The Manhattan Project

Al Zelver's Interview

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Al Zelver's Interview

Al Zelver served as a Japanese language officer in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spent a year in Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this interview, Zelver talks about becoming a Japanese language officer, his time in the China-Burma-India Theater during the war, and seeing the ruins of Hiroshima shortly after the Japanese surrender. Zelver ruminates on the decision to drop the bombs and on the surrender itself. He recalls his time in Japan both immediately after the surrender and years later when he returned to Hiroshima to speak with the Hiroshima Peace Foundation. He reflects on the atomic bombings and nuclear proliferation today, and describes a conversation with Manhattan Project scientist Felix Bloch.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 3, 2017
Location of the Interview: 

Patricia Simpson: I am Patricia Anne Simpson and I am recording this oral history for the Atomic Heritage Foundation on May 3, 2017, in Studio B of the Visual Communications Building at Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana. Please say your name and spell it.

Al Zelver:  My name is Al Zelver. It’s spelled Z, as in zebra, E-L-V, Victoria, E-R.

Simpson: Please tell us your date and place of birth.

Zelver: My date was July 2, 1920, and I was born in Stockton, California.

Simpson: Where did you grow up?

Zelver: I grew up fourteen miles from Stockton in Lodi, California. It’s in the Central Valley of California. My mother just went to Stockton to give birth, and then we went back home.

Simpson: Can you tell us a little bit about your education? What kind of an education did you have?

Zelver: I went to public schools in Lodi. After that, I went to Stanford for four years and got an A.B. in English. Then in the military, I was sent to University of Michigan. Well, I was sent back to Stanford to take Japanese 101, and then to University of Michigan to study Japanese.

Simpson: This section of questions has to do with how you became involved in World War II. How did you first join the Army, and how did you become an Army intelligence officer?

Zelver: The first was easy. The Selective Service Act had been passed before, and the only people who were exempt for religious purposes. It’s an interesting question because sexual orientation did not exempt you and still I don’t think does, except by Army regulations. I served with a lot of gays, and so did everybody I knew.

It was easy to make the choice. It was just a question of deciding what service you wanted to be in. If you enlisted, you could get a choice of services, where if you waited to be drafted, you wouldn’t necessarily.

Simpson: How did you become an intelligence officer?

Zelver:  Shortly before—I think it was a day or two before I enlisted, a friend of mine, a classmate at school, phoned and said, “How would you like to be a Japanese language officer in the intelligence?”

I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good. What do I do?”

He said, “You phone the St. Francis Hotel, and ask for Major Gould.” He said he learned it from another classmate of ours, who had already seen him. It wasn’t a storefront recruiting office.  It was a suite at the St. Francis. He said, “He is interviewing people to see if they qualify to be Japanese language officers.” 

So I phoned Major Gould and made an appointment and went to see him, and was interviewed and was selected then.

Simpson: Was there anything special about your background or abilities or education that made you a good candidate?

Zelver: He wanted to know if I knew Japanese, and, of course, I didn’t. He had a Japanese American sergeant with him who would have given me a test if I knew any. But I had studied four languages. I didn’t say that I knew four languages, I said had studied four languages. Actually, I could speak ungrammatical German, but the others—one was Hebrew, one was French, one was German, and one was Latin. So I seemed to be somebody into languages.

He said, “Well, you qualify in every way.” I had a college degree, which I had just had. He said, “Well, you qualify in every way,” he said, “except for one thing.” He says, “You don’t know a word of Japanese.”

He says, “But we will fix that. You go back to Stanford. We will send you to Stanford. You enlist. We will send you to Stanford to take Japanese 101. You come back in three months, and I will be here. Then Sergeant will give you a test. If you pass that, then we will admit you to the language school. If you pass that, then we will send you to introductory basic. If you pass than, then we will send you to Fort Snelling for advanced.” So it was going to take about—it actually took about half the war.

Simpson: When you were deployed to the China-Burma-India Theater, where were you stationed?

Zelver:  First, we landed in Calcutta. That was actually the first time we were put in harm’s way, crossing the Pacific in an unescorted—not in a convoy, with no escort. We had to wear life preservers 24/7, and landed in Calcutta. Then we were trucked to Camp Kanchrapara. That was the first place I was stationed. That was just a deployment center to decide—then from there, they would send you someplace else for duty in the China-Burma-India Theater.

You were free most of the day. You could do whatever you wanted to do. You just had lectures from the Lieutenant Colonel, who said, “Roll your sleeves down. Slather yourself with insect repellant.” He says, “No Purple Hearts for malaria. Don’t eat any food except the Army mess.” He says, “Or you will have dysentery, and there are no Purple Hearts for diarrhea.”

And from there, I then deployed to New Delhi. I was on detached duty with the British. There, Colonel Musgrove told me, “If you are going to serve with us, Lieutenant”—I was now a lieutenant—“you better look like us.” The British had much nicer uniforms than we do anyway.

But there was really no duty there, because the Burma Theater, the Burma campaign, had just terminated. I was there serving. The British were a very jolly lot, but they were just terrible in India. It was like Passage to India [by E. M. Forster]. I was really glad to leave.

Then I was ordered to an airfield in Chabua in Eastern India. While I was there, the assimilated captain for the Office of War Information heard there was somebody in camp who knew Japanese. He had had three Japanese prisoners working for the Office of War Information helping them edit propaganda leaflets. Since the campaign was over, he wanted to get rid of them. He didn’t know what to do. The Office of War Information was being deactivated. So he came to me. He said, “They are going to go to [inaudible], and they are going to take them off my hands and escort them. You will have them in your custody and escort them to Kunming.”

Just before the flight left a couple of days later—it was foggy, I thought that we were not going to fly out of that overcast. The pilot said, “If we can see the end of the runway, we take off.” There were three prisoners then when the OWI came, sitting in the seat. One of them was carrying a box. I either lacked common sense or training. They weren’t restrained, and I didn’t have a weapon. They had been cooperative prisoners. I didn’t think to ask them what was in the box.

