The Forgotten Bomb: Interview with Documentary Producer Craig Collie on the Destruction of Nagasaki



Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney.  He contributes articles—often interviews—to the History News Network, Crosscut, Real Change and other publications on history, international affairs, politics, human rights, medicine, the media and the arts.  He has worked as an attorney for federal agencies and for a congressional investigative committee, and as a law teacher and a hearing examiner.  He is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Law

Kokura’s luck: Avoiding a catastrophic event you
didn’t even know was threatened.
Japanese expression

Just three days after Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb attack in history, an American B-29 dropped a second nuclear device on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, incinerating a large area of the city and killing an estimated 80,000 people.           

If there is such a thing, the bombing of Nagasaki was a tragedy of errors. The original target of the second atomic bomb was the arms manufacturing city of Kokura but bad weather and mechanical failure saved Kokura and, rather than dropping the $2 billion bomb in ocean, the B-29 “Bockscar” flew onto and destroyed its secondary target, Nagasaki. That bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was the first  plutonium weapon in history, made from material produced at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

In his new book Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and the Unknowing (Allen & Unwin, 2011), Australian author and documentarian Craig Collie tells the story of the destruction of Nagasaki through the eyes of Japanese civilians based on recent eyewitness interviews as well as journals, letters and diaries. He frames these poignant accounts with moment by moment descriptions of the lives of the American air crews and the machinations of the military and political leaders of Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union in the waning days of a war that Japan had by then clearly lost.

As Mr. Collie writes, the bombing of Nagasaki was not a significant factor in Japan’s decision to surrender.  Mr. Collie vividly details the lives of ordinary Japanese civilians as well as the trauma and suffering inflicted by the bomb: the vaporization of humans, the terrible wounds, the survivors who begged to be killed. One witness recounted “shadowy people with eyes hanging from their sockets, fried hair and skin peeling off in strips.”

Mr. Collie’s Nagasaki has been praised for its gripping storytelling and illuminating new witness accounts.  Author Ian Lipke wrote: “This is a book that needs to be read. It exposes, without holding back, the terrible results of engaging in a nuclear war... [M]ost of all, it describes the terrible tragedies of individual people who were called upon to bear the punishments of the innocent. It is a must read.”  And writer Paul Syvret commented in the Brisbane Courier Mail: “This is one of those rare books that manages to make history live and breathe through the characters it introduces you to, while weaving them into the wider context of the final phases of our last great war... Seldom are writers able to inject this level of minutely detailed social history into such an account.  Collie has, and this is a corker. Unequivocally recommended.”

Craig Collie also wrote The Path of Infinite Sorrow (2009), the story of World War II combat in New Guinea from the Japanese point of view, and The Business of TV Production (2007). He is a well-established Australian television producer and director, and has recently been Production Executive at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and head of TV Production at SBS.

Mr. Collie kindly responded to questions about Nagasaki by email from his
home in Sydney, Australia.


What inspired your new book on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki?  Did it grow out of your past work?

It did in a way. My contact at the publisher Allen & Unwin emailed me because he’d been wondering how people in Nagasaki occupied their lives in the few days after Hiroshima and before they got their own bomb. Since I had previously written a book about the Japanese for them with Hajime Marutani (The Path of Infinite Sorrow), he thought it might be worth me looking into and, if there was a viable story there, the two of us could write it. 

Like most people, I knew a little about Hiroshima and bugger-all about Nagasaki. I did some initial research and found the Nagasaki story was a fascinating one, much more than the trouble-free Hiroshima mission.  Hajime lives in Tokyo, which is not very convenient for a story about Nagasaki. He has no contacts there and he was fairly tied up anyway with an enterprise he was trying to get off the ground. I hired a Nagasaki-based researcher by email instead and used Hajime as a sounding board from time to time. There are some connections between the two books, but they are fairly slender, apart from both being about Japanese people at the time of the Pacific War.

What was your research process?  Were you able to uncover new archival material and interview witnesses who hadn’t been reached before?

Research was in two parts: the story of individuals in Nagasaki over the relevant days, and the background story of the geopolitics of the war and the second bombing mission. The latter is extensively covered in existing written sources, including those obtained directly from participants in the events, none of whom are alive today. I didn’t find anything particularly new, but focused on the people involved and their personalities. For the former, it took some time via my existing contacts and contacting people on spec by email before I found a student at Nagasaki U to find and interview people who were in the vicinity of the bomb when it was dropped. There were a few who had written books or had oral histories on the Internet, although they mostly started on the day of the bomb.

