THE BLOG From HuffPost Japan
08/05/2015 06:16 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2016

'I Cannot Forgive Myself for What I Did': One Man's Recollections of His Work on the Manhattan Project

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While I was performing musical therapy with hospice patients in America, I came across many people who had lived through World War II.

Just before her death, one woman who had moved to America after surviving the Battle of Okinawa was overcome with memories of her past.

A veteran who lost dear friends in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and, after the war, witnessed the burnt plain that Hiroshima had become, asked with tears in his eyes that we never forget that there had been a war.

A man who had killed a Japanese soldier in the Battle of Saipan confided in me before his passing.

And there is one more person that I will never forget.

One of my patients was a 93-year-old man, named Sam. He had been admitted to the hospice ward with late-stage colon cancer. Small of stature and friendly, he was always overflowing with smiles. He was a fan of big band music, and particularly liked the songs "Blue Moon" and "My Way."

One day, Sam said that he wanted to hear an Italian folk song. He was Italian-American.

The only such song I knew was the Neapolitan song "Santa Lucia." When I sang it, he gave me a satisfied smile.

"That's a good song," he said. "I'm proud of my Italian heritage. By the way, where are you from?"

When I told him I was Japanese, he looked at me with surprise. Then, suddenly, he began to cry. After a few moments of silence, he said, "I was involved in the development of the atomic bomb. When I think of the children and innocent people who were killed..."

He looked away, and shook his head.

"...I'm not proud."

Then he continued to cry.

During World War II, America worked with Britain and Canada to develop and manufacture the atomic bomb. They called it the "Manhattan Project," and started it in 1939. It is estimated that over 130,000 people were involved in this project. Sam was one of them.

"I didn't know. I didn't know that that's what would come of our work."

He raised his head from the pillow and looked at me pleadingly. His frail body shook as he cried.

Needless to say, the Manhattan Project was top secret. Most of the people working on it were unaware of the fact that they were working to develop and manufacture an atomic bomb. Only a very limited number of people were privy to the plan to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As I sat quietly by his side, unsure of what to say, I came to understand the pain and sadness he had been carrying with him for years.

In that moment, I remembered going to Hiroshima on a field trip when I was in middle school. It was a summer day with a clear blue sky. We stood, covered in sweat, before the Atomic Bomb Dome, and listened to an expressionless woman in a grey suit who had been there the day of the bomb.

"Right after the blast, many were dead. It was impossible to collect all of the bodies. To this day, many of those bodies sleep beneath the very concrete you are standing on."

The things I saw at the Dome that day will always remain in my memory. The shadows of people incinerated on the stairs. The melted skin stuck to the walls.

After meeting Sam, I understood one more side to this tragedy: Many Americans are still haunted by guilt for their involvement in the bomb's development.

Sam had been shaking so hard, he was out of breath.

"I want to listen to music. Sing something," he said.

I strummed my guitar and sang the song he liked so much, "Blue Moon." At last, he laid his head back on the pillow, and slowly his breathing became calmer.

I continued to visit him until his death. As his passing drew closer, his shame and sadness deepened. He stopped smiling like he had before.

He had stopped eating and started spending most of his time sleeping. One day, he told me, "I cannot forgive myself for what I did." Then he closed his eyes, as though it was difficult to even look at me.

"I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war." -- Eleanor Roosevelt


Originally published on Yumiko Sato's Music Therapy Diary: https://yumikomusicjp.wordpress.com/

Yumiko Sato's book, Last Song: Music for the End of Life is available now (Poplar Publishing Co, Ltd).

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This post originally appeared on HuffPost Japan and was translated into English.