The cake was shaped like a mushroom cloud. Read the caption: “Atom bomb cake, fashioned of tiny angel food puffs. . . .”
Whatever sermon A. Powell Davies, the Unitarian pastor at All Souls Church, had planned, that photo inspired him to change it. The previous year, the United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people. The following Sunday Davies held the photo aloft in the pulpit of the church on 16th Street NW and condemned it as “loathsome.”
Said Davies: “How would it seem in Hiroshima or Nagasaki to know that Americans make cakes of angel food puffs in the image of that terrible, diabolical thing that brought sudden death to thousands of their friends and lingering, loathsome death to thousands of others?”
Davies said that if he could, he would “damn to hell these people of callous conscience, these traitors to humanity who could participate in such a monstrous betrayal of everything for which the brokenhearted of the world are waiting.”
Back then, it was possible for a sermon to make headlines. Davies’s did. Reaction was split. Some pastors supported him — “It is not just bad taste, it is sinful. It belongs to the Roman Empire before her fall,” said the rector of Washington’s St. Marks Episcopal Church. Others denounced Davies’s denunciation. “I don’t see anything loathsome about it at all,” the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church told the Evening Star.
One of the Navy men pictured in the photo — Rear Adm. Frank J. Lowry — said, “It’s quite evident that none of us in the armed services want war, but it’s also certain that we don’t want peace at just any price.”
The baker who had made the cake, Eugene H. Kuhn of St. Louis, said, “Somebody ought to straighten that preacher out.”
As controversial as the Strangelovian photo was, something good came from it. A civilian aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then in Tokyo leading the effort to rebuild Japan, heard about the kerfuffle and wrote to Davies. The aide, Howard Bell, said that if All Souls really wanted to help, its congregants could send school supplies to Japan. The children there had nothing.
All Souls wound up sending art supplies and sports equipment to Hiroshima’s Honkawa Elementary School in 1947. In gratitude, the students sent drawings back to All Souls. That exchange — and the 2010 return of some of the drawings to their creators — is the subject of “Pictures From a Hiroshima Schoolyard,” a 2013 documentary made its public television debut on Sunday and will screen Thursday on the MPT2/Create channel.
The film was produced by Shizumi Shigeto Manale and directed by Maryland filmmaker Bryan Reichhardt.
“I’m attracted to present-day stories that have a historic background, where the past meets the present,” said Reichhardt.
But just as compelling to him were the pictures themselves, made by Japanese children with American pencils, crayons and paper.
“They were drawn by kids who lived in the moonscape of Hiroshima,” Reichhardt said. Yet they are colorful and playful: flowering cherry trees, a class on a field trip, a playground with a slide and merry-go-round.
The shipment proved inspirational to the Japanese students. In the film, Keiji Nakazawa remembers the moment he beheld an American pencil. He rubbed its eraser on a table repeatedly, just so he could revel in the smell.
Nakazawa went on to become a famous artist, creating the manga “Barefoot Gen” based on his boyhood experiences in the wake of the bombing.
The documentary is the story of those drawings — their creation, their rediscovery in the All Souls’ archives — but it’s also the story of Hiroshima itself. As awful as the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, was, the years that followed were nearly as dire. And All Souls parishioner Paul Pfeiffer, who served in the Pacific in World War II, recounts the mixed emotions the news of the bombing brought. He was elated the atomic bomb had ended the war but troubled at the cost.
Not all of the drawings have been found, Reichhardt said. Some went on a State Department-sponsored tour and may have wound up in another archive. All illustrate the sentiment that one Honkawa student shared with the filmmakers: to “keep the flame of peace burning in your heart.”
“Pictures From a Hiroshima Schoolyard” will be broadcast at 10 p.m. Thursday on the MPT2/Create channel. To stream it, go to pbs.org and search for the title. It will be available for a month.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly