Sixty-six years after the United States destroyed Hiroshima, Japan with the world’s first atomic bomb, we gathered at the birthplace of the bomb, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the gates of the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex, where the uranium fuel for the Little Boy bomb was produced—natural uranium was enriched by giant calutrons as part of the Manhattan Project.
We gathered at 6:00am to begin a solemn reading of names of the victims of Hiroshima—as each name was read, the bell tolled, and a peace crane was tied to the barbed wire fence that surrounds the plant. Interspersed among the names were readings of witnesses to the bombing, the words of survivors in prose and poetry, and firsthand accounts of the aftermath. One young man spoke of his grandmother’s death in the bombing, and of the stories his mother told him.
The morning was warm and humid, slightly overcast. A few more clouds than that morning in Hiroshima on August 6, but by 8:00am people were going about their business on a typical morning, as in Hiroshima. We were mindful of our lives—and at 8:16 the reading was interrupted mid-sentence.
After several minutes of silence, the Buddhists of Nipponzan Myohoji called us out of our reflection with drumming and chanting “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.”
The reading of names continued until 9:00am.
Among the readings was a striking report prepared by the Swiss legation to Tokyo on August 11, 1945. The Swiss were charged with looking after US interests in Japan in 1945. The report they prepared was delivered to the United States where it was classified for 25 years. Here are excerpts:
“Not only is the city of Hiroshima a provincial town without any protection or special military installations of any kind, but also none of the neighboring region of this town constitutes a military objective.
“This, bomb, provided with a parachute, has a destructive force of great scope as a result of its explosion in air. It is technically impossible to limit the effect of its use to special objectives as designated by the President, and the American authorities are perfectly aware of this.
“The bombs in question, used by the Americans, by their cruelty and by their needless terrorizing effects, surpass by far any gas or any other arms, the use of which is prohibited.
“The Americans have effected bombardments of towns in the greatest part of Japanese territory, without discrimination massacring a great number of old people, women and children, destroying and burning down Shinto and Buddhist temples, schools, hospitals, living quarters, etc. They have shown complete defiance of the essential principles of humanitarian as well as international law.
“They now use this new bomb, having an uncontrollable and cruel effect much greater than any other arms or projectiles ever used to date. This constitutes a new crime against humanity and civilization.”
At 10:30am, we reassembled at Bissell Park, two miles from the bomb plant, in preparation for a march to Y12. There were 80+ people in the march; setting out from the park, we paused at two stations (and once for water) before arriving at the bomb plant. Judy Morris, of Dominican Sisters for Peace, carried a poster of her fellow Dominican Jackie Hudson who died of multiple myeloma on August 3; Jackie was awaiting sentencing for her resistance action at Y12 last July.
Here is a report on the day sent out earlier to Jackie’s fellow resisters in the Irwin County Detention Facility in Ocilla, Georgia.
“We had a short gathering at Bissell Park and then set out to the Friendship Bell where we gathered for a brief reflection. Emma McLeod rang the giant bell three times to start us. From there we headed out through the ORAU campus to get to South Illinois, and then on to Y12. A nice march—about 90 people, I’d say. After the water break we discovered our luck had run out—June Griffin and about 8 others, including 3 children, lining the corner at Y12 facing the direction the march would come. She had a microphone and speaker and was unleashing bitter bile—I don’t know that I have ever come across a deeper/sadder well of anger in another person. She is a self-styled warrior of God and usually arrives in her SUV with U.S.S. VENGEANCE stenciled on the front fender. They had a large homemade banner that said “Loser’s Corner” and they gathered behind and alongside of it. I am sure they meant to refer to us as the losers, but as they stood right at the intersection grouped around their banner it conveyed a rather unfortunate image of them to the uninitiated.
We made a plan to skirt June’s group and enter near the fenceline and move back toward the sign, where Kevin Collins and the puppetistas would be waiting to begin our program. Libby Johnson went back along the march line telling everyone to pass the counter-protesters without engagement, and things went pretty smoothly. She kept up her invective (June, not Libby) until we started our program and then, miraculously, she went silent and we did out program without interruption. Afterward I asked several people why they thought she stopped and everyone said they had noticed but we could only guess why. There was a large police presence and they stayed over near her; she made no effort, even when we began tying cranes to the fence, to intervene.
