It wasn't supposed to happen in Nagasaki. When the list of targets for the atomic bomb was drawn up, Nagasaki wasn't even on it, despite being a major port and a large centre for shipbuilding and repairs. The chosen sites were Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kokura, Niigata and Kyoto.
But the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. had spent his honeymoon in Kyoto and asked President Truman to remove it from the list because of its many historic and cultural buildings. Nagasaki, a major producer of naval ordnance and steel, was selected instead.
On the morning of 9th August 1945 the bomber carrying Fat Man, the second nuclear bomb, took off for Kokura. Takeoff was delayed by half an hour because the support planes failed to rendezvous at the correct time. By then clouds and black smoke from a firebombing attack on a nearby town were drifting across the city. Three bomb runs over Kokura were made but the pilot did not have clear sight of the target and the plane diverted to Nagasaki.
Although most of Nagasaki's buildings were flimsy wooden ones of traditional Japanese design, Fat Man was more than 1000 pounds heavier than the first bomb, Little Boy. But the city's geography meant the explosion was contained in the Urakami Valley area and casualties were lower, probably over 35000 deaths and 60000 injured.
August 9th 1945
The sky inhaled the earth today.
At 11am the cloudy Kyushu sky
breathed in. It sucked the earth up
through a long sore smoky throat
into a lung of fire,
and when it finally breathed out
it raised the city up on its palm
and pursed its lips
and blew away the ashes of our bones.
It should have been Kokura,
not us. But for clouds and cockups,
it would have been Kokura.
And after the bomber diverted to Okinawa
because the reserve tank pump had failed
and it wouldn't make it back to Tinian
and the engines cut out on landing
due to fuel exhaustion,
the newspapers even got its name wrong:
it was the Bockscar, not the Great Artiste;
and its target was Nagasaki, not Kokura.
The story goes that when the bomb fell down on Nagasaki
and all were screaming and shrieking
some rushed to the nearest Zen temple for succour
in their last moments.
They rushed into the main temple
plain and unadorned
save for the half-opened sliding wall
that looked onto a raked gravel garden
There at the wall
sat the head abbot
still as can be
deep in her simple practice
The death cries from all around the city
resonated in the temple hall
and one of those who had sought refuge
shouted at the old priestess
‘Don’t you know the city is destroyed
and all the people are burning
from fire and ash in the skies?
Don’t you know it will burn you to cinders
in the blink of an eye?’
The old woman opened her eyes
‘Don’t you know I will burn to cinders
without blinking my eyes
if that is to be my fate today?’
And all the people
who had sought safety in the temple
sat down in wonder beside her
and meditated silently
in the peace of peace
in the midst of death.
Nagasaki, in time, recovered
And Japan, in time, knew peace.
(Adapted from an old Japanese story of a samurai attack on a village)
Path erupting with rubble, months
after the bomb. Careful, says
my mother, hand out to grip me
when I trip on loose stones.
The water is clear in the harbour.
Violet flowers poke through boulders.
Soon, I think. Come soon.
My stomach aches with waiting.
Hills in the distance slope down
to the water, peaceful as sleeping dogs.
But in the harbour, strange, gelatinous
creatures come floating to the surface.
Grotesque... deformed... tumours bursting
through slimy, translucent skin.
Just baby jellyfish, says
omaa-san. Don't be a silly girl.
But I have seen these monstrous
faces before. They swim in my dreams,
burrow into my brain when I sleep.
Please don't be one of them.
So many times I've watched her,
Butterfly, stand at the top of the hill,
searching, eyes raking the sea
for his ship, yearning for him to return.
Her Yankee vagabond lover, a gipsy -
with officer's stripes and a private income.
She stands outside her little house,
concertina house, whose paper
screens fold this way and that, enlarging
the space inside for her well fed husband
as she, moulding herself this way
and that, becomes an American wife.
The lease too is pliable,
nine hundred and ninety nine
years or else - month by month.
Such oriental ingenuity
is nothing to later triumphs won
by international co-operation.
Alliances between his countrymen
and Nazi scientists are far in the future.
For now Butterfly gives him her heart.
Fifteen years old, she has nothing
else. He, stronger and richer,
jettisons morals for desire.
A blinding flash. Butterfly,
ravishing, innocent Butterfly,
comes from Nagasaki, the city
ravaged by the bomb. Seventy
five years on, I watch
her story unfold with new eyes.
Meaning folded into words
transforms in the process. An emperor's
refusal to surrender - yet -
becomes a licence to men aching
to test their toys, to watch the bomb
fall, the skies fill with smoke
and flame, to see buildings crumble.
Careless of how many it kills.
Oh Butterfly, marry your rich
suitor, hold your son close.
Stay inside that little house.
Slide the screens shut. Do not
wait there, looking into the distance
for your faithless lover's return.
The wisp of smoke appears on
the horizon. Povera Butterfly.
Her exquisite love song
pours down the hill, as innocence
waits to be betrayed
over and over and over again.