REMEMBRANCE DAY: Nanaimo residents took news of atomic bombs, war’s end in stride

The mushroom clouds set off by the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima, left and Nagasaki, right, by American forces during the Second World War. (Charles Levy photos)The mushroom clouds set off by the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima, left and Nagasaki, right, by American forces during the Second World War. (Charles Levy photos)
The city of Hiroshima in Japan is decimated by an atomic bomb in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. (U.S. Navy photo)The city of Hiroshima in Japan is decimated by an atomic bomb in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. (U.S. Navy photo)
Nanaimo did not have to grapple with riots on V-J Day as Halifax did on V-E Day, as pictured here. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)Nanaimo did not have to grapple with riots on V-J Day as Halifax did on V-E Day, as pictured here. (Halifax Regional Police Museum/Halifax Municipal Archives)

By T.W. Paterson

“…In development of such hitherto unknown powers, mere man appears to be reaching into realms of ominous portent too vast in ramifications for the average mind to understand…”—the Nanaimo Free Press, writing of atomic weaponry.

August 1945 – 75 years ago. It seemed that the Second World War would go on forever.

Despite Germany’s surrender in the first week of May, Japan continued the battle. As 30,000 Canadian troops headed for Guam, the Royal Canadian Navy cruiser HMCS Uganda headed home after seeing action with the American Pacific Fleet.

On the home front, Canadians continued to live with rationing and senior levels of government grappled with plans for the return of hundreds of thousands of military personnel from the European war to a peacetime economy after six bitter years.

Everything changed, or was placed on hold, at the momentous news of Aug. 6 that an atomic bomb — the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT — had been dropped on Hiroshima the day before. U.S. President Harry Truman declared that the epic decision to do so had been made because the Japanese refused to surrender immediately and unconditionally. He described the revolutionary new weapon as a “harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosened against those who brought war to the Far East.”

For all of its historic significance — and its untold potential consequences for humankind — Nanaimo citizens, if you judge them by the pages of the Free Press, seemed to take the arrival of atomic warfare in their stride. Or, perhaps they needed time to digest the import of it all. A day after the almost total destruction of Hiroshima (first identified as a Japanese army base), two part-columns on the front page yielded a greater space to an article on proposed changes in inheritance and income taxes although a lengthier piece from the American Press did speculate on how this “new weapon may shape the world of tomorrow”.

On Aug. 8, below a page-wide banner announcing that the Soviet Union had finally declared war on Japan, some of the horrors of this brave new age began to creep into the news (still regulated by wartime censors) with a report that “practically all human things — human and animal — were literally seared to death” by the new weapon loosed against the industrial and military city Monday…” The Japanese conceded 60 per cent of the city (four square miles) had been “turned to ashes” by this single deadly blast.

Despite American warnings of more atomic bombs, the Japanese High Command remained defiant and, three days after the attack on Hiroshima, the city of Nagasaki and its population of 225,000 suffered a similar fate.

Ironically, an initial report that peace had been declared turned out to be a tragic mistake. But, on Sept. 10, beneath the banner headlines “TOKYO MAKES AN OFFER TO QUIT”, the Free Press addressed its Nanaimo readers with a lengthy and evocative editorial headlined, “The Atom’s Mission”:

“It is doubtful if any single event connected with our years of global conflict has so deeply affected the individual thinking in revelations regarding the so-called atomic bomb… What apparently has really happened is that man has discovered a method whereby the split atom’s monstrous power to disintegrate can be controlled, bottled, stored and unleashed by actual direction.

“Prudence would dictate that all the horrible details of this new power and its possibilities as an engine of destruction should not be revealed to the public. What has been blazoned already is quite sufficient to convince the man on the street that in development of such hitherto unknown powers, mere man appears to be reaching into realms of ominous portent too vast in ramifications for the average mind to understand…”

The editor warned that other nations would likely acquire atomic capability, thus creating future challenges for world peace. “Far more interesting, even as our most sanguine hopes that Japan may be brought to her knees speedily, is the reading of sketchy and scant predictions regarding the probable powers of atomic control as applied to paths of peace and industry…”

It was regrettable, said the Press, that the initial harnessing of atomic power should have been as a weapon of mass destruction. “Capturing, harnessing, holding and directing this power should [in a world of peace] have been the modern miracle all humanity needs for the realization of its dreams and ideals. That its first practical application should have been the terrorizing of those who bar the path to world peace carries a portent which should not be overlooked.”

