Allow me this bit of personal reflection on what arguably may be the most globally significant event of the 20th century.
President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of a very large bomb on a Japanese city 68 years ago this week. It was on Aug. 6, 1945 that a long-range B-29 bomber nicknamed the “Enola Gay” took off from a small Pacific island and headed for Japan. The Enola Gay, named after the mother of the plane’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbitts, dropped a single bomb on Hiroshima. It killed tens of thousands of people instantly. It sent a clear message to the Japanese Empire: We’ve got this great weapon and we aren’t afraid to use it.
The president ordered another atomic bomb mission three days later. It caused similar devastation damage to Nagasaki, Japan. Five days after that, the Japanese surrendered. And on Sept. 2, 1945, U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur — who commanded all Allied forces in the Pacific — accepted the signed documents in Tokyo Harbor that ended World War II.
Why am I so interested in all of this? Why the personal stake?
My late father was serving in the U.S. Navy at that very moment in history. Pete Kanelis was a boatswain’s mate stationed in the Philippines. I do not know precisely what he would have done when the inevitable invasion of Japan would occur, but he would have been a part of what virtually everyone in America believed would be the bloodiest battle imaginable to secure a final victory.
Dad had been through hell already in another combat theater, in the Mediterranean Sea. He had taken part in three invasions: North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He had endured during one stretch 105 consecutive days of aerial bombardment from German and Italian aircraft. When they sounded general quarters aboard ship, Dad would strap himself into a 3-inch/50-calibre gun. Dad recorded at least one kill firing that weapon, a German JU-88 medium-range bomber he shot out of the sky.
Dad’s luck ran out, though, when an Italian dive bomber sank his ship. Dad dived into the drink, where he treaded water before a British destroyer picked him up.
After that, Dad came back to the States for a time, and then was deployed to the Pacific Theater.
He didn’t talk too much about those experiences. He would respond when I asked him but he didn’t volunteer this history of himself.
The tide of battle had turned in the Pacific by the time Dad got there. It was just a matter of time before our forces would win that war. But the president, brand new in the office after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, learned of this frightening way to end the war more quickly. The atomic bomb had been exploded successfully in July 1945 near Las Cruces, N.M. The brass presented the president with the option of dropping one of those bombs on the Japanese.
Truman’s decision — based on what he knew at the time — was the right one. Second-guessers have questioned the wisdom of that decision, but they — unlike the president and his national security team at the time — have the wisdom of hindsight. Truman knew he had to something to end the bloodshed and in his mind, this terrible weapon was the best option available to him.
The Japanese knew immediately after the two weapons fell on them that their effort was doomed. So, rather than risking perhaps millions of Japanese and American lives in a futile fight, they surrendered.
One of those American victims could well have been my father. Thus, you see why I am grateful for President Truman’s courage.
The president well could have saved my father’s life and, as they say, allowed me to be here today to write about it.
Thank you, Mr. President.