When the atomic bomb detonated at ground zero in Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945, every building was destroyed and flattened for miles around. 80,000 people died instantly and an estimated 60,000 died later from radiation poisoning
Except for eight German Jesuit missionaries that lived 8 blocks (less than one mile) from the blast epicenter ...
Father Schiffer and his companions sustained no injuries, or only minor injuries. They all lived years beyond that day, experiencing no radiation sickness, despite being exposed to high levels of radioactivity. None suffered a loss of hearing from the explosion, or any other visible long-term defects or maladies. Father Schiffer, who was only 30 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, told his story 31 years later, at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976. At the time, all eight members of the Jesuit community who had lived through the bombing were still alive. Before the gathered faithful, he reminisced about celebrating Mass in the early morning, then sitting down in the rectory kitchen for breakfast. His memories were vivid: He had just sliced and dug his spoon into a grapefruit when there was a bright flash of light. Speaking before the Eucharistic Congress, he said that at first, he thought it might be an explosion in the nearby harbor. Then he described the experience:
“Suddenly, a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunder stroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me ’round and round like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.”
More details have been reported by a priest who once met Father Schiffer at the Tri-City Airport in Saginaw Michigan. The priest recounted their conversation:
The next thing he remembered, he opened his eyes and he was lying on the ground. He looked around and there was NOTHING in any direction: the railroad station and buildings in all directions were leveled to the ground. The only physical harm to himself was that he could feel a few pieces of glass in the back of his neck. As far as he could tell, there was nothing else physically wrong with himself. Many thousands were killed or maimed by the explosion. After the conquest of the Americans, their army doctors and scientists explained to him that his body would begin to deteriorate because of the radiation. Many of the Japanese people had blisters and sores from the radiation. To the doctors’ amazement, Fr. Schiffer’s body contained no radiation or ill-effects from the bomb. Father Schiffer and the other Jesuits were examined and interviewed repeatedly by scientists and others who could not understand why they had escaped injury. Father Schiffer reportedly said that he himself had been interviewed 200 times.
At the top of this entry is an aerial photo of Fr. Schiffer’s church (in the foreground) and surroundings, shortly after the bombing. Standing in the street in front of the church are four of the Jesuits.
He died on March 27, 1982–thirty-seven years after that eventful day.
The surprising survival of the Jesuits in Hiroshima is similar to that reported in Nagasaki, where a Franciscan friary built by Maximilian Kolbe also was unaffected. On August 9, 1945, God’s inscrutable providence allowed an atomic bomb named “Fat Man” to be dropped from a B-29 into the heavily populated city of Nagasaki. The epicenter of the blast was the Urakami district. The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 was considerably more powerful than the one dropped three days earlier on Hiroshima but technical and weather-related difficulties confined the Nagasaki casualty count to 35,000 dead.
Nagasaki was not the primary intended target on August 9; Kokura was. Kokura was a smaller city. The exact intended target was Kokura Arsenal, the biggest arms factory in western Japan, which produced missiles, aircraft, and weaponry for the army, and also chemical weapons. Some 57,000 people would have been killed by a blast there, it was estimated in Japan.
But there was cloud cover, including from a previous incendiary attack. Nagasaki was the backup site, not because of civilian population, which was on the south side of the city, but because of the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works north of that, and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works even further north.
Decades after the attacks, there is a saying in Japan about the reporting on the anniversaries of the events: “sakebi Hiroshima, inori no Nagasaki” — “shouting Hiroshima, praying Nagasaki.”
Why praying Nagasaki? Because there is a directly religious connection which emerged after the Nagasaki bombing.
At the last moment in the clouds over Nagasaki, intending to drop the much more complex plutonium bomb, “Fat Man,” on a radar fix, the bombardier caught a brief glimpse of land and dropped Fat Man. Intended for the Mitsubishi arsenal targets, the bomb missed by over a mile and hit squarely over the Christian suburb of Uragami.
Spared from the Nagasaki blast was the famous Catholic mission church founded by Maximilian Kolbe in the 1930s (he died as a martyr in Auschwitz) which he built, providentially, in the foothills facing away from the blast.
When the Nagasaki blast occurred, Dr. Takashi Nagai was working in the x-ray department that he had helped found at the Nagasaki Medical University, a half-mile from the epicenter. Though the blast did not completely level the reinforced concrete hospital, 80 percent of the occupants were killed. Nagai’s wing was in the southeast corner, furthest from the blast. Nevertheless, he was blown completely across his office and quickly suffered severe loss of blood from cuts made by flying window glass. He also began suffering greatly from high exposure to radiation and was later told by doctors that he had only a short time to live.
For the next five years of his life, Dr. Nagai lived with his two young children in a primitive hut, and spent these years devoted to helping the victims of the atomic bomb, partly by writing books on the topic. One of his books, "The Bells of Nagasaki", evoked an extraordinarily deep response in the hearts of the Japanese people and became a national bestseller, despite its Christian tone, and a famous movie was based on it. The Japanese people rediscovered in this book something they had long lost through war—love. In a testimonial on the back cover of the book, Shusako Endo, himself a Christian convert from atheism, writes, “Christians and non-Christians alike were deeply moved by [Dr. Takashi] Nagai’s faith in Christ that made him like Job of the Scriptures: in the midst of the nuclear wilderness he kept his heart in tranquility and peace, neither bearing resentment against any man nor cursing God.’ ”
The unique message that Takashi Nagai communicated, both in his writing and by the way he conducted himself, was peace. It was the peace of Jesus Christ, obtained as a great gift, finally, through the colossal suffering he experienced and accepted, without bitterness, as God’s holy will. These are cheap words—“accept your cross”—easy to say by someone who has not experienced great suffering and loss. Indeed, many who heard Nagai remained bitter. But because of Nagai’s books and lived example, many gained an astonishing peacefulness through this holy understanding and acceptance of suffering.
The difference between the two groups of people is still noticeable today at the annual A-bomb anniversaries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the regular participants in 1985 expressed the difference in this way: “Hiroshima is bitter, noisy, highly political, leftist and anti-American. Its symbol would be a fist clenched in anger. Nagasaki is sad, quiet, reflective, nonpolitical and prayerful. It does not blame the United States but rather laments the sinfulness of war, especially of nuclear war. Its symbol: hands joined in peace.”
Nagai fully discovered this profound message of the Cross three months after the holocaust. Asked by the bishop to speak at the funeral Mass for the victims held in the courtyard of the bombed cathedral, Nagai prayed for guidance on something meaningful to say. Then he remembered a story recounting of some women singing Latin hymns on the midnight after the blast. The next day they found the twenty-seven nuns from the nearby Josei Convent. The convent was demolished and all were dead, horribly burned to death; and yet they died singing.
God's grace exists even in the midst of His fearsome judgment.
(Coming in Part 5 - "John Piper On The Wrath of God")