Remembering Rice Cards, Nails and School Work Parties on #HiroshimaMemorialDay

Every year around this time, I think of my mom picking up nails in the countryside where children were sent to shelter from urban air raids during WW2. The nails, she told me, were to be collected together with any other steel that could be found on the ground and sent to the air force to make fighter jets. She’d laugh at the absurdity of kids contributing to the war effort with a few nails. A pretty desperate move, she’d say; the nails probably weren’t going to win them the war. Mom was right of course. We know how that story ended.

On August 6th 1945, Little Boy dropped 15 kilotons of TNT on Hiroshima followed by Fat Man’s more powerful but less destructive 21 kilotons on Nagasaki on the 9th. The two atomic bombs created a year-end death count somewhere between the 1940 count of 110,000 and the 1977 re-count of 210,000. Details of this broad discrepancy in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki death count can be found in Professor Alex Wellerstein’s article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Two main factors contributed to the discrepancies in counting the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, year-end counts variously included and excluded commuters and foreigners. For example, it is estimated that there were somewhere between 31,500 – 40,000 Korean workers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. Second, because both cities but especially Hiroshima kept poor census records, tabulators looked to other census sources to count the dead, such as rice-ration cards and school work-party records, made up of nail-collectors and other such groups. So although school-aged children like my mom probably hadn’t contributed to the national war effort by picking up nails, they did help define the human toll of warfare.

On Hiroshima Memorial Day and again on Nagasaki Memorial Day, we can turn then to the spirit of school-aged kids and remind ourselves that real human power isn’t found in kilotons of TNT but instead in the kind of resilience recorded in a photo in Professor Wellerstein’s article. Less than a year after Little Boy wiped out their city, some brave kids and teachers were back in class.

For more on the historical context that led to the development of the atomic bomb, read Director of the Science and Technology Studies program at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Alex Wellerstein’s book, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

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