We got aboard. One was a captain, the other two were sergeants. The sergeant went to the end of the plane and was reading a book, which turned out to be the New Testament. The sergeant on my left didn’t have much to say, but the captain was quite a talkative chatterbox. He told me that the man on my right with the box was a baker in Osaka. The other one at the end had been an executioner. He was reading the Bible. Apparently, it’s easier to find redemption in Christianity than it was in Shinto.

I never saw him again. I never saw the two sergeants, but I did meet the captain later, which we can talk about if you want to later on, in Tokyo in the street, which was a big surprise.

Zelver:  I went from Kunming. I was in Kunming when the war ended.

Simpson: Okay.

Zelver:  But when the war ended, then I was sent to Shanghai and then from Shanghai, I was then sent to Tokyo.

Simpson: Would you tell us a little bit about your sense of how prisoners of war were treated?

Zelver: I had never heard of torture. If I had heard of waterboarding, I would have thought it was being pulled on a speedboat behind a plank, standing on a plank. The only lecture we heard at Fort Snelling about the treatment of prisoners was an afternoon talking about the Geneva Conferences. When I met my three prisoners, I thought, well, there is no reason for me not to be courteous, and there is every reason for them to be courteous, because I can give them favors with chewing gum and chocolate bars. And they were courteous. We each used the polite endings in Japanese when we spoke. 

The only memorandum I ever saw was one from the lead negotiator or interrogator, which is Colonel [Sherwood F.] Moran. He was in the Marines. He said, “You treat the prisoner with dignity.” He would sit and eat with prisoners while campaigns were going on and get them to give information. The Japanese were very cooperative. First of all, they weren’t supposed to surrender. They thought they’d disgraced and would be executed if they ever went back to their units. They were told that they were going to be tortured by us. Then when they found they weren’t—now, there were some rogue interrogators, to be sure, but I never saw or heard of any.

Most of the interrogation that I knew about was done by Japanese Americans. The Army makes a lot of mistakes. One was the assumption that they couldn’t use Japanese Americans without supervision from an American officer who knew Japanese. That’s why I was trained. The Catch-22 was, there were no American officers who knew Japanese, so they had to select people and send them back to school.

A friend of mine whose Japanese was better than mine was interrogating a prisoner in Burma. The prisoner said, “Why do you talk like a girl?” There was a Japanese American near. They are called “Nisei,” second-generation Japanese. We had 6,000 of them who finally were in service.

The sergeant said, “He is not trying to be a smartass, lieutenant. He was just appalled that you’re using the polite endings with him, when his own officers wouldn’t.”

Simpson: Did you come into contact with any people who were later known to be spies?

Zelver:  No. I was not in covert operations, just speaking the language. My MOS—that’s military occupational specialty—is 9300, which means that your job is to interrogate, translate, or interpret, or supervise a Japanese American who would, and they didn’t need any supervision.

There was only one famous Japanese spy, and he wasn’t an American. He was a Japanese naval officer who was assigned to the consulate in Hawaii. It was hard for the Japanese to be spies. There were spies, but I didn’t have any contact with them.

Simpson: What role did patriotism and wanting to win the war for the United States and its allies play in motivating you and your colleagues?

Zelver: That was never discussed by anybody. I mean, it was just assumed. The Japanese couldn’t have done a better recruiting job, than the military ever could. I mean, when you heard about Pearl Harbor, a friend of mine came down and said—he was living in the apartment above us—he said, “Something very serious has happened, Al.” He says, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” It may have been more serious than he realized, but I knew we’d all be involved.

World War II had been going on for a while now. So if you didn’t draft—all my friends enlisted because you could become an officer if you enlisted, and you had a college degree. You just never discussed patriotism. Nobody wore little flags here, the way they do now. Nobody had to prove it.

Simpson: What do you remember about the state of the war in August 1945 when the war was going?

Zelver: Well, in August 1925—

Simpson: ’45.

Zelver: ’45, I mean, the decision had already been made to—these are from documents that I researched. They’re the original documents, not what somebody wrote about the war. You can find many of them online in the Truman Library. 

The decision to use the atomic bomb had been made by August, but it couldn’t be made until July 16 when the Trinity Test, which was the code name for the first atomic bomb, was detonated. Then they knew they had one. Let’s see, nine days later in the diary entry from President Truman, he said, “I am instructing the Secretary of War to drop an atom bomb.” He says that they will be given notice. They weren’t given notice. “We will give them an opportunity to surrender first,” which they did, but not until after he made the decision to drop the bomb. Theoretically, the decision could have been rescinded, but he says, “I don’t think they will take the opportunity to surrender.”

There is this top secret order from General [Thomas T.] Handy, the acting Chief of Staff, to General [Carl Andrew] Spaatz, to drop the atomic bomb on August 3—after August 3, weather permitting, at the earliest possible time. The only target that was indicated—well, there was one. They were going to drop on Niigata, and Niigata was a departure port on the east coast. But no Japanese by this time—they had lost the war months before, so they weren’t departing. There was no point in really bombing. The Kokura arsenal, which was a big neighbor arsenal, that was the only military target that was really indicated of the three.

Then there was Hiroshima, which was selected because of the size. Also, it hadn’t been a very good target for incendiary bombing. They had bombed and really almost obliterated about over sixty cities with fire bombings, for the most part. There were not a lot of cities that were left to be able to try an atomic bomb, to see what it would really do. So Hiroshima was picked for that reason. The reason it wasn’t good for incendiary bombings was it has five river strands. If you dropped a bomb, the fire wouldn’t spread across the river. So that was going on in August.

Simpson: In August of 1945, did you have any of this knowledge? What was your own awareness at the time?

