Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hiroshima, Personally

By Paul Levine

Sixty-two years ago this week, in the waning days of World War II, my father, Lt. Stanley Levine and his B-29 crewmates, were captured by the Japanese after being shot down seven days earlier. Below is my Op-Ed piece that appeared in The Miami Herald in August 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

The debate over dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima -- just how many American lives did it save? -- has always been more personal than numerical to me. The devastating attack surely saved my father's life, no small consequence to someone born three years later.

On August 16, 1945, ten days after a fat torpedo of a bomb nicknamed Little Boy incinerated the city of Hiroshima, my father walked through the rubble with a Japanese military police captain who served as both captor and tour guide. Lt. Stanley Levine and his nine B-29 crew mates, shot down a week earlier, were quite likely the first Americans to witness the destruction.

Hiroshima was a world away from the tiny borough of Hughesville, Pa., where my father and I were both raised. As a small child, I watched with pride as my father, his snug dress uniform decked with medals, led the Memorial Day parade of war veterans past our house on Main Street. The townspeople all knew his story, how he had walked in the first shadow of the atomic age.

Prior to the atomic bomb attack, Stan Levine, a lanky 26-year-old radar officer on a B-29 Superfortress, had flown 16 missions over Japan, all uneventful, unless you count the aircraft flipping over and losing an engine in a thermal current caused by incendiary bombs. In July, his best friend, Dick Hughes, a radar officer on another crew, was killed by cannon fire from a Japanese Zero. "I went up to Iwo Jima to help fly the plane back to Tinian," he recalls. "The radar room was all shot up, and on the floor, I found Dick's bloody belt buckle."

On August 6, the Enola Gay dropped its uranium-235 bomb on Hiroshima with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. Two days later, my father's crew, flying the Nip Clipper,
took off for a daylight raid on the industrial city of Yawata. "We'd all heard about Tibbets' plane dropping some new bomb, but nobody considered it a big deal," he said. "The war was still on. We had a mission to fly."

With luck, they would return sixteen hours later. Instead, trouble started shortly after they released their bombs. "The bomb bay was stuck open, so the bombardier goes down there with a long hook trying to close it manually. I was afraid he'd fall out. Then, pop! I look out the right side blister window and we're hit by a burst of flak right behind the number four engine."

With the wing ablaze, the bomber lumbered along for another ten minutes, vainly heading toward the emergency airfield at Okinawa. The pilot threw the plane into a dive, hoping to put out the flames, which instead, flared even brighter. With black smoke engulfing the fuselage and the risk of explosion increasing by the second, the pilot gave the order to bail out.

At eight hundred feet above the water, Stan Levine was the next-to-last to jump. His parachute took two pendulum swings before his feet hit the water, hard. The pilot, Lt. George Keller, followed, but his chute never opened, and he was killed. The men, spread over three miles, swam toward their mid-point, my father dragging along the engineer who could not swim.

The next morning, as the downed crew floated north in the Sea of Japan, they saw search planes, futilely circling the area where they crashed. That same day, the B-29, Bock's Car, dropped an implosion plutonium-239 bomb on Nagasaki.

The men drifted for a week, sharing eight one-man rafts, subsisting on one piece of hard candy and three sips of water a day per man. On August 14, they were picked up by Japanese fishermen less than a mile offshore the island of Honshu. One of the fishermen drew "B-29" on his palm as a question, and a crewman foolishly nodded. Hostile local villagers taunted and beat the men that night. At dawn, military personnel took over and forced the crew to walk, blindfolded and barefoot, along a rocky coastal path to an army camp a few miles away.

"Under the blindfold, I could see a chopping block with a basket and a soldier with a long curved sword," my father said, recounting the events of 50 years ago. "At reveille formation, they were going to chop off our heads. I was just hoping the pain would be over fast."

Executing B-29 crews pre-dated the attack on Hiroshima. The men who flew the world's largest aircraft were hated for their incendiary bombings of civilian targets. Indeed, the 11,600 bombing sorties flown by B-29's during ten days in March killed roughly the same number of people as the two atomic bombs, perhaps 180,000.

I asked my father if he ever felt guilty about firebombing civilian targets. "Hell no! Did they feel guilty for Pearl Harbor or the Bataan Death March or the way they treated civilians when things were going their way?"

As the first crew member was just moments away from beheading, a military police lieutenant drove up in a jeep, shouting excitedly. "Just like in the movies, he had a written order from a general giving him custody of us."

Just as in the movies, too, he spoke English. Lt. Nobuichi Fukui had visited friends at Dartmouth before the war and had converted to Christianity, he later told my father. Realizing that the atomic bomb had effectively ended the war, he was protecting American POW's from further retaliation. With several MP's, Capt. Fukui (nicknamed "Tank" by the Americans for his squat build), transported the men to a railroad station. People there paid less attention to the POWs than to a speech being broadcast over loudspeakers. Later, my father learned that he and his crew mates had heard -- but had not understood -- Emperor Hirohito breaking imperial silence by announcing Japan's impending surrender.