Hanako [my researcher] tracked down some and talked to them about what they were doing in the days leading up to the bomb. She got remarkably personal stories. I’ve found in the past that people talk more intimately in their own language without a foreigner about, especially when they are talking to as bubbly a personality as Hanako. She emailed the interviews to me and they were translated by a subtitler from SBS-TV, the multicultural channel where I once worked. Hiroko the subtitler got so interested she did some detective work for me on Japanese websites. I later went to Nagasaki to meet the people Hanako had talked to and to ask some follow-up questions through her. A lot of these very personal stories had not been published before and there was probably detail they had told to few if any people before.

It’s marvelous that you were able to contact and share the story of survivors.  How would you describe the plan of the book?  You deal with the Hiroshima bombing initially and you tell the story of the atomic bombing through parallel accounts of Japanese civilians, U.S. airmen, as well as U.S., Japanese and Russian leaders.

The plan of the book is as you describe it. My background is in television production and I structure books in much the same way as I structure a TV program: start with something dramatic or arresting and proceed through some sort of dramatic arc to a climax, revelation or conclusion, digressing only when it is dramatically useful.

I had sufficient research before I formulated the structure. Enola Gay coming in on Hiroshima seemed to be a good place to start because I knew I had men from Nagasaki to carry the narrative on to there. The strands running in parallel would all crystallize at the watershed moment of the bomb exploding over Urakami [area of Nagasaki]. The story really structured itself once I knew what the main elements were.

Why do you think the U.S. decided to drop the Nagasaki bomb after the destruction of Hiroshima? 

The question implies there was a single prime reason as a result of consensus in the U.S. leadership, but actually different people believed it was being dropped for different reasons. The usual reason given is that Japan had not surrendered in response to the Hiroshima bomb and America wanted to create the impression it had a large supply of them waiting on the production line which it would readily use. However, there was some knowledge in the U.S. administration of how cumbersome Japan’s decision-making machinery was (although former Tokyo ambassador Grew had been sidelined), and the leadership knew Japan was already trying to get Russia to broker its surrender.

Others have suggested the military wanted to see what a plutonium bomb could do in a combat situation. A uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the target cities were selected because the bomb’s impact on them could be readily assessed, not because they were important military targets.  Or the real purpose of the bomb [may have been] to send a message to the Soviet Union, as General Groves of the Manhattan Project said was his understanding. In fact, once the order had been given by General Handy that bombs should be dropped in succession until Japan surrendered, decisions about bombing could be and were made in the field (on Tinian Island). The second bomb was dropped because no one in the senior U.S. leadership of government or defense thought to stop it.

What was the role of President Truman? 

President Truman’s role was to have no role. He didn’t give the order to drop the bombs, General Handy did, and he didn’t authorize Handy’s order. He knew the machinery was under way to drop them and allowed that to go ahead, until August 10 (after Nagasaki) when he ordered no further bombs to be dropped until he authorized it.

Did any U.S. military or civilian leaders oppose the atomic bombings before they occurred?

Some military leaders thought the bombs were unnecessary (or worse), and that Japan’s defeat was imminent anyway and that it would surrender well before the planned Allied invasion of Japan’s home islands in November. Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur and Admiral Leahy were of that view. Secretaries of War Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General Marshall had reservations about it, but were ignored. Few other civilians outside the Manhattan Project knew of the existence of the bomb to have an opinion about it. A small group of those scientists were opposed to its use by 1945, the best known being Dr. Leo Szilard.

Was the bombing of Nagasaki somehow redundant in terms of military strategy?

It depends what the military strategy is presumed to be. If it was to force Japan to surrender, it had no role in that. Japan’s decision was made in ignorance of the extent of damage by the bomb on Nagasaki. If it was to create an impression there was a ready supply of bombs, it might have done that with a realistic appreciation of the Nagasaki bomb … but there wasn’t one. If it was to put the wind up the Soviets, they already knew about the bomb through espionage [and the bombing of Hiroshima]. If it was a scientific experiment, it wasn’t redundant as it was a different bomb. If the bomb was dropped because no one stopped it, there is no military strategy in that.

Most readers probably aren’t aware that Nagasaki was a secondary target and the B-29 with the Nagasaki bomb was originally headed for Kokura but, because of weather, had to either drop the bomb on Nagasaki or into the sea. What is your sense of this improbable sequence of events?