Zelver: No, the Manhattan Project was the code name for the building of the atomic bomb. It was called that because it was a Corps of Engineers project. They always named their project after the first headquarters. The first headquarters was Manhattan. Otherwise it made no sense, but they moved it to Los Alamos then. But there were twenty-three different sites and about over 100,000 people. Two whole cities were built. But nobody knew about it. It was the best kept secret in the military. Even Vice President [Harry S.] Truman, he wasn’t in the loop to know about it until he was sworn in as president.

But one person who did know about it was [Joseph] Stalin. He had ten moles. One was well known afterwards, Klaus Fuchs, but other than that, we had no inkling.

Commanders in the field didn’t know about it either. They just went right on planning campaigns and incurring casualties, even though the war was about to end. If you wanted to, I could talk to you about the events leading up to that top secret order.

Simpson: That’s exactly the next question. So when did you first hear of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how did you and your fellow soldiers react? 

Zelver: We were obviously ecstatic to have the war end. All we knew was that some big bomb had been dropped. We didn’t know where or what the damage—all we cared about is that the war ended. I thought it saved my life, because a couple of weeks before, Major Jorgensen asked me to come to his office and said, “How would you like to volunteer for a mission, Lieutenant?” That means you are going to be going.

I said, “Do I have a choice, sir?”

He said, “No.”

So I said, “I volunteer.” 

The mission was really one that, like a lot of them, I was really not trained for, qualified for, or experienced for, but that’s not abnormal in the military. It was to be dropped with two Japanese American sergeants and two Chinese American sergeants on the other side of the Japanese lines. They had a corridor that ran through where we were to be dropped. It was part of Operation Carbonado, which was to take back some ports on the east coast. So these major operations were still going on.

It was not a very good—even Major Jorgensen said, “Write your family that they won’t hear from you for a long time, and you will be on diem.” I won’t bore you with the mission that was going on. Also being dropped inside—it wasn’t an unusual thing to be dropped without jump training. It wasn’t normal, but not unusual or unheard of.

It was a mission, and I thought that was not a good place to be wearing an American uniform. So I thought that there was a good chance it had saved my life on that mission.

Simpson: Do you remember how you felt when you heard about Japan’s surrender?

Zelver: I felt that my life had been saved. The Emperor on August 15 then broadcast Japan’s surrender. He didn’t use the word “surrender.” He just said, “We have accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration,” which was an offer of them to surrender. He says because the war has not—the understatement of the century—he says, “The war has not necessarily gone to Japan’s advantage.” It really was a speech he gave telling the Japanese to get on rebuilding and not to be, in a sense, to be bitter. It could have been written by a speechwriter for the Allies, actually. I don’t know how much influence it had.

It was kind of in archaic Japanese which a lot of Japanese and some people—it was on at noon in the day and the Japanese were alerted to it. All were listening, but a lot of people couldn’t understand it because it was in archaic court Japanese. Some people thought he was broadcasting a victory.

I am going to try to distinguish between what is a rumor, and what I have heard and what I know. The only things we really know for facts are these documents and my own experience, which I put in a journal. But everything else—the hearsay and rumors is really part of the war so I think it’s worth recording.

Simpson: Were you made aware of any of the health risks involved after arriving in Japan? Were you told about radiation?

Zelver:  No. In fact, the people who were in charge of dropping the bomb, they knew that there was radiation. They thought that the soil would be contaminated, that Hiroshima would be contaminated as Chernobyl has been. But they didn’t think the people would be, not in a significant way, that there would be really radiation sickness which has accounted for many, many deaths.

General Leslie Groves was the engineering officer in charge of the production of the bombs. He wasn’t in charge of the scientific development of them. That was physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Groves testified before Congress, and he was asked whether there was an antidote for radiation sickness. He said, “Well, I am not a doctor, but I will answer that anyway because I have talked to doctors about it. They say that it’s a very pleasant way to die.” He wasn’t very well informed.

Can I talk just a minute about General Groves? I am not sure that there would be an atomic bomb without General Groves having been selected. He had just been in charge of developing the Pentagon, which was not an easy job. He developed it within budget and ahead of time. They thought, “This is the man to put in charge of developing an atomic bomb,” because there are going to be two towns built, 23 sites, a lot of coordination. He was put in charge.

A Major General who was under him wrote in his memoirs, “General Groves is the world’s worst son of a bitch, bar none.” He said, “But if you had to have somebody in charge of developing an atom bomb, I would choose him.”

He was really the Steve Jobs of the atomic bomb. Like Jobs, if somebody said it would take a week, he would say “I want it done tomorrow.” He went and he rescinded orders. He was very smart.

Simpson: Can you tell us a little bit about your first impressions of Hiroshima after the bombing? Were you actually there?

Zelver: We went to Shanghai first. Everybody in Shanghai who was wearing an American uniform was a hero, and people stopped you to thank you for liberating Shanghai. After a while, you could get a big head thinking you really had something to do with it.

Then from Shanghai, the flight plan going from Shanghai to Tokyo passed directly over Hiroshima. The pilot flew very low, and he circled in both directions and circling, he tipped the wings so each of us could get a look on both sides of the plane. We had all been in China, in the China offensive, but nobody had seen anything like this. We didn’t say much for the rest of the trip. It really was kind of nothing.

I thought, “Well, if you have seen one bombed-out city, you have seen them all,” but that’s not true. You know the rubble of Berlin—I mean, Berlin looks different with rubble. When I got to Tokyo, it looked very different from Hiroshima. In Tokyo, the cities were just blocks and blocks of ashes. In the central area, all the buildings were still standing. But in Hiroshima, big reinforced concrete buildings were tipped over on their sides. All the windows were blown out. Everybody inside it, of course, had been obliterated.

