Duck and Cover

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

“Within 10 seconds the fire that wiped out the city came after us at full speed. Everyone was naked. Bodies were swelling up. Some people were so deformed I couldn’t tell if they were male or female. People died screaming, ‘Please give me water!’

“There was nothing to eat, not even garbage, in the burned down city.”

What if schoolchildren stood facing not the American flag every morning before class started but a photograph of a devastated Hiroshima, shortly after it was obliterated by our atomic bomb, and pledged their allegiance to the idea that such a thing will never happen again?

Do you think we’d start growing up as a country? Do you think we’d still have several thousand nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, pointed at Russia (with Russia having about as many pointed at us)? Do you think — as I begin reaching wildly for the impossible — we’d start facing our fears instead of living in fear?

Do you think we might start questioning the nuclear weapons industry and stop worshipping our own weapons of mass destruction — or at least stop selling Fat Man and Little Boy earrings at the gift shop of the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas?

The inspiration for these questions is an extraordinary new documentary called Atomic Mom, which I saw this week at the Talking Pictures Film Festival in Evanston, Ill. The movie, produced and directed by M.T. Silvia, tells the story of Silvia’s mother, Pauline — the “Atomic Mom” — who as a young naval officer in the early 1950s participated in top-secret radiation research, and some four decades later had a crisis of conscience and embarked on her own journey of peace. Atomic Mom cuts to the deepest issues of American life with excruciating moral clarity.

The documentary also tells the story of several Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima blast, focusing primarily on Emiko Okada, who is quoted above. She was a little girl whose family was living on the outskirts of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Her older sister, Mieko, had just left for school when the bomb hit, and, “She still has not come back since she left that morning.”

Later that day, when the fire subsided, Emiko’s mother went walking barefoot through the ruined city looking for her daughter, but never found her.

The film’s power comes not just from the stories, of the victims of the nuclear age and some of its deeply self-questioning participants, but from the juxtaposition of the Japanese and American experiences of the bomb, including a comparison of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and the Atomic Testing Museum, which M.T. Silvia and her mother visit at one point in the film.

The Hiroshima museum is moving and horrifying, radiating humanity in the shards of atomic wreckage — a sandal, a child’s tricycle — on display. It is a museum committed to disarmament and world peace.

In contrast, the Atomic Testing Museum, in the heart of Las Vegas, America’s fun capital, is an adolescent theme park of raw power, with sensurround simulations of nuclear detonation and endless videos of our prowess at blowing big holes in the ground, but no acknowledgement of the human cost of the technology being celebrated. And, oh yeah, those earrings in the images of the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people died screaming for water, are available at the gift shop.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the avoidance for which it stands . . .”

A family dives under a picnic blanket while the voiceover intones with dramatic urgency: “If you’re caught in the open, take cover immediately!” A cute blonde at a beauty parlor has her tresses done up in an atomic hairdo. . . .

The film deftly and often with stunning shock value splices such images — inane civil defense clips, comic book scenes of Cold War-era Armageddon, bland images of ’50s conformity — between the stories of the bomb survivors or Pauline Silvia’s anguished account of the work she did at the Naval Radiological Test Laboratory in San Francisco.

“We literally burned these dogs right down to the skin,” Pauline says at one point, describing the radiation testing she and her colleagues carried out on mongrel dogs from the local pound. “(They had) burns and ulcerations all over their legs, ears, face.”

Some years later, when she took her cats to the vet, she heard their toenails scraping on the exam table in the next room, and suddenly, “It took me back to the dogs,” she said, breaking into tears, “how they scratched in such agony. I couldn’t bear to hear the cats scratch at the vet’s. It was too much for me.”

Pauline Silvia’s breakthrough of conscience felt, in Atomic Mom, like the emergence of a national conscience, which of course has no official presence yet, at the Atomic Testing Museum or anywhere else in the corridors of government and power.

The film ends in outreach and long-distance connection between the two moms, Pauline and Emiko — who, through M.T., gives a dozen paper cranes from the Peace Museum to Pauline, who writes back in gratitude: “I believe your people are my people. Our families are one and the same. They were created by a loving God.”

And so we see peace arrive, as a prayer, not a salute.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at