War Ministry Grand Conference Hall, Tokyo
Masaru dressed immaculately in his military uniform and stood half a head taller than the Imperial officers in the auditorium. With a handsome face and a deep, bombastic voice, he took the podium and stared for a moment into the standing-room sea of Japanese military officers, scientists, and even Prince Chichibu, brother of Emperor Hirohito.
Masaru was to demonstrate the advanced water filtration system that I had invented and he had championed. “Conduct the demonstration yourself,” Masaru had urged me, but I politely declined.
“I’m a man of engineering and science, not theatrics.”
Masaru smiled knowing we both thought of him as the superior showman. I owned the scientific contributions while Masaru pulls strings and converted my designs to reality. He was a better advocate of the device I had developed, of anything we had developed. Now he stood on the auditorium stage beside a table with a prototype of the filtration device, a complicated mishmash of tubes, piping and chemistry. This was a miniature version of the system we hoped the army would fund. A funnel at the top collected the unpurified water while pair of dials measured its chemical properties. A tin canister underneath the device would collect the purified water as it dripped from the pipes above.
Masaru addressed the room, needing no microphone as his voice boomed and echoed off the back wall. “Who can deny the importance of providing drinkable water to our armed forces in the forward theater? I present the most advanced water purification system in the world, capable of cleansing the most putrid water into a clean, drinkable supply. Allow me to demonstrate.”
Masaru unzipped his pants as the military audience gasped in horror and watched him remove his penis. He produced a metal cup and urinated into it in front of everyone. This move shocked me at first but I had already learned to accept this flamboyance as part of Masaru’s personality. He cared little what others thought of him. He was known to brag loudly of his successes with little regard for decorum, and to indulge in wine and women recklessly and frequently. This brash act of peeing into a cup as a crowded room of his superiors watched every drop fall was simply Masaru seizing attention. He thrived on the discomfort he caused and used it merely as a method of engaging his audience.
Masaru zipped his pants and carried the piss-filled cup to the device, pouring the urine into the funnel atop the contraption. He narrated the filtration process as the urine made its way through the pipes and eventually came dripping out of the nozzle above the collection canister clear as air.
He poured the contents into a glass and carried the seemingly clean water into the audience. I wasn’t surprised when he stopped before Chichibu Hirohito and offered the water to the Emperor’s brother. Stiff and surprised the prince quickly refused the glass with a curt wave of his hand. Masaru, surely expecting the prince to decline the test, raised the glass as if he were toasting the room, tilted his head back and quaffed the entire portion in one gulp. The crowd gasped but Masaru wiped his lips with the back of a hand and then smiled proudly awaiting his applause.
The dutiful assistant that I was, I started it with a hearty clap that slowly spread until the entire room was on its feet. The purification device was a success and the army soon awarded Masaru with the funds he had requested, yet the money was for more than an innovative system of cleaning water. We were on our way to Ping Fan to the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, code name: Unit 731.
With the funding we’d receive for our water purification system, Masaru and I would soon turn the facility into the headquarters for Japan’s chemical and biological weapons program.
“This is an incredible honor, Captain,” Masaru said to me as we celebrated that night, a bottle of sake in both hands and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He emptied one of the bottles into my glass and tossed the spent bottle aside.
For as long as I had known Masaru he had been a heavy drinking night owl, but only after a day of hard work. The microbiologist was tall and athletic, his uniform always spotless and he often bested me in footraces or games of tennis. Our fellow officers envied his physical bravado and his seemingly constant supply of cash. In social settings, women flocked around him and postured for his attention. He advanced quickly through the ranks of Japan’s military and was eager to take me with him.
His giant hand proudly slapped my back. He grinned and showed his shiny white teeth. “Drink up, Kiyoshi. Celebrate!”
He toasted our drinks as Masaru nibbled at the pair of young women on either of his shoulders. The nightclub was loud and rowdy. Music blared from above and Masaru made sure my glass was eternally filled with liquor. “The demonstration was a resounding success!” he declared. “I am anxious to put into practice these ideas we have developed. The ideas we have developed together, Kiyoshi. I’m anxious to make Japan the leading nation in the technologies of warfare.”
Developed together, he stressed. I had been the man behind the science, to engineer the water purification devise, to birth ideas for our military technology.
Masaru was right. It was an incredible honor for us to be chosen to head Unit 731. Masaru and I had studied together at Kyoto University. We became doctors together, men of chemical engineering, and had served together in the Army ever since we engaged the Chinese in Manchuria in 1931. Masaru was always one rank ahead of me, always had one more friend than I did, and seemed to need me one step below him always looking up. So he kept me around. When he was promoted and transferred, he always brought me with him, made sure I was paid well, confided in me, and trusted my expertise.