I don’t know whether or not central Tokyo was left as it was because there was the Imperial Hotel, where generals could stay. At any rate, I was stationed there. The Emperor’s Palace was all intact. The headquarters was in the Dai-Ichi building, a big building, and out in the street.

Simpson: Could you explain the term hibakusha?

Zelver: Hibakusha?

Simpson: Hibakusha.

Zelver: That means a bomb victim. “Hi” means “receive,” and “baku” means “bomb” and “sha” means “person.” So it’s a “person who received a bomb.”

I didn’t meet any hibakusha until years later and I didn’t know that there were any. The last thing that I would have thought of was, there was a girl down below in the hospital when I flew over Hiroshima whom I would meet years later in, I think, 2008 when she was on a tour. We could talk about that if you want to at some point. 

Simpson: How did the hibakusha perceive you as an American?

Zelver: Oh, if you speak Japanese—I don’t know how other Americans are received by Japanese because I am not another American. But if you speak Japanese, they are very cordial. The first thing they will say is, “Oh you speak Japanese so skillfully.” Then you go on from there, even if you don’t. 

When I was assigned to a billet in Tokyo, I have forgotten how many stories, but my room I was assigned to was on the seventh floor. The elevator girl was Japanese. She said, “What floor, please?”

I said, “Nanakai.”

She said, “Oh you speak Japanese so skillfully.” So you don’t have to say much.

Simpson: Would you tell us something about your conversations with survivors?

Zelver: I have only met two survivors. Both of them I met in Montana years later. The first one was that girl who was on the floor. Her name is Shigeko Sasamori. She is quite a celebrity among hibakusha. You can find about a half a dozen websites with her. She is also on YouTube. She has traveled all over giving talks about her experience. She, of course, is opposed to not only atomic bombs and war, but also even the use of atomic energy.

Her experience was that she was some distance from the detonation, from ground zero, but she received a dose of radiation. She was dressing for school. The bomb was dropped at 8:15. She was dressed from the waist down, but not from the waist up. So she received the radiation on her waist up, particularly her face. This is her story now and what she told. She swelled up like a balloon, and she said her mother didn’t recognize her. She was going to be so disfigured that she would never be a bride.

Norman Cousins, who was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, organized a group of Americans to raise the money to bring twenty-four “Hiroshima Maidens” to the United States for plastic surgery. She was one of the twenty-four. That was just a token of the number of people who might have been helped, but at least it was helping somebody.

Her face, when I saw her, her face obviously had been restored enough so that she looks okay, but scarred. She came with the chairman of Hiroshima Peace Foundation to Bozeman where I live in Montana as a tour to raise three million signatures to present to President Truman [misspoke: Obama] to try to do something about not spreading atomic bombs, but trying to reduce them.

Steve Leeper, the chairman of the board [of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation], gave a talk saying, “If there were the political will, compared to climate warming, it was the easiest problem to solve, but there is not the political will.” She was standing at the back of the room.

I went up to her and said—because I knew obviously from her face that she had been in Hiroshima—I said, “You and I are probably the only ones in this room, at least in Montana, who probably were in Hiroshima in 1945.” 

Steve Leeper was standing next to her. He said, “Were you in Hiroshima in 1945?”

I said, “Well, I flew over.”

“If you were in the occupation,” he said, “I want you to come to give a talk in Hiroshima,” which I then did later.

Her story was that she was restored enough after a whole series of plastic surgery operations and she said she was so impressed with the kindness that she received living with an American family, she decided to stay in the United States, become a nurse, and help other people, and talk about the atomic bomb and her experience.

She lives in Santa Monica, California. She married and has a son who is an attorney. It has a relatively happy ending. Incidentally, I didn’t need to speak Japanese to her. Her English is fine.

Simpson: How long did you stay in Occupied Japan?

Zelver: A little over a year. Yeah, it was over a year. I arrived shortly after the surrender, and left in December ’46.

Simpson: Are there memories from that time that you would like to share?

Zelver: Oh lots and lots of memories, yeah. I kept a journal. If you are a language officer, very often you are kind of left alone because if there is no interrogating, translating, or interpreting to do and an officer is really a number of paygrades above you, they are very respectful because you can something they can’t do. You can help them walk through a wall. You can help them—if they have a girlfriend, you can help them talk to the girlfriend. The first duty I was assigned was to monitor broadcasts at the NHK studios. That’s like the BBC. It was down the street from where I was stationed.

I want to just stop for a moment to say, I would pass the Dai-Ichi building which was the headquarters for the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers. General [Douglas] MacArthur, who was not known to be modest, would arrive every day at a set hour. It was 10:00. There were a lot of Japanese groupies who just wanted to have a glimpse of their new American idol. There were no armed guards around. There was no restraining line. He would get out of the car, salute a sergeant, and go in. Then they would all turn and bow to the Emperor’s Palace.

As the weeks went by, fewer and fewer of them bowed. By spring, only a few old women were bowing. I thought, “Well if he was supposed to be, as we had been told, supposed to be a deity, a god, he couldn’t have been much of a god.” As it turned out, he really wasn’t regarded as a god at all. That was just a myth perpetuated—I suppose it was believed by the people in the Office of War Information because they didn’t know any better.

But then I went on to the NHK studios and introduced myself. They gave me a studio to watch in where I could watch the broadcasts. I wasn’t told what to censor or to listen for. There were actually about thirty things they weren’t supposed to talk about, what was coming up as the Cold War. They weren’t supposed to talk about treatment of American prisoners. There were a number of things. One of the things that they weren’t supposed to talk about is the fact that there was censorship, even though it was forbidden in the new constitution.

I hadn’t been in Japan long enough to understand normal speech. All our teachers would sort of dumb their Japanese down to speak as though as you are speaking a baby. But people don’t speak in words, they speak in word clusters. Each cluster sounds like a word. I couldn’t understand any of the broadcasts, but I thought, “It was better to remain silent and thought I could understand than to speak.” I stayed there.