The tree tableau worked nicely. On the march we had a Hiroshima water stop—when people received empty cups with slips of paper inside that read “The Water of Hiroshima” and we asked them to keep the cups. When they arrived at Y12, they found a large drum of water, out of which young Will Collins was dipping buckets and using them to water a huge tree (Kevin) spread with lush green leaves. The tree was labeled “US NUCLEAR WEAPONS.” The water drum had a large pig painted on it, with dollar signs all around. Around the tree were half a dozen smaller trees, neglected and wilted, branches drooping and leaves brown; they were labeled “True Security,” and “Health Care,” and “Education,” etc.
As we gathered in a circle, Erik Johnson stepped forward and pantomimed taking in the situation, noting the healthy bomb tree and the others. He then declared that things were all twisted and backwards, and he commandeered the bucket and began to water the wilted trees. “Can anyone help me?” he asked, and one by one people came forward with their water cups to redistribute the water until the entire crowd was watering the neglected trees. As the giant bomb tree wilted and turned its leaves to brown, the others rose and spread their branches, showing the green side of their leaves.
After the tableau we had another reflection on water and the bomb, sang Ain’t You Got a Right; then we tied a thousand cranes (folded by 5th grade students in Detroit) to the fence and sang Eyes on the Prize. It was a little after 1:00 when we finished. The Buddhists, Denise and Utsumi, set up for their three day vigil/fast [they will be at the gates of the bomb plant until August 9], and Lissa McLeod and Jake Weinstein, along with Clare Hanrahan and Coleman Smith, did a brief circus preview. They are traveling around by bike performing impromptu circus the next couple of days in Maryville and Knoxville, handing out leaflets about nuclear weapons.
So it was a good day. I don’t know what made this day any different—other than we were less organized than we have ever been—but a remarkable number of people commented how much they appreciated the day and the program. Maybe a combination of the meaning of date and the program and the relief that we didn’t boil in the heat! We had coverage from all three TV stations as well as the newspaper. The largest TV station even had Emma and me on live TV Friday afternoon to talk about making peace lanterns, then came to film us making peace lanterns, filmed the Names ceremony on Saturday morning, and came back Sunday afternoon to film the Sunday vigil.
Here are the reflections offered as we moved through the stations of the march:
Hiroshima Day reflection, Oak Ridge, 2011
At the pavilion/start the walk
When we think or talk about or nuclear weapons, we tend to think and talk in macro-language, whether it’s about the destruction of Hiroshima or the size of the US stockpile. But we don’t really comprehend the depth of the atrocity of the bomb until we think of it as a personal destroyer.
This is why the testimony of the hibakusha, who have been with us in the past and are with us in spirit today, is so powerful. Their firsthand witness is personal, they saw and felt and heard and survived. A few years ago, Mr. Eiji Nakanishi was with us for several days in August; he folded paper cranes, helped make peace lanterns, led our march, and spoke at the gates of Y12. Since then leukemia has since claimed his life—the bomb that was born in Oak Ridge continues to kill.
This year we are thinking of the bomb as a personal killer. It killed in Hiroshima and again in Nagasaki. Those bombs, exploded 66 years ago, continue to kill.
The bomb has also killed in this country. Uranium miners and other workers, and sometimes their family members. And the bomb has stolen—more than 5 trillion dollars of our common wealth—from those who hunger and are not fed; those who are homeless and remain without shelter; those whose dreams and aspirations are not nurtured by education; those who suffer and are denied health care.
Today we gather as those who thirst for justice and peace and nuclear sanity. Our thirst has brought us to this place, to take action. We will walk from this place to the very heart of the beast, the Y12 nuclear weapons complex…
At the bell
One of the most intimate and devastating themes to emerge from the stories of those who survived the bomb is the thirst for relief—the cries for water continue to haunt those who heard them more than sixty years ago. Tragically, those who lived were often unable to give water to loved ones who begged for it—the water was contaminated, filthy, carrying poisons from the bomb and germs from those who died in it, or plunged into the rivers for relief. Many died from not having water to drink. Many died from drinking the water that was there. Today, we remember them, to say “Never Again.”
The dominant image of the Peace Park in Nagasaki is a giant fountain, designed to convey the spreading wings of a dove—the fountain is a reminder of those who died crying desperately for relief, begging for a sip of water…but there was no water for them.
