Hiroshima: US President Obama landed outside this Japanese port Friday to pay tribute to the devastating human cost of war more than 70 years after an American B-29 warplane dropped an atomic bomb that leveled the city. The blast instantly killed tens of thousands and poisoned many more, and ushered the world into the age of nuclear warfare.
Obama will be the first U.S. president to set foot on the site of the world’s first nuclear attack, joining with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to chart the devastation and lay a wreath at a memorial in Hiroshima commemorating the 140,000 estimated to have died.
The visit is an “opportunity to honor the memory of all who were lost during World War II” and to recommit to the “peace and security of a world where nuclear weapons would no longer be necessary,” Obama said at the Marine base at Iwakuni, where he addressed about 3,000 people before heading to Hiroshima.
Obama will not apologize for the nuclear attacks here and in the city of Nagasaki, strikes he believes ended the perils of Japanese aggression and brought about the end of World War II.
But as the leader of the only country ever to have deployed nuclear weapons, Obama has said it is the responsibility of those who hold terrible power to face the consequences of its use.
The Peace Memorial park he will visit Friday afternoon marks the darkest days of Hiroshima, where some 350,000 Japanese civilians and military personnel were living on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the bomb fell.
Some 60,000-80,000 were killed instantly and more died from the effects of radiation in the months and years that followed. Among the dead were thousands of junior high school students mobilized to clear fire breaks in preparation for bombing by the conventional weapons that had hit other Japanese cities in the months leading up to Aug. 6.
When the Enola Gay deployed the uranium bomb known as Little Boy over the city, though, it unleashed a blast thousands of times more powerful. Though only a fraction of its 110 pounds of fissile material actually underwent fission, its force nevertheless was equal to about 16,000 tons of conventional explosives.
Within three-quarters of a mile around center of the explosion, virtually everyone died. Glass bottles melted and only a few concrete buildings remained standing.
Many of those who survived were badly burned and developed disorders including cataracts, skin keloids and cancers. Radiation triggered stillbirths and microcephaly, and cases of leukemia spiked a few years after the bombing.
Today, some 187,000 people who survived the bomb are still living.
As he accompanied Obama on the trip, Abe was not ruling out the idea of making his own official pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor, site of the Japanese attack on U.S. soil that drew America into the war and eventually led to the nuclear attack. When he visited the U.S. last year, Abe went to the World War II memorial and laid a wreath in memory of those who died.
The fact that he and Obama can make such visits is a sign of how far the relationship between the two countries has evolved, he said after a meeting with Obama this week.
“Former adversaries are now transforming into the relationship of allies,” he said.
Obama’s visit has stirred debate in Japan about Abe’s defense policies. Some anti-nuclear activists have criticized Abe for not doing more to use the leverage of the U.S.-Japan alliance to press for more progress on nuclear disarmament. Modern geopolitical circumstances — particularly China’s growing military and economic might — have complicated security in Asia, said Ryohei Nakayama, who was 8 years old and living in Osaka when the bombs fell.
“We are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, so Abe can’t do so much,” he said, referring to the U.S. protection of Japan. “China is expanding more and more” in areas like the South China Sea, he said. “The situation is getting a little dangerous,” he said.