The only broadcast I really remember was two men who would come, musicians, to play a concert. They came in three-piece business suits. One was carrying a stringed instrument, a shamisen, I think it is. No, a shakuhachi, that was a flute that you blow into, like blowing into a bottle. Before they gave their concerts to a radio audience, which was unseen, they went into another room and dressed in kimono. Then they sat on cushions on the floor, because that’s the way they gave public concerts.

The other duty I had in Tokyo was, a foreign correspondent came to our headquarters one time and he needed an interpreter to help his driver. The Army had given him a driver and a car to find a man he wanted to interview, but the driver couldn’t speak Japanese. I was to try to find our way around Tokyo.

There were no maps and most of the city were ashes. But there were some buildings that were still—most of the buildings still standing, or many of them, were directly north of the Emperor’s Palace, because the B-29s were told not to bomb the palace. Actually, I think one or two did drop there, but they weren’t incendiary bombs I guess, because they didn’t do much damage. Then the houses were still standing.

Anyway, it took a while to find a place where the houses were. The first house we stopped at—oh, there were no street signs in Japan. There still aren’t, in many places. The house numbers are not numbered consecutively, and odd and even on one side of the street. The houses were numbered in the order in which they were built. It doesn’t make it easy to find your way around.

The first lady who came to the house. I said, “Can you tell me the name of the street we are on?” She didn’t know. I said, “How long have you lived here?”

She says, “Thirty years.”

I said, “You have lived here thirty years and you don’t know the name of the street?”

Then she was kind of cross with my rude question. She said, “We will know in a minute. I will call the master.” He gave us some directions, and then we did find the house.

The man the foreign correspondent was going to interview was Reginald Blyth. Reginald Blyth was an Englishman who came to Japan some years before. He taught English to the Japanese. He fell in love with Japan. He fell in love with a Japanese woman. He abandoned his English wife. She had connections with the Imperial family. They weren’t close connections, but they were connections. Because he was an enemy alien, he was subject to house arrest, but he wasn’t imprisoned. It was a very nice house. It looked like a college professor’s. He came in the room and he was interviewed. He said he wanted to do everything he could to help preserve Japanese culture.

I just sat in the corner like a fly on the wall while the interview was going on. He said, “Since you Americans have come,” and he gave me a look that wasn’t too friendly. He said, “All they want to do is to drink Coca-Cola and eat chocolate bars. They are different from you. You know, you look at a mountain and you see the mountain “They look at a mountain and they see a crevasse with flowers growing in it.”

He and an officer in the Supreme Headquarters command were instrumental in finding out what [General Douglas] MacArthur wanted of the Emperor. The Emperor from that point on began to act kind of like an English king. He put on a three-piece suit. He walked among his people. He toured farms and mines and so forth. He visited every prefecture—prefectures are like states or provinces—except one, which is Okinawa. He would walk among the people and tip his hat and he would just say “Ah, so.” “Ah so” means the same in Japanese as it does as in English, as a matter of fact.

He became sort of—well, not a figure of fun, but he was called “Ah so-san.” There is a picture of him with a woman standing next to him and she is looking around trying to find the Emperor that she knew was supposed to be coming. She is standing near him, because she doesn’t expect him to look like this. Normally, he would be in a uniform of blazing metals and a hat with the plume and on top of his horse White Snow. Here was a completely different Emperor. He changed his whole image.

Simpson: How do you feel about the decision to drop the bomb on Japan? How has your personal experience influenced your feelings about that?

Zelver: I am sure that this would be debated and disagreed with by many people—in fact, by most people—but in my view, it was a war crime for a number of reasons. One reason was that it violated the provisions of the Japanese. It killed—nobody knows how many exactly, because some people just disappeared in the blast, and their family members who might have remembered them also disappeared in the blast. Some people just left shadows on a sidewalk. But one reasonable estimate is that probably a third of the population, which is about 100,000 people. They were protected people. They were men, women, and children. We always hear about women and children, but men also were protected if they were civilians.

Also, it obliterated cultural images. It’s now a war crime to obliterate. Kyoto, which has twenty-three, I think, UN cultural sites, would have been obliterated. That’s now a war crime. It far exceeded what was needed to get the Japanese to surrender.

I didn’t think that at the time. In fact, I didn’t even suspect it, until 1995 when there was a book written. I think it was The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and then it’s The Architecture of an American Legend [by Gar Alperovitz], I think it is. It was very well reviewed, but then later it was heavily disagreed with by another group of professors who wrote another book called The Hoax of Revisionism [Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism by Robert James Maddox]. It was revised history.

At the time it was hard, but later when I started to look at the original documents, not what people wrote about them—well there was one book I would recommend to anybody. It was written by a Princeton professor. I think it really explains the other two books. It’s a book called On Bullshit [by Harry G. Frankfurt]. It was a bestseller for a while. It’s only about sixty pages. He said, “It’s not lying. It’s not knowing what you are talking about. The worst offenders are pundits and politicians. But you know, when you think about it, college professors are also pundits with PhDs.” So that can be very selective also.

An incredible scientific feat, and the talent that went into that [the Manhattan Project] and the dedication that went into it, it has to be really admired. I’m sorry for what it accomplished. Some of the physicists who worked on it, when the Trinity test was successful, cried. Many of them disagreed. They didn’t want the bomb dropped. As it was, they wanted a test.

If you want me to, I would be very happy to tell you why the test was rejected, and how they could have had a test—not a test, I mean a demonstration in Japan, without doing that. Do you want me to?

Simpson: Yes, and also if you have ever had contact with people who worked on it.

Zelver: Yeah, I did have contact with one of them. I will talk about that, and then I will talk about why a demonstration, which was heavily supported by some of the physicists.