Nagasaki was the back-up target on that mission if Kokura was unsuitable for some reason, so it wasn’t that improbable. The selected target cities were precluded from U.S. carpet-bombing and there was awareness in Nagasaki they had been spared the aerial destruction many other cities had suffered, although they had no idea why. However, Nagasaki wouldn’t have been on the list of targets at all, had not Stimson vigorously opposed Kyoto being on it. And the bomb might have been dropped on Kokura anyway, despite the weather, but for smoke from the overnight firebombing of neighboring Yawata adding to the visibility problems. Visibility of the mission target was no better in Nagasaki than Kokura, but the mission didn’t want to risk coming back with an armed bomb or to drop it in the Pacific Ocean. Hence, it was dropped on an ad hoc target in the Urakami valley.

Can you describe the extent of damage of the Nagasaki both in terms of human loss and physical destruction? How did radiation affect survivors of the initial blast?

No one knows exactly how many people were killed by the Nagasaki bomb, but the median figure of the estimates is about 80,000, of which roughly half were killed on the day and half subsequently from injuries or radiation illness. This is smaller than the figure for Hiroshima, where the bomb was dropped in the middle of a flat city. The Nagasaki bomb was dropped up a valley in a hilly city, some distance from its intended target.

I haven’t researched post-bomb injuries in any depth because my book essentially finishes the morning after the bomb, but my impression is that there was a lower proportion of subsequent death from radiation than at Hiroshima, although even there the usual estimate is that only 15-20 percent of subsequent deaths were from radiation. I found quite a lot of anecdotal evidence of people suffering radiation illness symptoms within a few days or a week of the blast, but eventually recovering their health. I’ve not seen any evidence of radiation-affected genes carrying mutations into the next generation.

You just need to see the post-bomb photos of the Urakami valley to see how it flattened everything within a couple of kilometers or more that wasn’t made out of reinforced concrete. Further afield, into the neighboring Nakajima valley the intense heat of the blast wave set buildings on fire, sometimes after smoldering for some time. There’s detailed description of the destruction in the book for those who are interested further.

POWs were held in Nagasaki.  How did the bomb affect them?

There were about 200 POWs in the camp in the Urakami valley, of which eight were killed in the blast or shortly after. None of the 24 Australians were killed, although a couple were injured by falling debris. None of the Australians were subsequently killed by radiation. Indeed, I’ve not seen any evidence they even suffered radiation illness and recovered, but I really only focused on two of the Australians, so it’s possible some did and it has escaped my notice. Allan Chick, one of the two, was tested years later for radiation effects but nothing came of it. In any case, he’s the only Australian from the camp still living.

I don’t know whether the Dutch or British prisoners suffered radiation symptoms. I haven’t looked into them in any detail. Fukuoka Camp 14 would seem to be one of the more benign POW camps, so its prisoners are less bitter about the Japanese than many other ex-POWs. Their concern had been that they might be slaughtered as reprisal if the Allies invaded Japan. Some, no doubt, are of the view that the bomb saved their lives (apart from the eight killed by it) but that would be prompted by the Allied version of the bomb’s purpose.

Can you discuss your sense that the entry of Russians into the war against Japan was more important to the Japanese decision to surrender than the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Craig Collie: In the Japanese cabinet’s conferences on August 9, 1945, there was only sporadic mention of Hiroshima. The Japanese were still trying work out exactly what sort of weapon had been used and were coming to the conclusion it must have been an atomic bomb, even if conventional wisdom was that the bomb was still a year or two from realization. However the destruction caused by the bomb—to the extent the leadership was aware of it—didn’t have the impact on a country, whose cities have already been devastated by fire-bombing, that it might have on a place that has never seen that level of destruction. It was not a matter of some awesome new level of destruction, just of more of the same, but worse. News of the Nagasaki bomb came in the late morning, but it was underreported, so Nagasaki had no impact on the day’s discussions.

The debate during the day was not about whether Japan could win the war—everyone knew the war was already lost—but about whether to surrender immediately or fight on to try to extract better surrender conditions. The Soviet entry into the war was a mitigating factor. The Japanese leadership knew victory over the Kwantung Army would be easy and the Russians would be moving quickly towards Japan. They already had some experience of Soviet ruthlessness from the war in Nomonhan before the Pacific War broke out and didn’t want a repeat of that.

