The Meaning of a Date

For most people around the world, August 6 marks the day everything changed. To hasten the end of the war in the Pacific, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

One of the first accounts I read was John Hersey’s now classic piece, published in The New Yorker in 1946. Part of the brilliance of that article was Hersey’s ability to render this catastrophic event in very personal terms. For Hersey, it was the people who mattered.

By the time “Hiroshima” appeared in the magazine, World War II had been over for a year. Survivors worldwide were in various stages of rebuilding. Part of that meant grappling with the realities of living in an atomic age. Human beings now possessed extraordinary destructive power. Every year on August 6, people commemorate Hiroshima and contemplate what led to the decision to use atomic weapons.

The end of World War II also left people grappling with personal issues. Peggy Utinsky, a nurse, spent the war years trapped in the Philippines under an enemy occupation. After the surrender of American and Filipino forces to the Japanese in the spring of 1942, Peggy had one goal: the find her husband Jack, one of the surrendered.

Now labeled an enemy alien in Japanese-occupied Manila, Peggy arranged for fake identity papers and joined a Red Cross medical mission to the Bataan peninsula. Amidst the smoldering ruins of that battle, she treated wounded and sick Filipino citizens, always asking after Jack.

When Peggy learned that the POWs had been put into Camp O’Donnell, she helped set up an underground supply network to make sure the men received the food and medicine they needed. She assumed Jack was there, but couldn’t get confirmation.

When the Japanese transferred the POWs to Cabanatuan, Peggy shifted her operation there. At the end of December 1942, one of her associates, Naomi Flores, made contact with one of the American prisoners working in the camp’s vegetable garden, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mack. Naomi asked him to find out where Jack Utinsky was, and Mack wrote out a message for Peggy:

“Your husband died here on August 6, 1942. You will be told he died of tuberculosis. That is not true. The men say that he actually died of starvation.”

For the rest of her life, August 6 would have a special, personal heartbreaking meaning for Peggy Utinsky. Every year when she marked the anniversary of her husband’s death, the rest of the world talked about Hiroshima. For Peggy, these two events would always be linked.

In late 1942, news of Jack’s death had a profound effect on Peggy. She still had the rest of the war ahead of her. She had to figure out how to survive it. The rest of her story can be found in Angels of the Underground.