The physicist I talked to was a Nobel Prize winner. His name is Felix Bloch. Felix was a physics professor at Stanford. He was a very good friend of a professor who was a good friend of mine, Daniel Mendelowitz. Dan used to have dinner parties. He would often have Felix and his wife. He also would have me and my wife. We remained friends long after I graduated, for the rest of Dan’s life. So I knew Felix. I certainly couldn’t have considered myself a friend of his, but an acquaintance, and he knew me.

One time, I went skiing at Badger Pass in the Sierra and Felix was there. He asked me to join him. I was flattered. I started to ski toward the lift. He says, “No, no.” He was Swiss. He says, “No, no,” he says, “We climb.” I thought, “Oh.” But I thought, “It isn’t every day that a Nobel Prize winner asks you to ski with him.” I put on skins, and we went up the hill. As we were going up, I took the opportunity then to ask him about the Manhattan Project. I didn’t ask him so bluntly, asked, “What do you think?” All he would say is, “If we hadn’t invented it, somebody else would have,” and he cut it off. He didn’t want to discuss it from that point. I think that reflects probably what a lot of what they have written about it since.

There was one who’s written who was very critical of the decision. It was Leo Szilard, who was a Hungarian Jewish physicist who came as a refugee. He was the one actually who before he came to the United States, he was refugee in London. He said he was walking across the street. This was 1933. He had a thought as a way you could have nuclear fission and a chain reaction. That was all. It was just a theory in his head, and he was right. The Manhattan Project was incredible. To go on from that in 1933, to what they did.

I am not sure Felix was right that it would be developed anyway, because what it took—or that anybody would have—because what it took is $2 billion, which is the equivalent of $28 billion now, which I think is half the budget to the State Department. You would have to have that kind of an allocation. You would really have to be motivated to do that. I don’t know that you would be motivated unless there were a war.

The reason that the Soviet Union was motivated is because they knew we were developing one. So that motivated them. They knew for a very interesting reason. There was a physicist who noticed that in the scientific journals, nobody in the United States was writing about atomic energy anymore or the possibility of how you might have a chain reaction. He thought, “Well, they are not writing about it, because they are probably trying to do it.” Now this is all hearsay I am telling you, but the result is probably true. He informed Stalin, and then he initiated his own program.

General [Leslie] Groves thought the committee—all of the people who were responsible for recommending and picking a site and so forth—were all informed by Oppenheimer. He says, “The knowledge to do this is very well known. It’s not developed, but people all over the world know this so other people will develop them.”

General Groves thought, “Nobody will have one for at least twenty years.” Well, the Russians had one in four. 

Simpson: You returned to Hiroshima as a guest speaker for the Hiroshima Peace Foundation. What was that experience like for you?

Zelver:  The first impression I had of the atomic bomb, of course, was in 1945. I didn’t really quite realize then that it had been a game changer in the sense for strategic bombing. The other bombing that has had a lot of attention was the Blitz in London. The Blitz took about six months with hundreds of raids and thousands of sorties. 40,000 people were killed, but not a lot of London was destroyed. 40,000 people is a lot of people, but it’s only half a percent of the population of eight million.

In Hiroshima, it took—I thought it was a nanosecond, but it doesn’t with atomic bombs. It was a second. With one bomb and one plane, it obliterated two-thirds of the buildings and it killed a third of the population. That’s a very different order. It’s debatable about whether or not the Japanese would have surrendered. They would have surrendered anyway, and there are other ways to have made them surrender. I think they might very well have surrendered after a demonstration.

The first impression I had was that it saved my life and it ended the war. That was about the end of it. Nobody really wanted to think much about it at that point. Also, killing people was the norm then.

The second time I had an impression is that maybe they had dropped it to get Japan to surrender, but for another reason. That was from the book called The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz, who is a professor at University of Maryland. It’s a book of about 800 pages. It’s very dense and hard to get through, but the point is easy to get. That is, the bomb was dropped as a diplomatic tool to try to impress the Soviets that we had this new power.

It was dropped for that reason, but it was dropped for other reasons. It was dropped for, one, to try to get Japan to surrender. Two, to try to impress Stalin with this new tool. But he already knew we had it. He was developing his own. That was really an [inaudible] reason. But it is true the Secretary of State [James F.] Byrnes who in the book was called “Machiavellian” and he was certainly.

The third reason is vengeance, certainly. I say that because Truman demonstrated when he said in his speech sixteen hours after the bomb was dropped, he said that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and now they have been repaid many fold. That sounds like vengeance to me. The third was bigotry. There wasn’t much love lost on the Germans, but it was nothing like it was. The “Yellow Peril” has been a menace for a long time.

I was spared that kind of prejudice, fortunately. Because I went to high school with Japanese kids in central California, where their fathers all had truck farms around town. They were just like everybody else here. One was killed at a school accident. Girls were weeping at his memorial in the auditorium and so on.  Also I served with Japanese Americans, and I lived with a Japanese family. I had it different.

Now other friends of mine, one was a gunnery officer and the other was on an ammunition ship, they held grudges against the Japanese. Bigotry was certainly one that General [John] DeWitt, the commander of the Western Command said, “Once a Jap, always a Jap. It doesn’t matter whether he’s an American citizen or not.” Then they interned over 100,000 of them. I was spared that. That was another reason.

A third was that we spent $2 billion, and that $2 billion had to be justified. So there were a number of reasons why the bomb was dropped.

But the book was an eye opener. It doesn’t really prove that the Japanese would have surrendered before November 1 [when the American invasion of Japan was set to begin], but there is circumstantial evidence that they might have, but it doesn’t prove it. Then that revisionist theory was severely debated later. By 2005, there was another book called The Hoax [misspoke: Myths] of Revisionism.

So it wasn’t until 2009 that I came to Hiroshima and began to see—if you go to the Peace Museum, there are exhibits that are shown in this book, which they gave me after my talk. We can’t see this on camera, but this is the book. If you go to the Hiroshima Peace Museum, you will see exhibits which are in this book.