The Japanese much preferred to take their chances surrendering to the Americans alone than in conjunction with the Russians. This was a factor driving the ‘surrender now’ faction, but in the end Japan surrendered because Hirohito had decided the war had reached a hopeless position. He broke with the convention that the government makes the decisions and the emperor ratifies them, and made the decision himself that Japan must surrender. This is easier to comprehend by Australians or English, where the decision-making process is similar, than by Americans where the president has far greater power than the monarch or governor-general. The assumption in the U.S. seems to me to be that Hirohito was orchestrating the war all along. I doubt that, although he may have been as patriotically sympathetic as the Japanese people were for some time.

You mention that the Japanese were also developing a nuclear weapon.  How close were they to an operational bomb?

The Japanese had got far enough in their development to know a nuclear bomb was feasible, but like everyone else they thought it was two or three years away. They were probably that far away when the Allies unintentionally destroyed their research facility. That they hadn’t set the facility up to be better protected from air attack suggests they had no expectation of imminent returns on the research. They were having difficulty securing uranium ore at that stage of the war.

Historians such as Michael Burleigh argue that, but for the atomic bombings, the U.S. would have been required to invade Japan, the Japanese population would have fought to the death, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Japanese lives would have been lost.  He also believes that Japan’s Kwantung Army in China was capable of fighting on for an extended period.  What do you think?

I don’t know of Michel Burleigh and, with respect, it’s not a very unique opinion, but is presumably sincerely held. His view is the one used by the Allied leadership to justify use of so devastating a weapon as the atomic bomb. There’s obviously an element of self-interest in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. However, I’m not persuaded of it. The U.S. military had planned to invade the home islands in November, three months after the bombs were dropped, but most of the evidence points to the war being unlikely to last that long, even without the bomb; probably even without the Soviet Union entering it.

The Japanese were looking to broker a conditional surrender at the time which, despite its clumsiness, couldn’t have dragged on till November … and it didn’t! The Imperial Japanese Navy had virtually ceased to exist; Japan was blockaded so that supplies could not be brought in and also so that trained soldiers (the majority on mainland Asia) could not be brought back. Japan would have been largely defended by a home guard and citizens with sharpened bamboo sticks. Although there was still strong patriotic support among the people for their country and their emperor, they were heartily sick of the war and disillusioned with their leadership. Had they fought to the death—and it’s possible in the unlikely event that it would get to that stage—the thousands of deaths would have been Japanese, not American.

The assault on Okinawa isn’t a relevant comparison because Okinawa was still supplied, albeit shakily, and it was defended by the actual army. In any case, the speed with which the Japanese people adjusted to the reality of defeat suggests it would have taken little—no more than a word from the emperor—to bring it to a finish. Some of the nuances here weren’t necessarily known to the Allied leadership at the time—although many were—but certainly should be known to modern historians enjoying the benefit of hindsight.

The Kwantung Army by 1945 was a hollow shell that existed largely on paper, asset-stripped to supply the war effort elsewhere. That’s why the Soviets were able to roll across Manchuria virtually unimpeded. An army as under-trained and under-supplied as the Kwantung Army was incapable of fighting any longer than briefly before the inevitable outcome. The U.S. and Soviet Union may not have known that at the time, but the Japanese did and we know it now.

You’re now an expert on the use of atomic weapons in the Second World War. What was your sense when you heard about the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power plant problems in 2011?

Thank you for the assumption, but I’m afraid I’m no more than a cocktail party expert. However, I’ll attempt to answer your question, which is not easy.

My nephew was then living near Sendai, so that was my immediate concern, although thankfully he survived. I must admit it did occur to me that news of more suffering by the Japanese people might increase interest in my book, which was just about to come out, although there’s no evidence I can see that it’s had any impact on sales. I suppose my main thought that came out of it was how much the Japanese people seem to suffer great disasters—the sarin poisoning on the Tokyo subway, the Kobe earthquake, the atomic bombs (some would say they brought the war on themselves, or their leader did, and there’s something in that)—and how there’s a stoicism in their culture that sees them through.

I have a great regard for the Japanese people and have found them gentle and courteous (in contrast to their reported behavior in the war, much of which I have no reason to doubt). The more I get to know these initially inscrutable folk, the more they seem little different to anyone else I know. I’ve tried to bring that out in my two books about Japanese people. Sometimes they like to think they’re unique, but I’m afraid I don’t think that they’re that different, nor conversely as alien as some would hold.

What is your background as a historian and how did you start writing history?

