Hiroshima – a view from the front lines

Seventy years ago today an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later a second was dropped on Nagasaki.  Together they brought an end to the ghastliness known to history as World War II.

There have been all sorts of recriminations about the use of nuclear weapons, particularly from those who weren’t there at the time.  I think the best response to them was given by the late George MacDonald Fraser in his classic autobiography ‘Quartered Safe Out Here‘, one of the best memoirs of World War II ever written (and one of very, very few covering the neglected Burma campaign).

Here’s what he had to say.  It’s a long extract, but I think you’ll agree it’s worth the time it’ll take to read it.

It was a fine sunny morning when the news, in its garbled form, ran round the battalion … “Secret weapon” was an expression bandied about with cynical humour all through the war … I didn’t believe it, that first day, although from the talk at company H.Q. it was fairly clear that something big had happened, or was about to happen. And even when it was confirmed, and unheard of expressions like “atomic bomb” and “Hiroshima” (then pronounced Hirosheema) were bandied about, it all seemed very distant and unlikely. Three days after the first rumour, on the very day that the second bomb fell on Nagasaki, one of the battalion’s companies was duffying with a Jap force on the Sittang bank and killing 21 of them – that was the war, not what was happening hundreds of miles away.

. . .

Like everyone else, we were glad [the war] was over, brought to a sudden, devastating stop by those two bombs that fell on Japan. We had no slightest thought of what it would mean for the future, or even what it meant at the time; we did not know what the immediate effect of those bombs had been on their targets, and we didn’t much care. We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London Blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and of the frozen horror of the Russian front; part of our higher education had been devoted to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn. If anything, at the time, remembering the kind of war it had been, and the kind of people we, personally, had been up against, we probably felt that justice had been done. But it was of small importance when weighed against the glorious fact that the war was over at last.

There was certainly no moralising, no feeling at all of the guilt which some thinkers nowadays seem to want to attach to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And because so many myths have been carefully fostered about it, and so much emotion generated, all on one side, with no real thought for those most affected by it on the Allied side, I would like just to look at it, briefly, from our minority point of view. And not only ours, but perhaps yours, too.

Some years ago I heard a man denounce the nuclear bombing of Japan as an obscenity; it was monstrous, barbarous, and no civilised people could even have contemplated it; we should all be thoroughly ashamed of it.

I couldn’t argue with him, or deny the obscenity, monstrosity, and barbarism. I could only ask him questions, such as:

“Where were you when the war ended?”

“In Glasgow.”

“Will you answer a hypothetical question: if it were possible, would you give your life now, to restore one of the lives of Hiroshima?”

He wriggled a good deal, said it wasn’t relevant, or logical, or whatever, but in the end, to do him justice, he admitted that he wouldn’t.

So I asked him: “By what right, then, do you say that Allied lives should have been sacrificed to save the victims of Hiroshima? Because what you’re saying is that, while you’re not willing to give your life, Allied soldiers should have given theirs. Mine for one, possibly.”

It was a bit unfair, perhaps, if only because I am rather heavily built and he was an elderly philosopher and I was obviously much moved, which may have flustered him, because he was unwise enough to say that that was the point – we were soldiers, the bomb victims were civilians. I did not pursue the question whether the lives of your own soldiers should be sacrificed for the safety of enemy civilians, because if you get into that particular moral jungle you’ll never come out; but I did point out that we were, in fact, civilians, too – civilians in uniform, and could he understand our possible resentment that people whose lives and liberties we had been fighting to protect (him, in fact) should be ready to expend us for the sake of Japanese?

He was getting quite alarmed now, because I do have a tendency to raise my voice in debate. But he stuck to his guns and cried “Japanese women and children!” I conceded this, and pointed out that I had three children – but if I’d gone down in Malaya they’d never have been born; they would, in fact, have been as effectively deprived of existence as the children of Nagasaki. Was he advocating that?

He pointed out, fairly, that I might not have gone down in Malaya, to which I (only too glad to escape from the argumentum ad hominem which I’d introduced, because it makes you sound like a right moaning “I-was-there” jungle-basher) retorted that someone would surely have bought his lot in Malaya, and how about his children?

He bolted, predictably, along the only escape route open to him – and a well-worn one it has become – by saying that the bombs were unnecessary because Japan was ready to surrender anyway, and it was only done because Truman wanted to use the thing to frighten the Russians, and all this talk that it would have cost 50,000 Allied lives to storm Japan was horse manure, because it would never have come to that.

“You think,” I said, “you hope. But you don’t know.”

Yes, he did, and cited authorities.

