Editor’s note: With the launch of Oppenheimer, we are once again reminded of the legacy of the atomic bomb, and of the people and locales that produced it. Author Stephen Carr Hampton, who lives here in Port Townsend, reached out ot me and asked if we were interested in his article, that first appeared on his web site, Memories of the People. https://memoriesofthepeople.blog/ I found the story interesting and relevant to the topics that Oppenheimer raises. Stephen is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an well respected birder, and a former resource economist for the California Department of Fish & Game, where he worked as a tribal liaison, conducted natural resource damage assessments, and oversaw environmental restoration projects after oil spills. He writes most often about Native history and contemporary issues, birds, and climate change.
Many of the stories associated with the development of the atom and nuclear bombs in the US are well within their half-lives, enduring in the dirt and dust we walk on, and in the stories we tell ourselves and our children. The uranium contamination at Navajo Nation, the plan to use a bomb to create a harbor in Alaska on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, and the fallout from tests in the American West and at Bikini Atoll come to mind. For anyone involved with toxic waste cleanup — which I was for twenty-five years — the Hanford cleanup site in eastern Washington is legendary. Not far from there, a school continues to honor the actions that ended a war, contaminated their region, and killed 80,000 people: the Richland High School Bombers.
Richland is located on the dry steppes of eastern Washington at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers, and just a few miles from the confluence with the Snake River. Historically, this was salmon-harvesting country, where the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and others would converge.
Richland was a small farm town from 1906 until 1943, when the US Army purchased the whole town, two other nearby farming communities, and the surrounding land, totaling 640 square miles, half the size of Rhode Island. This land included many of the villages of the Wanapum, a Native group that had never signed a treaty, never been moved to a reservation, and still lived in traditional tule houses along the Columbia River upstream of Richland. Here the US Army built the Hanford Engineering Works. Seeking to construct the world’s first nuclear weapon, they were looking for some place remote, in case of an accident, with as few white people as possible, and lots of water to cool the reactors used to make plutonium.
Richland became the “company town” for Hanford, growing from 300 to 25,000 residents in two years. The entire town was fenced and access was restricted, like a military base. Black employees, 15,000 of them, lived in the “colored barracks” outside of town. At Hanford, the whites and Blacks came together and built Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It took the creation of an entire town to build a weapon to destroy another town half a world away.
While not exactly a hang fire, the people of Richland, indeed people all around, have also been victims of the bomb. For decades, the US Army deliberately released radioactive water into the Columbia River from operations at Hanford, affecting salmon. This disproportionately affects the Yakama and other Natives who eat fish at levels much greater than the white population. These releases were kept secret until 1986. Today, pollution accidents from the site continue to plague the region, with releases of radiation filling the news annually. Of the original 640 square miles purchased by the Army, 586 remain closed to the public due to contamination. As “the most toxic place in the nation,” Hanford is now ground zero for environmental cleanup. It is the largest cleanup site in North America, costing taxpayers over $2 billion/year to keep the radiation under control. Ironically, the Hanford Site cleanup is now the largest source of jobs for the people of Richland today. The Toxicologists would be a more accurate contemporary mascot.
All of this sordid history makes Hanford and Richland a kind of poster child for the concept that wars have no winners, only losers.
Nevertheless, in what looks like a desperate attempt to justify the past, just a few months after the bombing they changed the high school mascot from the Beavers to the Bombers. They made the mushroom cloud logo official in the 1980s. It now serves as a kind of civic religious symbol, the town’s focal point for celebrating and defending its role in the bombing of Nagasaki. Other high schools in the area are the Falcons, Bears, Bulldogs, Lions, Riverhawks, Suns, and Panthers. There is also the Kamiakin High School Braves, complete with a spear and feather logo, a Native warrior logo, school functions called Tomatalk, TRIBE, and Trading Post, and, on their website, a short respectful but white-washed history of Chief Kamiakin, as if all is resolved and in the past. The usual Native mascot stuff.
Much has been written about the use and social purposes of Native mascots. I summarize most of the peer-reviewed literature, 18 papers, at this blog post. Several of those papers describe how the choice of mascot asserts the power and privilege of one group over another, defining history and the morality of history in the process, while denying “cultural citizenship” to others.
