The lives of Pedro Arrupe and Leonard Cheshire were changed forever when the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nicholas King Si welcomes a new book which views the grim events of fifty years ago through their eyes.
Pika-Don, by George Bishop Fisher Miller Publishing, Basingstoke £9.95
THE NI OMIC BOMB which fell on Hiroshima made a blasphemous mockery of the fact that the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th, the day it was let loose. Plea-Don means Lightning -Thunder in Japanese, and was how the victims described the first observable effects of the bomb, which was "brighter than a thousand suns". Many people have thought that it darkened for ever the radiance of God, although others have observed that evil powers can take on the appearance of light.
This book's author, George Bishop, makes intelligent use of the story of two men who were there when the bomb was dropped. The first of these was Pedro Arrupe, who was in Hiroshima at the time because he was novice master for the Japanese region of the Society of Jesus. Arrupe turned the novices' chapel into a hospital ward, and resurrected his medical skills to care for those wounded in the blast.
With a not unjustified pride, Arrupe recorded that in this makeshift hospital "only two persons died", and several came to Christianity because of what they found there. Later on, of course, Pedro Arrupe became Provincial of Japan and subsequently one of the best-loved of Jesuit Generals, with his uncanny resemblance to that other Basque who founded the Society of Jesus.
The other man there was Leonard Cheshire, who flew as an observer in the plane that dropped the bomb, not on Hiroshima (to his disappointment there was no room for him in that plane) but on Nagasaki. His life too was irrevocably changed by the dropping of the bomb. He returned from war determined to help his fellow human beings instead of killing them; and so he turned his dilapidated country mansion into a home for incurably sick people, the first of the Leonard Cheshire homes that have been set up all over the world. He also became a Catholic after seeing a priest minister to a Catholic who was dying in his home.
In the last chapter of the book George Bishop gives a moving account of the meeting of the two men, one evening after Mass in the Jesuit church at Farm Street, London, and, in a postscript, their deaths within a year of each other.
The story has a dramatic beginning, with the arrest in 1942 of Arrupe as a foreign spy, to which Bishop weaves in the tale of the Manhattan Project in a deadpan style that underlines the horror of it all. The "faction" method which the author adopts can occasionally give a rather stylised air to the narrative; but it does have the merit of bringing out the dreadful detachment that some of the scientists displayed towards the monster that they were bringing into the world, and their indifference to the ethical questions it raised.
Nor were the politicians much better. Bishop quotes Churchill to the effect that "there was never a moment's discussion as to whether the bomb should be used or not", and one wants to know why on earth not.
As they looked down on the pillar of cloud that the bomb threw miles up into the air above Hiroshima, the co-pilot of the Enola Ga,y said aloud: "My God, what have we done?" Well might he ask: down there on the ground, it was the lucky ones that died, thousands of them vaporised instantly into nothing, thousands more simply killed or horribly wounded.
Then there was the radiation sickness that afflicted thousands more who must have blessed their good fortune in surviving, but who soon discovered that the bomb was still killing them, but slowly and painfully. Happily, though, in the providence of God, the story does not end with the unleashing of that monstrous evil, and the remainder of the book is an appealing tale of human heroism, especially on the part of some of the foreign Christians, including, fortunately, the Jesuits who were there. Arrupe was warned not to go back into the city "because there was a gas in the air that kills for seventy years", but he reflected that with 50,000 bodies ready to cause a plague unless they are cremated and 120,000 wounded to care for, "a priest cannot preserve his own life" (p 91). And there are heartening tales, too,of the quiet dignity of ordinary Japanese people, set against lively descriptions of the beauty of Japan; there are heroic stories of Japanese Jesuit novices conscripted into the army, and, on the other side, of American naval chaplains, courageous in combat. Human beings are at their best when things are at their worst; the transfigured glory of Christ is glimpsed when the darkness is at its thickest.
Still, though, the question remains: "my God, what have we done?". The dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki was brought forward a few days, to prevent the Russians from getting the credit, and it need not have been used.
The effect of this on Russian foreign and military policy was catastrophic; always inclined to paranoia, they now became determined to get themselves the latest and best models of these expensive toys. So started the treachery and the nuclear proliferation and the expenditure of billions of dollars and roubles that has so disgraced the last 50 years.
That money should certainly, whatever the arguments in the other direction, have been used to make the world a better place, where health and education and enough good for all are readily available.
For all our follies, however, God is unceasingly at work in human hearts, and so Leonard Cheshire was moved to start his compassionate project (and it is compassion that marks us humans at our best); and Pedro Arrupe was ever afterwards determined to make us see that the mission of the Jesuits, as of other Christians, was identically the service of faith and the promotion of justice.
In the end, this is a heartening book, and should be widely read, not merely so that we may say "never again", but also so that we may learn to see the working of God in a world that appears to have gone dark.