BY CHRISTOPHER G. KERRMay 27, 2016

President Obama becomes the first U.S. president to visit the city of Hiroshima since the atomic bomb was dropped by U.S. bombers on August 6, 1945. According to most accounts nearly 140,000 civilians were killed, either immediately by the blast or in the days following as a result of the bomb’s radioactive effects.

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Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the late Superior General of the Jesuits, was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. His stories and personal reflections on the events of that day and those to follow were published in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, authored by Kevin Burke, S.J., in 2004. Burke’s book provided me with a new and deeper understanding of Arrupe’s life, one that has profoundly impacted my approach to the work of justice grounded in faith. The following are a few excerpts of Fr. Arrupe’s reflections that give a glimpse into what he, and the victims experienced.

The moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima

“I was in my room with another priest at 8:15 when suddenly we saw a blinding light, like a flash of magnesium. Naturally we were surprised and jumped up to see what was happening. As I opened the door which faced the city, we heard a formidable explosion similar to the blast of a hurricane. At the same time doors, windows, and walls fell upon us in smithereens.”

His First Trip Outside the Jesuit Novitiate

“I shall never forget my first sight of what was the result of the atomic bomb: a group of young women, eighteen or twenty years old, clinging to one another as they dragged themselves along the road. One had a blister that almost covered her chest; she had burns across half of her face, and a cut in her scalp caused probably by a falling tile, while great quantities of blood coursed freely down here face. On on and they came, a steady procession numbering some 150,000. This gives some idea of the scene of horror.”

On Opening up the Jesuit Novitiate as a Makeshift Hospital for Bombing Victims

“To cleanse the wounds it was necessary to puncture and open the blisters. We had in the house 150 people of whom one-third or one-half had open wounds. The work was painful because when one pierced a small blister, a tiny drop of water spilled out, but when one had to lance a blister that extended over half of a person’s body, the discharged measured 150 cc [over half a cup]. At first we used nickel-plated pails, but after the third patient, seeing all there was ahead of us, we began to use kettles and basins we could find in the house.”

On Treating the Children of Hiroshima

“Among all the cases we treated, perhaps those that caused us the most suffering were the children. Everyone knows that in Japan children are adored…At the time of the atomic bomb most of the children were in their respective schools. For that reason, during the explosion thousands of children were separated from their parents; many were wounded and cast into the streets without being able to fend for themselves. We brought all we could to Nagatsuk and began treating them immediately so as the prevent infection and fever.”

On those who had no apparent injuries but died from the radiation:

“A man came to me and said: “Please, Father, come to my house because my son tells me has have a very bad sore throat.” Since the man I was treating was gravely ill, I answered with: “It’s probably a cold. Give him some aspirin and make him perspire; you’ll see he’ll get well.” Within two hours the boy died.”

On Being a Priest and Entering the City at Great Self-risk

“It is at such times that one feels most a priest, when one knows that in the city there are 50,000 bodies which, unless they are cremated, will cause a terrible plague. There were besides some 120,000 wounded to care for. In light of these facts, a priest cannot remain outside the city just to preserve his life. Of course, when one is told that in the city there is a gas that kills, one must be very determined to ignore that fact and go in. And we did. And we soon began to raise pyramids of bodies and pour fuel on them to set them afire.”

As President Obama visits Hiroshima today the debate on the use of the atomic bomb continues. The answer may always elude us, but Fr. Arrupe’s description of his first reaction after beginning to understand what had occurred may still be one of the best ways for a Christian to respond:

“We did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such mass slaughter: we fell on our knees and prayed for guidance, as we were destitute of all human help.”

May we continue to pray: for those who are victims of all wars, for a world where war is not needed to solve our differences — for a world filled with peace.

Christopher Kerr

Chris joined the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) as executive director in 2011. He has over fifteen years of experience in social justice advocacy and leadership in Catholic education and ministry. Prior to ISN he served in multiple roles at John Carroll University, including coordinating international immersion experience and social justice education programming as an inaugural co-director of John Carroll’s Arrupe Scholars Program for Social Action. Prior to his time at John Carroll he served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and secondary levels in Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Chris speaks regularly at campuses and parishes about social justice education and advocacy, Jesuit mission, and a broad range of social justice issues. He currently serves on the board of directors for Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). Chris earned a B.A. and M.A. from John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. He and his family reside in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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  1. […] Pedro Arrupe, who witnessed firsthand the suffering of the thousands of victims of Hiroshima, spoke decades later of the impossibility of retribution for such grave moral evil. “Under such […]

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