“All right,” I said. “Leave aside that I am arguably in a better position than you are to judge whether Jap was ready to surrender or not, at least at the sharp end, whatever Hirohito and Co were thinking – are you saying that the war would have ended on August 15 if the bombs hadn’t been dropped?”

“No, of course not. But not long after . . . a few weeks . . .”

“Months, maybe?”

“Possibly . . . not likely . . .”

“But at any rate, some Allied lives would have been lost, after August 15 – lives which in fact were saved by the bombs?” Not mine, because I’d been in India by then, and the war would have had to go on for several months for me to get involved again. I didn’t tell him that; it would just have confused the issue.

Yes, he admitted, some additional Allied lives would have been lost; he didn’t say they were expendable, but he plainly thought so.

“And that would have been all right with you? British, Indian, American, Australian, Chinese – my God, yes, even Russian – all right for them to die, but not the people of Hiroshima – or you?”

He said something about military casualties being inevitable in war (he was telling me!), but that the scale of Hiroshima, the devastation, the after-effects, the calculated immolation of a whole city’s population. . .

“Look,” I said, “I’m not arguing with you. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. I just wanted to know where you stood, and to mention some points which you may not have considered, and to have you ask yourself if you are really in a position, morally speaking, to say who should have died and who shouldn’t?”

“Well!” he said, looking aggrieved. “Where do you stand?”

“None of your goddam business,” I said, sweetly reasonable as always, “but wherever it is, or was, it’s somewhere you have never been, among people whom you wouldn’t understand.” Which was a bit over the score, but these armchair philosophers who live in their safe havens of the mind, and take their extensive moral views without ever really thinking, or exploring those unpleasant dark corners of debate which they don’t like to think are there – they can, as Grandarse would have said, get on my wick.

As to where I stand – oh, in so many different places. They change with time, and my view is coloured by many different considerations. These are some of them.

The dropping of the bombs was a hideous thing, and I do not wonder that some of those who bore a part in it have been haunted by it all their lives. If it was not barbaric, the word has no meaning.

I led Nine Section for a time; leading or not, I was part of it. They were my mates, and to them I was bound by ties of duty, loyalty, and honour. Now, take Nine Section as representing those Allied soldiers who would certainly have died if the bombs had not been dropped (and remember that Nine Section might well have been not representatives, but the men themselves). Could I say, yes, Grandarse or Nick or Forster were expendable, and should have died rather than the victims of Hiroshima? No, never. And that goes for every Indian, American, Australian, African, Chinese and other soldier whose life was on the line in August, 1945. So drop the bomb.

And it was not only their lives … To reduce it to a selfish, personal level . . . if the bombs had been withheld, and the war had continued on conventional lines, then even if I’d failed my board and gone with the battalion into Malaya, the odds are that I’d have survived: 4 to 1 actuarially speaking, on the section’s Burma fatalities. But I might have been that one, in which case my three children and six grandchildren would never have been born. And that, I’m afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those nine lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn’t, you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren’t fit to be parents or grandparents.

It comes to this, then, that I think the bombing was right? On those two counts, without a doubt. If it wasn’t, what were we fighting for?

So says Mr. Fraser.  My father used to say much the same thing . . . but then, he wore uniform in that war too.  That tended to color his opinion about a lot of things.  Those who opine about the realities of war without ever having experienced them might wish to think about that.



  1. The Japanese people were starving, but the Japanese military were preparing for invasion. The Japanese army was looking forward to it, believing that they could stop us on the beaches and capture enough US military for hostages/bargaining chips to end the war on their terms.

    MacArthur was planning the invasion of Japan, the army had ordered enough Purple Heart medals in preparation that we didn't run out for over 40 years afterwards. Nimitz didn't want to invade, he believed that a blockade and burning the Japanese harvest (inadequate as it was for feeding their people) would induce them to surrender.

    President Truman chose the bomb over the Nimitz plan, he didn't get along with MacArthur and thought invading Japan would cost us dearly. If those bombs (and the bluff that we had many more to destroy every city in Japan) weren't used, the Japanese would have lost millions to starvation. Even with our best efforts to feed them after the surrender, it was a close thing. I read one rationing bulletin in September 1946 authorizing an increase to 1800 calories from 1500 – a year later, and they were still hungry.

    So, a hundred thousand lost in two nuclear explosions versus 10-20 million starved to death, and those starved would be overwhelmingly civilian women and children. The Japanese military had made sure they would starve last. Truman made the right choice, IMHO.

