Hiroshima and Wounded Knee

The southern coastline of Honshu sped past the window of the Bullet Train. This trip to Hiroshima was near the end of my first stay in Japan. A deep, albeit vague, sense of atonement had finally outweighed my apprehension, but I still felt a quiver as the train glided smoothly into the station. I had a compelling urge to announce to everyone within earshot that I, too, hated war.

I stepped onto the platform, descended the stairs to the main level, and emerged at once into the heart of the city. To my left was a row of buses. A sign in English read “Peace Park, Bus No.5,” and I joined the line of Japanese passengers. A fifteen minute ride through the rebuilt city brought us to the Atom Bomb Dome, the only original building which remains at the sight of the blast. Although it was a commercial building during the war, it now resembles the charred remains of a celestial observatory that stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the beautiful acres of grass and trees which memorialize the dead of Hiroshima.
the-dome-at-peace-park
As I entered the park, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Kamloops, British Columbia. The husband taught grade school there. He carried a suitcase filled with hundreds of paper cranes folded, origami style, by his students. He had carried them thousands of miles to add to those already draped over every tree and statue. Schoolchildren from all over the world were creating a peace memorial that most of them would never see. At his invitation, I slipped a white crane into my shirt pocket as we joined the people streaming into the park.We paused first at the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, commemorating the 200,000 people killed by the Atomic Bomb. The cenotaph is plain and dignified. An eternal flame burns in front of a reflecting pool. On the face of the cenotaph the motto of the park is carved in stone in Japanese and English: “Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.”

The largest building in the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. It houses displays which evoke the devastation in somber tones. In the corner of one case rests a wrist watch with its hands forever frozen at 8:15. In another room, the marble stairs from the Sumitomo Bank are discolored by the shadow of a man who had been sitting on them. He had been disintegrated by the blast. Pictures of horribly burned men, women, and children are everywhere.

Back outside in the sunshine, I watched laughing schoolchildren feeding flocks of doves. Their carefree abandon washed away some of the horror I had just witnessed. I sat quietly for a while. Then I walked slowly away, still stunned by the enormity of the event, but comforted by the awareness on the part of so many people that the tragedy visited upon this city was indeed an error never to be repeated. Finally, on the way out of the park, I visited the gift shop where I picked up some postcards and a lovely bronze plaque inscribed with the motto of the cenotaph.

One week later upon my return to the States, I met my wife, Carolyn, in San Francisco, and we began a drive across America to our home in New England. Three days later, we found ourselves in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. We stood on top of a knoll under scudding grey clouds, etched against the vastness of the surrounding prairie. My trouser legs snapped in the relentless wind which rolled off the Black Hills thirty miles to the west. Carolyn stood on the other side of the mass grave into which troops of the United States Government had tossed over 150 men, women and children on the evening of December 30, 1890. My heart felt numb, as bleak as the sere landscape of Wounded Knee.

We had spent the morning searching for this place. At the Pine Ridge reservation heavy men sat on broken porches. Their opaque eyes formed a wall we were afraid to breach. We drove through without stopping, and thirty miles east swung north on a narrow road to a large decrepit sign announcing the Massacre. Nothing pointed to a grave. A small hill half a mile west seemed a logical place for a cemetery, however, and this is where we found all that remained of Big Foot and his followers. The only marker on the grave was one erected by a son of one of the slain Indians.
OfficialWoundedKneeMemorial
The sighing wind and aching loneliness contrasted sharply in my imagination with the flash of devastating violence which erupted here just over a hundred years ago. Alarmed by the death of Sitting Bull and afraid for his people, Big Foot had led his band of 350 ill and undernourished people toward the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of the great Chief Red Cloud. They were met by soldiers under the command of Major Samuel Whitside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Whitside forced the Indians to camp in a circular enclosure at Wounded Knee. He mounted four Hotchkiss guns on the surrounding hills. Throughout the night Big Foot’s people suffered terribly in the bitter cold. In the morning, as Whitside’s men attempted to disarm the Indians a shot rang out. The men on the hills panicked. As the Hotchkiss guns raked the enclosure, Indians fell by the score.

The slaughter ended as quickly as it had begun. The deep mud, now crimson with the blood of the murdered Sioux, muffled the cries of the wounded. A blizzard loomed on the horizon, so the soldiers gathered those who were still alive into wagons and hurried off to Pine Ridge. In their haste they left the dead where they lay.

A burial party returned the next day to find countless bodies frozen into grotesque postures. Quickly, almost furtively, the soldiers dug a huge hole into which they threw the bodies of the fallen Indians. Then, like a cat covering an obscenity, they closed the grave and turned away. A picture of Big Foot’s corpse can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; the mass grave, however, lies forlornly in the desolate, forgotten emptiness of Wounded Knee.
dream catcher

The Sioux Shaman Black Elk was present at the burial. Many years later, he delivered this prophetic epitaph:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… ”

Carolyn and I were shrouded in silence. We had no words for each other, for the Indians, or for God. She returned to the car, leaving me alone with the wind. After some time, Carolyn climbed slowly back up the hill to where I stood. She knelt down for a moment, then straightened and took my hand. I looked down. There on the grave at our feet rested a white paper crane. Next to it lay the bronze plaque from Hiroshima. “Repose ye in peace,” it said, “for the error shall not be repeated.”
white crane

2 thoughts on “Hiroshima and Wounded Knee

  1. marcia224

    John, I am not one of those that believes we needed to use the atom bomb. I am deeply ashamed that my country used the atom bomb. Truth be told, I can’t understand why anyone sanctions the way we used the atom bomb. I cannot reconcile how can we call ourselves a civilized nation and yet kill hundreds of thousand of innocent civilians and cause generations of people to suffer from the effects of a nuclear bomb?
    You do write so beautifully. As I read what you wrote of the savage things we did, I was aware of the lovely way you tell a story even though the story is abhorrent. Your sensitivity is refreshing.

    Like

    Reply

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