Michas Ohnstad is a veteran of World War II, a Lutheran Parish Pastor in Minnesota, and a former Minnesota State Representative. Editor's Note: The St. Croix Review will publish stories from our readership that reflect American history or the genuine American spirit.
With the advent of the atomic age world history have been separated into before the bomb and after. There is no erasure; there is no turning back. The atomic bomb is a fact and a reality. And it came into being in my generation. I was associated with the era of the inception of the atomic age through my military service in WWII.
World War II raged on in Europe and in the Pacific in 1945. I lost several high school classmates and friends in both theatres and only months after one classmate friend was killed in action in the Philippines I, too, was at Cabanatuan, Luzon, with 43rd Infantry Division.
In the Field, at that time, word was out that the next major move of the U.S. military would be the invasion of the Empire of Japan. We were told that we could expect to sustain a million casualties if we had to invade that Japan. Not a happy prospect for an 18-year-old soldier.
Then It Happened
Field radios told us that by order of President Harry S. Truman "atomic" bombs had been unleashed the morning of 6 August 1945 over the city of Hiroshima and on 9 August over the city of Nagasaki.
What kind of incredible thing was this "atomic" bomb? We had not heard of such a weapon. Neither had the world. It was unlike anything that had ever been used in the history of warfare. It was speculated that these new bombs were so deadly that vegetation would not grow for a hundred years!
Then, on August 14, 1945, my 19th birthday, Japan surrendered, and I received a birthday present to last me the rest of my life. My 43rd Infantry Division returned to the United States and I was transferred by troopship to Yokohama, Japan. Six days later I received orders from General MacArthur dated 30 September 1945 for duty at Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the atomic bomb commission.
The investigation group that I served with at Hiroshima was a relatively small assembly of American and Japanese medical specialists and nurses and support personnel charged with investigating the effects of the atomic bomb on the populace. Our area of work was "off-limits" to any other troops in the general area because of radiation concerns. One example may illustrate the point of the hundreds of persons examined ranging from autopsy of the deceased to those interviewed with seemingly limited radiation damage: A typical young Japanese lady came in for interview. She looked quite well and I wondered why she came in for interview and examination. When she removed her headscarf - her hair was just starting to grow back!
It is estimated that some 140,000 persons were killed at Hiroshima as a result of the bomb. At Nagasaki some 74,000 persons died.
As with most veterans I am proud to have served my country even though as an "atomic veteran" I, too, am one of the so-called walking wounded; over the head of every radiation-exposed veteran hangs the Damoclean sword - the unanswerable question of when, whether where or how will the consequence of radiation exposure affect me.
For me, the best answer lies in the realization that in war men are expendable - like the rounds of the military rifle!
General Eisenhower told the nation the truth that "history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or timid."
And finally, Douglas MacArthur, the great American General who ordered me to Hiroshima in 1945 reminds us with his words: "In war some live. And some die. And oftentimes the difference is but an eyelash."
In all likelihood because of the atomic bombs and by that "eyelash of difference" I lived and I conclude these comments not by alleging any "heroics" on my part but that I was only doing that which is the responsibility of any soldier, namely, I was "carrying out the lawful orders of my superiors." *