The 50th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day brought simmering questions about the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a boil.
Controversy erupted in 1994 when the U.S. Postal Service canceled a planned stamp that would have commemorated the end of World War II by showing a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb explosion.
The issue also emerged during a separate heated debate about the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's proposed exhibit of Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Veterans and members of Congress felt the debate slandered the U.S. troops who fought in the Pacific. The exhibit was eventually reworked and the aircraft displayed.to address those concerns.
Ron Kaplan, an aviation artist who currently works for the National Aviation Hall of Fame, inadvertently joined the fray when he saw a TV news report about a decorative stamp that Vietnam veteran Gerry Newhouse had made in protest of the Postal Service proposed stamp's cancellation. Kaplan went to Newhouse's office in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to buy three sheets of the decorative stamps, and he told Newhouse the B-29 in the artwork did not look realistic. "I remember saying words to the effect that: 'Gosh, I wish I had known you before you did these because I'm an aviation artist, and frankly I think the art could be a lot better.'"
Newhouse called Kaplan the next day to say the company making the stamps had lost the scan of the original artwork. Newhouse needed more stamps immediately because he was being deluged with orders, so he asked Kaplan if he could come up with a new design.
As the 70th anniversary of VJ Day on Aug. 15 approaches, Kaplan talks about the legacy of the two B-29 missions that ended the Pacific War.
Ron Kaplan did the artwork for a 1995 decorative stamp that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings.
Photo Credit: Photo by Mike Ullery of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Q: Why did you feel it was important to illustrate the atomic bombings?
A. Tactically and strategically, it was a high point of what was a long slog through a long world war for the Allies.
So many people said to me — veterans — said: "You know what, if it wasn't for Paul Tibbets and the men of the 509th [Composite Group] dropping those bombs, I would have been killed; I was in Europe; I was with Patton's Third Army; we were done; we were ready to ship out to the Pacific; they told us, 'You're not going home yet.'"
And then I talked to sons and daughters of veterans who said, "I wouldn't have been born because most likely my dad would have been killed in the invasion of Japan."
Q: Was it necessary to have the mushroom cloud on the stamp?
A. In telling of the story of World War II and commemorating its end, that was the iconic image. If you're trying to visually tell the story, that had been the common image depicting that action — not the Enola Gay, not a B-29 taking off from Tinian — but the mushroom cloud, much like raising the flag on Iwo Jima was iconic to that battle, and thousands died on that island.
Q: When people see the image, what is it you hope they take away from it?
A. I hope they take away that we will defend freedom and we will use any force necessary to protect our freedom and to free the oppressed. Speak softly and carry a big stick.
I think it's also a tribute to the workforce — the scientists, the engineers — the country at the time rallied to the cause. From a technological standpoint, it was obviously a major, major breakthrough — horrible way to have to introduce it to the world, but the alternative, if one puts it in context, is bayonets and sharpened bamboo poles and firearms with a possibly even bloodier outcome, certainly a longer war.
Q: What was Paul Tibbets' role in this?
A. In 1995, he didn't make himself available and a lot of people wondered with the 50th anniversary if he would go even further in the hole to stay out of the spotlight. His brother-in-law was coming over to our office to buy the stamps and said: "I'm buying these for Paul Tibbets; he really likes them; he thinks this is a worthy effort."
Ultimately, we got to meet Paul. When we went to Washington in July  for the 20th Air Force Association meeting and got to know him better, I think once he met us, he felt more comfortable coming over. Gerry actually started having lunch with him at the Bob Evans that he liked eat at.
We asked him if he would be interested in autographing items, which we obviously would sell at a premium. He was interested. After the stamp business pretty much ran its course, Paul decided he wanted to do more public appearances and speak about his military accomplishments and career. He asked Gerry if he would manage those affairs for him. So for about seven years, Gerry was his personal manager.
Q: If you could talk to someone who feels the atomic bombings should not be commemorated — perhaps someone Japanese — what would you say?
A. In the context of Japanese, I would certainly want to know what sort of education they got because it's very well known that in Japan, not only are things like Pearl Harbor glossed over but the rape of Nanking and all that went with it are not well presented to youngsters and students over there. I would need to know in what context is their knowledge of history coming from.
Anyone else, I would probably, most likely, start trying to put them back into May, June, July of 1945: What was happening. What was happening on the islands that we were taking in the Pacific; what had just finished happening in Europe, and the discovery of the concentration camps; and then Operation Olympic [the first phase in the invasion of Japan].
There was a study — obviously planning done — for the invasion of Japan. Had the atomic bombs not worked, which some scientists feared they would not, this invasion was going to take place. They were rallying resources — ships and men and airplanes — for this invasion. And they had projected losses. I know that those projections are up for debate to this day. But I think — all things known now, combined with what was going on in the context of the day — that was a horrifically swift way to end the war, as opposed to a horrifically long and drawn out, many months if not another year or so of misery to bring it to a close.