WASHINGTON -- The two men in front of me are muttering something in Japanese in the hushed tones of people at a religious event. In fact, there is a sort of memorial service taking place here. A crowd gathers every few minutes in a corner of the National Air and Space Museum, everyone self-consciously solemn, to watch a videotape of the city of Hiroshima as it's about to be removed from the face of the earth.
On a giant television screen, old black-and-white film footage shows the pilot, Paul Tibbets, with his head sticking out of the B-29 called the Enola Gay. Give us a wave, a photographer hollers. For a moment, Tibbets wears an oddly goofy grin on his face. There is darkness all around him. It is 50 years ago, Aug. 6, 1945.
I am looking for the face of Jacob Beser in the old film clips. He is dead three years now, but he was there on the island of Tinian, climbing into the Enola Gay at 2:20 that morning as it prepared to drop the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
I am wondering what the two Japanese men are thinking as the plane begins its take-off. I am wondering if an expression of sadness should be offered them. I can feel the iron grip of Jacob Beser's ghost on my arm. Watch your language, he says.
He was just a kid when that day started, a 24-year-old radar operator not entirely certain where he was headed. He'd graduated Baltimore City College, and then dropped out of the Johns Hopkins University when America entered the war. Many years later I would see him at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where he still held onto the details of that flight over Hiroshima, and the one three days later over Nagasaki, in the plane called Bock's Car. He was the only man who flew both atomic bomb missions, and he never for a moment expressed regret.
"War itself is immoral," he said one morning a few years before he died. You felt he'd said these words a thousand times before, or maybe a million, but there was still ferocious conviction behind them. "If you're out to kill a man, it doesn't matter whether you do it with a gun or a bomb."
The two atomic bombs ended World War II. All through the months leading up to the 50th anniversary of the war's end, as this museum prepared an exhibit commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a furious debate erupted between those who wanted to celebrate the American victory and those who would mark it but take a more somber approach, noting the terrible toll on the Japanese. Thousands died instantly, and thousands more would die from the rain of fire, the atomic fallout, the radiation poisoning.
Some said we had no business sounding any note of sadness. Remember Pearl Harbor, they said. Remember the Bataan death march, they said. Think of all the American lives that were saved, they said.
Jacob Beser said it was pointless to debate the morality of the bombs. They did what they were supposed to do: kill the enemy, just as millions across the planet had already been killed; and save American boys who might have had to invade Japan; and end the bloody fighting at last.
He said he'd been up for 40 straight hours when he boarded the Enola Gay that morning. The bomb was nicknamed Little Boy. Airborne on perhaps humanity's most important flight, he'd rolled his parachute into a pillow. And he'd fallen asleep.
Over Iwo Jima, he remembered, he was awakened suddenly. crew member, feeling inexplicably playful, rolled an orange down a ridge from the front of the plane back to Beser's station by the radar equipment. The orange hit Beser. The ridge was directly over the bomb bay housing Little Boy.
"That's when they told us," he said, "that the weather reports marked Hiroshima as a clear target. We got there about 8:15. The weather was beautiful. No clouds, no fighters, no flak, no nothing."
He spent the rest of his life, though, describing not only the terrible things that he saw but the reasons they had to happen. Sometimes there were late-night telephone calls. Killer, someone anonymous would call him. Sometimes there were face-to-face confrontations. He never backed down.
What helped sustain him were the others who approached him: the Americans who told him, "You saved my life. If it hadn't been for the bomb, I'd have had to go into Japan." Or the Japanese woman who approached him in 1985, at services marking the 40th anniversary of the bomb. She'd been in Hiroshima when it was leveled.
"You had a job to do, and you did it," she said.
I don't know if the two Japanese men in front of me feel the same way. On the big museum screen, there is wild American celebrating as the war comes to an end. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the bombs created temperature of 3,600 degrees, some of the victims were simply vaporized. Their shadows were burned into the concrete.
I want to say I'm sorry to the Japanese men, and hope that Jacob Beser's ghost will understand. It's not an apology exactly. I want to express sorrow for such human suffering on both sides of the bomb line, and hope they will offer sorrow back. And then all of us will swear such things will never have to happen again, or else we've learned nothing at all in the last 50 years.