The editorial ended almost wistfully by noting that development of the bomb had cost an estimated $2 billion “to blast the initial warning to a gasping world. If it had been unnecessary to carry another in repetition of that warning it would have been a source of joy to a peace-wanting world…and if the men of science may now be permitted to cease working for destruction and more happily turn their talent[s] to new miracles which will unleash the unknown powers for progress, industry and construction…it may have all have been worth while.”

(We all know what followed: the legacy of radiation burns for Japanese victims, most of them civilians, the years of nuclear testing, above and below the ground and the ocean, and the development of far more deadly and powerful hydrogen weaponry. And, for historians, the ongoing debate whether atomic weapons ultimately saved more lives than continued hostilities culminating in the invasion of Japan itself.)

It was enough for most Nanaimo residents, many of whom had family and friends serving in the Canadian armed forces, that the war was finally, truly over and a new world of peace — even if they realized the implications of a nuclear Frankenstein — was dawning.

To appropriately mark the occasion, local Royal Canadian Legion President Max Blunt conferring with Mayor Muir to prepare a “suitable Nanaimo parade” (meaning, no drunken celebrants need apply) but it was several days, on the 15th, before residents joined in spontaneous celebration.

Public announcement of war’s end — this time for real — had occurred at 4:15 in the afternoon when Const. Terry Stewart relayed word to Const. Healey who activated the air raid sirens. Their wailing was immediately echoed by the steam whistles of the Imperial Laundry, local mills, ships in the harbour and — completing the cycle — sirens of police cars. “…It took no more than five minutes for everybody to get into the celebration swing. Stores were emptied like magic, shoppers hurried home with their bags, all business suspended immediately, and everyone hopped happily around, grinning and joyous. Automobiles went through the streets with their horns blaring, young folks with lusty lungs were cheering, flags and bunting seemed to appear to like magic, and everybody got into full-stride celebrations.”

This outburst, slight as it was, was followed by a lull as most residents went home to dinner.

It remained for the younger set, according to the Press, to “let go with unrestrained jollity” by snake-dancing through the streets; anyone who was jostled on the crowded sidewalks took it with good humour. This wasn’t the case when, shortly before midnight, the two largest windows of the government liquor store were smashed by a thrown beer bottle and a stone. But the constable on duty at the front door barred entry to a milling crowd which then drifted off without doing further damage.

Next morning, city streets were littered with paper, “drifting and wheeling along almost empty sidewalks as though seeking the merrymakers who milled and thronged the thoroughfares until after midnight,” reported the Press.

It had all been peaceful, unlike in Victoria where police had had to break up a “wild demonstration” by several thousand civilians and sailors after they broke into a downtown liquor store, and large scale rioting in on V-E Day in Sarnia and Halifax. No doubt the visible placement of reinforced civil and military police circumvented the wilder antics of celebrants elsewhere.

Nanaimo citizens were, in fact, so restrained that a veteran Nanaimo policeman thought the V-J Day celebration to have been much tamer than old-time May 24th festivities.

All told, the only downside of the V-J Day celebrations (beside the broken windows of the liquor store) was a series of auto accidents, all related to the occasion. Happily, the injuries of a pedestrian who’d been run down in front of the Occidental Hotel weren’t serious.

Another victim of the occasion was the massive wharf of the defunct No. 1 Esplanade Mine on Protection Island which was set afire and burned for weeks.

Come next morning, it was time to mark the momentous event with due formality and a parade of military personnel, cadets, Legionnaires, Women’s Auxiliary and veterans of the First World War. A 20-minute long service of Thanksgiving was then conducted at the Cenotaph where the Rev. J. Wright intoned, “At last the great hour has come, the hour for which the Allies have longed and prayed and fought for six tragic years. The war with the enemies of freedom and true progress is over, we trust, for ever…”

“Over, forever:” so “ended” the Second World War in Nanaimo, three-quarters of a century ago.

For more from T.W. Paterson, check out twpaterson.com

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