The “Atomic Cross” returns to Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan

The story begins in Nagasaki, Japan, soon after the United States detonated the second of two atomic bombs that destroyed the Urakami Cathedral during morning worship on August 9, 1945. Roughly 80,000 people were killed in Nagasaki. The Cathedral was the largest Christian cathedral in East Asia at that time and was located near ground zero of the bomb. 

In early October 1945, less than two months after the bombing, Walter G. Hooke, an American soldier, was stationed in Nagasaki as a member of the Marine Corps occupation. He was a devout Catholic, educated in a Jesuit school. Hooke became the driver for Nagasaki Bishop Paul Aijiro Yamaguchi, and they became friends.

Ruins of Urakami Cathedral in January 1946. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On one occasion as Hooke and Bishop Yamaguchi were combing through the rubble of the cathedral, they discovered a wooden cross, approximately one meter in length. Somehow, the wood cross survived the fire and devastation of the building, one of the few items that survived the bombing. Hooke stated in interviews that Bishop Yamaguchi gave him the cross with the hope that it would help people in the US be more aware of the horrors of the atomic bomb. He spoke of the cross as an “atomic-bombed cross”. 

Memory of the cross was all but lost, with the exception of Fukahori Yoshitoshi, who had come across a photo from late August 1945 of the cross lying in the ruins. For over 40 years, Fukahori wondered what had become of it. 

Hooke sent the cross to his mother in New York in the Spring of 1946. The cross was displayed in their home. The family moved many times, but the cross was always displayed in a place of prominence. Hooke died in 2010 at age of 97. 

In 1982, Hooke donated the cross to Peace Resource Center at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. The Center is recognized as having one of the largest collections of original materials from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, outside Japan. The cross was displayed at the center for almost 40 years.

Long believed to have been lost in the blast, the cross was “re-discovered” in 2019, when Dr. Tanya Maus, Director of the Peace Resource Center and specialist in modern Japanese history, contacted the Urakami Cathedral to search for a way to return the Cross to the cathedral. In Spring 2019, she was introduced to Dr. Hirokazu Miyazaki, Anthropology professor from Northwestern University. Miyazaki is the “official” Peace Correspondent for Nagasaki. 

Maus told Miyasaki about the Urakami “atomic cross” located in the Peace Resource Center at Wilmington College. Through his ties to the Catholic community and cathedral in Nagasaki, Miyasaki reached out to Nagasaki’s Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami, who did not know the cross existed. This was the beginning of the return of the cross to the cathedral in Nagasaki. 

On July 26, 2019, a special blessing of the cross was held at Wilmington College. Approximately 50 people attended, mainly from the Quaker community at the college. The cross was then carefully packed for its return to Nagasaki. 

Maus, along with Wilmington College chaplain Nancy McCormick and a Wilmington student, boarded a flight to Japan hand-carrying the cross on its return to Nagasaki. The cross was officially presented to worshippers in the Urakami Cathedral on August 9, 2019, exactly 74 years to the day when the cathedral had been destroyed in 1945. The news was carried across Japan by national TV. (see story)

This is a story of citizen diplomacy – how private citizens from both countries cooperated to bring about the return of the cross. It is a story about mystery – how a wooden cross survived an atomic blast and had been “lost” for over 70 years. But mostly, it is a story about reconciliation between the people of Japan and the US. It is a story about hope and peace.

William P. Shaw, PhD, is a member of Trinity, Troy. He is the founder and president of Crosscurrents International Institute, a member of the Board of Trustees of Wilmington College and former chair of the Board of the Dayton International Peace Museum.

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