It was autumn, the air was crisp and clean and the real world seemed very far away. One night, around a crackling fire, we huddled close together as the night air cooled and we talked softly through the darkness.
Sitting across from me was Tom and Carolyn Cartwright – they live outside of Moab in San Juan County and have long been two of my favorite people. They don’t come any better than the Cartwrights.
Also in the group were Robert Fulghum and his wife Dr. Lynn Edwards. Earlier in the week, Dr. Lynn had saved me from certain abandonment and death when a new pair of untested hiking boots left my feet ravaged with blisters. She bandaged my dogs tightly with mole skin and tape and so far, her doctoring had worked.
The fire began to die and the conversation waned, when Lynn, whose mother is Japanese, asked Tom if he had ever been to Japan. Tom Cartwright gazed softly into the fading flames and nodded.
“When?” Lynn asked.
Still staring intently at the fire, Tom Cartwright replied, “July 1945...at Hiroshima.”
Hiroshima...1945. The group shuffled quietly. Someone, I don’t recall who, threw several large logs on the fire. This was a story we wanted to hear. It is one of the most extraordinary stories you will ever hear.
In the summer of 1945, Tom Cartwright was one of the Army Air Corp’s youngest pilots, but already admired and respected by his peers. On July 28, he and his crew were assigned to bomb the Japanese warship Haruna, anchored in Kure Harbor, a naval base on Honshu Island. Cartwright’s heavy bomber, a B-24 nicknamed the “Lonesome Lady,” was part of a group of five B-24s that morning. They were warned to expect heavy anti-aircraft fire. The warnings were more than right.
Moments after the flight dropped its bombs, another plane in their formation was hit and went down quickly. Another was struck but stayed in the air. Moments later, the “Lonesome Lady” was hit as well. Tom hoped he could keep the big plane aloft and reach the sea, where he could ditch the plane and hope for a rescue by Americans. But as they began to lose altitude and the plane became increasingly difficult to fly, Cartwright ordered his crew to bail out.
“We were getting close to the ground by this time,” Tom recalls, “and the ‘Lonesome Lady’ was completely out of control. I looked around and saw that the flight deck was clear so I ordered the copilot to bail out. I then left the controls, scrambled on my hands and knees to the bomb bay and bailed out. After a very short time hanging in the chute, I hit the ground pretty hard...”
All of his crew had jumped clear of the plane and were strung out over several miles of enemy territory. All were quickly captured by Japanese soldiers and civilians. They were taken to a city, where they were interrogated by very hostile captors.
Because Tom was the pilot, he was soon separated from his crew and taken north by train to an interrogation center (the Imperial General Headquarters) at Tokyo. Tom wanted to stay with his crew and later recalled that he “felt a bit sorry” for himself. He had no idea that he was leaving the city of Hiroshima. It was August 1, 1945.
On August 6, Tom was rushed out of his cell and interrogated “intensely” by Japanese soldiers about a “new kind of bomb.” Tom, of course, knew nothing. The atomic bomb was perhaps the world’s best kept secret until it exploded over Hiroshima.
He was threatened by a soldier brandishing a sword; later he was marched to a courtyard, still blindfolded, and pushed to the ground.
Cartwright sensed a crowd of soldiers around him and knew beheading was “a common fate for many U.S. POWs.” He expected the worst—inexplicably, he was pulled from his knees and marched back to his cell. In fact, he was never interrogated again.
Days later, he heard music coming from the prison’s PA system. Then he heard a man with a smooth calm voice speak for several minutes. He feared that perhaps the emperor had been killed by American bombs; if that were the case, surely he would be executed.
Instead, his rations were increased and his captors’ hostile behavior abruptly stopped. The voice on the radio had been the emperor’s. He was announcing Japan’s surrender.
Days later, Tom was moved to another POW camp in Tokyo Harbor and then to Okinawa. He was reunited with other friends from his group but he could not find any of his crew. No one could explain their disappearance.