The peace bell in Oak Ridge was inspired by a desire for healing, for relief from the powerful currents of fear, suspicion, blame, anger, ignorance, and vengeance. Those who to this day applaud the bomb, who misunderstand history and believe it saved hundreds of thousands of lives, whose love of country blinds them to the greater call to love all humanity find no refuge at this bell. It is a personal statement. It seeks to develop a person-to-person relationship. Some argue the bell skews history; others say it confronts history with the intent to move through the darkness of that time into the light of a future of hope.
The bell was forged in fire, the metal becoming hot, then molten liquid, poured into a form, roiling there until, finally, water brought relief. The iron hardened, and the mold was opened, and the bell with its message of hope for humanity was born. If you read the sign telling the story of this bell, you see it came to us by water, across the ocean. If you look at the design of the bell pavilion you see it was designed to catch water and channel it to the ground to water the plants that provide a setting for the bell.
The bell stands “by the riverside.”
The image of water runs through the story of the bell—it is no less essential to our lives than it is to the lives of those in Japan who are bound to us by the bell.
On this day, we stand in the heat, already beginning to think of water. Our minds begin to turn to our thirst, to relief.
And we walk. On our walk we will reach a water station—for a bit of relief. It may not come as soon as you like, but don’t lose hope. Think of your sisters and brothers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Think of your walk today as a march for a future in which no one thirsts and is not given water to drink, a world in which no bomb befouls the water and turns Iranians or North Koreans or Chinese or Pakistanis or Americans or Indians into beggars for water.
First “water station”
Cups have slips of paper in them saying: This is the water of Hiroshima
“Water bearer” asks, “Please don’t discard your cup, you’ll need it later.”
Second water station
Water bearer asks people to be mindful as they drink of those who have no water. And please save your cup, you’ll need it later.
Arrive at Y12
Tableau – the big tree tall and healthy (US NUCLEAR WEAPONS) and the little trees (health care, housing, etc) withered and brown. People use cups to water the little trees and bring them to life; the big tree, deprived, withers.
Water is essential for life, and it is a symbol of the power of life to shape our future. “Just like a tree, planted by the water.” The tree is a symbol of stability, life, fruit, shalom; it depends on water to live.
In our world, we thirst for peace. We thirst for justice. We thirst for wisdom, for economic decisions that reflect our values and embrace life and provide true security—not from bombs, but from a society that guarantees health, education, housing, safe food and, yes, clean water. We thirst for relief — from policies that see others as enemies or competitors instead of fellow travelers, sisters and brothers. We thirst for relief from policies that invest in death; that pursue relationships based on threats and intimidation; that are careless about institutions like law and human rights. We search for relief from the fear and anxiety that come from living in the nuclear age—when the bright light could at any second mean the end of everyone we love and life itself. We search for relief from arrogance that retains certain rights—to have nuclear weapons—for ourselves while denying them to others.
We stand here, by a creek polluted by nuclear weapons—where on 279 out of 365 days last year the water leaving the Y12 facility was contaminated beyond safe drinking-water levels. We stand here where the power of bombs to kill is not symbolic, but present. We stand here to say, “It’s personal.”
And we stand here to say “Yes” to life, “Yes” to life not only for ourselves, but “Yes” to life for others as well—life for the snail darter in this stream; life for the kingfisher perched overhead, life for the deer who graze on the grass in this place, life for the geese who come here in search of clean water. Our lives are a right—they are not a dispensation from those in power, and those in power have no right to threaten to take our lives away.
Today, in this place, we stand against death. Against the unconscionable idea of a $7.5 billion dollar bomb plant in Oak Ridge. Against the immoral and illegal production of nuclear weapons at this bomb plant, ongoing even as we speak. Against the threat of nuclear destruction at every map coordinate toward which these warheads are aimed.
We stand against the death of a thousand cuts—of dreams unrealized, of hope crushed, of morality corrupted, of history distorted, of peace denied—by the Bomb, by the policies that continue the global nuclear arms race, by the diversion of our common treasury to build more and more and more bombs and more and more bomb plants.
We have a right to life. We have a right to clean water. We have a right to a future that is not cloaked in dread of a nuclear exchange. We have a right to the tree of life…