Nagasaki and blue skies, forever linked in my mind
By JERRY TALLMER
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see…
All of them gone
Nothing but blue skies
From now on
— Irving Berlin
Sixty-five years ago this week — 65 years ago Monday of this week, August 9, 1945 — sturdy, cryptic little Max, the tail-gunner on a B-24 named Pacific Passion that was headed north over Japan, gave a scream over the intercom.
The pilot and commander of the plane, cool calm Captain Arthur F. George, hearing this and guessing what it meant, banked Pacific Passion a few degrees to the left. From my radio/radar post midships I looked out a porthole and saw what had made Max scream. In the clear blue beautiful sunlit open sky, a hellish gray-white blackening mushroom cloud 135 miles behind us to the south was already climbing higher than we were at 10,000 to 12,000 feet or so, the limit of a bomb-laden boxcar B-24.
“My God!” said Lieutenant Jack Schwartz, the navigator, a sensitive sort.
Nobody else said anything at all until, back on terra firma after dropping our own old-fashioned non-atomic bombs elsewhere on Japan, we had the opportunity to compare notes. But I don’t think we really did do that. I think we were mostly just keeping our thoughts to ourselves. I know I did. We had all, of course, known about the bombing of Hiroshima, three days earlier. Though it now seemed that the end of this long and terrible war might at last be really in sight, thanks precisely to those two manmade cataclysms, I didn’t like what man had done — what we had done — any more than I do to this day.
I know, I know, I have written this more than once over the years, and I once wrote it into a short New York Post editorial that Dorothy Schiff, the mother of us all, allowed me to print in that journal on one of the anniversaries of Nagasaki — though she made me stick my initials, J.T., at the end, the only signed editorial, so to speak, in the whole history of the New York Post going back to Alexander Hamilton.
The last line of that short edit had had its writer and everyone else up and down the ladder from J. Robert Oppenheimer to whoever — “looking into the face of original sin.” I asked features editor Joseph Rabinovich — my rabbi on the paper — what he thought of those few lines. He said he didn’t know much about original sin. I said, well, I guess it has something to do with Cain.
On August 31, 1946, just one year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the New Yorker magazine, under William Shawn, devoted its entire issue to printing every one of the 31,000 words of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” They put it on the stands with a special wrapper to indicate that extraordinary publishing decision.
I remember the beautiful blue-sky day on which I bought my copy and started reading as I walked south down Broadway. I was going along, my nose in the magazine, when I came upon the since-famous sentence: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
I’ve somehow always remembered those words as “a human being was buried in books,” but Google advises me otherwise. Whatever the case, as I came upon that passage a shiver went through my body and tears sprang to my eyes. When I looked around, I saw I was smack in the middle of Times Square, out there in the street in front of that police triangle, with two rivers of traffic roaring past, down Broadway and Seventh Avenue on either side.
I’ve written that before, too, but what has taken me 65 years to realize, along with something else going on 10 years now, is that all these phenomena are tied together, at least in my own mind, by the beautiful blue and white skies of a gorgeous day over the air in Japan or on the ground in New York City — God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.
You know what’s coming.
American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, both out of Logan Airport, Boston, Mass., both bound for Los Angeles, are what’s coming. And the sky was never so blue, the day was never so fair.
Nine-eleven weather, we call it.
When the enlisted men of Pacific Passion got back to their tent, that blue-sky August 9, 1945, someone automatically switched on the radio. Somebody always switched on the radio on the instant of entering, be it the tent on Guam or this other, later tent on Okinawa. And, as always, the virile straightforward young voice coming out of the radio was that of this new all-American hotshot the girls back home — not yet called teenyboppers — were going crazy over.
The first American correspondent into Nagasaki after the bomb was George Weller, whose dispatches never made it back to the U.S.A. thanks to the censors at General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. Weller’s unflinching reports were finally dug out and turned into a book (“First Into Nagasaki,” Crown, 2006) edited by his son Anthony.
As a lighter note among many horrors, George Weller cites one of the “preoccupations” of American prisoners long held and brutalized in camps at Nagasaki. Now, finally facing release, they speak of “B-29’s dropping us food and [newspapers] with stuff about some guy named Sinatra. Who is he and what’s his racket?”
As I put these scrambled thoughts together, on a day when there is no blue in the sky and not much of anything else than heat, in the next room Mr. Sinatra, 65 years later, is still singing. You can make out all the words; you always could, and can, with him.
He’s singing, “Come fly with me… .”