And when Masaru had been chosen to run Japan’s premier chemical and biological weapons research facility, he named me his second-in-command.
Masaru’s remaining sake bottle clanked against my glass. “Congratulations, Captain, and be proud! It is an honor to serve the Emperor!”
I said nothing, sipped my sake and took the last drag from my cigarette.
August 6th, 1945 8:16am
Then a bright and clear morning was suddenly dark.
My military instincts told me to dive for cover but before I hit the ground, a force like a giant’s hand lifted me into the air and threw me towards the river. I hit the paved road, landing on my knees as my wrists slammed onto the pavement. Ignoring sandy cuts and scrapes, I clawed my way behind a stone wall as I was showered by a bomb of splinters and dirt.
Black spots, white spots. Ringing bells.
I rolled along the dirt and turned by back towards the blast. Was I asleep? Did I awaken? I tasted dirt in my mouth and was stung by burning soot up my nose. Hot, acid snot oozed down the back of my throat like lava.
For a moment I remembered the bomb shelter just fifty feet away but a hot wind blew dust into my face and prevented me from going very far. So I kept my eyes closed and my head down. I was curled into a ball, covering my face with my scraped wrists and stinging hands as the wind pelted me with sand and sticks. There had been no explosions. No familiar pop-pop-pop of bombs detonating in the distance, no BOOM! when one landed nearby. There was no mass of airplanes buzzing above, no whistle as their bombs fell from the sky, no return fire from our anti-aircraft batteries.
Just a flash of light and a burst of burning wind followed by an avalanche of dirt and junk. Silent shock. Splintering lumber, buildings crumbling. Bricks walls toppling like toy blocks, glass shattering, trees snapping like twigs.
I had crawled onto a pile of rocks so I tried to push them away. The vial with my capsule dug into my ribs. Minutes later, as the wind began to die I lifted my head to see all of Hiroshima shrouded in a brown haze. Through the dust, a cloud of fire grew a mile into the sky.
I was suddenly disappointed that another city had not survived. I was outraged at America for the bombing. At Japan for starting the war in the first place and not being able to defend cities like this one. At myself, for being in the middle of it all and having no power to do anything.
I wanted to know what it meant for my plan. Where was Turner Denton? I wanted to ask someone. I wanted to know.
My eyes burned as grit filled my pores. I began to lose focus. My head hurt and I could feel wetness dripping from both ears. I used a hand to wipe the moisture from my face and looked down to see red fingers.
Did I hear no explosion because I’d lost my hearing?
But I could hear the wind, the shattered pieces of lumber slapping and splintering against nearby houses. The fire. Like a rush of thunder, the fire! But there were no screams, no voices, no aguish. No cries of panic. Absent was the despair that had been so common during the wars I had known.
I checked my hands and saw the backs were scalded and burned, as if they had been dipped into a pot of boiling water. But I felt no pain. I felt nothing. Only a dull, numbing sensation.
Still in shock, I tried to stand but my knees wobbled and I toppled to the ground. A small child walked by in a daze. A black dog passed the child from the other direction, limping and silent. A group of soldiers crawled from the bomb shelter, their bodies covered in soot, their ears bleeding, their faces dazed. I heard a child ask his mother, “Why is it so dark in the morning?”
I saw myself walking up to the mother as she held her child close, towering above them as the wind and the dirt blew overhead. As she brushed dust off her child’s face, I saw myself looking into her blurry eyes, her mouth caked with dirt. I saw myself ask her, “What does this mean for me?”
The air raid was over in an instant. Had there been only one bomb?
“Impossible.” I muttered.
I imagined myself standing before a classroom of schoolchildren, looking upon the kids who raised their hands and wanted to know if Hiroshima had been hit – if it had been utterly destroyed – by a single American bomb?
I shook my head. “There is no way one bomb can damage so much.” Yet I saw burning buildings all around me. Bodies lining the street as if an army had marched through and executed thousands of people at will. Survivors rose from the wreckage, their faces blank, their eyes lost.
“No way one bomb can do this,” I told myself yet I had a suspicion that the Americans had won the race to develop a functional nuclear weapon. If they had more than this one they would likely begin dropping them on all our major cities.
Then a hand wrapped around my ankle. I looked down to see Masaru, my commanding officer and saw half his face burned red, his eye sockets swollen. His hair singed and smoking, his good looks destroyed. But when I saw the alertness in his eyes I knew his mind remained unblemished. There was a flicker that I recognized.
As his fist squeezed my ankle, I thought of Masaru’s intense patriotism. His sense of nationalism that refused to let me escape with our secrets. I was reminded of his exuberant need to carry out his orders and guard the tales of the facility.
I had survived the bomb but Masaru was alive and still wanted me dead.
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.