful mushroom cloud, Matsushima and Kuryla are bound by invisible links that drew them and 200 others this week to an extraordinary and controversial commemoration here. Few questions in modern history remain more divisive than whether the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. Six decades after the war, and with their countries now the closest of allies, no two groups remain more polarized on the issue than U.S. Pacific war veterans and Japanese survivors of the attacks.

At what most participants described as the last major gathering at this historic site for a vanishing generation of World War II vets, the local organizers did the once-unthinkable -- they brought the two sides together.

For some, like Kuryla, who raptly listened to Matsushima's accounts, the event became the final act of cleansing of a long-harbored hatred. The stocky Chicago resident staunchly believes that dropping the bombs saved countless lives by forcing Japan's early surrender. He gradually came to forgive, he said. And after hearing Matsushima's recollections in a conference room, Kuryla stood up in tears to offer his hand in friendship.

"Yes, it was a horrible thing," Kuryla said. "You suffered the bomb effects, and I wish we didn't have to do it. We feel sorry about that. Believe me. But it was war."

"I did not come here to blame," said Matsushima, a slight man with a strong command of English. "You veterans did your job. But at the same time, what you dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was very horrible. Now, if possible, please, just a drop of your tears, and a prayer that this never happens again."

The two men then embraced, taking one step toward a reconciliation that -- like the ultimate question of the bombings itself -- is not that simple. The unprecedented attempt had successes and failures. Most here reached their limits at agreeing to disagree.

The Japanese remain on a campaign to force the world -- and Americans in particular -- to remember and reflect on the horror of those bombings. But many no longer see merit in discussing it. Dozens of American veterans of the Pacific theater chose not to attend the event, including the surviving crew members of the Enola Gay and Bock's Car, which delivered the Aug. 9, 1945, bomb on Nagasaki. Some cited ill health.

Others bitterly opposed the mayor of Tinian's proposal to turn this commemoration into a "peace conference" by inviting the Japanese delegation. It included Japanese veterans who fought here and on nearby Saipan -- Tinian's sister island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Those who did come, including 38 U.S. vets involved in some way with the atomic bomb missions, mostly welcomed the chance to engage the Japanese. But U.S. military authorities did not attend. One poll by a Saipan newspaper indicated that only one in three island residents supported the event, some claiming it would dishonor the memory of American veterans.

"This was not easy for us to pull off -- a lot of people were against this idea," confessed Francisco M. Borja, mayor of Tinian, a lush island with 4,500 residents. His mission is to create a museum here "that will tell both sides" of the atomic legacy, he said.

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