Revisions to notes from the Enola Gay reveal history at work


As someone who teaches writing, I pay a lot of attention to the process of revision and editing.  And historical documents are a great place to see how meaningful even small revisions can be.  Sometimes the changes to a historical document are as interesting as the document itself. Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, wrote a short note during his return flight from dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945. He had been asked to make notes by William Laurence, a New York Times editor who was unable to be on the flight. According to Lewis, “a great deal of the notes were written in almost complete darkness. Halfway through I ran out of ink.” The edits to the document in pencil “were made by Mr. William Laurence” in Tinian.(1) The handwriting is strikingly similar to Lewis’, however, and the edits may actually be his own. The final edited words are well known to history, but as so often the evidence of editing in the orginal document reveals how we actively revise events, in this case the enormity of the atomic bomb.

Lewis initially wrote “Just how many did we kill?,” a basic human response to the tragedy. How many people have you killed today? But the revised version inserts the word “Japs,” a way of telling the reader that the people who died were not simply human but enemies, collectively assembled under a contemptuously exclamatory nickname. “Japs” are not a synonym for the Japanese as people, as a quick look at this Google frequency chart will show.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 08.48.21

The revisions surrounding the famous phrase “my God what have we done” are even more interesting. It looks as though the previous sentence is almost literally true. “I honestly have the feeling (illegible scratched out) of groping for words to explain this,” he writes, followed by a tentative period and a long white space, then, simply, “My God what have we done.” Later the two sentences were joined, and “I might say” was added above the line. The effect here is to attenuate and alleviate the horror and directness of that short sentence. It is what he *might* say, not necessarily what he *does* say.
The final paragraph anticipates the edits that would be made elsewhere. Lewis himself uses “Japs” and his final leap of sympathy is a heartrendingly gruesome understatement. They “certainly don’t care to have us drop anymore[sic] bombs.” This would be a comforting thought for Lewis and for others who had already made devastating bombing attacks on civilians like the firebombing of Tokyo. It’s not clear what would have initially followed bombs in the scratched out bit, but it becomes “of *atomic energy like this*.”

Now, Lewis was writing these words in response to a specific request, and Laurence was making his revisions (if they were indeed his) with publication in mind. They both needed both to stay true to the horror Lewis honestly felt but to find a silver lining that would make these actions acceptable: now the “Japs may give up.” It’s amazing how closely the writing and revising process in this document matches the collective wisdom so many of us grew up with and lived with for so long, the idea that yes, the atomic bomb was terrible, but it ended the war and thus prevented even worse events. This document helps show that this idea was not discovered; It was created.

(1) 1. “WORLD WAR II, HIROSHIMA BOMBING.” LEWIS, Robert A., Captain, U.S. Army Air Corps, Co-Pilot of the B-29 Bomber the Enola Gay. Autograph Logbook Signed, Entitled ‘Bombing of Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945,’ . | Christie’s,” accessed August 4, 2015,
Note: I have included a low-resolution image of the document for the purposes of commentary.

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