Pope Francis, two little boys and “the fruit of war”

“We continued to seek some way to enter the city [of Hiroshima], but it was impossible. Then we did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such massive carnage: we fell to our knees and prayed for guidance, because we were deprived of any human help.”
– Fr Pedro Arrupe, Jesuit Missionary, Japan 1945

This article is published by the Society of African Missions to mark the distribution by Pope Francis of a photograph of two young brothers, both victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. At a time when the intemperate rhetoric of the leaders of the USA and North Korea are fuelling fears of nuclear conflict, Pope Francis has issued the photograph as a reminder of “the fruit of war”.

Little Boy and Fat Man Bombs

The atomic bombs, grotesquely named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, marked the beginning of the era of nuclear terror. In solidarity with the Holy Father’s intentions, we are publishing the eyewitness testimony of Jesuit missionary, Fr Pedro Arrupe, in Hiroshima, and the heart wrenching story of Dr Paul Takashi Nagai who, upon returning home, found the partial remains of his wife and her rosary beads. Nagasaki was, at the time of the explosion, the epicentre of Catholicism in Japan. 

Pope Francis wishes to remind the world of the human and intergenerational devastation unleased upon the peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 through the distribution of the photograph. There is little one can say about the image other than the two boys are brothers, from Nagasaki, devastated by ‘Fat Man’ and the older brother is carrying his young sibling to a crematorium for disposal.

The photograph was taken by Irish-American US Marine Joseph O’Donnell shortly after the bombs fell. According to the US Library of Congress, O’Donnell spent four years documenting the aftermath of the atomic bombings.

Pope Francis had the words “the fruit of war” written on the back of the picture along with his signature “Franciscus.” A short caption explaining the content and origin of the photo reads: “The young boy’s sadness is expressed only in his gesture of biting his lips which are oozing blood.”

Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ in Japan

A little known historical fact about the bombing of Hiroshima is that a former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Pedro Arrupe SJ (1907-1991), was an eyewitness. Fr. Arrupe became the 28th Superior General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983, responsible for guiding the order through the changes of the Second Vatican Council. 

At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, “Little Boy”, the first atomic bomb, dropped from an American B29, exploded with a power equal to 13,000 tons of dynamite, instantly causing 80,000 victims who became 350,000 by the end of the year. 

Fr. Arrupe recalled:

Survivors walk through the destruction as fire rages in the background

“I was in my room with another priest at 8.15 when suddenly we saw a blinding light, like a magnesium flare. As soon as I opened the door that overlooked the city, we heard an explosion similar to the formidable blow of the wind of a hurricane. At the same time the doors, windows and walls blasted upon us in pieces.

We climbed a hill to get a better view. From there we could see a city in ruins: in front of us was a decimated Hiroshima. As this happened while in every kitchen the first meal was being prepared, the naked flame in contact with electric current, within two a half hours, turned the whole city into blazing inferno. I will never forget my first sight of what was the effect of the atomic bomb: a group of young women, eighteen or twenty years old, clinging to each other as they dragged themselves along the road.

We continued to seek some way to enter the city, but it was impossible. Then we did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such massive carnage: we fell to our knees and prayed for guidance, because we were deprived of any human help.”

Fr. Arrupe who, before joining the Jesuits in 1927 had spent some years at medical school, assisted by his confreres, used his medical training to give aid to some 150 victims. 

A rosary from the ashes of Nagasaki

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Nagasaki

At 11:02 am on August 9th 1945, a US B29 bomber dropped ‘Fat Man’, instantly killing 44,000 people. Approximately 40,000 more died in the next four months due to deadly radiation. 

That morning Dr Paul Takashi Nagai (1908-1951), a radiologist and dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Nagasaki, was at his job not far from the epicentre of the explosion but separated from it by the backbone of a hill. Beyond that hill lived a large Catholic community.

The bomb primarily struck the Catholic district of Nagasaki, the most numerous and important centre for the Church in the Far East. The Catholic community had more than 12,000 faithful in 1945. Almost all perished.

After the bomb, Mary stands by the cross in Nagasaki Cathedral

The epicentre of the explosion was St. Mary’s Cathedral which, among other things, at that time was crowded with the faithful queuing for confession in preparation for the Feast of the Assumption.

Dr Nagai’s house was located close to the cathedral. When he was able to return he found only ashes and bones. As an expert radiologist he identified the remains of his wife, Midori. Among the bones of a hand he saw something gleam. It was a rosary and a crucifix. He placed everything into a bucket and as he made his way towards the graveyard he heard the rosary and crucifix jingle. He later testified that he imagined it was the voice of his wife whispering to him – hope!

Let us pray for all the victims of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that their suffering and deaths might be redeemed in the flowering of true justice and peace on Earth and the end of the Arms Race. 

Let us meditate on the whispering of hope heard by Dr Nagai. Let us commit to the Christian vision of Love and Justice as articulated by a witness and survivor of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: