Monday, May 11, 2009

The Atom Bomb: “A Poor Killer”

Crawford Sams and the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan

General Crawford Sams reconstituted or, to be more accurate, recreated the Japanese public health system after World War II. No stranger to pride or self-confidence, he characterized himself as one the six men who ran Japan under MacArthur.

With good reason, Sams credited himself with decreasing mortality by five million lives through application of his exemplary professionalism, energy, and focus to the prevention of epidemics, upgrading the health care system, and improving nutrition during the occupation.

As a military medical man, General Sams had a healthy respect for epidemic disease as the leading cause of casualties and degraded fighting ability of armies amid the chaos and destruction of wartime. According to his experience, World War II was the first war in which actual fighting produced more U.S. casualties than disease.

His respect for the atomic bomb? Not so great.

General Sams also ran the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, charged with evaluating the mortality and morbidity associated with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to an oral history Sams recorded in 1979, his first job was to collect the data; the second job was to hype it:

There was a letter brought over by this first group that came up to Japan from the Philippines with me, from the Manhattan Project, in which the President was looking for a new deterrent against a future war…So the object of this instruction, called Letter of Instruction, was “You will play up the devastating effect of the atomic bomb.” All right?

So I was the one who set the deadline this time. Anybody who had been in Hiroshima and died within six months, whether they got run over by a bicycle or whatnot, would be credited to the atomic bomb. We had to set some kind of order to this…all the reports that came back were the result of these studies that came over my desk.

The atomic bomb went off and that city had about 250 thousand people in it…When the bomb went off, about 2 thousand people out of 250 thousand got killed – by blast, by thermal radiation, or by intense x-ray, gamma radiation.

Then, what happened is like an earthquake. The blast knocked down houses, hibachis had turned over and started fires. When you have an earthquake or an atomic bomb, you start fires and then people are trapped in the buildings.

And again, by endless interviews, “Where were you?” “Where was your great uncle?” “Where was grandma when this occurred?” We built up the evidence to show on a cookie-cutter basis that it took about thirty-six hours for about two-thirds of that town to burn.

You see, it wasn’t “Bing” like the publicity here [said]: a bomb went off and a city disappeared. No such thing happened. That was the propaganda for deterrent. They’re talking about after that, “One bomb and away goes Chicago,” you know? All you’ve got to do is look in Life magazine and whatnot back in ’45, ’46, and so on. ... Well, you have to keep your feet on the ground.

As near as we could figure then, about twenty-one thousand people died in thirty-six hours as a result of being trapped and burned and so on. It’s like those who died in the ’23 earthquake [and subsequent] fire.

Then, as I say, I set the six months’ deadline for anybody who had been there, even though they went away and so on, to put a deadline on deaths from delayed radiation effects as far as it takes six months or so for deaths from (what do they call it?) delayed effects.

One of us …got a priest there to say he guessed 100 thousand people died when the bomb went off. Well, you see, it didn’t. There never was 100 thousand people [who] died. I recall the figures to the ultimate, six months’ deaths from untreated burns, thermal burns – they didn’t have any drugs or anything else, except what we could get in to them – and the delayed effects of radiation which take several months. …It was about 76 [thousand] [who] ultimately died in six months, out of 250 thousand.

Actually, the atomic bomb was a poor killer.


Indeed, according to Sams, the only reason that the casualty numbers in Hiroshima were as high as they were was because the Japanese government had taken no measures to disperse the population there—as it had done in Tokyo in anticipation of the devastating U.S. incendiary raids of 1945.

Sams was even less impressed by the atom bombing of Nagasaki.

Down at Nagasaki, they missed the ground zero they tried to hit, but there’s still the fact that it hit Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital there and killed a lot of patients and so on – from the _____(?) of the concrete building. But the blast effected [sic] this and knocked down part of the concrete and so on. But you don’t hear much about the effects of Nagasaki because actually it was pretty ineffective. That was a narrow corridor from the hospital in _____(?) down to the port, and the effects were very limited as far as the fire spread and all that stuff. So you don’t hear much about Nagasaki.

Indeed, the structure of the Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital—700 meters from the hypocenter-- was still standing after the attack.

Sams had also participated in the famous post-World War II Strategic Bombing Survey of Europe, which concluded that Germany’s industrial output had simply increased as the U.S. and Great Britain had pounded its factories and infrastructure with huge bombing raids.