At Richland High, here is what you can find:
- Letterman’s jackets include mottos such as the offensive “Nuke ‘em” and defensive “Proud of the Cloud.”
- At sports events, the students chant, “Nuke’em ‘till they glow!”
- At the Bombers Drive Thru, a popular hamburger joint with the high school crowd, you can buy a mushroom burger called “The Meltdown.”
Equally shocking is the minimal controversy and media coverage about this mascot. An online search yields just these:
- Al-Jazeera wrote a comprehensive story (July 21, 2015) covering the history of the name, a visit to the school by Tom Brokaw with a Japanese delegation in 1988, a track coach that refused to have the logo on his team’s uniforms, and efforts to shift the mascot’s focus to a different “bomber”, a B-17 that flew over Germany.
- The Washington Post gave the mascot a brief mention last year (May 10, 2017) when it covered an incident at the Hanford Site; this article was written by the same author as above.
- A story in the local Tri-City Herald (May 27, 2017) repeated much of the information from the Al-Jazeera piece, adding more on various attempts to change the name.
- A recent story in the Seattle Times (Mar 11, 2018) described the visit of a Nagasaki survivor to the school and Hanford Site. That visit is also covered in greater detail by Crosscut.
That was Mitsugi Moriguchi, who was eight-years-old when his town was destroyed. Five of his siblings died of cancer.
Last year, a Hiroshima survivor came to Davis, California, and spoke to students at a school assembly, promoting peace thru forgiveness. There was no such healing in Richland, however. There was no assembly for Moriguchi. Most students never knew he was there, and school officials were openly nervous about his visit, at first denying media access. A seven-minute video of his visit is here.
His stated goal, after seeing the apparent celebration of the bomb at both Hanford and the high school, was to get Americans to “look under the cloud.” In the video, at least one student does, telling Moriguchi that his visit reminds her that the Japanese were real people, that they existed.
The public comments to the news stories and at an online debate at Buzzfeed illustrate just how easy it is to convince a new generation of a viewpoint that is morally shocking to most others. The overwhelming majority of the comments, often made by former students of Richland High, defend the mascot using painfully immature and illogical arguments. In defense of the mascot, supporters generally make these points:
- The bombing was justified because it was in response to Pearl Harbor and other offenses.
- The bombing ended the war, thus saving American lives (and some add Japanese lives to this argument).
- It’s part of our history.
All of these statements, regardless of how true or false they may be, are mere deflections and irrelevant to the central issue. It is entirely possible to affirm all three of these points and still reject the notion that a high school celebrate and honor a specific violent act that killed 80,000 people (nearly all of them civilians). It is entirely possible to agree with all three of the points above and still mourn the cloud.
Absent in the online discussion is the affect this mascot has on others in the community and our nation. When I mentioned the mushroom cloud logo to a Japanese-American friend of mine, she was momentarily breathless with shock. It is a bold in-your-face display of white American power and privilege. It is difficult to imagine a Japanese-American or even Asian-American student feeling included at Richland High. In the words of Strong (2004), Asian-Americans in this context are denied any “cultural citizenship;” they do not belong. To quote Farnell (2004) from the Native American mascot literature, the use of a mascot like this asserts the school as white American “public space” where the Nagasaki bombing is justified and celebrated and alternative views are rejected, sometimes by majority vote. The displacement of Natives, segregation of Blacks, and contamination of the environment all associated with the building of the bomb is ignored. It’s a town where Japanese and Asian-Americans do not count at all.
The nature of the comments, and even the mere existence of the mascot and mushroom cloud logo, suggests the people of Richland are uncomfortable with their history and have a desperate need, even seventy-five years and four generations later, to defend their participation in the bombing. Deep down, they know that celebrating a mass killing is warped at best, appalling and alienating at worst.
Editor’s note: There are many great books out on what t was like to be in Nagasaki as the bomb fell. Recently, award winning author Susan Southard published an incredibly detailed account of that day and its following effects through the eyewitness stories of several survivors who were all either children or late teens. Some of them were within the 2000 foot circle of ground zero. Southard uses the latest declassified information on the dropping of the bomb, and I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting a more comprehensive understanding of the reasons for dropping it and of the horrors of the use of the bomb. Look for it here.