One, for example, is a tricycle. I won’t hold it up. It’s a tricycle which looks as though it’s been through a severe fire. It was being ridden by a little boy named Shinichi. Shinichi was just short of four years old. He didn’t die of the blast immediately, but he died that afternoon. His father just thought it was too cruel to bury his son in a distant cemetery. He buried him with his tricycle in the backyard. Then some years later, it was dug up and the little boy, his bones were given a proper burial. But you see that tricycle, and I saw tricycles like that in Tokyo also.

There are pictures here of women who had the patterns of their kimono left on their skins. There is another one. This is probably the most famous of the little girls they named. Her name is Sadako, and Sadako was two when the bombed dropped. She got a severe case of radiation sickness. It didn’t leave her disfigured in any way. She was in and out of the hospital for ten years until she was twelve, and then she went to the hospital for the last time.

In this legend, if you build origami or paper cranes—“ori” is fold and “gami” means paper, so it’s an art form that’s pretty well known now. She heard that if you build 1,000 paper cranes, then you would get your wish. Her wish was to go on living. She got up to 600 and something, and then she died. So her classmates—it’s hard to even tell the story—did the other four.

There is a statue of her. It’s in the Peace Park. It’s bronze, and she is holding up a paper crane. People from all over the world—there is a child’s book about her. You can Google her. When you see those things, you see that in the Peace Park with the other memorials and you see that tricycle, it really changes your mind.

There was a book written during the Cold War called Thinking about the Unthinkable by Herman Kahn. He was a thinker in a think tank at RAND. The Pentagon gave him a contract to think about winning an atomic war. I thought after all of this that thinking the unthinkable was waging an atomic war, but it was thought thinkable by the Secretary of War. It was thought thinkable by all of these people who are really not bad people. War does this. They were graduates of Ivy League schools. They are not evil men, but they thought it was thinkable, and they dropped one. They rationalized it.

That motivated me to think not what people have written about the record of it, but what is the record? Fortunately, now you can see it. It’s been declassified. You go to Google. You go to the Truman Library, and you can take down these documents like—let’s see. Well, here is one labeled—this is the original document, I mean a copy of the original document, that says “Target Committee Los Alamos, May 10, 11,” with the decisions, with the discussions of the Target Committee and all of the things that they had to think about dropping the bomb.

Then they talk about the potential targets. One target that they list is Kyoto, which is an important cultural center I mentioned with the twenty-some odd world heritage sites. It’s an intellectual center with the universities. Their rationale was that since it was an intellectual center, the people there will better appreciate the significance. This is verbatim in this thing. “To better appreciate the significance of an atomic bomb,” all those who were left, maybe. Well, fortunately, the Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson had been to Hiroshima [misspoke: Kyoto] on his honeymoon. He had it taken off the list because he knew what it was. He thought it would be very bad PR for us in the occupation to have obliterated Kyoto.

General Groves, incidentally, in his long memorandum to the Secretary of War describing the Trinity Test, and I think if you had seen the Trinity test, and this was described in that long memorandum, you would think, “This isn’t weapon of war. This is a natural disaster.” But it didn’t apparently occur to anybody that way at that time. War does funny things.

Stimson had it taken off the list, and Groves kept putting it back on. Finally, Stimson took it off and it stayed off. But if Stimson’s family hadn’t had the money to send him to Kyoto on his honeymoon and he went to Niagara Falls, Kyoto would have been on that list.

Then Hiroshima was on because it was still kind of a virgin city. It hadn’t been obliterated yet and they were running out of these cities. They thought it was well suited. It was about the right size to do a lot of damage. In his memo, General Groves had said, “But we all know what’s before us, that the real test is in the war with Japan at the battle test.” He wanted to see the bomb tested.

Now, it’s been argued that they really wanted to drop a bomb to see what it would do. Now, there is no evidence of that, that anybody really thought that, they wanted to drop it before Japan surrendered to see if it would make them surrender. I find no documents. General Groves is pretty convincing that he wanted to see it dropped as a battle test, but not anybody else. But still a lot of the circumstantial evidence that that certainly was the case.

When you read the actual documents, the important dates are in November of 1944. It’s the last six months of the war that really count. They didn’t have an atomic bomb or wouldn’t have one for six months, but they felt they probably would have, so they formed a 509th Composite air group. It was trained at a secret field. They had to reconfigure atomic bombs in order to be able to carry them. They enlarged the bomb bay. They got rid of the side guns and so forth. By that time, there wasn’t much air cover from Japan. So there was a pretty good chance they would get through perfectly okay.

Then the next important date was in May, when the Target Committee then decides on the list. They had to think about the altitude and whether or not the plane—they thought there was a chance the plane might not be able to get away from the blast. Anyway, a number of things that they had to consider, and then the list of the cities to consider for bombing.

Then the next important date is June 1, when there’s a committee called the Interim Committee. It’s a secret committee. It’s called “interim” because it was to make recommendations on what to do with atomic energy, but mostly it was to decide what to do with the atomic bomb.

They recommended to the President that they drop the bomb on Japan as soon as possible without warning, and drop it over some kind of war plant surrounded by workers’ housing. They didn’t know really quite what the bomb would do. The Secretary of War thought that maybe it would end the war. They thought of it as a psychological weapon also, that it could be a war-ender. I think it will be a war-ender along with everything and everybody else, if they start to exchange a few thousand of them, you know.

Then the other book—and these are for sale in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. I think that every world leader and every member of the armed forces committees and both [Congressional] houses should go there.

This one is 2,000 drawings that were done by people who were in Hiroshima, some were victims and some were not. They are beautiful drawings. They are on display in the auditorium of the Peace Museum. I thought they were folk art done by professional artists. They aren’t. They were done the people who lived in Hiroshima. The Japanese have a great sense of design. I think it’s from drawing calligraphy. But at any rate, they did. They are beautiful drawings along with the little things that they have said about them and what they saw.

