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.
That legacy remains the last major sore spot in the extraordinary peacetime relationship of the United States and Japan. As the 60th anniversary of World War II's end in the Pacific is marked on Aug. 15, Japan is still struggling to mend fences with China and South Korea over charges that the Japanese have yet to fully atone for wartime atrocities.
In stark contrast, the United States and Japan are jointly developing a missile defense system and beefing up strategic cooperation with the long-term goal of serving as a counterbalance to China's growing might. Japan, which has embraced pacifism since the bombings, now seeks to play a major role on the world stage. The government is moving toward changing its constitution, which renounces war, and hopes to gain a permanent seat on the United Nation Security Council.
Yet the atomic bombs -- which killed about 140,000 in Hiroshima and about 80,000 in Nagasaki while leaving tens of thousands survivors maimed or plagued by radiation sickness -- still haunt the United States and Japan. A joint poll last month by the Associated Press and Japan's Kyodo News Service found 75 percent of Japanese still feel the bombings were unnecessary, while 68 percent of Americans called them unavoidable.
Matsushima said many in Hiroshima were also opposed to his visit. But he said he thought it was a chance to share his story with American vets and "see this place in honor of the bomb's victims."
He and Kiyoshi Nishida, a 76-year-old Nagasaki survivor, were driven by event organizers to the now-overgrown runways where the U.S. B-29s carrying the bombs took off. They stoically studied the condition and quality of what in 1945 was the world's largest airfield. But at the now glass-encased pits that had stored Little Boy, the bomb that hit Hiroshima, and Fat Man, which hit Nagasaki, their reserve shattered.
"So this is where it came from. Somehow, I am glad to have seen it with my own eyes," Matsushima said, softly crying and clutching a bracelet of wooden Buddhist prayer beads. "This is what human did. So many dead. Maybe they were doing their jobs, but for us, it was hell."
Matsushima later participated in a panel discussion with one of the best-known American vets here, Harold Agnew, 84, who measured the yield of the Hiroshima bomb while in flight alongside the Enola Gay. During the 1970s, he was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the bombs were developed.
"So, you saw the mushroom cloud. I was underneath it," Matsushima said.
"Yes, you're lucky to be here," Agnew said.
Agnew nodded in agreement when Matsushima seemed to concede that the bomb, at least, had helped shorten the war. Last month, Agnew was flown by a Tokyo television station to Hiroshima, where he held a discussion with bomb survivors who had demanded an apology. Agnew, a tall, blunt man, had stood up in disgust and proclaimed "Remember Pearl Harbor!" The discussion abruptly ended.
"There is nothing to apologize for," Agnew later said in an interview. "This is exactly why the Chinese are still upset with them. Many Japanese still refuse to take responsibility for what they did, for starting that war. They can point at us. But believe me, they did some awful bad things. We saved Japanese lives with those bombs -- an invasion would have been worse."
Such tensions rarely flared at this reunion, perhaps because the organizers divided the Japanese and Americans into different dining times and distinct tours. There were carefully arranged encounters between both sides -- but many impromptu ones, too.
Fumiyaki Kajiya, 66, who saw his 3-year-old sister impaled by searing steel in Hiroshima, was visiting the pit where Little Boy was stored when he came across Leon Smith, the weapon's test officer who had been in charge of maintaining the bomb in Tinian. The men struck up a conversation through interpreters about the horror of the victims, the American rationale for dropping the bomb, and the paradox of Japan's ongoing protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Beside the atomic pit, the two shook hands.
"This is not something that can be resolved or agreed upon," Kajiya said. "But I feel that we've achieved something very important. We've finally started talking."
Special correspondent Taeko Kawamura contributed to this report.