Fukui provided the men with a doctor and gave them a bottle of whiskey and a bowl of tangerines. After one night in a jail cell in a location my father cannot pinpoint, the crew was taken through Hiroshima on August 16. They saw the devastation from the back of a truck. The expanse of flattened concrete and twisted metal rendered them speechless. "'One bomb,' Fukui kept saying, shaking his head. 'One bomb.'"

On a credenza in my study is a yellowed, crumbling letter datelined "September 8, Hiroshima POW Camp 1." Typed on the back of a U.S. Army news release ("Japs Move >From Singapore"), the letter was the first word my mother Sally Levine received of Dad's liberation.

"And when I get home, darling, I'll tell you how your husband went through the atomized ruins of Hiroshima ten days after the bomb. Except for an occasional wall or chimney, and the skeleton of a building, the city was flattened. Just rubble as far as I could see, nothing but destruction to the horizon. Absolute quiet and no living thing except a stray dog wandering in the ruins. That night, we tried to take care of two Navy fliers, Neal and Brissette, who had been shot down and were imprisoned in Hiroshima. They were badly burned with horrible green stuff coming out their mouths and their ears bleeding. We gave them all the morphine we had, but their pain was so bad they begged us to kill them. They died in our arms the next morning. Seeing the effects of atomic war would make it pretty easy to become a pacifist."

Fifty years later, Stan Levine is a staunch defender of the decision to drop the bomb. "It saved thousands of American lives, and even more Japanese," he insists. "An invasion would have been horrible."

Today, only my father and three crew mates are still alive. Nobuichi Fukui, who foresaw better times when he rescued ten terrified American fliers from execution, became a successful corporate executive in Tokyo. My father corresponded with him until Fukui's death 20 years ago. In virtually every letter, they promised to visit each other. Neither ever did.

(The best reporting on the events of August 6, 1945 is still John Hersey's "Hiroshima".)

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  1. Wow.

    Your father's story is terrific and you wrote it beautifully.

    I share your feelings about this. My father was in the Pacific when the war ended. He'd already lost his brother on Iwo and he doubted he would survive the invasion.

    It's all insanity, of course. The older I get, the less I understand about war.

  2. Paul, what a beautifully written tribute to your father and his story. The thing that touches me most is the friendship between him and the Japanese LT which went on after the war was over.

    I'm on my way to Japan next Tuesday for 12 days. From past experience, Japanese people my age have no idea that Australia was their enemy during WWII or that Japan bombed Aussie cities and towns during that time. Censorship and passing time in all countries makes it easier to forget harsh realities and old hatreds.

    One of the Jap mini subs that bombed my hometown during the war was found only a few weeks ago with both pilots still aboard. It has been left where it is and is now officially a war tomb. The families were notified and a joint Aussie and Japanese commemorative service was held in Sydney to remember the men, even though they were the enemy.

    I'm of two minds about Hiroshima and Nagasaki: appalled that war should come to that extreme, and yes, wondering how many more lives would have been lost during an invasion of Japan. You only have to look at the present situation in Iraq and the USA's 'official' Iraqi civilian body count as being 60,000 when in fact it's well over 100,000.

    War is hell. And I wish we'd finally learn that lesson and remember it.


  3. Paul, I can only echo David and just say "Wow." This is an astonishing story...

  4. p.s. My stepfather Michael Dougherty was in the Marine Corps and was supposed to ship out to mainland Japan if they hadn't dropped the bombs, after surviving three Pacific tours.

    He said one of the top songs on "Your Hit Parade" the week they dropped the bombs was Frank Sinatra singing "I'm Gonna Slap that Dirty Little Jap." I imagine it's been withdrawn from general circulation.

  5. Outstanding, Paul.

    My father too was in the Pacific. He would get very frustrated when people would claim the A-bomb was unnecessary and dropped to give the Russians a warning. Anyone who was waiting for an invasion, and their children should recognize how important it was to end the war quickly.

    Jim B

  6. I believe people of good will can honestly debate the merits of the bombing of Hiroshima.

    My view is that there never has been justification for bombing Nagasaki and killing tens of thousands of additional civilians.

    (A war crime, under normal circumstances. Japanese atrocities are no excuse).

    I believe we knew Japan was finished and wanted to "test" the plutonium bomb and to demonstrate to the Russians just what we were packing.

    Yes, I know Japan did not immediately surrender following the attack on Hiroshima. But its leaders seemed to be frantically "trying" to surrender, albeit on face-saving terms. A little more time may have ended the war without the need for the second bomb, just three days after Hiroshima.

    "Hiroshima" (1995) is an excellent and fair Canadian/Japanese production, re-enacting the decisions in both Washington and Tokyo in Summer 1945. It's available from Amazon for $6.99 http://tinyurl.com/yrf254

  7. Great post, Paulie.

    My dad was in Europe during the war but he never talked about his experiences. When I was a child I once asked him if he'd ever killed anybody in the war. He said, "Not that I know of."

    Wishful thinking, methinks. He was assigned to field artillery.

  8. Thats a beatiful story and you have wrote it beatifully. Im doing a report on Hiroshima then and now and this really helped me.