These things are all pretty hard to take. You would have to be pretty insensitive to not have it make you be curious to see, “How did these people, who were really not bad people, think this unthinkable?”

I should tell you about the Potsdam Declaration. That’s really an important part of the record. It was broadcast on July 26 [1945], the day after the order to drop the bomb, giving the Japanese an opportunity to surrender and what the conditions of surrender would be. President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt at the Cairo Conference in 1942 had said that we would accept nothing but an “unconditional surrender.”

From “banzai charges” and so forth, and people knew about the bushido code, where you are supposed to leave the battlefield with the head of your Emperor or without your own. It also does say in a little booklet skimmed to every soldier not to endure the shame of surrender, that the Japanese would never surrender unconditionally.

They had reason to believe that, but it wasn’t true. In fact, there was the American Experience broadcast on PBS in which they said there was no word for “surrender” in Japanese. There are twenty-four words for surrender in Japanese, and there is even a word for “unconditional surrender.” Surrender was not unheard of at all. As a matter of fact, there are times like General [Anthony] McAuliffe, a U.S. General. His response to an offer to surrender was, “Nuts!” So lots of times, people don’t surrender. But at any rate, the Japanese would surrender, but it was anathema to them—they would not surrender if the word “unconditional” were used.

In the Potsdam Declaration, it started out pretty innocuously. It said, “We are offering this opportunity to surrender,” and there were a number of carrots. It wasn’t an unconditional surrender by any means. They said, “We don’t intend to enslave the Japanese people. It won’t be split into zones like Germany had been.” So the Japanese knew that. It wouldn’t be destroyed as a nation. It would be able to have access to raw materials and also to rebuild its industrial base, but not its war industry base. Those were all pretty generous terms. Prisoners would be allowed to return and live peaceful lives, whereas the Soviets, when they took prisoners, they put them in the gulag.

But there were also some sticks. One, which didn’t have to be included at all, one of the sticks was, “People are going to be tried as war criminals.” We didn’t have to put that in. That didn’t motivate. The actual decisions by both sides were made by very few people. Japan, it was made not by the Emperor, although people in this country thought it was. He didn’t have the power to make the decision to surrender. The decision would be recommended, and it would be the controlling decision by the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. It was two admirals, two generals, and two civilians, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. That wouldn’t motivate them to want to surrender if you said they were going to be tried as war criminals and hanged, but it was in there.

The other thing that was in there was that—oh it said, “It wasn’t a negotiation.” It said, “These are our final terms. We will not deviate. We will brook no delay.” What they didn’t know was that the Japanese couldn’t surrender immediately because first, there would be the recommendation to surrender by this Supreme Council. The Supreme Council, when they saw this Potsdam Declaration, which instead of being offered through a neutral country was broadcast, they had to respond immediately because everybody in Japan knew about it. If they were split three to three—and they would make a recommendation with the cabinet of nineteen people. To surrender took a unanimous decision of the cabinet. You don’t get nineteen bureaucrats to agree on anything without delay. They could never agree, because the Supreme Council couldn’t agree. 

What the Supreme Council wanted to do was to delay, because they had asked the Soviet Union to be a mediator for negotiating this surrender. They didn’t know the Soviets had already made a commitment to enter the war against them three months after Germany surrendered. They naively were trying to, the Foreign Minister was—we have access to all of these wires, all the communication between him and the ambassador of the Soviet Union, who was saying, “They are not going to mediate for us.” They were saying, “We have got to try.”  They hadn’t had a response which they were satisfied with. They said, “Let’s just think it over and delay until we hear from the Soviet Union.”

Then because they were pressed because it was a broadcast, they communicated with a press conference. These are things that are hard to believe. At the press conference, the Prime Minister—who was an old man, hard of hearing and fell asleep during meetings, according to one source—then he used the term “mokusatsu.” “We will mokusatsu it.” Mokusatsu in Japan is two characters that just means “silent” and “kill.”

That’s what I was going to mention. Japanese, it’s very difficult to interpret it and sometimes it took me a long time to learn that you hear something that makes no sense at all if it’s interpreted word for word, but you get a sense of what it means. Then you say it in English. You could say it a lot of different ways, but you could still say the same meaning.

The Japanese dictionaries are not dictionaries, but thesauruses. For example, if you look up the word “hair,” it will say “ke.” Then as a definition—it’s not a definition, but it’s like a thesaurus, equivalent words more or less. It will say “hair” or “fur.” If you didn’t really know the language and you just refer to that, you might say she has lovely blond fur. It’s pretty easy to make a fool of yourself when you are translating Japanese.

Mokusatsu has a number of meanings. One meaning is, “We reject with silent contempt.” But another meaning is, “We are waiting in silent meditation, in reflective thought,” or something like that. That was what the Prime Minister is said to have intended to have said, but it was interpreted as, “We reject with silent contempt.” Truman had a very short temper. It was the wrong response to have gotten. That’s when he made the decision, and they went ahead with the decision to drop the bomb.

Simpson: So Al, is there anything that I have not asked you that I should have asked you in the course of the interview? Reflections, your experiences?

Zelver: There are about 100 organizations, I think, to eliminate atomic bombs. It isn’t enough to—proliferation or lack of proliferation. The curious thing to me is that they are clearly designated as weapons of mass destruction along with chemicals and germ warfare, but there are no treaties against it in one place. I don’t know why. That one treaty is over Antarctica [the 1959 Antarctic Treaty]. There are about 50 nations including the United States and the Soviet Union and everybody in the atomic club, I think. So Antarctica, the penguins are safe. There are some places.

Why it hasn’t been designated a weapon of mass destruction with treaties against its use—but now, the cat is out of the bag. I don’t know if anything can be done about that. I guess that’s the end of the sermon.