My background is as a television producer-director (of documentaries principally) and network executive. I have no qualifications as a historian. At university I studied science (zoology and biochemistry) and later, law.

I started writing history because I had worked as executive producer on a documentary series for The History Channel about the Kokoda campaign between Australian and Japanese soldiers in Papua New Guinea in the Second World War. I had previously written a textbook about TV producing and enjoyed the process, so I proposed a book about the Japanese story of Kokoda based on the six veterans of the campaign we had interviewed for the TV show. Kokoda, a peripheral campaign in World War II, has iconic status in Australia because it was believed to be the start of the Japanese invasion of Australia (it wasn’t) and it was fought in appalling conditions along a muddy track in the mountain jungle of New Guinea. There were a few books about the Australian experience of Kokoda, but none about the Japanese.

Allen & Unwin commissioned the Kokoda book (The Path of Infinite Sorrow) and that started me writing about history without any formal expertise in the discipline. Following that, the same publisher commissioned Nagasaki and one I’m currently writing about an Australian journalist in China during the republican revolution, both on historical subjects.

Allen & Unwin have just commissioned a fourth book about code breaking in the Pacific War. They are all fairly recent history (all in the last 100 years) and relate to war in one way or another, although I have no particular interest in warfare except that it can be very revealing about the good and the bad in human nature.

You have a strong storytelling style.  Who are your influences or who do you like to read as a historian and an author?

I think of my stories as ‘yarns’, not literary or academic works, although I strive to tell these stories of the past as accurately as an academic writer would. If I have a strong storytelling style, it is probably from my experience in film and television (I started professional life as a film editor) and my understanding of what engages an audience in the unforgiving mass media. My interest is to illuminate the human side of people caught up in the events of history, whether they’re major participants or just ordinary folk trying to navigate their way through them.

A great influence on my thinking is what Simon Schama did with English historical characters in the TV series A History of Britain. He brought these dry old historical figures to life with his descriptions so they became recognizable people. I also like what Susan Sontag (The Volcano Lovers) and Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) have done with history, although they probably take more liberties with the known facts than I do.

I have a preference for a spare, unembellished writing style, the sort of style seen in writers like Paul Theroux, JM Coetzee, Nick Hornby and others. Because of the type of story I wanted to tell in Nagasaki—a sort of historical political thriller—I read some John Grisham to get an idea of how he handled the genre. It’s not one I read avidly. I enjoy reading the ironic disingenuousness of Henry James and the more gothic tales of Charles Dickens, but whether they have any influence on the way I write, I couldn’t tell.

Do you have any comments on what you hope readers will take from the book?

Apart from the pleasure of reading a fascinating story, I guess I hope readers of all my books get the idea that characters at all levels of historical events are recognizable people, human beings not unlike ourselves. In Nagasaki, I tried to bring out the human aspects and get into the personalities of Truman and Stalin, Togo, Anami and Hirohito, and Groves, Oppenheimer, Sweeney and Tibbets. Even more importantly perhaps was to find familiarity in the ordinary people of Nagasaki and to get over the idea that despite the different cultural surface, underneath they are not particularly different from you or me. If that sounds platitudinous, I make no apology for it. The teenagers, Mitsue Takeno and Koichi Wada, are recognizable teenagers from the 1940s, and I would hope we can see familiar people in the social assertiveness of Miwa Takigawa and the self-doubt of fastidious Dr Akizuki.

Books about horrific events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki are usually gothic stories about anonymous people, so it is easier for readers to distance themselves from it. I thought if the reader gets to know the people first, it makes their experience of the horror of the bomb far more poignant.

Do you have any comments on what you’d like to see citizens do in terms of existing nuclear arsenals and continued production of nuclear weapons?

In the ideal world, there would be no nuclear weapons, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Nations with nuclear weapons want to keep them; at the same time insisting other nations should not be allowed to develop them.

The best we can do as citizens is to strive to contain their proliferation and prevent their use. If they can be reduced, so much the better. As citizens of the planet, we’ve had some success with that and can take comfort from it. The last nuclear weapon to be used in warfare is the one described in my book and that was 65 years ago and one of only two that have been used at all. The concern is always the potential of ‘rogue’ nations and non-nation groups to use them and that’s hard for ordinary people to combat. Of course, nuclear science also has its beneficial side, in areas like medicine and power generation, despite Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and insights on this cataclysmic historic event, Craig.

comments powered by Disqus