He placed the Truman administration’s need to exaggerate the destructive effects of the atomic bomb in the context of the desire to create a new, more credible deterrent now that the strategic bombing boogeyman was a thing of the past:


After each war, for political reasons, you’d try to find a deterrent to prevent the next war.

After the First World War, it was gas warfare and people – you probably wouldn’t remember – but after that we even had motion pictures (the movies) about gassing New York City and so on till somebody figured out the air currents were such [that] you couldn’t hold a concentration of gas to gas New York City if the people stayed in the buildings and closed the windows. So that failed.


The next deterrent was air power, and so from the time of Billy Mitchell in 1925 to the Second World War, [the belief was that] if we ever had another war, air power would destroy civilization. Sound familiar? So, the theoretical production of air casualties, the catching of troops in defiles and their obliteration was the thesis in which we were all indoctrinated up until the beginning of the Second World War.

As you know then again, the myth of strategic bombing carried on and finally “Tooey” [Gen. Carl A.] Spaatz, who was an ex-classmate of mine and so on, was given [command of the] Eighth Air Force [with] the authority, together with the RAF, to bomb Germany. And Germany industrially was to collapse. But of course it failed. ..

I was part of the Strategic Bomb Survey Group in the theater to assess damage as we progressed across where we had been bombing Tobruk, for instance, and supposedly had cut off [the enemy’s] oil supply. When we got there, we found, of course, we had knocked down the warehouses and so on, but he dispersed his supplies in the desert, so we hadn’t cut off anything.

So the casualty factor was – I sent back reports on this – that air power was not a major casualty producer. But when you have a whole senior echelon, like in Washington, indoctrinated over years, growing up with the idea that you could stop armored columns with air power and so on, it’s hard to get that reversal.

I had to do the same thing with the atomic bomb when I came back.


To Sams, the atom bomb was nothing new. It was a new form of strategic bombing, but the Germans and the Japanese had already figured out the appropriate countermeasure: dispersal.

Sams believed that the Soviet Union, unlike the United States, had made drawn the correct lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki: that the casualties and damages from an atomic attack could be mitigated by a strategy of dispersal and atomic attack was therefore survivable.

Interestingly, the Chinese government drew the same conclusion and engaged in a massive dispersal of industrial and military assets to remote areas of the country—primarily as a countermeasure to an anticipated atomic attack by the Soviets—during the 1960s.

Sams was a loyal MacArthur man and left Japan for reassignment (the Army had rejected his attempt to retire) when Truman relieved MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.

Back in the United States, Sams proselytized for a policy of strategic dispersal which seems to have run afoul of the U.S. military’s addiction to the doctrine of deterrence and the intoxicating effect of the budget-busting pursuit of Mutually Assured Destruction.

When I came back to this country, I was appalled, from a military standpoint, to find that our major planners in the War Department were using their own propaganda, 100 thousand deaths, Bing!

It took me a couple of years to get that comparison straightened out in our official training doctrine in this country. I used to tell them back in the general staff and so on and including the chief of staff, “...if you can deter a war, for God’s sake, let’s do it and blow up the effects all you want

It’s all right to put out propaganda, but don’t believe your own propaganda. That’s what happens too often in this business. That’s why you had the hysteria about this radiation thing up here. So I had a job of de-glamorizing, if you like, no that’s not the word – debunking the myth that air power alone could win a battle against ground troops, or that air power could win a war…

It took me about four years to get some facts straightened out about the atomic bomb at Hiroshima with our high echelon people and now you’ve got a generation of diplomats who still are swallowing the old nonsense and putting it out.

But anyway, this has been the kind of a thing I’ve gotten into, not because of choice, but because when I found something that doesn’t fit the generally-accepted thing, I try to find what’s true and what’s fallacious.
In that Valhalla reserved for military men of the Sam-Browne-belt wearing, polo-playing persuasion, Sams is probably grumping, Suck on that, Wikipedia!

Sams may have been right about the survivability of nuclear war, but I suppose we can be grateful that his energetic debunking only took hold in the military sphere and not in the civilian/political realm. Otherwise we probably would have gotten into a few nuclear scuffles by now with the Russians and Chinese. And our muddled and partial peace is preferable to a nuclear exchange--even if it's survivable.

1 comment:

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