A Nobel Prize Winner and questions about Nagasaki

There was a very interesting profile in the New York Times Science section this week about Osamu Shimomura the Nobel Prize winning chemist.  Never heard of him?  Me either.  It was his life, not his science I found most interesting.  My mother’s family is from a small town near Hiroshima and I grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sixty-eight years ago, Osamu Shimomura was a 16-year-old high school student working in a factory seven and a half miles from Nagasaki, Japan. Sitting down to work, a light flashed, briefly blinding him, and the pressure wave from an explosion came rolling through.

On his walk home from the factory, he was drenched with a black rain. His grandmother immediately had him bathe, most likely saving him from radiation-related illness.

Dr. Shimomura has said that he mostly doesn’t think about the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, but he recently delivered a lecture at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Los Alamos is the home of the Manhattan Project and the birthplace of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The bomb was not the topic of Dr. Shimonura’s lecture.

Instead, he recounted the discovery and development of one of the most significant tools for modern biotechnology: the green fluorescent protein, or G.F.P., used widely in cell and molecular biology as a visual tracer. The discovery, which has deepened the understanding of a wide range of fundamental biological processes, brought him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008, along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata's family in back row.

Together with my father who returned briefly from Manchuria in 1939. Front row from left: my mother Yukie, grandmother Tsuki, grandfather Kosaburo, father Chikara, younger brother Sadamu, and myself behind Sadamu, together with my uncle Eijiro Sata’s family in back row.

In his autobiography accompanying his Nobel information, Dr. Shimomura did talk about Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945, news reports informed us that the city of Hiroshima had been completely destroyed by a new type of bomb; we didn’t know what kind. Three days later, shortly before 11 AM, a siren sounded at the Isahaya factory, notifying us of an air raid. As usual, rather than going into a bunker, I went to the top of a nearby hill with a couple of friends and looked at the sky. We saw a single B-29 going from north to south towards Nagasaki, about 15 km away. I thought that its course was unusual. The B-29 dropped two or three parachutes and I heard sporadic gunshots. Watching carefully, I saw no people attached to the parachutes. Within a few minutes, another B-29 followed the first one, and a siren sounded the “all clear” signal. We returned to our factory building.

At the moment I sat down on my work stool, a powerful flash of light came through the small windows. We were blinded for about 30 seconds. Then, about 40 seconds after the flash, a loud sound and sudden change of air pressure followed. We were sure there was a huge explosion somewhere, but we didn’t know where. The sky was rapidly filling with dark clouds, and when I left the factory to walk home, about three miles away, a drizzling rain started. It was black rain. By the time I arrived home, my white shirt had turned gray. My grandmother quickly readied a bath for me. That bath might have saved me from the ill effects of the strong radiation that presumably existed in the black rain.    The next morning, a technical officer told us that the parachutes we had seen the day before contained measurement instruments and a transmitter. He also mentioned that there was serious damage in Nagasaki, but the details were unknown. The chief of the factory organized a rescue party. We tried to enter Nagasaki, but could not because the roads and the railroad were impassable. Later that afternoon, the railroad was opened to Michinoo, near Nagasaki station, and rescuers began to transport injured people to Isahaya and other cities.

On August 15, in a radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito declared unconditional surrender. This was the first time that most Japanese citizens had heard the emperor’s voice. I think there was a widespread feeling of relief, and also fear for an uncertain future.    Many years passed before we had detailed information about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was a different type and far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Even if the use of the Hiroshima bomb was justifiable in order to precipitate an end to the war, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later was clearly a test of new arms. It cannot be justified.

It cannot be justified.  I have always had questions about Nagasaki.  Why didn’t the Emperor call for surrender immediately?  Why didn’t we wait a few more days before dropping the second bomb?

The Times story recounts others at the Los Alamos dinner raising the subject.

At a dinner, Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told of how her father had been on a troop ship preparing for the invasion of Japan. For years, she said, he had credited the decision to drop the bombs with sparing his life. Years later, however, when declassified documents reopened questions about whether the Nagasaki bomb had been necessary to end the war, he was in despair, she said.

Gary Doolen, a physicist who had been a weapon designer at the lab, said there was evidence that the second bomb had been dropped as a demonstration of American power to Russians, who were then massing troops in East Asia.

Dr. Shimomura, tall and stooped, mostly listened.

The next day he and his wife returned to the museum.

…Moments before the Nagasaki bombing, Dr. Shimomura had seen a B-29 bomber drop three parachutes. The drop had puzzled him. He would later learn that they carried instruments for data transmission and measurement.

He asked John E. Pearson, the Los Alamos physicist who had invited him to lecture, about the instruments. After some hunting they found models of the original parachute payloads.

“Some guy came up and started explaining what we were looking at,” said Dr. Pearson. “Osamu said, ‘Yes. I watched them falling.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite as stunned as that guy.”