The more he learned about the atomic bomb and its first target, the more he feared that he and his crew had been incarcerated in Hiroshima. But inquiries with his military superiors went nowhere. Only months later, did Tom learn that his crew had perished in the Hiroshima blast.
For years, Tom rarely spoke of his ordeal. But he never forgot. Tom wrote: “I had always felt a void about my crew, my friends, vanishing with nothing to connect to them.
“One day in 1985 I got a letter from a Japanese man, Mr. Keiichi Muranaka, who had lived close to where the Lonesome Lady crashed. He had been stationed at an anti-aircraft battery at Kure Harbor and had witnessed our attack and saw my plane heading down, trailing smoke.
“A few days later after witnessing the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, he asked for leave to check on his parents. When nearing his home he saw the wreckage of the Lonesome Lady and sneaked a piece of the torn aluminum as a ‘reminder of the war.’
“He wrote, ‘Forty years have passed since the crash of your plane. The U.S. and Japan has overcome the difficulties caused by the war. This pleases me greatly. I could not imagine the peace we enjoy today when I was in the Navy. I always relate my sad experiences regarding WWII and A-bomb and the crash of the Lonesome Lady.
“Now I would like to give you this article which I have kept all these years as a reminder of the sad experiences that we shared during that terrible time in history. By remembering we shall be able to maintain this peace we enjoy now. This is our responsibility.’”
Tom Cartwright had never felt so moved – he cherished the artifact from his doomed plane. “This twisted piece of aluminum,” Tom wrote, “was something solid, palpable related to memories of my crew that had been lacking – they had vanished, with only speculation on my part.”
He corresponded for years with Mr. Muranaka. Finally, at the dawn of the new millennium, Tom Cartwright went back to Hiroshima. He was honored by his captors, visited the crash site, and spoke with many of his former enemies.
At the Hiroshima Peace Museum, Tom Cartwright read this “open letter” to the people of the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb:
I have come to Hiroshima to pay homage, particularly to our friends and comrades who died here in August, 1945. These included six of my bomber crew; I was spared by being transferred to Tokyo. We come to thank and pay respect to those of you who have recognized these comrades and erected memorials to them.
At the same time we recognize that our comrades are a few among many who died here in August, 1945 and pay respect to the memory of their souls. Everyone in Hiroshima at that time was directly affected themselves or through the loss and injury of family and friends, as did many other Japanese.
I am one of relatively few Americans who lost personal friends and comrades in the atomic holocaust. Perhaps this closeness aligns me more with the feelings of you, the citizens of Hiroshima. No one can know what the fate of each of us might have been if the fury of atomic fission had not been unleashed on Hiroshima.
What we do know is that this force, which is so powerful that it powers the sun, and has an array of effects that even transgresses generations, should never be used to again to vaporize human life in wholesale and then to seep into survivors to kill or maim them, some quickly some slowly, and still affect generations yet to be conceived. I know only the heartache – you know the heartache but also the nightmare memory and insidious residual effects.
We appreciate the reception and hospitality that has been extended to our small group---the memory of which we hope will be passed to the next generation. All of us should certainly desire to keep our family and national pride and loyalty; these are core to our human dignity and instinct. At the same time we must continue to learn how to embrace and enhance our common well being, happiness, and understanding. Whatever the results of this trip might bring I hope that it will contribute, even in an ever so small way, to continued peace and friendship.
We have learned that war brings hatred, suffering, destruction, and waste and that peace can bring happiness and prosperity. Let us each teach this to our sons and daughters.
Tom Cartwright came back from the war in 1945 and married his high school sweetheart, raised a family and has had a happy and productive life. But he still thinks often of his friends that died so many years ago and of all the millions of lost lives, on both sides of the battle lines. He knows about war, and courage and bravery, and ultimately about compassion, forgiveness and resolution.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is really Tom Cartwright’s story to tell. In the years after that night around the campfire, he put his memories of that awful time to the printed page. His book is A Date With The Lonesome Lady: A Hiroshima POW Returns.
(Jim Stiles can be reached at email@example.com.)