  2. My uncle was a driver in MacArthur's HQ preparing for the invasion of Japan. Instead, he went in as part of the occupation force, and took a 9 inch blade through his wrist while walking guard one night (and since the war was over, didn't receive a purple heart). To his dying day, he believed he had survived only because we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Back in the late '90's, we (my father, mother, sister, & I) met General Paul Tibbets and his navigator. Colonel Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay. Over 45 years after dropping those bombs, he said that there was no doubt in his mind that dropping them was the right thing to do. That it was necessary, and that doing so saved countless allied and Japanese lives.

  3. My Father spend WWII in Oak Ridge Tennessee; refining uranium for the Manhattan Project. He never lost a second's sleep over it, and had scant patience for those who do.

    I gather that the general sentiment in any of the Asian countries the Japanese invaded is that the flaw in the bombing of Japan was we stopped too early. They REALLY despise the Japanese, and for good reason.

    The Atom Bombing of Japan was no worse than the fire-bombing, and one hell of lot more morally defensible than the rape of Nanking.

    When you lose a war, bad things happen to you. And when you started it in the first place, and behaved throughout in a manner calculated to enrage your enemies you have very little grounds for complaint.

  4. Let’s understand the where the war was at the time. XX Bomber Command was staging firebombing raids. Casualties from these raids typically numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The problem was that the Japanese military understood how these worked and would not surrender.

    In retrospect, judging from the last holdouts on the various islands of the Pacific, the plan to starve out the Japanese would have taken decades if it worked at all. Likewise, if civilian casualties from the invasion of Saipan were any indication, an invasion of Japan would have become a genocide of the Japanese people. Much as we didn’t like the Japanese at the time, this was still too much for us.

    The bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different. One plane flew over and dropped one bomb. Casualties were little different from a fire bombing raid but the prospect of those hundreds of B-29s, each armed with the new bomb, broke the Japanese resolve and made peace talks possible. This was a cheap victory in comparison to the alternatives.

  5. It was a horrible thing.

    That does not preclude it from being a *necessary* thing.

    "War is Hell," became a saying for a reason…

  6. We have a friend who, as a young girl in Japan, was trained to use a spear to attack American soldiers when they invaded.

    Apparently, machine gunning an 11 year old girl armed with a stick is morally superior, in some minds, to blowing her to bits.

  7. A possible view from the other side of the war. My dad (Navy) was stationed on Guam during the build-up for the invasion of Japan. A Japanese POW taught him and 3 other sailors the art of welding. They ask him why he was willing to work with them. He said he believed it was wrong for Japan to attack the USA. He had no desire to be a part of the Japanese war effort; he was drafted. Plus he was bored sitting there and the food was better if he worked.

    I suspect this gentleman was like many average Joes in this world who don't agree with what their governments are doing but have little or no real power to stop the stupidity. And God has blessed us here in this country because we can say, we think TPTB are wrong without losing our heads.

  8. My mother was an Army nurse in the Pacific and part of the after war
    effort in Japan.

    She talked to people, like the girl mentioned above, who had been instructed
    to tie kitchen knives to broom handles and fight the invasion forces with
    the improvised weapon. So, there would have been a lot of casualties
    in an invasion of Japan.

    She also met a man who had been trained as a Kamaikaze pilot but not
    sent on a mission due to the end of the war. He told her he had planned to
    land someplace and surrender instead of going through with the attack.

    Dad was in Italy in the Army Air Corps. After that he was sent back to the
    U.S. and was supposed to be trained for the Pacific and the invasion.
    He was discharged instead after the bombs were dropped.

  9. I recommend Fraser's book, as I think, you may have recommended it to me! A great read by a great storyteller, his comments about the bomb are insightful and moving.

    Great post!

  10. Downfall -Richard B Frank
    Hell to Pay – D M Giangreco

    Outstanding books dedicated to this subject specifically.

  11. Dad was the coxswain on a landing craft in the vast buildup to the invasion of Japan. That he spent the next two months as a marine taxi driver in Tokyo Bay instead of several thousand red stains in the water off the invasion beaches is due to the Bomb.

    Put me down as a 'plus'.


  12. My dad was a fighter pilot, flew P-38 Lightnings and P-51's in the island-hopping campsign of the Pacific Theater. On Iwo Jima he and the other 125 fighter pilots survived a night time suicide attack by 250 Japanese soldiers, and then a couple of weeks later began escorting the B-29's on the first land-based bombing missions of the Japanese home islands.

    He would have flown fighter cover for the invasion and he did not expect to survive the war. He fully expected to be killed in combat or be shot down, captured, and tortured to death.

    His five children and six grandchildren would never have been born.

    Put him down as a plus and myself also.


  13. Was it right? I don't think it was. But a lot of things in that war weren't right. Trying to find some moral ground to stand on after that disaster is to tread on the bodies of those who fell in the conflict.

    What is it they say? War doesn't determine who is right, only who is left.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *