Nagasaki is a port city located on the west side of Kyushu Island. Starting in the 16th century and for almost four centuries, it greeted trading ships in its natural harbour. Until everything changed on August 9, 1945. At 11:02 AM, an atomic bomb, code-named Fat Man, exploded 500 meters above the city. In a matter of minutes, a fierce blast wind, heat rays reaching several hundred thousand degrees, and deadly radiation reduced the city centre to ruins. About one-third of Nagasaki City was destroyed and an estimated 35,000–40,000 people were killed outright. A total of 60,000–80,000 fatalities resulted, mostly devastating burns and long-term radiation effects.
I (Merge) visited in October 2023, 78 years later, and the city has clearly worked hard to recover and rebuild. But they have resolved to never forget, and to do what they can to ensure that no other place on our planet has to face this type of immense human cost ever again. Since I was only in town for the one day, I was determined to visit at least two sites – the Peace Park which also encompasses the hypocentre of the bomb, and the nearby Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum.
But before I tell you about my visits, a short history lesson is in order. On August 6, 1945, three days before the Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, another atomic bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima. 66,000 people were killed as a direct result of the Hiroshima blast, and 69,000 were injured to varying degrees. Later estimates put the deaths as high as 140,000 people.
The original target for Fat Man was actually the city of Kokura with Nagasaki as a secondary target. But on the morning of August 9, Kokura was covered by clouds and drifting smoke from fires from a major firebombing raid nearby on the previous day. After three attempts in 50 minutes, the pilots moved on to Nagasaki which was also obscured by clouds. Fuel was running low, but at the last minute, there was a hole in the clouds, and Fat Man was dropped. Because of the poor visibility due to cloud cover, the bomb missed its intended detonation point by almost two miles. The Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works were destroyed, but so was a prison, a school, and numerous residential areas.
Even though the damage and the number of victims at Hiroshima were much higher than at Nagasaki, Fat Man was actually the more powerful bomb. Fat Man was an implosion-type device with a plutonium core, and an explosive yield of 21 kilotons of TNT. Little Boy was a gun-type weapon with a uranium core, and an explosive yield of 15 kilotons of TNT. The reason Little Boy caused so much more damage than Fat Boy was because Hiroshima bomb landed on flat terrain, whereas the Nagasaki bomb fell into a small valley.
Getting to both the Peace Park and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum was easy, as they are both on the city’s streetcar lines.
My first stop was the Peace Park. This serene green park is deeply moving. The two main showpieces are the 10-ton bronze Peace Statue and the dove-shaped Fountain of Peace. The 10m high Peace Statue was installed on August 9, 1955 on the 10th anniversary of the bombing, and dedicated as an appeal for lasting world peace, and as a prayer that such a tragedy would never again be repeated. The elevated right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolizes tranquility and world peace. A prayer for the repose of the souls of all war victims is expressed in the closed eyes. The folded right leg symbolizes quiet meditation, and the left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity.
The Fountain of Peace is a place to pray for those victims who passed away while begging for water. The ever-changing shape of the water evokes the beating wings of the dove of peace and the crane. Nagasaki Port is known as the “Crane Port” as its shape is that of a crane. Scattered around the rest of the park are several (I counted at least fifteen) sculptures on the theme of peace, contributed by countries from around the world. Adjoining the Peace Park on the south side is the atomic bomb hypocenter, and a simple black monument marks the epicentre of the deadly blast.
I went next to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum which was just across the street. This exceptional museum displays a number of artifacts, as well as many photographs taken immediately after the bombing. It provides a thought-provoking history of the development of nuclear arms, and a heartfelt desire for peace. It also has a section that documents survivors’ stories in text, photographs, audio and video.
The first thing you see when you enter the museum is a wall clock that froze at 11:02 AM, the moment Nagasaki was instantly destroyed. It was found in a house near the Sanno Shrine, approximately 800m away from the hypocenter. It was shattered by the blast, and its hands stopped at 11:02, the moment of the explosion. There is also a video, taken by U.S. aircraft, that shows the moment the bomb exploded and the formation of the mushroom cloud.
Further on in, there is a life-size model of Fat Man bomb, photographs of the devastation to buildings and people, and actual articles that were recovered from the bomb site in the days following.
I’ll be honest, this was a very difficult day for me. The further I continued in the museum, the sadder I became, as I witnessed what human beings will do to other human beings in the name of a cause. Yet, almost 80 years later, as a human race we have not learned; we continue to do the same around the world. By the time I got to the section where survivors’ stories were documented, I was in tears as I read the first-hand accounts on the wall. Someone later asked me why I didn’t stop reading. My answer: because it is important to read these stories; to honour those who experienced deep physical and emotional pain; to learn so that we never let something like this happen again. About 20 minutes in though, I had to leave the section as I was completely overwhelmed. As I sat outside the hall on a conveniently-placed bench, trying to catch my breath, a sweet elderly Japanese lady sat down, put her arm around me, and handed me a packet of Kleenex. As the tears rolled down my face, she talked to me in Japanese (which I don’t understand), and I tried to explain to her in English (which she didn’t understand) why I was crying. It didn’t matter. We didn’t speak the same language, but we understood each other. After what I’d just seen in the museum, her presence was exactly what I needed. It was heartwarming to experience humanity first-hand and be reminded that it still exists.
If you visit Nagasaki, be sure to put both the Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb museum on your must-visit list. Even though I can’t promise you it will be a fun and happy day, I am sure that you won’t regret your decision.