In 1945, Paul Pappas was one of the US Marines who entered Nagasaki shortly after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Today, in his nineties, he is a committed pacifist who can often be found speaking with the teens in his neighborhood about the evils of war. Paul made the comments below to a gathering at Bellvale Bruderhof in Chester, New York, where he is a member, after reading the story of George Zabelka, the army chaplain who blessed the bombers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At this time of year I always think about what we did over there. In the summer of 1945 I was stationed on Saipan, one island north of Tinian Island, where the planes carrying the A-bombs took off, and I was among the first troops to land in Nagasaki after the war. And still today the story is repeated that the atomic bombs were dropped in order to save lives – American lives that would have been lost if we’d have had to invade Japan.
The unit I was with was scheduled to be in that invasion, if it had ever taken place. But it turns out the Japanese were seeking peace long before August 6, 1945, and our government knew it.
When German planes started to bomb England in 1939 and 1940, Winston Churchill said it was a crime against humanity, and it was. But we went on to commit the same crimes! In war there is no limit; you’ll do anything. And the longer a war goes on, the worse it gets. The so-called victor is generally the one who proves to be the most destructive, who kills the most people.
Some time ago I heard George Webber, a local veteran of the Vietnam War, speak about his experiences. He had been with the Navy, and he said, “I spent three years of my life killing people.”
As a former Marine, I have to say the same. It’s completely irrelevant who it was who pulled the trigger, who it was who dropped the bomb. We all did it. That was what we were there for. We were there to kill and destroy.
Nagasaki was the center of Catholicism in Japan. It had a big cathedral, and if I’m not mistaken, it had the biggest Christian population of any city in the country. And yet there we were – Catholics killing Catholics, and Protestants killing Protestants.
After the war, one of the things I grappled with was the question of allegiance. Where, as a Christian, should your allegiance be? As soldiers, our allegiance was to the nation state, not to our brothers and sisters, nor to Jesus.
This worship of the nation state is one of the worst idolatries of our day. In fact, I think it’s probably the worst. But people can’t see it. Like George Zabelka, the chaplain of the A-bomb pilots, said, they are brainwashed.
I wish with all my heart that this were a time of repentance for our country – a time when we could recognize what we did. But we don’t want to face the horror of it. We’re too “good.” And so I can only foresee judgment coming. I don’t think anything will change without it. We should all be aware where we’re going to stand, what we’re going to represent.
Jesus said, “He who tries to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will save it.” That’s what it always comes down to: Are you going to save your own skin, or are you going to stand up for the truth?
At some point in our lives, we’ll each have to face this question. Of course, we’re all tempted to save our skins. It’s human nature. But the truth has to become more important to us than our own lives.
This is not just about Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If you think of all our soldiers over in Iraq, Afghanistan, and wherever else they are – how many have been taken in by a lie? Each of us who has seen the truth must live it; we must try to show the world that this endless cycle of violence and killing is not necessary; that people can live together in peace and harmony.
That’s why this time of year – the time of the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – is important. And I hope that people everywhere pause to consider it.
Banner photograph at top by Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr. (Marine Corps).