Malcolm Barker: Echoes of nuclear blast that reverberate forever as VJ Day remembered

IT is exceedingly strange that I have no reliable memories of the most momentous day of my long life, August 15, 1945, which marked Victory over Japan, and therefore the conclusion of the Second World War.

Its significance has if anything intensified over the subsequent 70 years, for the end of hostilities was achieved by unleashing an appalling terror – the atom bomb. Suddenly mankind was possessed of the means to wipe itself out, and become extinct like the dinosaurs.

Albert Einstein, addressing himself to prominent Americans by telegram in 1946, wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”

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Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese war-lord subsequently known as Chairman Mao, was more sanguine and said in the same year: “The bomb is a paper tiger.”

In a sense both men have been proved right. We remain a mere trigger-pull from mass elimination, but nobody – thank God – has used the ultimate weapon since 1945.

As to the military, there was immediate realisation that the bomb was a destructive force against which neither clever manoeuvres nor ingenious strategies would prevail. A contributor to the British Army Journal in 1949 conceded: “The best defence against an atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off.”

Even without the bomb, we were adept at partial annihilation. The war that had been brought abruptly to an end had cost an estimated 60 million lives, the highest death toll in any conflict in human history. I had just turned 14 then, a feckless lad no doubt, but an avid newspaper reader, and therefore well-briefed on world events, having followed the course of the war in The Yorkshire Post.

But I have no recollection of anything particularly special happening on that August 15th, no ceremony, no parading, no jollifications, and, most remarkable of all, not even a church service, for Whitby, where we lived, was a great place for hymns, prayers and thanksgiving in those times.

It is as though the day had passed us by on carpet slippers. I spent it picking pears at an orchard in Sleights, and was sent home with a fluffy grey and white kitten. Seeking a name, mother decided on one that accorded with VJ Day. The kitten soon grew into a belligerent and greedy tom that bore the scars of many unsuccessful encounters. Incongruously, we had called him Victor.

Lacking more significant memories, it has been necessary to have recourse to newspaper archives, now available online but in my day known as back numbers, stored between hard covers in a basement, their pages yellowing and crumbly. We had come out of the European war victorious but seriously impoverished. The euphoria of VE Day soon subsided, and short rations became even shorter. Our losses were substantial – 375,000 service personnel and 60,000 civilians. This represented about two per cent of the total killed globally; Russia’s share was 60 per cent.

In fact, we had to accept that we were very much the junior partners in victory, and the fate of the world was probably decided when Hitler attacked Russia and Emperor Hirohito provoked the United States of America. By the end of the fighting in August, both Western war leaders had gone. President Franklin D Roosevelt of the USA died on April 12, shortly before VE Day, and Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party lost a General Election. He consoled himself that summer by painting landscapes and street scenes in southern France.

In Whitby the holiday crowds returned in gratifying numbers and the fishing fleet, returning to its home port after war service, recorded good catches from waters that had not been fished intensively for six years. Huge shoals of herring were reported offshore. We followed the General Election campaign carefully in our household because my father, Tom Barker, who was understudying his father as editor of the Whitby Gazette, was anxious to give a balanced show to the candidates for the Scarborough and Whitby seat.

Moreover, mother’s father, Henry Fisher, was a supporter of the Labour-Co-operative Party, teased as “Whitby’s only known Socialist”. Grandfather contained his glee wonderfully well at the ascension of Clement Attlee to No 10 Downing Street.

As July and August wore on, it was plain that the war was going against the Japanese. William Slim’s British 14th “Forgotten Army” had ejected them from Burma. On April 1, American troops stormed the island of Okinawa. By June 21, the southern end of the island had been reached and, except for small by-passed pockets of resistance, the fighting was over.

Overall American losses in the land battle were 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded and 239 missing. The US Navy reported 4,907 seamen killed or missing, and another 4,874 wounded.

It is highly likely that the scale of these losses was interpreted in the Pentagon and the White House as a foretaste of the cost of an invasion of the Japanese mainland, and strengthened the hand of those who wished to use the new weapons. Their arguments prevailed, and on August 6 at 8.15am local time an atom bomb was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress at 31,600ft. It exploded 47 seconds later in mid-air, and Hiroshima and its people virtually ceased to exist. Three days later it was the turn of Nagasaki.

By Wednesday, August 8, many column inches had been devoted to the destruction of Hiroshima that had, according to one headline, been “blotted out”, vanishing in a “mountain of smoke more than seven miles high”.

Japan had had enough. In his first-ever radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito blamed the use of a “new and most cruel bomb” for his nation’s surrender, omitting to mention an Allied ultimatum rejected on July 28. Our King, George VI, broadcast to his people a warning that “we shall feel its inevitable consequences long after we have all forgotten our rejoicing today”.

As he had done throughout the war, the King found exactly the right words.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of The Yorkshire Evening Post.