Such haunting words. They bring to mind, of course, the hideous images from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Unforgettable in their horror. And, ever since, the words “Ground Zero” have become embedded in our collective vocabulary.
The words “Ground Zero” became embedded in another generation’s vocabulary as well. Almost eight decades ago, on August 6, 1945. On that day U.S. forces dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Ground Zero” for Hiroshima was a one-mile radius in the center of the city, an area in which an estimated 150,000 people lost their lives in the aftermath of the explosion. Hiroshima was targeted because it was one of the most important communications and military centers in the country.
The purpose of this first nuclear attack in history was to expedite the end of World War ll and save the lives of potentially thousands of Allied soldiers and civilians. Three days later the atom bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.
In Hiroshima, it was reported that everything within a one-mile radius of Ground Zero was destroyed. But that wasn’t quite accurate. A group of four Jesuit priests who lived within that radius survived. The bomb exploded eight blocks from their parish church, the Church of Our Lady’s Assumption.
He, like all the citizens of Hiroshima, however, was feeling unusually jittery that day. Like his neighbor, Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, he was “almost sick with anxiety” in those early August days of 1945. Air-raid sirens were a nightly feature of life in the city. Of all the major cities in Japan, only two, Hiroshima and Kyoto, had not yet been attacked by the Allies’ B-29 bombers. Rumors were swirling around the city that “something special” was in store for them. Everyone was on edge.
They didn’t have long to wait. On the morning of August 6th at 8:15 in the morning Father Kleinsorge saw a “terrible flash” and raced outside. “All the buildings had fallen down except the Jesuit Mission House,” he said. He could hear the mission’s housekeeper, Murata-san, crying and repeating over and over, “Shu Jesusu, awaremi, takai!” “Our Lord Jesus, have pity on us!” “Our Lord Jesus, have pity on us!”
Although there was no sound everyone saw the light: “A tremendous flash of light cut across the sky,” said one. “It seemed like a sheet of sun!” said another. Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widow with three young children, recalled that “Everything flashed whiter than any white I had ever seen.” Father Pedro Arrupe, Rector of the novitiate at Nagatsuka (three kilometers from the center), described the light which filled the sky that morning as “overwhelming and baleful.”
After the explosion “huge drops of water, the size of marbles, began to fall” and the day became as night.
Four priests were in the three-story Jesuit parish Mission House at the time of the explosion. Father Hubert Cieslik was one of them. He recalled the event during an interview with Soul magazine in 1996: “I was sitting in my room in the parish house reciting the breviary when I noticed a light outside. I thought it was a bomb in the neighborhood and lay down on the floor, putting my hands over my head. When I arose, the wall had been destroyed.”
Father Siemes, who had been at the Jesuit Novitiate house described what he saw at the time of the explosion: “As a result of the bomb at 8:15 AM almost the entire city was destroyed at a single blow. The bomb exploded over the center of the city. Fire sprang up and spread rapidly. The heat which arose from the ground was so intense as to create a whirlwind, sweeping the fire across the city.” Radio Tokyo announced in a broadcast later that day: “Practically all living things human and animal were literally seared to death in the firestorm.”
American Pulitzer-prize winner, John Hersey, travelled to Hiroshima “while the ashes were still warm” to interview the tiny handful of survivors—the four Jesuit priests plus five others. He said that “95% of the people who were within a half mile of the center and many thousands of others were killed by the atomic blast.”
Yet the four priests living in the center of the storm survived! One can only ask “Why?” when so many others perished. Father Cieslik believed that it was God’s providence which saved them, these four who were “just 1,200 meters from Ground Zero.” He believed it was also Our Lady. In that house, they were devoted to the Rosary and made its recitation an essential component of their daily prayer life.
One of the Hiroshima priests, Father Hubert Schiffer, wrote a booklet on this subject, The Rosary of Hiroshima. He predicted that “the recitation of the Rosary for peace by countless persons all over the world will become an immense and irresistible spiritual force for peace.”
Immediately after the blast the sixteen Jesuits from the Novitiate began their rescue work. Father Arrupe, a medical doctor, organized the first medical team in the city to help the wounded; he turned the novitiate’s “exquisite” chapel into a makeshift hospital. Father Siemes wrote that “the next day was spent rescuing victims along the roads.” It was a fitting day for the Jesuits to embark on such work. August 7th was the anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus in Japan.
Father Arrupe and the Jesuits were publicly thanked by the Japanese government for their heroic relief work for the victims of the atomic blast.
Father Arrupe (1907-1991) would spend the next 20 years in Japan. He became the Vice-Provincial for the Jesuits in postwar Japan and later became the Superior General of the Order from 1965 to 1983 (with the most unfortunate consequences for the Jesuits).
The late Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen spoke about the atomic bomb and Our Lady in one of his radio programs: “God has given her the greater power over nature, not for death but for light and hope. There need not be World War III and there will not be one if we set the woman against the atom.”
Japan surrendered to the Allies six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, thus bringing an end to World War II. The date? It was August 15, the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven.
Seventy-six years later, on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, another bomb, this time of a spiritual nature, would explode on the world: Traditionis Custodes.
It is striking to note how many commentators have described the document in military terms: “bombshell decree,” “all-out assault,” “a nuclear weapon,” “Act of War.” McGill University professor, Douglas Farrow said in First Things, “Francis, himself, seems to have weaponized the Latin Mass in the very act of suppressing it.”(Italics mine)
In these historic times let us confidently turn to Our Lady and never forget: “She is fearsome as an army drawn up for battle.”