Remembering Normand Brissette
By David Rubin
[The following article was originally published in The Boston Globe on August 20, 2005. The author is an emeritus English professor from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.]
Normand Brissette died 60 years ago on Aug. 19, 1945. But who was Normand Brissette, and why should anyone pause to remember his death?
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Brissette, a 19-year-old Navy airman from Lowell, was one of 11 American POWs being held at Chugoku Military Police Headquarters in the center of Hiroshima. All were members of Air Force B-24 or Navy dive-bomber crews who had been captured after parachuting when their planes were shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire on July 28.
The prison was about 1,300 feet from ground zero. Like everyone killed at Hiroshima, these men could never have imagined the force that was about to annihilate them when the first atomic bomb ever used against a human population exploded in an airburst above them exactly 45 seconds after it had been released from the Enola Gay at 8:15 am.
Most of the American POWs must have perished almost instantly, but Brissette and another man, Air Force Sergeant Ralph Neal, didn’t die at once. They suffered severe radiation burns and were somehow moved to a different location, where other American POWs futilely tried to look after them. Brissette and Neal survived in torment for 13 days and died on Aug. 19.
Even today, most Americans are unaware that American POWs were also victims of the atomic bombs.
At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, there is a symbolic common grave at Section 82, Gravesite 156, that lists eight of their names. Brissette’s is not among them, though Neal’s is.
There is no memorial plaque stating who these men were or how they died. Only the death date listed on their common grave, Aug. 6, 1945, might make a passerby pause to wonder about them.
Even the national cemetery official at Jefferson Barracks with whom I spoke had no idea of the significance of this gravesite until I explained it to him. None of this is an accident. We cannot remember Brissette if we never knew he existed. Like the bomb, secrecy is a potent weapon.
For at least 35 years after the war ended, these Hiroshima POW deaths were kept secret by the US government. Not even immediate family members were informed how their loved ones died. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that researchers using the Freedom of Information Act began to uncover the stories of these atomic ”friendly fire” victims.
There were almost certainly additional American POWs killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with hundreds of Allied POWs from Australia, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Japanese-Americans trapped in Japan by the war were killed. Thousands of slave laborers from China, Manchuria, the Philippines, and conquered European colonies in South Asia were killed. About 30,000 Korean slave laborers were killed.
In all, some 200,000 to 250,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed instantly or within three months. Of these, 35,000-50,000 were non-Japanese.
These numbers don’t draw attention from the enormous suffering of the Japanese. Instead, they reveal how all humanity became fused as victims of these first two nuclear blasts.
While the 11 American POWs killed in Hiroshima are a tiny fraction of all victims, they bear ghostly witness to the still unlearned lesson that nuclear weapons are not only weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of self-destruction as well.
There are only two memory points for these POWs on American soil. One is Common Gravesite 156. The other is a memorial plaque at the National POW Museum in Andersonville, Georgia, which names 9 of the 11, including Normand Brissette.
But a Japanese historian named Shigeaki Mori, himself a survivor of the Hiroshima A-blast, has worked almost single-handedly since the 1970s to memorialize the 11 American POWs killed in Hiroshima. In 1998, he dedicated a memorial plaque honoring these men on the site where they died. He has also led efforts to get their names added to official listings of A-bomb victims, contacting American family members when possible.
In 2002, Mori succeeded in getting Brissette’s name added to the official list of Hiroshima Atomic Bomb victims.
When reporters for Stars and Stripes Pacific Edition contacted Normand’s sister, Connie Provencher in Dracut regarding Mori’s efforts, she said, ”It’s gratifying to me that they are recognizing my brother. He was only 19 when he died fighting for his country. He died from the bomb’s radiation and it was an excruciating death. My brother will be forever young because he gave us all his tomorrows.”
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company. Reprinted with permission.