Hiroshima, Japan (CNN) – In the center of Hiroshima, yards from where the world’s first atomic attack bomb exploded 70 years ago, stands a dome-shaped bell tower of modest proportions. It is decorated with the bronze statues of three children.
Their slender arms reach out, spreading wide towards the sky. It looks like a dance of joy. But it leaves me choking back tears.
The bombing of Hiroshima is a dark and difficult chapter in U.S. history. As an American wandering past the bronze pixies dancing so close to what was ground zero, I cannot help but feel profound guilt.
The Children’s Peace Monument is dedicated to a child survivor of the A-bomb. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the bomb dropped. She survived for almost a decade, until she died from leukemia in 1955.
Death with devastating force
Sasaki was one of the more than 200,000 people killed by America’s terrifying use of atomic force. It was a ruthless demonstration of power repeated three days later in a second atomic attack on Nagasaki.
Growing up in the U.S., I learned as a teenager to associate Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the image of two distant, devastated Japanese cities. The textbooks taught us that by dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the U.S. hastened the end of World War II. In other words, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians ultimately helped save lives.
In the decades since the bomb, the Japanese have turned ground zero in Hiroshima into a leafy park dedicated to world peace and nuclear non-proliferation.
A museum here explains the ferocity of the blast that ripped through this city at 8:15 a.m. It does not sugarcoat.
The exhibit includes graphic photos and life-size dioramas detailing the burns, sores and disease suffered by the bomb’s many civilian victims.
It is here that I meet 87-year old Chisako Takeoka, a tiny woman who moves with surprising vigor while leaning heavily on a cane.
Rivers choked with bodies
Takeoka was 17-years old and had just completed a night shift making torpedoes at a military factory when the bomb exploded more than two miles away. The shockwave knocked her senseless, blowing the girl into a field of sweet potatoes.
In the days weeks and weeks after the blast, Takeoka saw the river running through Hiroshima choked with burned corpses. She says a doctor removed her mother’s eye, which had been dangling after being blown out of its socket by the explosion, without any anesthetic due to supply shortages.
Two years after the bomb, Takeoka’s first-born son died 18 days after birth, a victim of what was described to her as “A-bomb syndrome.”
“Are you angry at the U.S.?” I ask.
“Of course I was angry at that time,” the elderly woman answers. “But I think it’s true the atomic bomb shortened the war. And I wish Japan had surrendered earlier.”
The atomic age
Without question, Japan was nuked into submission, putting an end to Japan’s military expansionism, which included the invasion and occupation of neighboring China years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The mushroom clouds ushered in a new world order — an atomic age dominated by the U.S., a nuclear superpower.
Occupied by American conquerors, Japan eventually transitioned into an era of pacifism, democracy, and economic prosperity. Many Japanese appear ashamed of their militaristic past.
Still, Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain uncomfortable subjects for many Americans.
It wasn’t until 2010, 65 years after the bomb, that a U.S. ambassador for the first time attended the annual ceremony commemorating the bombing in Hiroshima.
Perhaps the charred children’s school uniforms on display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial don’t fit the image many Americans have of “the Great War.”
Several young U.S. visitors leave the museum this week, clearly grappling with very difficult questions.
“All of these innocent civilians died. When you look at it from a moral standpoint, was this really necessary? Did we have to do this?” asks Scott Baker, a 16-year old Boy Scout from Cupertino, California.
“When I saw all the images, I kind of got a little sick,” added Ryan Tagawa, a 14-year old Boy Scout also from Cupertino, who also happens to be of Japanese descent.
The scouts from Troop 303 are part of a much larger delegation of scouts from around the world making a pilgrimage to the Hiroshima Peace Park.
“It was kind of awkward to walk through the museum as an American along with some Japanese scouts,” says 17-year old Nathaniel Wigfler.
“But I feel it’s necessary… to see what happened,” he adds. “And see that this can be repeated if we make the wrong mistakes.”
Lessons from Hiroshima
Japanese and Americans of post-war generations can look at the lessons of the A-bomb with a certain luxury denied our predecessors. None of us had to fight and die in the Pacific.
The lesson of Hiroshima stands perhaps more relevant than ever today.
My country is embroiled in a debate over the nuclear program in Iran. A nuclear-armed North Korea threatens its neighbors by launching missiles. Russia invades and annexes a piece of Ukraine. Nihilistic jihadi warriors revel in the public slaughter of civilians.
In his peace declaration on Thursday, the mayor of Hiroshima said, “today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism.”
But amid these potential threats to global stability, it is worth keeping one historical fact in mind. The U.S. is the only country in the world to have ever used nuclear weapons in an act of war.