I wonder what those instruments recorded.  I wonder if the information would be useful as we try to deal with other nuclear disasters.  I wonder if they were destroyed by the bomb.


Photograph of the family from Shimomura’s Nobel Autobiography

Photograph of Shimomura Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

3 thoughts on “A Nobel Prize Winner and questions about Nagasaki

  1. The Nagasaki plutonium bomb, code-named “Fat Man,” used a trickier “implosion” design that was tested before use, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the world’s first atomic explosion, the “Trinity” test of July 16, 1945. Since then, plutonium has become the fuel of choice to initiate nuclear fission, and the uranium “gun” design is now a relic of a bygone age … unless you happen to be a terrorist or a nation wanting to join the global nuclear club.

  2. Hi Maya,

    Before I retired, I had a wonderful patient I knew as Maya, though she was known by her Japanese name in the all Japanese school she attends. She was very much a Japanese child, without American ways. Nevertheless, she was born here and had a white father.

    One day her Japanese mother, vice-president of a company here, told me her story. I will call her “K.” Her father was a pilot in the Emperor’s air force. One day in 1945, he was on leave with his family, when he received the special assignment notice that meant a kamikaze mission. He boarded the special bus back to base with others with the same assignment. After several hours drive, the bus pulled over to the side of the road. The highest ranking officer announced that the Emperor had just surrendered. All the pilots got out and sat roadside, mortified at the surrender and angry that their mission was thwarted. Or so K’s father said.

    He returned home and lived through the occupation, always deeply depressed. K was born much later in his life. She told of intense fury that her father felt he had failed the Emperor and Japan. She hates Buddhism, because she blames it for her father’s Emperor worship. Above all, she has always felt that her father wasn’t glad that she was born.

    So I shared my story with her. My mother’s brother enlisted like many other young men after Pearl Harbor. He wanted to fly, but was trained as a navigator. He was assigned to Curtis LeMay’s unit bombing Japan. He flew on the Enola Gay, but not that day. It was only the luck of the draw that he wasn’t among those who dropped the atomic bombs.

    His unit was on complete radio silence after Hiroshima, he told his family. They actually continued conventional bombing of Japan after the surrender, of which they were unaware. Certainly hostilities continued unabated by both sides after Hiroshima, and isolated Japanese units who didn’t know of the surrender continued to fight afterwards. The carnage of that war is beyond comprehension, including most of Steve’s family in the Holocaust.

    Ray was demob’ed (sp?) but couldn’t bear civilian life. He enrolled in the school in Colorado that later became the Air Force Academy, and became a pilot and intelligence officer. He was sent to Germany, as were all continuing military who had served in the Pacific Theater. And all who had been in the European Theater were sent to the Pacific, so that the people who harbored deep fury at the deaths of their beloved comrades-in-arms during the war wouldn’t take revenge on the local populations.

    I have some of his letters from the years in Germany. His parents were committed pacifists (Mennonite offshoots) who hated his work. Grandma never missed an opportunity to tell him he would go to hell for his acts. I have a letter in which he wrote that they only had the freedom to practice their religion because he and his comrades were protecting them. I think, based on cryptic comments, that he was making intelligence flights beyond the Iron Curtain.

    He was later reassigned to a base in Texas. One day in 1954, he and his best friend were assigned to fly together. According to the local paper, they had been ordered to take off in a dust storm without proper instruments. The Air Force denied that that was the cause of the crash. They crashed and died in a remote part of a local farm, found days later by the farmer. Another pilot told Mom that he thought a wrench had been left in the engine during the maintenance before takeoff. I have a friend whose father died the same way.

    Ray and Mom had a first cousin that they adored, Jack, who was in the Naval Academy when war broke out. He graduated in 1943 and also went to the Pacific theater, serving an aircraft carrier at Iwo Jima, Corregidor, and many other major battles. He went on to be a commander in the Korean War, and retired eventually in Annapolis, where he took me to dinner once a month while I was at St. John’s. I loved him as well, and visit his widow in the nursing home when I go there now. My dad was younger, and drafted late in the war. He hated guns and refused to carry one in bootcamp despite intense pressure. He was assigned to a medical unit in the Cotswolds where he carried the wounded transported from the Normandy invasion. He would never talk to anyone but Mom about the war.

    War is hell, as the saying goes. Ray thought, I have been told, that the more conventional bombing of Japan was just as intensely lethal, just less concentrated. And I met many men in my childhood who thought that they would have died in the planned invasion of Japan if it hadn’t been for those bombs. Who knows. The internment of the Japanese was unconscionable. My Chinese sister-in-law’s family was furious about atrocities in China, including the comfort women. I hate the whole thing.

    If possible, we want to show your mom’s documentary in the afternoon on Saturday at Homecoming.

    Love, Melissa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s